Harrison, Stephanie. Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005.
Harrison’s book neither deals directly with Roeg’s film, nor with du Maurier’s short story that inspired it, but it is essential to any analysis of Don’t Look Now. The process by which a director adapts a short story into film is important, because a short story is just that, short. A director must take something that rarely lasts over fifty pages and turn in into a film that usually lasts over two hours. A director must take the story and ‘run with it;’ in some ways making the story his own. Harrison analyzes 35 short stories and the films they spawned. She separates the films and analyses into sections based mainly on genre (Horror, Western, etc.). Don’t Look Now is a hybrid film, so it would not snugly fit in any of the genres that Harrison chooses, but it does have horror, drama, erotica, and auteur elements to it. Harrison describes four different auteurs (Altman, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Kazan) and their individual styles of adaptation. She calls Altman, for instance, the “translator” (3), because he attempted to stay as true as possible to the original story. There is little to no literature written about Nicholas Roeg, so it is impossible to know whether or not he would fit in with any of the different auteurs.
One point I found very interesting in Harrison’s analysis is her idea that audiences are less hard on films based on short stories for being true to their source material, because “few short stories are embedded in the public’s consciousness in a way that popular novels are” (xvi). In the case of Don’t Look Now, both the story and the film seem to have been lost from the public consciousness (due, in part, to the success of The Exorcist, which was released the same year as Roeg’s film). Harrison’s book, as I said above, never mentions Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, but by looking at the process by which other writers have adapted short stories, we can get a sense of the different approaches to it and how Roeg many have gone about doing it. Roeg took a fifty-four page short story about a man’s blindness to his abilities and his fate and refashioned it into an unsettling drama/thriller about a married couple and ...
Hutchinson, Tom. Horror & Fantasy in the Movies. New York: Crescent Books, 1974: 13-36.
Hutchinson goes beyond merely mapping out the history of horror cinema, and dedicates the first chapter of his book to revealing the deeper meanings beyond certain horror films. Behind the blood and monsters, Hutchinson sees social commentary and much more, which the average viewer is completely unaware of. He events of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and concludes that its underlying message is, “that we ought to co-operate or else” (23). Hutchinson writes that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), another 1950s sci-fi film, “carries a warning about loss of identity, an all-too-grim idea in a world where individuality is ironed out into uniform characteristics of thought and yes-saying” (23).
Hutchinson begins his analysis with the birth of cinema and the fantasy shorts of George Meliès. He moves into German Expressionist films, such as Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) (19-21). He also refers to Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) as further examples of horror films with social messages (23). Hutchinson argues though, that one cannot simply voice these messages, or warnings, to the audience directly. As he says, they must be “wrapped up in trappings of tinsel before they will be accepted” (28).
Don’t Look Now (1972) is one of those films whose meaning is “wrapped in trappings of tinsel” (28). Hutchinson explains that, “[Donald] Sutherland here carries the seeds of his own destruction within himself, but will never know it” (29). Reflexively, we are placed in the same position as Sutherland, because we are also unable to interpret the signs to recognize the future (e.g. our doom). Hutchinson’s argument is that, “[Sutherland] is time-trapped in the way that we all are, unable to move beyond his three-dimensional context” (29). Hutchinson ties into a theme explored in other sources I have encountered, that of time and space (in Don’t Look Now). He, unfortunately, does not give the theme an adequate explication (quickly moving to the next film), but he does place the film in relation to other horror films that do more than just scare. One is easier able to understand Don’t Look Now, when placed in the context of other horror films...
Discussing the film Drunken Angel, Kurosawa recounts, “As background to the characterizations, we decided to create an unsightly drainage pond where people threw their garbage” (156), which is an image that returns in Ikiru, although it has a different allegorical meaning. Many plot elements and images from Kurosawa’s films were taken straight from his life (a point made by Goodwin in his book ), and Ikiru is no different. Kurosawa says of the studio he began his career at, “Management theory at P.C.L. regarded the assistant directors as cadets who would later become managers and directors” (95). The bureaucratic elements in the management system at P.C.L., that Kurosawa criticizes, has echoes in the stagnant and immutable Japanese civil service in Ikiru.
Events from his life also influenced Kurosawa in the existential themes he deals with in Ikiru. Kurosawa recounts, in the chapter “A Horrifying Event,” an early scene from his childhood, when he and his brother walked around the city looking at the death and destruction caused by the Kato Earthquake. His brother uncomfortably forces him to look at the hundreds of dead bodies, but when Kurosawa goes to sleep, he does not have any nightmares. When the young Kurosawa asks why he didn’t have any nightmares, his brother responds, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.” This message has deep significance to Ikiru, because Watanabe is only able to live when he confronts his cancer head on. When he lies in his bed at home and cries himself to sleep, when he goes with the writer to experience the decadence of modern Tokyo, he is, in effect, trying to ‘shut his eyes’ to the cancer and ignore its existence. Only when he faces it head on, does he realize that he has the power to give his limited life meaning. There are many other events in Kurosawa’s life that have relevance to Ikiru, because it is a film about life itself and the search for meaning in life. Kurosawa’s past offers insight into not only why the author chose to write about this subject, but also why he comes to the conclusions that he does.
While the book doesn’t have as much relevant information to Ikiru as other books I read, it does present some new information concerning the film in its own right, not on its aesthetic principles or themes. The book is able to ground the film in relation to other Japanese films of its time, which no other book does, which is valuable in a complete understanding of the film beyond its importance as an Akira Kurosawa film.
Goodwin also shows how Kurosawa uses editing techniques and objects as narrative devices: “the photograph of [Watanabe’s] wife at the center of the altar is the psychological frame through which Watanabe begins to look into his past in narrative flashback.” In the flashback in which Watanabe and his son are follow his dead wife’s hearse, Goodwin states that, “Metaphorically, the sequence places death as an immediate prospect within life and it suggests the narrative’s own patterns of approach and withdrawal from its protagonist’s death.” Both of these are examples of scenes and objects that offer a self-reflexive view of the film that acknowledges the techniques of filmmaking.
Goodwin’s book is different from the other works in the Bibliography, because it analyzes specific images and scenes in Ikiru, searching for allegorical meaning and self-reflexive commentary. The book definitely takes the position of Kurosawa as an auteur, suggesting that Kurosawa purposefully creates a continuity among the symbols and images in the film, in order give a deeper meaning to the film.
Russell also shows the similarities in setting among various Kurosawa films. She writes, “Ikiru is also an important film in Kurosawa’s cinema because it deals directly with the issue of urban development.” Most of Kurosawa’s non-period films have an urban setting, but the city itself is integral to the plot of Ikiru, because Watanabe’s quest is against Tokyo itself, the stagnant bureaucracy, the icy social interactions, etc. and this is all embodied by the cesspool, which is a product of urban life. Russell also notices that the “extreme weather conditions […] In city films, they soften the urban setting into a site of humanist compassion, exemplified by the final soft snowfall in Ikiru.” The urban setting provides a good backdrop to the actions of Kurosawa’s gangster films (“gendai-geki” ), but it provides the impetus behind the action in Ikiru. Russell’s article separates her discussion of Kurosawa into two parts, his movies about “men with suits” (of which Ikiru is one) and his movies about “men with swords,” which is ironic considering the two-part structure of Ikiru and many other Kurosawa’s other films. Russell makes some interesting points that are not touched on by other authors, because, like Prince’s book, she analyzes the film in comparison to other Kurosawa films.
Yoshimoto follows this with a shot breakdown of the opening scene in Watanabe’s department and surmises from the shots used by Kurosawa that, “Watanabe is consistently denied the subject position of the look; instead he is placed in the position of the other’s look.” This establishes a theme that Yoshimoto then expands on, the theme of Watanabe as a subject, which is a offshoot of the theme of self-reflexivity. Another self-reflexive image Yoshimoto recognizes is in the silent scene in which Watanabe leaves the hospital. “On the wall behind Watanabe are many identical posters, advertisements for “Morinaga Penicillin Ointment.” The medical reference reminds us of the immediately preceding scene at the hospital, and the word “penicillin” also emphasizes the incurability of Watanabe’s disease.” Kurosawa also allows for self-reflexivity in the ‘nightlife scenes,’ “Mirrors are sued to disorient our perception of scenes’ spatial unity.” All of these examples highlight Kurosawa’s use of self-reflexivity in the film, which bring the viewers attention on the process of watching the movie. Yoshimoto argues that Kurosawa is commenting on the film itself and the audience’s perception of events in the film. The audience members thus becomes aware that they are watching a film, which succeeds in distancing them from the protagonist, Watanabe, and calling into question the images on the screen (i.e. the ‘stories’ told by the coworkers at the wake). In relation to this last idea, Yoshimoto writes, “[Ikiru] demonstrates the problematic relation of narration and subjectivity.”
The most interesting self-reflexive element in the film I found was the actual structure of the film. Yoshimoto writes, “when the protagonist of Ikiru abruptly disappears about two-thirds of the way through, his death surprises us as something utterly shocking, even though it is totally expected,” and this is because “We assume that biological death and closure of our lives somehow coincide with each other. What surprises us is that this is hardly the case.” Yoshimoto’s argument concerns self-reflexivity in Ikiru and how this aids the goals of the film. The questions that the two-part structure forces the audience members to ask themselves are just one example of the various techniques Kurosawa employs to force the viewer to change with Watanabe; the movie itself becomes catharsis.