Adaptation Series 1.1: Barney's Version

One of my favorite movie-related pastimes is to check which upcoming films are based upon novels and then read the books before the film is released. I always enjoy seeing how filmmakers adapt diverse works to the screen and I am frequently intrigued as to why some adaptations fail to match their predecessor while other films excel beyond the source material and create the most beautiful and exhilaratingly cinematic experiences. I think the best page-to-screen triumphs of recent years are Joe Wright’s brilliant envisioning of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, and Precious, Lee Daniel’s visceral yet uplifting drama based on the novel Push by Sapphire, a novel whose poetic/Ebonics prose must have been extremely difficult to condense into a coherent screenplay (a task that screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher executed brilliantly). 2010 has several big screen adaptations that look promising, some of which I’ve already read the source material, namely Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Niki Caro’s gorgeous interpretation of Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck, which my brother and I had the fortune to attend the world premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. I hope to make this a regular series in which I discuss a literary work in the context of its upcoming production. I’ll begin with one I’m particularly keen for: Barney’s Version.

As I stated in one of my first posts, one of the films that I eagerly await is the screen version of Mordecai Richler’s 1998 novel, Barney’s Version. Having now read the novel, Barney’s Version has pretty much jumped to the top of my ‘must see’ list for 2010. Richler’s novel is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while. The story’s narrator, Barney Panofsky (portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the film), is a loveable curmudgeon. The premise of the story is that a former friend and longtime rival of Barney’s has just released a biography of Barney that portrays his career and personal life in an unflattering light, and it alleges all sorts of dubious things about Barney, namely that he is a murderer. Barney decides to offer his “riposte” to Terry McIver’s biography and set the record straight by offering his own version of his life’s story. Barney’s observations on life are drolly critical of just about every person, or race of persons, that he has encountered during his lifetime. Barney’s take on contemporary Canadian culture is frequently honest, if not brutally so, and it often arises in the most comical situations. In fact, Barney’s Version is such a funny novel that I had to force myself to stay home and read it, as I had one too many embarrassing moments in which I disturbed other patrons at Starbucks or Bridgehead with my frequent bursts of boisterous and, at times, snorting laughter.

Barney’s comical reminiscences make him a self-deprecating and fallible protagonist. In the hands of Paul Giamatti, Barney Panofsky should be one of the more memorable screen characters this year. Barney strongly resembles Miles Raymond, Giamatti’s character from Sideways (pictured): both are neurotic and culturally savvy anti-heroes, although Barney finds succeeds (sort of), while Miles tends to struggle. Unlike Miles, Barney does not strive to make a living off his high culture passions: Barney clutters his memoir with references to Johnson, Auden, Flaubert, Homer, and a score of other literary heavyweights, yet he provides for himself by managing a production company called Totally Unnecessary Productions, which outputs schlock programs for Canadian television. Barney can also be compared to Giamatti’s character from American Splendor, Harvey Pekar, who is an overanxious but successful comic-book author. Either way, Giamatti is well prepared for the job.

Barney also happens to be a bit of a bum romantically, having failed in three attempts at marriage. The novel is divided into three parts and each section is devoted to one wife, although they often overlap due to Barney’s inability to approach the truth directly. His first marriage occurs in the early pages of his memoir that describe his years as a young adult in Paris. His first wife, Clara, is a paranoid and mentally unstable poet/artist whose infidelity and posthumous success haunts Barney for the reset of his life. Montréal-born actress Rachelle Lefevre, who is mostly known for her role as Victoria in the first two Twilight films, plays Clara.
Barney’s second wife is a woman for whom he has so much contempt that he only refers to her as The Second Mrs. Panofsky. The Second Mrs. Panofsky is an arrogant windbag who talks at the other characters for pages on end. Although she’s a hoot to read, The Second Mrs. Panofsky is one of those overbearing and annoying motor mouths whose presence could either make or break the film. However, in films such as Phantom of the Opera (pictured), Minnie Driver has proven herself an adept scene chewer, so her performance as The Second Mrs. Panofsky should be one of the film’s highlights.

The most endearing character of Barney’s Version is Miriam, Barney’s third wife and true love. Barney meets Miriam during the reception for his second marriage, and he is so intoxicated by her that he immediately regrets wedding The Second Mrs. Panofsky. As Miriam, British actress Rosamund Pike gets a lead role for which she is long overdue. Her Genie-nominated work in the drama Fugitive Pieces suggests she has the dramatic chops to carry much of the film, while her scene stealing performance as Helen, the blond bimbo in An Education (left) proves that the quick wit Richler attributes to Miriam will be well served by Pike’s comedic timing and complement Giamatti’s performance. Pike and Giamatti should make for a charming comedic duo.

The film also features Dustin Hoffman in a supporting role as Barney’s father, Izzy. The Izzy of Richer’s novel is a crass and boorish man and will surely provide Hoffman with several over the top scenes and dirty one-liners. Also joining the cast are Canadian actors Scott Speedman and Bruce Greenwood: Speedman as Barney’s friend Boogie, for whose murder Barney is tried and acquitted, and Greenwood as Blair, a rival for Miriam’s affection.

The film seems perfectly cast, but one concern regarding how Barney’s Version is brought to the screen is how the filmmakers will replicate the form of the novel. Much of the novel’s humor comes from Barney’s first person account of the events, which will presumably be transcribed as voice-over narrative. Additionally, the novel contains numerous editorial notes by Barney’s son, Michael. The notes provide many laughs, as they are usually irrelevant or because Michael seems so concerned with refuting the minor details of his father’s life that he often misses the point of Barney’s narrative. Hopefully, the filmmakers will reproduce the self-reflexive quality of the novel, and if they do, the film should be quite a success. Ironically, Barney’s Version already has a bit of a meta-filmic nature, as its writer, Michael Konyves, has mostly written B-level TV movies. The director, Richard Lewis, has been more successful with his work on “CSI” and “North of 60”, as well as the Canadian film Whale Music.
Finally, I’m interested to see how much the film retains the Canadian-ness of the novel. Most of Barney’s Version takes place in Montréal – the ‘present day’ portions occur during the 1995 Quebec referendum. Additionally, Barney’s anecdotes capture the tensions between English and French speaking Canadians (particularly Quebecers) better than any other Canadian novel. The novel is also very conscious of Canada’s reputation as a hockey culture. Barney’s story is littered with stats on his favorite Canadiens and like any Canadian not from Toronto, he has nothing but contempt for the Maple Leafs. Mordecai Richler also makes several astute associations between hockey mania and masculinity, especially when Barney schemes to escape his own wedding to attend an at-home game of the Stanley Cup finals. A hockey score also proves the hook for which Barney finds himself “irretrievably in love” with Miriam. The novel also provides a comical portrayal of Montréal’s Jewish community, as Barney takes much pleasure in smoked meat sandwiches, neighborhood heritage groups, and other cultural past times (perhaps the film will be an accessible/tolerable Canadian response to A Serious Man, which I thought was the worst film of 2009). Barney’s Version also reflects the idyllic value of cottage life in Canada and frequently uses it in association with Barney’s view of Canada as an ever-changing nation. From the aging man’s perspective, it’s often a hilarious portrait of the cultural landscape.
If the film is even half as funny as the novel, Barney’s Version should be a success. At the very least, it could provide some of the highlight performances of the year and could even be a rare mainstream hit for Canadian film. Barney’s Version is not due for release until Winter 2010, so there is ample time to read Richler’s novel beforehand.