Isaac Bashevis Singer on Screen

The big screen likes I.B. Singer--but he didn't always like it.

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"Those who adapt novels or stories for the stage or for the screen must be masters of their profession and also have the decency to do the adaptation in the spirit of the writer," said Isaac Bashevis Singer in a 1984 New York Times self-interview."You cannot do the adaptation against the essence of the story or the novel, against the character of the protagonist."

Yentl: Oy Vey!

Singer spoke from experience. When Barbara Streisand transmogrified his "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" into the film Yentl (1983), she rejected the Nobel laureate's screenplay and his vision of the story. But he's hardly the first author to have suffered at the hands of Hollywood: the above remark could have been made by any scribe whose work has gone celluloid. Translating a piece of literary art into something for the popcorn-munching masses is always tricky business, and Singer knew the importance of good translations.

Yentl / Movie

Which is why Singer's public denunciation of Streisand is so impressive. In the Times piece he asks the reader to imagine ending a film version of Madame Bovary with Flaubert's heroine "taking a cruise along the Riviera" (instead of swallowing arsenic) or concluding a big-screen treatment of Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov transforming himself into a Wall Street broker in lieu of slinking off to Siberia.

"This is what Miss Streisand did by making Yentl, whose greatest passion was the Torah, go on a ship to America, singing at the top of her lungs. Why would she decide to go to America? Weren't there enough yeshivas in Poland or in Lithuania where she could continue to study? Was going to America Miss Streisand's idea of a happy ending for Yentl? What would Yentl have done in America? Worked in a sweatshop 12 hours a day where there is no time for learning? Would she try to marry a salesman in New York, move to the Bronx or to Brooklyn and rent an apartment with an ice box and a dumbwaiter? This kitsch ending summarizes all the faults of the adaptation. It was done without any kinship to Yentl's character, her ideals, her sacrifice, her great passion for spiritual achievement. As it is, the whole splashy production has nothing but a commercial value."

We laugh, but Singer's doing something serious here. What contemporary writer would publicly criticize a powerful media person whose efforts had earned him so much money? (Jonathan Franzen's attempt to put Oprah Winfrey in her place was the closest we've seen to this in recent years.)

Enemies, A Love Story

Ironically, fidelity--something Singer didn't quite master in his personal life--was so important to his artistic side, and one of his best novels, Enemies, A Love Story, concerns the human complexities of betrayal. This Singer work was faithfully adapted for the screen. (Director Paul Mazursky and writer Roger L. Simon received a 1989 Academy Award nomination for their work.)

"When Paul Mazursky and I were preparing our adaptation of Singer's Enemies, A Love Story," Simon has said, "the Nobel Prize winning novelist only had one request. He wrote Mazursky: 'Please, no singing in this movie!'"

The filmmakers did eschew musical productions, but the film still lacks something of the book's gravitas. What's missing? Singer's voice. Without the narration that carries us through the novel, large parts of the story's soul is excised. So much of protagonist Herman Broder's character is mediated through Singer's witty and often philosophical ruminations. Actor Ron Silver does a good job of showing Broder's passivity and helplessness, but he doesn't give us a deep sense of his character's life.

The narrator of Enemies the novel, on the other hand, kicks open the door to Broder's battered consciousness. He was, the book reports, "without belief in himself or the human race; a fatalistic hedonist who lived in pre-suicidal gloom. Religions lied. Philosophy was bankrupt from the beginning. The idle promises of progress were no more than a spit in the face of the martyrs of all generations. If time is a form of perception, or a category of reason, the past is as present as today: Cain continues to murder Abel. Nebuchadnezzar is still slaughtering the sons of Zedekiah and putting out Zedekiah's eyes. The pogrom in Kesheniev never ceases. Jews are forever being burned in Auschwitz. Those without courage to make an end to their existence have only one other way out: to deaden their consciousness, choke their memory, extinguish the last vestige of hope."

But if the movie fails to supply an abundance of philosophy, religion, and history, it makes up for this lack with visual immediacy and narrative propulsion. Instead of digressive paragraphs about how Broder was haunted by images of the Nazis, the movie shows him watching a man on the subway get a shoe-shine and then, in a flash of paranoia, he hallucinates that the man is cold-eyed Nazi officer.

The biggest difference between the film and the book, however, is in the casting and presentation of the characters. Singer did a fine job in defining the character of Masha, a Holocaust survivor and a woman of great erotic energy.

"She wasn't tall, but her slenderness and the way she held her head gave the impression that she was," he writes. "Her hair was dark with a reddish cast. Herman liked to say that it was fire and pitch. Her complexion was dazzlingly white, her eyes light blue with flecks of green, her nose thin, her chin pointed. She had high cheekbones and hollow cheeks. A cigarette dangled between her full lips. Her face reflected the strength of those who have survived peril."

This is nicely descriptive writing, and a good précis of actress Lena Olin's body, but it fails to move one as immediately and viscerally as Mazursky's various shots--including the unclothed Olin. 

Singer Speaks

So will the adaptations of Singer's stories help keep his legacy alive? Probably. (In the United States, film and television watchers seriously outnumber readers.) Singer's work has produced two handfuls of big- and small-screen productions, including television adaptations of his story "The Cafeteria" and director Menachem Golan's The Magician of Lublin.

But perhaps the film that proved most faithful to the spirit of Singer was the 1986 documentary, Isaac in America: A Journey with Isaac Bashevis Singer. In this work of non-fiction, which was nominated for an Academy Award, Singer speaks for himself--at least until actor Judd Hirsh reads Singer's "A Day in Coney Island," against images of Singer on the move. According to reviewer Janet Maslin this was one of the films few missteps: "This part of the film seems forced and obvious compared with the plainer, more spontaneous footage in which Mr. Singer simply talks."  

Which is to say: in film, even non-fiction film, it's usually best to let the writer lead the way.  

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Ken Gordon

Ken Gordon is the editor of JBooks.com. His personal website is Kdgordon.com.