Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 28, 2010

Time Regained: Onscreen

A few months ago I observed that there is no film version of a book that equals the prose original. I stand by that rather bald statement, even though brother Mark did, as I recall, come up with a couple of close calls, and I’m confident that someone will convince me that there’s at least one exception.

Typically I don’t want to see the film version of a book either because I liked the book too well and don’t want it spoiled, or because I didn’t like it at all, and could care less about spending more time with the characters and the story. That said, even if they fall somewhat short of the mark, some of my favorite films are favorites because of the brilliant way they capture at least some aspects of a book’s essence. “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy tops that list, and “Catch-22” is on it, too.

By contrast, consider the book I just finished listening to as an audio reading: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although it darkened the mood of more than one commute with its harrowing post-apocalyptic world. It was so fraught with terrifying scenes that I don’t want to experience them in any more visually compelling way. I’m satisfied with the book. One of my talents as a filmgoer is a total suspension of disbelief. When I’m in that seat, I’m engrossed in the onscreen world, and I’m incapable of convincing myself, “It’s only a movie!”

The urge to make movies out of narrative fiction is irresistible, and has provided a large body of the movie world’s output. One could spend every night of the week for several years just viewing those, taking home an armload of tapes and DVDs from the library every week. You can range from Madame Bovary to Anna Karenina, Notre Dame de Paris, every Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novel, and proceed directly through the film versions of every “books one ought to read” list from the literature of every country.

Many of them are great viewing, without a doubt. Film is a different category of thing than a book. It can do many things that a book cannot do, but some things, including the way authors use language, interior monologue, shifts in narrative point of view, etc., can only be replicated on the screen with tricks, and not always good tricks.

Film versions of dramas are a special case. Since the work was written to be performed, even classic drama has an immediate adaptability to film, Shakespeare, for example. There must be hundreds of movie versions of nearly every Shakespeare play (it would be interesting to find out which, if any of them, have never been filmed). Just recently we’ve watched Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet, which is engaging, with a great cast. Prepare to invest some time; he did every line in the play, and the movie runs about 4 hours.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’ve been pursuing my goal of reading all of Proust’s A la recherche de temps perdu. (find those blogs under “A la recherche de temps  perdu” in the Categories on the right.) In the library last week, I came across the movie that director Raoul Ruiz made of the final book in Proust’s novel, Time Regained (also known as The Past Recaptured). What in the world would that be like? How would one adapt Proust’s conclusion to his mammoth work, in which he attempts to catalyze all the hundreds of scenes and thousands of pages into a statement about what it is that catalyzes the creative urge in an artist into a work of art? What to do with a book that, while it includes hundreds of characters engaging in hours of conversation, consists primarily of introspection and interior monologue by its narrator, examining every infinitesimal detail of his own progress from early childhood to the end of his life that leads him to become an artist?

We enjoyed it. Not, certainly, in the way one enjoys movies based on other classic works that have more linear story lines, such as “Goldfinger” or “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” First, there’s the problem of characters. We’re picking up the story after Proust has spent 2,200 pages introducing and fleshing out scores of characters across several generations, not to mention all the historical background about their ancestors.

If you watch this film without knowing the book, it wouldn’t hurt to read a synopsis of some sort that could introduce you at least to the primary characters of Swann, Odette and their daughter, Gilberte; the Guermantes family, including Oriane and the Duke; the Duke’s brother, Charlus and their nephew, Saint-Loup (who marries Gilberte); and the circle of the salonistes, the Verdurins. Honestly, an excellent introduction to reading Proust is the series of graphic novels published by ComicsLit. CLICK HERE for a link.

The monumental challenge for the director was how to show us visually what Proust tells us in hundreds of thousands of words. That means constructing scenes with encounters and dialogue and physical juxtapositions that the books do verbally, at length. He succeeds to a surprising degree. The characters are distinctive (vividly recognizable actors like John Malkovitch, Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuele Beart helps).

He does some clever things with shifting planes of vision. Anticipating some visual effects that became common in film shortly after this film debuted in 1999. We see a lot of this now in not just movies but television and commercials: a character in a scene or a “layer” of the scene remains static while the action continues around them. The crux of book — the catalytic moments in which the narrator experiences a form of deja vu that calls to mind an earlier experience and provides him with the clue about how he will “recapture time” — is portrayed by having the actor stand immobile while action proceeds in the rest of the shot.

Any artist — painter, writer or composer — will say that what is left out is as important as what is left in. That is the strength of this film. It doesn’t attempt to summarize everything about that final book of the novel. It focuses on selecting characters, action and relationships that give us a sense of the brilliant world of the salons and aristocracy Proust describes as they encounter the post-WWI world and a changed environment, a time of great crisis that leads the narrator to his artistic apotheosis.

A movie of a book is not the book. It has to at once partake of the book, as well as become its own thing, and this is a worthwhile effort.

Now, I’m enthused to finish those last couple hundred pages of the book. I’ll get back to you.

CLICK HERE to see the entry for “Time Regained” on


  1. Hi Brad – whenever people talk about good films of good books I’ve been mentioning “Let the right one in” by John Ajvide Lindqvist — and he did the screenplay for the Swedish film of the same name. Both excellent – have distinct differences due to the different mediums (the book is far more internal) – and they complement each other. It almost doesn’t matter what you ‘consume’ first – though I typically recommend the book first. – Regards, Mark


    • Thanks. Now I have an entirely new author and a new filmmaker to discover!


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