Monday, February 11, 2008

The Graduate by Charles Webb

The Graduate is one of my favorite movies, and so when I discovered there was a novel I was initially wary (having experienced the great Harold and Maude reading disappointment of 1999) but then I learned it had once sold millions of copies and was on the list of 1001 Books I must read before I die. And so I proceeded...

And it's the movie. I mean it's exactly the movie. Everything in the movie that's great (except the plastics bit and Dustin Hoffman banging his head on the closet door during the first foray into the Mrs. Robinson affair) is in the book. And not one thing more. The book is the movie. (Film critics would argue that it matters a great deal that the Wasp characters of the novel are turned into Jewish characters in the movie, but that's more about how Hoffman looks than how he acts. Though certainly for leading men of the sixties and seventies that shift in "acceptable" appearance (from Redford to Hoffman) mattered. (Right now I'm reading the great nonfiction book by Peter Biskind, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, that documents the time, so I'm reasonably well-versed).)

Anyway... there is literally no moment of omniscience in this novel. It's a remarkable show of restraint. Not once do we go into a character's head. And the dialogue is some of the funniest I've ever read. And so it makes a perfect translation to screen. Though this, of course, is in large part due to the actors (esp. Hoffman and Bancroft) and the director (Mike Nichols) capturing perfectly the flat, emotionally distant tone of the novel. And this perhaps explains why the book has been entirely replaced by the movie. New generations watch this movie, but as far as I know they don't read the novel. And I argue this is because they give you exactly the same experience, and given that our culture prefers film to literature, it's inevitable that the film won out. Now when a novel and a film give equally great but slightly different experiences, then perhaps both survive (suddenly all I can think of by way of example is Gone With the Wind and The Godfather neither of which should exactly be called literature--I'll have to hone this theory). Anyway the idea interests me as I hope my department will permit me to teach a grad workshop on adapting lit to film next year.

But The Graduate is worth reading even if you've seen the film. Partly to have a new way of experiencing these moments (though it's hard not to hear Hoffman's voice intoning "Mrs. Robinson, you are trying to seduce me....Aren't you?"). And the dialogue, especially between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, is a case study in having two characters share a conversation in which they have opposite goals. Too often beginning writers create scenes in which one character has something to say and the other character is there to hear it. Not so here. And it makes for really really funny reading.

Poor Charles Webb. He gets no credit. Though apparently he did just publish a sequel, Home School, in January.


Bill from Pasadena said...

I recall that the book version of "The Graduate" wasn't nearly as popular as "Gone With the Wind" or "The Godfather." Maybe that's why Webb sold the movie rights for only $20 thousand, although that was nothing to sneeze at during the 1960s. (The movie grossed around $100 million). Maybe lack of omniscience and heavy dialogue work better in a screenplay than a novel?

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

B--My copy, wnich is probably around twenty-five years old, says over 2,500,000 copies sold, which is none to shabby. But yet nobody talks about the book anymore. And it's not really that the lack of omniscience doesn't work; for me (in this case) it worked perfectly--it's just that movies now do that so well, that maybe we look for novels to give us those character thoughts that movies can't?

Amy said...

Is it possible the book might lay claim to some long-term appeal by being (as time goes on) less "dated" than the movie?

One of my favorite books is Leo Herlihy's Midnight Cowboy, which was also made into a major motion picturing starring none other than Dustin Hoffman (and Jon Voight in the title role). The book is essentially written in three parts, with parts 2 and 3 BEING the movie in much the same way you describe The Graduate being the movie. However, part 1 is stuff they only hinted at in the movie in the form of "flashback images" of Joe Buck's childhood -- and it's really fascinating stuff, stuff that makes you understand the character much, much more. And I think once you read part 1, you get so sucked in that you'd rather read parts 2 & 3 than go watch the movie, even if the movie is amazingly good.

Tho' last I checked, it was out of still out of print.

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

I didn't know Midnight Cowboy was a novel; I'll have to check that out.

Amy said...

Let me know if you'd like to borrow my copy! :-)