A while back, C.B. James of Ready When You Are C.B. and I decided it would be fun to collaborate on a special project for BBAW. There was much discussion, but finally agreed that we would both read Blindness by Jose Saramago, watch the corresponding movie, and review both via a transcontinental "discussion".
Me in Florida
James has featured our lively book chat over at his blog, and we are over here talking about how the movie measured up. Here is what we had to say:
Sandy: Even though I had just finished the novel and was blown away by it all, I admit I was not all that eager to watch the movie version. I liked the sound of the casting…Julianne Moore, Danny Glover, Mark Ruffalo, and the yummy Gael Garcia Bernal. But the movie was ripped apart and digested by the critics. Before I pressed “Play”, I mused…with the exception of the doctor’s wife, everyone in the story is blind. How on earth are they going to pull it off? How will they accurately portray the horror, the chaos, the deplorable overwhelming filth? I knew I needed to evaluate the film on two levels. First, did the film accurately translate from page to silver screen? Second, does the movie stand on its own if you didn’t read the book?
James: I just finished watching the movie ten minutes ago. After we spent so much time discussing the book, I was eager to see the movie. I liked how the movie depicted being blind - the way the actors and the setting kept coming in and out of focus, in and out of whiteness. It made the viewer one of the blind. Many cheesy horror movies in the 1970's used "killer cam," filming a scene as though the camera was the killer. Blindness used a similar "blind cam" by using visual images that made the camera, and by extension the viewer, blind.
Sandy: I loved the “blind cam”. It made me feel almost claustrophobic, which I think was the point. A movie critic I am not, but I thought the director, Fernando Meirelles, did a respectable job of literally translating a dense, disturbing book to an audio visual experience. Most of the significant scenes in the book weren’t missed. Like you said, we saw what the blind saw (a milky whiteness), tension and filth and naked bodies abound, it was truly horrific to see it come to life. Which is exactly the way it should be.
James: Just to give everyone an example, there is one scene where a blind boy walks towards the camera along what should be a clear path. We don't see anything in his way. Suddenly there is a loud crash and we see a table materialize, and the boy runs into it. As for portraying how horrible the blind world becomes, the movie did a very good job of this, too. I was worried about the scene where the women in ward #1 are summoned to the thugs’ ward. This was not something I wanted to watch. If I were an actress, I could imagine refusing to do that scene, but it was well-handled. If the movie went to the extremes that the book did, showing the day-to-day horror of life in the hospital, it would have been unwatchable. Reading these images is one thing, but seeing them is another matter. All of this said, the answer to your first question would be “yes”. My only quibble with the book-to-movie translation was that the movie implied that circumstances greatly improved once they left the hospital. But I guess one cannot include an entire book in a single movie.
Sandy: To answer my second question (does the movie stand on its own?), I’m pretty sure the movie would not carry its weight, had I not the insight from the novel. There were plenty of unanswered questions in the novel, but even more so in the film. Film can only communicate so much in a 2 hour time span. The director kept the action moving along, and spent less time on the cerebral intensity and ambiguity. Cerebral ponderings don’t fill seats in the theater, after all.
James: I had no problem answering your first question (did the film accurately translate from film to screen?), but I'm not so sure about your second question. When a woman (I'd lost track of who she was by the time she did it) sets fire to the thugs’ ward, I asked myself where the lighter came from, then recalled the answer from the book. There were a few too many moments like that. Reading the book first helped, which is not a good sign for a movie.
Sandy: No it isn’t. If I hadn’t read the book, I definitely would have been confused. Did you notice that in the book, about half of the pages were dedicated to the hospital quarantine, and the other half dedicated to surviving in the “free” world. The movie, on the other hand, invested all but a half hour to the hospital scenes. I suppose a studio would visualize more Hollywood moments in the hospital, PLUS it is a contained set. I was a little disappointed with this choice of pacing. I think they took the easy way out personally.
James: I agree with you. There was so little of the second half of the book that I wondered “why bother at all?” In the book, the "free" world is just as horrible as the hospital was, parts of it are worse. The movie's free world was like a very bad vacation. My bigger complaint with the movie is that it was not enough of a thriller. The book is not a thriller. I wouldn't argue that. But pretty early on, it was hard to put down. There was tension in reading it - much more than I expected. The movie treats the book too much like a sacred text, afraid to offend it. I was horrified by what happened, but never frightened for the characters survival. If you read and watch P.D. James' The Children of Men, which has a wonderful, thrilling movie adaptation, you'll see what I mean. I recommend both very highly, by the way.
Sandy: I never read Children of Men, but the movie was one of the better ones released in 2006! I had a couple of other quibbles too, besides the pacing. In the book, the doctor’s wife was the hero, understandably. But the black man with the eye patch was a very strong character, a voice of wisdom, and a spiritual guide. Julianne Moore did an excellent job of carrying the movie, but Danny Glover got the shaft. I’m not sure he would have been the best to portray the voice of wisdom (more of a Morgan Freeman role I think) but he never even got the chance. He was just another blind person in the group. I was also disappointed that the movie created, from scratch, marital discord between the doctor’s wife and the doctor. Now don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of reason for discord, but it simply was not there in the book. I was annoyed at the obvious need to insert more drama.
James: The lack of marital discord in the book is one thing that makes the doctor's wife such an admiral person. Not only did she willingly accompany her blind husband into quarantine, but she also encourages the woman with dark glasses to sleep with him because they both needed a kind of deeper comfort she could not provide. Not many people would do that. The movie reduced that sequence to one of more typical marital discord. I thought it was cliched when it could have been original.
I did watch some of the DVD extras on the making of the film. The actors and the extras did work with an acting coach to learn what it was like to be blind. During many of the scenes they also wore special contact lenses that made them practically blind in reality. But it didn't see any blind people working with them at all, which surprised me. Also, there were 45 minutes of computer generated effects in the movie. They filmed the exterior city scenes in Montevideo, Uruguay and added background building images from Toronto and Sao Paulo to come up with an unidentifiable city. The milky whiteness effects were made with actual milk. They filmed scenes by playing them on a laptop screen and filming the reflection in a tub of milk. This is the only time Saramago has sold film rights to any of his books. The director talked about how afraid he was that Saramago wouldn't like it. When they did screen it for him in Lisbon, he was moved to tears he liked it so much. As for me, because I fully embrace the use of whole numbers, I'm going to give it a 4 out of 5 stars. Be warned that if you haven't read the book first, you're sure to give it a 3 out of 5 stars.
Sandy: I would have loved to have seen the extras, but I watched Blindness on my “Instant Queue” on Netflix! Overall, I was entertained by the movie and didn’t feel it was as bad as all that. No, I don’t think it deserves any awards, but neither did I feel I was robbed of two hours either. My bottom line? Out of five stars, I'll give it a 3.5. I like fractions! I will leave you all with a little taste...the Blindness trailer.