Winter’s Tale, directed by Akiva Goldsman
By Elizabeth Whyte
Whenever any movie studio announces they are going to adapt a 700-page novel for the silver screen, every good book lover groans. And when the 700-page novel is on a book lover’s list of favorites, that book lover sheds a little tear, then hopes against all odds that the movie studio will somehow do literature justice.
With Winter’s Tale, my hopes suffered a violent, messy death.
Hear me out. I am not one of those bibliophiles who whines when every iota of detail does not translate to the big screen. I would have left the theater a happy soul if the movie had, despite egregious departures from Mark Helprin’s brilliant 1983 genre-defying novel, captured the spirit of the book.
Instead, the movie is not only a bad translation of the book — it is not even a good movie. In the packed theater where I saw the film, the audience laughed at it — and not at the right parts.
The movie follows Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a turn-of-the-century burglar, who falls in love with an auburn-haired, consumptive woman (Jessica Brown Findlay) when he tries to rob her New York City home. Beverly Penn’s fever forces her to sleep on the roof, where she watches the stars and lends the film some breathless voiceovers about how we all become stars at death, and how each of us has one miracle to give in life. But unfortunately for Peter and Beverly, New York mobster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) — whom, we later find out, is also a demon — is trying to kill Peter and ruin his miracle, which Pearly believes will be saving a red-haired girl. Thus Beverly dies after Soames’ demonic pal poisons her champagne. Peter gives her a kiss in a magical bed, but he cannot save her. Shortly after Beverly’s funeral, Soames and his gang surround Peter and throw him off a bridge into the river.
In the midst of all of this is a fantastical flying horse, so audiences are slightly prepared when Peter emerges from the Hudson, and the year is 2014. He can remember nothing, but runs into a little girl, Abby, and her mother, Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), who helps him jog his memory with microfiche and remember that he loved Beverly Penn. It turns out red-haired Abby has cancer, and Peter realizes he was trying to save the wrong girl. A battle with the yet-alive, miracle-hating Pearly ensues. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but let’s just put it this way: It’s cheesy.
It’s a far cry from the book that the New York Times review described thus:
‘The heart of this book resides unquestionably in its moral energy, in the thousand original gestures, ruminations, [...] writing feats that summon its audience beyond the narrow limits of conventional vision, commanding us to see our time and place afresh. Is it not astonishing that a work so rooted in fantasy, filled with narrative high jinks and comic flights, stands forth centrally as a moral discourse? It is indeed. And although I would insist that it’s the vividness of the ideal in this book that’s the source of its moral weight, and although it’s clearly the fantasies that carry the ideal, I do not pretend to know why or how the marvelous concord of discords in Mr. Helprin’s ”Winter’s Tale” is achieved.’
One senses that director Akiva Goldsman, who won the Academy Award for the screenplay of A Beautiful Mind (2002), really did love the book and really did try to make a success on the screen. But the movie feels like a hiker climbing a steep hill, making a good effort at the start, only to slip and stumble backwards, tumbling down the slope. Mr. Goldman could not replicate the “concord of discords” Mr. Helprin created. This is best seen during Pearly’s bizarre scenes with the devil, played by Will Smith. Goldman tries to nod to the comic interruptions that make Helprin’s book so rich, while simultaneously portraying real evil. The result: audiences laughing at the movie’s genuine effort to horrify them.
The movie also fails at a number of other key points. In a rare move for Hollywood, the film is actually more prudish than the book. It attempts to draw out Peter and Beverly’s romance, but only makes their love feel strangely rushed at times, childishly slow at others. For a movie that depends so much on epic action, the horse chases and brawls seem pitifully dull. And at times the film shows rough, unfinished edges — the camera does not make clear what is going wrong with a furnace that threatens to destroy Beverly’s family’s house and requires Peter’s last-minute courage. And Peter is shown to have an uncanny knack for machines — but for what? Though true to the book, his mechanical savvy never becomes a significant plot point in the movie and is thus only a dangling thread.
Finally, and most disconcertingly, audiences who have not read the book will be confused about the film’s magical elements — where did this flying horse come from, and why doesn’t Peter die? The movie lacks clear rules, as most good fantasies do, about why the magic exists and how it works. Though much of the fantastical elements of the novel are also mysterious, the book pulls this off by setting the story in a New York City that is so obviously mythical — it is surrounded by a deadly wall of cloud, and illiterate marsh dwellers inhabit its suburbs. The movie seems more historical romance than fantasy, and thus when fantasy elements come, they feel out of place. And sometimes they’re laughed at.
The film Winter’s Tale purports to be a heartwarming story of a miracle in the midst of an age-old battle between good and evil. Helprin’s novel is much more than that; it is a romance, a tragedy, a comedy, an earnest search for an answer to the question,“What is a just city?” The movie trades genuine philosophical ponderings for trite platitudes, a heart-stopping love affair for cliché hesitations, a world of mystery and wonder for a vague, New-Agey, universalistic ethos. And it kills a book lover’s hope in a way that only a bad copy of a truly beautiful thing can.