"Call Me By Your Name"
What Makes a Good Adaptation?
Question: What do fifth-dimensional aliens visiting Earth have to do with the love between two young men during a summer in Italy? The answer: not a lot. There is, however, one crucial similarity.
I was fortunate enough to bookend 2017 by seeing what are now two of my favourite movies: Arrival, which I watched in a cramped Mexican cinema that February, and Call Me By Your Name, which I closed the year with in England. For all of their apparent differences, they share the important feature of being perfect examples of how adaptations are done well. Arrival was taken from ‘Story of Your Life’, a sci-fi story by Ted Chiang, and Call Me By Your Name was adapted from the novel by André Aciman. So let’s look at what Luca Guadagnino’s film and Aciman’s book tell us about the relationship between cinema and literature.
“Anger, hatred, beauty, very different things – you hold them all.”
~ Maitland, Dust of Old Leaves
Call Me By Your Name deals in dramatic imagery and sentimental flourishes that portray what one reviewer describes as the “contradictions and hypocrisies” of first love: it declares itself greater than all other loves while having only itself as a reference point and announces that it has suffered most, despite the protection of ignorance that surrounds it until first heartbreak. We see such ambiguity in the way Elio’s youthful hope is handled in the film and book.
In Time and Free Will, Henri Bergson describes hope as an “intense pleasure” because the future “appears to us at the same time under a multitude of forms, equally attractive and equally possible”. Hope is the anticipation of opportunities, and part of the reason that making choices can be so unbearable is that it means selecting from those possibilities and reducing them to one. This is something Elio struggles with as he meets and becomes infatuated with Oliver.
One such decision-to-be-made he contends with is the question, “Is it better to speak or die?” When Elio poses this question to Oliver, he is relieving himself of the burden of choice. If Oliver says that it is better to die, then Elio will remain silent and let his feelings do just that. If Oliver tells him to speak, he will know what to do. This indecision is characteristic of Elio, who declares war then peace and insists on “the fire and the swoon” or on cool indifference, depending on the most subtle changes in the dynamic between him and his beloved. After Elio and Oliver spend their first night together, Elio pulls away as if in a hard-hearted rendition of the coolness with which Oliver approached him at the start.
One of my favourite departures from the book occurs during this section of the movie. While the novel is told from Elio’s perspective, the point of view in the movie shifts very subtly and only briefly yet in an important way to Oliver. The camera follows him out of scenes with Elio and into scenes where he sits alone, or where Elio passes like a ghost through his background, or where Oliver watches him in their shared bathroom in a poignant reversal of Elio’s own earlier voyeurism. This reinforces how each becomes the other beyond calling the other by their own name. Just as the camera used one shot to trade Elio for Oliver as its subject, it uses another to swap back to Elio’s perspective; for the two minutes between these shots, the film has turned each man into the other.
The main reason for these differences in the telling is that literature is innately privileged in its ability to unpack the layers of cognition and untangle the ideas forming the internal worlds of its characters. Cinema can only come close to this kind of analysis through voiceover, which is rarely more than a second-rate imitation of literature. What Guadagnino opts for here is clever – while the book explains Elio’s mind-set, showing us the cause, the film shows us what it feels like to be Oliver experiencing this, showing us the effect. The book is forced to relegate Oliver to being a feature of Elio’s life, while the film for a few minutes is able to animate Oliver from within and breathe new life into his character.
“We are not written for one instrument alone.”
~ André Aciman, Call Me By Your Name
Speaking of voiceover, the movie was first conceived as having one, which was thankfully dropped, leaving a remarkably wordless movie, a restrained tone that contrasts against its own theme of passionate first love. The novel itself is breathlessly recounted by Elio, a first-person narrative that sweeps you up in its dynamic flow, the way that love does. We free-wheel and swim through what Elio describes as “a river that passes from us to them, back to us and over to them again in this perpetual circuit where the chambers of the heart, like the trapdoors of desire, and the wormholes of time, and the false-bottomed drawer we call identity share a beguiling logic according to which the shortest distance between real life and the life unlived, between who we are and what we want, is a twisted staircase designed with the impish cruelty of M C Escher”. And breathe.
These contrasting versions of Call Me By Your Name are two components to the same piece of art: Aciman’s words are the lyrics to the music that is the film. Each operate in coherently independent ways to create a greater whole. This is also why Call Me By Your Name is a rare instance in which I recommend viewing the film before reading the book – Guadagnino gives us space for ambiguity, to revel in not knowing and guesswork; Aciman offers less of this free-space, filling it instead with Elio’s opinions and feelings, which offers us the opportunity to engage the novel in conversation about our ideas against those of the character. The film does what only cinema can do, the book gives us what only words can.
Aciman discusses this dichotomy in a piece for Vanity Fair, where he writes that in film, “a nervous pause between two words can lay bare the heart in ways written prose ... needs more time and space on the page” to achieve. He laments the inability to write silence, a skill uniquely cinematic, able to be captured only with recourse to image and audio. Cinema can provide space in which time is suspended and the viewer can process, can think and feel, can inhabit a moment on their own. This is achieved with sounds and images that are prolonged, sustained like a note played on an instrument and held for as long as the instrumentalist likes. In books, there is inherently always someone “speaking”, and the words always denote change, different notes performed in succession.
With Call Me By Your Name, the novel uses voice to convey the chaos and tumult of first love, and to flesh out the inner world of a character in a way that mirrors how the lover is vital to the development of your own identity. (Françoise Sagan put this eloquently as, “It is through the bodies of other people that you discover your own body.”) The film, meanwhile, uses silence and space to turn unfurnished moments into stretched-out time for personal reflection. This calm and restraint belies the bubbling, cacophonous passion it contains, acting like Elio and Oliver themselves, so externally taciturn and internally wild. The book and film, then, each tell the same truth in their own separate ways.
“Oh, to see without my eyes / the first time that you kissed me.”
~ Sufjan Stevens, Mystery of Love
While the novel is narrated with a Proustian sense of reliving lost time through memory, the film establishes itself in the present moment. Elio in the book has lived through it all, and Elio on screen is living through it now. This change allows each to explore these different facets, and the viewer/reader can take both together for a rich, multi-layered description of what it is to fall in love, lose love, and have both experiences change you indelibly.
This lasting impression made by first love is intimated at in the closing scene of the movie, in which Elio stares through the flames in a fireplace to his still-recent memories of all that happened over that summer. The young lover will replay these scenes for years to come, as evidenced in the novel in an exchange near the end. Oliver and Elio reunite two decades on and decide to go to a place they shared that first summer:
"I remember the way.” “You remember the way,” I echoed. He looked at me and smiled. It cheered me. Perhaps because I knew he was taunting me. Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away. "I’m like you,” he said. “I remember everything.”
It is a moment that is simple and complicated, with so much left unsaid and yet heavy with all of its meaning. Neither of them stopped re-watching the mental video of those scenes they shared so many years ago. Indeed, the whole book itself is the unfolding of Elio’s memories, revisited and re-examined so many years after the events, an act of reflection that begins by trying to identify when “it started”, finding a dozen places it might have begun: “Maybe it started soon after his arrival ... Or perhaps it started on the beach. Or at the tennis court. Or during our first walk together ...”
By the end of the book, long after “it” has seemingly ended, we are left with the ever lingering question of whether there still might be hope. The movie shocks us with the suddenness of its ending, the credits appearing over the still active scene of Elio crying, denying us resolution and fanning our desire with the same frustration that stoked it in the first place. In their own very different ways, both pieces leave us wondering, hoping, and yearning.
“Cinema is a mirror of reality and it is a filter.”
~ James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name
Of course, this is not a film without flaws (a Platonic ideal that, mercifully, cannot exist). The director, Luca Guadagnino, resorts at certain key moments to euphemistic shots straight out of a more repressive era of cinema censorship, hiding behind medium shots out of which a character drops to indicate performing a blowjob (which we understand only because we recognise the cliché) and actually panning away from a love-making scene to an open window. This is a story that revels in ambiguity, complexity, and the ugly truths behind the aesthetics of romance; sex might be the most apt expression of such things.
But this apparent squeamishness on Guadagnino’s part is not a failure for not being faithful to the source material, but for betraying its own themes and story. If the book did not exist, it would still feel incomplete not to have openly explored the sexual side of their relationship given how important physicality is to it. The rest of the film is honest and led by its own truths, and these few moments of “looking away” are unfaithful to that.
This brings me to my final point on the differences between cinema and literature, and how these differences manifest themselves in adaptations. I see no justification in expecting a film to reproduce the details of a book in its rendering, to give people as close an experience as possible to reading the book without having to read it. That is self-defeating, self-limiting, and – as testified to by the many failures in adaptation history – impossible to satisfyingly achieve.
Instead, cinema should be free to take the raw material of a piece of literature and refashion it with its own tools, not to recount documentary-style the details of a particular story but to tell some deeper truth. If I tell you it’s raining outside or I tell you it’s not sunny, both get at the same truth (the current weather conditions) via different routes. And they can simultaneously reveal different characters, the optimist who embraces the rain or the pessimist lamenting an absence of sun.
What matters in Call Me By Your Name is that Elio and Oliver fall in love with each other in a way that is complex yet simple, painful and passionate, exciting while doubtful, lasting though short-lived. And that is what the film and the book both deliver in their own ways.
• André Aciman, Call Me By Your Name (2007)
• Call Me By Your Name, dir. Luca Guadagnino, screenplay by James Ivory (2017)
• Ted Chiang, ‘Story of Your Life’ in Stories of Your Life and Others (2002)
• Arrival, dir. Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Eric Heisserer (2017)
• Maitland, ‘Dust of Old Leaves’ in (from a cabin in the woods) (2012)
• Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will (1889)
• Françoise Sagan, A Certain Smile (1956)
• Sufjan Stevens, ‘Mystery of Love’ from the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack (2017)