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David Foster Wallace and the Problem of Adaptation

Can everything be adapted? Some things are best left in their original medium, such as the literature of David Foster Wallace.

Words on torn paper reading: "The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it". Beneath is an image of David Foster Wallace's bandana, white with black details.
A quote from David Foster Wallace's 1993 interview with Larry McCaffrey | Composite by author.

The ethos of David Foster Wallace’s literature means that it resists translocation from its native form in the written word. A key part of a good adaptation is maintaining the spirit of the source material. When faced with an author whose work particularly defies visual formats such as film and television, how does one go about adapting it? Or should things be left in the state in which they were intended to be appreciated?

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

A man at a table with a microphone on his left and a water jug on his right. He is gesturing with his hands, as if explaining something.
Ben Shenkman as Subject #14 | Credit: Sunday Night Productions

It isn’t a bad movie. In fact, I think it’s kind of fun: it is, for the most part, pacy, well-acted, and has segments which are recognisable having read the book. As an adaptation, though, it leaves a lot to be desired. The problem lies in how the original structure of the book is translated to the screen.

Elements of the written word are necessarily lost when the story is communicated visually. This is particularly true of Wallace’s work, as many of his idiosyncracies are employed to the end of reminding the reader that they are reading, rather than watching, or – God forbid – consuming something. In conversation with literary critic Larry McCaffrey, Wallace expresses his belief that the mediation of information in the written format, from writer to reader, forms a “full human relationship”, but only if the reader is willing to “put in her share of the linguistic work.” He explains that the execution of this goal ends up being “the ‘opposite’ of TV”, as complete, unthinking immersion is not possible.

Brief Interviews, though most of the short stories do not follow this structure, presents transcripts of various interviews with the titular subjects. They are, indeed, fairly hideous people, but that is not the primary point of interest. The distinguishing feature of the collection is that the questions are not provided to the reader, only the (long-winded and polemic) answers. Pauses for questions are denoted only by a single ‘Q‘. This is a heightening of the reader’s share of “linguistic work.” We must fill in the gaps, deepen our relationship with the author by being forced to guess his intentions.

The adaptation retains this feature, but the spirit of the writer-reader relationship is somewhat dashed by the fact that the rest of the film follows the interviewer’s life closely. That is meant to be us! The collaborative charm is lost if the burden of interpretation and communication is assumed by one person – the scriptwriter, the director, the actress playing the interviewer. You are too easily immersed (which is what makes it a good film, as a stand-alone product), as the burden is taken from the viewer to interview, inquire, and interpret. The answers are still provided for you – but so are the questions, and this is where it falls short as an adaptation.

When Adaptation Works

A negatively-coloured screenshot from the movie 'Zone of Interest.' A girl is putting apples in a muddy bank in the middle of the night.
Breaking immersion in The Zone of Interest | Credit: A24

Hard-pressed to pick just one excellent adaptation, I present The Zone of Interest, both Oscar-nominated and rather topical. Though it is a loose rendering of Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same name, it maintains some of the spirit of reading the written word.

There is a lot to be said about the sparsity of the film, from its dialogue to wide, impersonal shots which further impede one’s getting to know the characters. Information is visually excluded, with only auditory clues provided to fill in the gaps. As a viewer, you end up doing plenty of heavy lifting, and the immersive quality typically aimed for with the use of a visual format is broken as you pay more attention to that which is not being shown than that which is. Most, if not all, know the history examined in The Zone of Interest; but, if we pretend that we don’t, the disturbing core of the film, literally concealed behind the high walls of the Hösses’ garden, is not explicitly depicted nor is the viewer spoon-fed. You must arrive at the horror yourself.

As a work which explores complicity, keeping that which the visible characters are complicit in hidden maintains the spirit of the work. The figures afforded the most screen time avoid direct knowledge of the atrocity being committed mere feet away from their home. The omission of the visual proof simulates the circumstances necessary for people such as the Höss family to claim ignorance of the extent of the evil in which they participated. The viewer, to some extent, can try to understand their position, but the sound of the truth is impossible to ignore. The viewer balances the reality behind the wall with the presentable surface of the family as they watch, rendering immersion in the Hösses’ narrative unattainable.

David Foster Wallace, On Screen

Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace. A man with round glasses and a white bandana. He is speaking, holding his hands in front of his face.
Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour | Credit: A24

It must be indicative of some cultural flaw that we keep making so many biopics. I can’t pin down the specific defect at the moment, so I am going to let it slide.

The End of the Tour was adapted from a book possessing a much more interesting title, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Published in 2010 by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, it contains transcripts of his conversations with Wallace across a five-day road trip. The book itself is a fine read. Seeing Wallace reanimated on the screen? Well…

There is a kind of sick irony in the adaptation of Wallace into a character for the screen. In his own work, he co-opted public figures (Lyndon B. Johnson, Alex Trebek, David Letterman) for his fictional narratives, but some wildly off-piste characteristic always undercut their veracity. Lyndon B. Johnson, in Wallace’s short story Lyndon, ostensibly dies on the night of the 1968 election. Alex Trebek spends a considerable amount of time on the psychoanalyst’s couch and mentions that his favourite word is ‘moist’, in Little Expressionless Animals. David Letterman, in My Appearance, is not so much a real-person-turned-fictive, but is little more than a symbol of the blight that is late-night talk show culture: ironic, insincere, its rules of communication complicated and punishing.

The thing that distinguishes Wallace’s employment of real-world figures in a fictionalised setting from the adaptation of Wallace through Lipsky’s eyes into a character in a movie is the intention behind the usage. The End of the Tour is presented to the viewer as unequivocally ‘real’, with the portrayal, setting, and dialogue meant to be bought into as they are shown. When Wallace makes use of real figures, they are always modified in some way; there is always a disclaimer which takes the reader out of the belief that they are looking at a truthful portrait. These sorts of disclaimers become harder to include when the portrayal is vivid and taken out of the control of the reader. This is what is so troubling about The End of the Tour: the man it concerns would not even use himself in such a way, and would probably be disturbed by the very practice.

Let’s Adapt Infinite Jest

Just kidding.

If a criticism of Brief Interviews was that it “doesn’t match the depth of the book”, I cannot imagine how you would begin to work with the material of Wallace’s 1000-page magnum opus in a meaningful way. There are even more impediments to immersion and ‘easy reading’: 388 endnotes, catalogues, footnotes to the endnotes, a nonlinear narrative, a non-numerical calendar system, and three main clusters of characters who exist mostly separately. Reading it, you certainly go tit for tat with the author’s burden of having created it all.

And this is why you can’t claim stories with such complicated scaffolding for visual rendering. The spirit of the novel is to be read. Is it difficult to read Infinite Jest? Yeah, a little – but is it rewarding to piece all of the information together for yourself? Almost certainly. To have it play out on a screen alienates the viewer from the process of construction that comes with reading something written to be consciously read.

Eschewing immersion and prompting a more active reading of a film is possible, of course, as seen in The Zone of Interest, so perhaps I am being pretentious. Yet, even with earnest attempts such as that of Brief Interviews, something fundamental to Wallace’s work is compromised in adaptation. With an emphasis on the reader having to do “linguistic work” in order to share in the intended relationship with Wallace as author, the unwelcome third party of a director and/or screenwriter and their sole interpretation makes it difficult for the reader to engage with the work in the intended way. In a line: it is fine to admit that some things are best read, not seen.

Written By

UK-based literature student. Primarily interested in literature, film, and creative writing. Occasionally insists that tennis falls under one or more of these categories.

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