Introduction to my Adaptation of "The White Album"

Doug Fretty '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

The White Album is full of cinematic potential, clearly written by someone with a radar for the sights and sounds of the screen. No one reading the book would be surprised that its author had a celebrated career in Hollywood. Her style, however, is not cinematic in the literary sense. Her sentences do not have Ruskin's fluid spatial movement or Chatwin's continuity-editing order. The editing-room style of The White Album does not lend itself to conventional film, but suggests some more experimental movement. Consider these two passages, the first from The White Album.

I remember walking barefoot all day on the worm hardwood floors of that house and I remember "Do You Wanna Dance" on the record player, "Do You Wanna Dance" and "Visions of Johanna" and a song called "Midnight Confessions." I remember a babysitter telling me that she saw death in my aura. I remember chatting with her about reasons why this might be so, paying her, opening all the French windows and going to sleep in the living room. [p. 20]

These memories are vivid enough for the screen, but Didion's page does not move like film action. Chatwin's passage, on the other hand, could be copied and pasted into the stage directions of a conventional screenplay:

And in the early morning she woke me. I heard her making tea in the kitchen. She gave me slabs of bread and blackcurrent jam. She filled my thermos with coffee. She took sticks soaked in kerosene and put them in a watertight bag: so if I fell in the river I should at least have fire. She said: ‘Do be careful!' and stood in the doorway, in the half-light, in a long pink housecoat, waving slowly with a calm sad smile. [p. 139]

As this passage illustrates, I could have easily found scenes in Chatwin to support a screenplay. But why bother, when those scenes play so cinematically in the mind of the reader in the first place? I am annoyed when I watch a film of a book that was practically a film script to begin with. If Didion had wanted to write The White Album as a script, she would have done so. Instead, she created an essay that is both suggestive of and resistant to cinema. This was what attracted me to the book as a potential adaptation.

In the adaptation process, changes always have to be made to the content and form of the original. If this is not the case, then the source does not need to be adapted. In my script of The White Album, for example, James Baldwin and Ossie Davis attend a groovy party in a cavernous cellar where a Didion acquaintance (fabricated by me) rocks out to The Doors. I contrived this groovy party for the purpose not of fidelity but condensation. There are other "errors" in my White Album. For example, the L.A. Times probably did not honor its Women of the Year with an elaborate banquet ceremony, but they do in my script for the purpose of dramatic irony and setting up a Nancy Reagan sequence. Likewise, I had decided to limit my adaptation to the years 1968 and 1969, but these dates became someone fluid when I discovered relevant details that lay outside my timeline.

Because of the book's dearth of long scenes, particularly containing dialogue, I also incorporated some outside biographical information, as well as a mountain of conjecture and fabrication. Here's hoping the Didion/Dunne estate does not take these things too personally.

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Last modified 12 May 2005