Thursday, September 03, 2009

At Sink or Swim...

An indication of the parallel universe I inhabit is the fact that today's big news was the word from Venice of Brendan Gleeson's directorial debut. Old Ginger Chops is no shrinking violet given that his choice of material is going to be none other than At Swim-Two-Birds, a choice one would like to admire for its audacity but instead one imagines a car-crash of embarrassing extent. We are told that Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy are being lined up to star, which should pay for the posters at least (and it also reminds us that the Irish film-acting world is as curiously male-dominated as Flann O'Brien's novels themselves). The budget will be $11million, a fair whack for an Irish film, if not much by Hollywood standards.

Much as I admire Brendan Gleeson as an actor, I really can't get motivated about this one (and I won't pretend to be apprehensive - At Swim... is such a sturdy work of genius it will long outlast any film version, no matter how brilliant or inept). I've already seen one adaptation of the novel, over ten years ago, by the Austrian director Kurt Palm (as unknown internationally then as he is now but who surfed a brief wave of fame for long enough to stage a production of Die Flädermaus in Dublin shortly after the film's release). Palm's adaptation had the unique attribute of looking thoroughly Irish (and cheap) while everyone sounded lugubriously Germanic. It was a plodding trip through the novel's Russian-doll structure, reeling off the gags and situations in a cursory fashion devoid of any (non-Germanic) humour. I remember watching it on its brief run in the IFI and turning round to an over-enthusiastic Flannophile behind me who was polluting the half-empty cinema with his chortles at inconsequent jokes, I said to him 'it's not that funny'.

Well at least there's something for Gleeson to better. But the problem with the adaptation is not the towering influence of Flann - it's a select group indeed that have any real attachment to him - but the fact that the book is a thing of words, not of images. It's nigh impossible to render visually in a substantial way. While the meta-textual nature of the narrative - and the novel's surrealism - has been co-opted in a certain strand of cinema, such as Buñuel, Fellini, early Woody Allen, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman - none of these started from a base as ineffably literary as Flann's work was. Palm's film just looked like a cheap charting of the book's narrative and it will be a big challenge for Gleeson, as director and screenwriter to avoid this pitfall. A good start might be to update the novel's setting, and thus avoid the distraction of period details of the early Free State, and a similarly liberal approach to the sub-tales of Sweeney and the Pooka McPhellimy would be no harm either. Recovering Toasted Heretic Julian Gough put it best in his exceptionally active Twitter feed this afternoon:

Buying film rights to a Flann O'Brien must be like buying a sports car made of diamond-encrusted meringue. "OK! Now what?"

I can imagine Flann stirring momentarily from his stout-sodden slumber in the Palace to nod his appreciation at that.