The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, (Vintage, 1992 [1985])

The Accidental Tourist by Lawrence Kasdan (dir), Warner Bros.1988.

Remarkable in this adaptation is the opening scene of the film, in which the protagonist Macon Leary, returns home to his wife, to be told over the kitchen table that she wants a divorce. What makes it remarkable is not the fact that it is an entirely created scene, absent from the book. Many films have that. Rather it is the fact that among the extras on the dvd edition is an alternative opening scene; one that almost exactly replicates the book’s opening. What’s more, it’s a scene that works just as well as in the book, and arguably better than the one chosen for the released film.

Here’s a clear case then of an adaptation that chooses to reject a scene, even though it can perfectly well be filmed, and in fact has been! Frustratingly, the director’s short interview on the dvd makes no mention of what prompted this decision. Yet there is no doubt, from what he does say, that he wants us to understand that he considers this to be a faithful adaptation.

There are other elements of comparison worth looking at. Why, for example, near to the end of the film, is the confrontation between Macon and his wife handled so differently? The scene in the book where Macon leaves does not have the speech of justification that the film puts into his mouth, and his wife is not quite so accepting. I can’t help feeling that here the two storytellers, Tyler, and Kasdan are making judgments about what their respective audiences will accept, and in practice that means that Kasdan, being the adaptor, is making them.

What really intrigues me in this story though is not a difference between the two tellings, but the way that both of them push the viewer/reader down the right road when it comes to rooting for the woman whom Macon will finally end up with. It is a curious story concept that we should want, in effect, to cheer on a man who is leaving his wife. Much more common, in our culture, are stories where women leave their husbands. In fact, our default setting might be that the one is a form of desertion, whilst the other is an act of liberation. Yet here, Anne Tyler’s story goes against that grain. How does she do that, and get us to go along with it?

One way is to have the woman leave her husband first. Macon is shown as boring and repressed right from the start, but her asking for a divorce, and him wanting to keep trying puts him, in dramatic terms, in the right, and her in the wrong. Having prejudiced us that way, Tyler only has to keep her ‘unsympathetic’ and we are half way to accepting his later actions.

We have to like Muriel too. In the film Muriel’s appearance is a little more quirky and, I suppose, she is intended to be more attractive. There is a bit of stereotyping here I’m afraid. She is younger, and slimmer, and whereas the film studiously avoids any eroticism, much is made of her long legs and short skirts. These are clichés, and as such disappointing. Tyler’s text has to be a bit more subtle. In the book those legs are described as being ‘like sticks’, not a description guaranteed to arouse, I’d say. Muriel gets her brownie points in the novel, not only from her quirkiness, but from the dog’s reactions to her, and her interactions with it. If the dog likes a character, we know, as readers, that the character is OK! The film doesn’t make so much of this. Perhaps we are not so good at observing the moving image of a dog as we are at interpreting the words in which one is described.

‘Edward grinned up at her and folded his ears back inviting a pat. She bent and stroked his head.’ (The Accidental Tourist, p27) This is a good start for Muriel, and on the next page ‘Edward licked her cheekbone’. Get a stage dog to fold back its ears and half the audience will think it’s scared. Get it to lick your leading lady and half will think Yuk! But an author can tell us, or nudge us towards understanding what it means.

A stark difference between how we understand pictures and words is shown right at the end of the movie. Seeing Macon in his cab, Muriel smiles. It is a relatively long shot, in terms of duration – a cinematic way of saying, take note of this smile! Then we cut to his face, and he is smiling too. Then we cut to the final credits, over black. Those two smiles are the final images of the story in film.

In the book the final paragraph is longer, and more complex, but ends in the same place. Here are its closing words:

‘And there on the curb stood Muriel, surrounded by suitcases and string-handled shopping bags and cardboard cartons overflowing with red velvet. She was frantically waving down taxis – first one ahead, then Macon’s own. Arretez! Macon cried to the driver. The taxi lurched to a halt. A sudden flash of sunlight hit the windshield, and spangles flew across the glass. The spangles were old water spots, or maybe the markings of leaves, but for a moment Macon thought they were something else. They were so bright and festive, for a moment he thought they were confetti.’

No smiles then, but ‘spangles’ that need to be interpreted. In the book, Tyler interprets for us. They make him think of confetti, and she makes us think of weddings, and that tells us that Muriel and Macon will get married, and live happily ever after. Spangles could have been done on film, but how could they have been done to ensure that we gave them the correct significance? And what if those smiles, which we could see and understand perfectly on film, had been used in the text? They wouldn’t have ‘told’ us enough, I suspect. They would have been not quite specific enough. In film Muriel’s smile shows us that she understands what is happening. Macon’s smile confirms it. Had Tyler told us that they ‘smiled’ she would have been raising multiple possibilities, not nailing down an outcome.

In the book we only need Macon’s confirmation. We know what Muriel wants. We have known since she first asked ‘can’t you leave him hone with your wife?’ We know this in the film too, but the book has taken us inside Macon’s head in a way that the film does not. We know his decision, and for him to perceive the spangles as confetti is enough to tell us that all will be OK.

What if we had not been won over to Muriel though? Then the story would be a tragedy. The fool has left his wife, and after he had had the good sense to go back to her! After she had the sense to come back to him! In both versions it is important that we want him to leave her, so that when he does it is ‘our’ happy ending.

Again, moving pictures and printed words present the story differently: the former ‘shows’, and the latter ‘tells’. Words work through our interpretation of them. Moving pictures work through our observation of them.

It is curious to me that it should be at the very beginnings, and at the end, that I notice the greatest changes between the two versions. We set out from and arrive at different places, and that means that we have taken different journeys.