Film/novel; Winter's Bone/Winter's Bone Daniel Woodrell/Debra Granik
‘Hope” is the beauty and the very essence of life. A day follows a night, every sunset is followed by sunrise, light at the end of the tunnel – you can ramble on and on so forth. Art in any form, be it a painting, a literary work or a movie is supposed to celebrate the gift of life and most of the time it does. Every fairy tale has a happy ending, a lovely piece of melody fills us with joy of living and a beautiful painting reminds us about the existence of God.
But novels and movies cannot always be preaching how good conquers bad and not all protagonists can be flawless, always doing the right thing. Such films and novels are popularly classified to be of noir genre and they normally are too gloomy in their plot and portrayal.
In this essay we attempt to discuss this subject with the example of a famous novel which was adopted into a film. We will analyze the novel by Daniel Woodrell – Winter’s bone and the movie made on it by Debra Granik. Of course, since the film is based on the novel it cannot have an optimistic screenplay or portray a much positive sequence of events, but has to stick to the storyline of the original novel. But let us see which among these both had more noir attributes than the other.
Before we embark on that discussion let us first try to understand what exactly does the term noir means in literature or filmology. And we will take a critical view on the novel and the film and finally conclude which fits better to the noir tag.
What is Noir?The most popular definition for the word noir – is something which is cynical, bleak and filled with pessimism. So we understand that for anything to be classified as noir, it should lay stress on the dark side of the human heart. So how a novel or a film does gets classified into this category? For this analysis, let us see the origin and development of this concept.
Roman noir is a French term meaning ‘black novel’ and likewise film noir stands for black film. The origin of the term can be traced to the eighteenth century when the French used it to portray the English Gothic literature. But in the 1930s, this term again came into play, this time describing the popular hardboiled thriller genre of the American literature. For historians, the noir era begins with the work of writers such as Dashiell Hammett and encompasses the works of all the Black Mask writers. This style was later contributed by various writers such as
- Day Keene
- Jim Thompson
- Elmore Leonard and
- Thomas Harris
In America the term noir was made famous by film critics rather than the literary ones. A noir film was commonly perceived to have these common characteristics – cynical, cruel, oneiric and erotic. But as the authors Borde and Chaumeton expressed in their book ‘Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953’, not all noir films fall into this bracket. Subsequent critics and historians have attempted to give a clear definition to noir, but with little success. We can see some common settings in all noir films like low-key lighting and the femme fatale types of characters. The plot and the background of the films though vary from a detective thriller happening in an urban setting to a gothic romance in small townships.
The main literary roots of film noir were born from the hardboiled genres of detective and crime novels. One of the earliest and classic examples for film noirs, ‘The Maltese falcon’ was based on novels by Dashiell Hammett. Some of the other novel based noir films in the 1940s include
- Double indemnity
- Mildred Pierce
- Slightly Scarlet
- My Sweet
- The Postman Always Rings Twice
- Gun Crazy
- High Sierra and
- Out of the Past
Mostly the film noirs of the 40s and 50s were centered on female characters, which had questionable morality. Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal as the memorable female fatale in the film ‘Double Indemnity’ was a major trend setter. This trend was carried on by many female artists in a series of noir films like Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Jane Greer in Out of the Past and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. The private eye, which is another characteristic of early noir films with the male lead playing detective roles, came into the fore, after the release and success of ‘The Maltese falcon’.
The later years saw many updations to the classical noir format and different directors and technicians brought a change of style to this format. Till today people are experimenting on noir film concept with varying level of success.
But even amid all these changes, some aspects of noir films have stood the test of time. Like for example a crime, usually a murder, is the centre plot of most noir films. A plot revolving around a crime investigation and with it add perfect mixture of greed, conspiracies, adulterous relationships, a corrupt female and betrayals, you will get the perfect recipe for a classic noir film. Most of these films have weak and flawed male lead characters. They are either filled with bitterness towards the world or they have blemished moralities. Most of the scenes are low light affairs, thanks to scenes shot either in the night setting or a rain sequence. Corruption and seduction are part and parcel of all these movie stories.
So summarily, one can say noir films and novels have an inherent pessimism about them. The characters of these stories often get muddled in unwanted situation either through their own greed or through the cons and conspiracies of others around them. They strive against a fate that never seems to be favorable to them. The characters often suffer from hopelessness and they do not hesitate to use any means (sexual, corruption, greed) to attain what they want. To quote the words of Robert Ottoson the noir works are ‘incredibly black’ in their theme.
So now that we know what noir is, we come to the subject of our discussion. The Winter’s bone – novel or movie, which one fits the noir label better? The Winter Bone novel written by Daniel Woodrell, is undoubtedly one of the best fiction works in recent years, well written and critically acclaimed. It has a perfect storyline for a movie and naturally, given the success the book encountered, it was adopted into a film.
When you make a film based on a book, people are always trying to judge the film in comparison with the book, rather than as a standalone movie. The reviews features comments like - this scene was better when you read it, this character is not portrayed properly by this actor, the soul of the book is ripped by the movie , the director skipped the important parts etc. I for one personally thought, “Avadakedavra” uttered by ‘Voldermort’ sent more chills down your spine when you read the Harry Potter novels, than when you watched him say on the screen and you were able to identify more with the plight of Bourne searching for his identity, in Robert Ludlum’s novels than in its film adaptations. There is always time constraints involved in filming a novel, where you cannot always bring all the scenes of the novel to the screen and certain important parts are skipped sometimes in the name of artistic vision.
But let us hand it over to Debra Granik, she has done a commendable job in bringing this moving story on to the screen. The story of the plot goes like this. A seventeen year old Ree Dolly sets out in search of her father, who is out in bail and now absconding. He was arrested for cooking methamphetamine and has put up their house as a security for his bail. Unless Ree finds her dad, the county will take over their house and she, her two brothers (a brother and a sister in the film version) and her near-crazy mother will be left homeless. She lives in the deep Ozarks and is toughened by her growing conditions and the trauma encountered by her (she was raped by her father’s friend at a young age) all through these years. She seeks help from her uncle Teardrop, who first denies and later obliges. At last she finds her father, dead deep in the woods and she has to literally cut his hand out, so that she could prove his death and save their house.
The story is bleak, undoubtedly pessimistic, with a lead character who encounters fate’s wrath, with little hope and little support. Well! It has all the makings of a classic noir story. In fact the novel is already classified as hillbilly noir. But which one is more befitting the noir tag – the movie or the novel?
Yes, the book is infallibly noir heavily relying upon Ree’s character (which is more detective-like keeping alive the noir tradition) who set out on a journey to get some answers. She is as stubborn and resourceful, as the noir heroes of 40s and would not stop until she finds out the reason behind her father’s disappearance. The story though centered on her plight, it is also about the other compromised women and children living around her in a world where the primary means of earning a living is by selling drugs. They struggle through their troubles, while the men of the family get arrested, or avoid being arrested or in some cases, murdered.
But in my opinion the film scores a few points over the novel in portraying noir attributes. Take for example, the portrayals of the female character. Be it Ree or the supporting women roles, though not Femme fatale in the classic sense, they portray strong willed women who endure a lot of obstacles with unflinching determination, not for ambition (like in yesteryear noir movies) but for survival.
But where the film is emphatically noir is in its end part. Though the ending is tonally similar in both the novel and the film, there is a slight difference in the nuances. Yes, the ending of the novel is bleak in all senses of that word, but it has a slight sense of optimism as depicted by two little incidents in the end. A) In the end of the novel a bondsman brings a small cash reminder to Ree and B) Ree decides to spend that money on wheels.
Both these sequences are avoided in the film which makes the ending much closer to the noir theme than the novel. The film ending whereby Ree plans to raise chickens and look after the condo, is a little less optimistic than that of the book’s, because she has no exciting plans for the future but silently accepts her responsibility as the sole bread winner of her family.
Teardrop, the uncle who helps Ree in her adventure, leaves her to join his own journey of violence and probably to meet a similar fate like that of Ree’s father. In the book he hugs Ree, hands over his brother’s banjo and asks her not to come looking for him. But though this fits the context of the story well and is as good an ending it could have, you can’t even imagine the movie Teardrop hugging Ree. It somehow does not fit their characterization. Granik’s characters in the silver screen just exchange a meaningful look which conveys all those emotions in a second and is an ending more suitable for a noir movie. Though the book’s ending is bit more of a sunshine and a perfect hopeful ending for an otherwise bleak story, the movie’s ending had more reality to it and fits the plot better.
All through the movie, the story follows a similar path as set by the novel except in the ending and this slight change, however miniscule, has rendered the movie to be a better noir version than the novel.
- “Rural noir: Winter’s Bone”. Kate Harper , http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com/2010/11/rural-noir-winters-bone/ November 17, 2010. Web. 6 April, 2013
- Winter’s Bone, Film Noir, and Feminism. http://www.overthinkingit.com/2011/05/02/winters-bone-film-noir-feminism/. May 2, 2011. Web. April 6, 2013.
- Winter's Bone.. The Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter%27s_Bone. 1 April 2013. Web. April 6 ,2013
- Edelstein, David "Ozark Gothic". New York: New York Magazine. June 6, 2010. Print.
- Woodrell Daniel. “Winter’s Bone”. Back Bay Books. July 11, 2007. Print.