Nocturnal Animals: an adaptation of an Austin Wright novel

By Helena Snider

It’s a rare thing for a film adaptation to retain the spirit of a novel. But Tom Ford deviates from Tony and Susan, and in doing so dramatically improves it.

Watching Nocturnal Animals, you wouldn’t immediately pick up on the fact that this film is adapted from a little known yet critically acclaimed work of an academic professor, a novelist with a keen understanding and appreciation of how the reader ‘writes’ the book.

Ford’s decision to make a film based on this book necessitates a question: why, twenty-four years after this novel’s publication, would anyone be interested in going back to it? It might make more sense if Tony and Susan had been a best-selling novel at the time of its publication in 1993, but the truth is that it was not a commercial success.

Ford saw something in the book that others (including this writer) missed out. The novel is boring, for much of it we are reading about a woman named Susan reading a manuscript. Reading about someone reading is not a fun activity. This is especially true of a manuscript about the persistent abuse and eventual murder of two kidnapped women – whilst our hero, Tony, hurries about trying to save them.

Granted, the point is that it’s not meant to be a literary masterpiece; Austin employs the manuscript as a symbolic and metaphorical reflection of Susan’s life – and attributes the writing to a fictional character, Edward. But that academic abstraction doesn’t make sentences such as, “It wasn’t Laura and Helen because these two were naked and looked like children sprawled asleep,” any less annoying. Indeed, the depiction of troubled women as inherently beautiful or ideal remains a problem common to both the novel and its film version.

Victoria Coren wrote an excellent article about this in The Guardian, published on 22nd January 2017. Coren writes of the film, ‘The corpses look beautiful. Deliberately beautiful. Titianesque. They are draped elegantly on a sort of couch.’ In the novel, Wright makes it clear that Edward’s imagining of his dead wife and child as ‘sleeping children’ is part of a cognitive dissonance, wherein his shock has induced a sense of total denial. It is evident that the horror stands for emotional violence. In the film this is also the case – but one must ask, when blood is smeared carefully on the bums, is this really about literary symbolism? Or is it about the implicit sexualization of dead, raped women?

A book about reading does not sound promisingly filmic. But this is where Ford’s genius comes in. A boring manuscript in the novel becomes an exciting thriller film in Ford’s adaptation – assault and sexualization aside. The manuscript becomes a film in itself and Ford treats it with the utmost care and delicacy.

Finally, his clever choice of casting emphasizes several parallels between Susan’s (Amy Adams) real world and Edward’s fictional one. Jake Gyllenhaal – who played Tony and Edward – said of his role: ‘I play two characters within the film, the ex-husband and the lead character of the novel, as Susan imagines him.’ Isla Fisher is the woman in the story-within-the-story, who represents Amy’s character. The striking resemblance between the two actresses serves to highlight Susan’s hold on Edward’s imagination.

Photograph: Rick Kimpel via Flickr

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