"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book to film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
“Name a film or pay the forfeit.”
- Gilbert Adair, The Dreamers
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers has long been one of my favorite films. While its decadent beauty draws you in, it's the captivating story about the love of cinema that holds your attention. The screenplay – adapted by author Gilbert Adair from his 1988 novel The Holy Innocents – centers on a trio of film fanatics sequestered in a sprawling Paris apartment with nothing more than a provocative game to keep them occupied. While a screenwriter less familiar with these characters may have struggled to transfer them in all their complex glory from page to screen, in Adair’s capable hands the integrity of his vision never feels compromised. On the contrary, it feels fully realized when brought to life by this phenomenal cast under the guidance of Bertolucci. The Dreamers is an invitation. Not merely to watch what unfolds on screen, but to become spies inside the withered walls of an opulent haven. A place where three young cinephiles spend their days lounging in the bath, tirelessly debating politics and film, and steadily raising the stakes in their game of dares.
The Dreamers begins in the spring of 1968 at the Cinémathèque Française. The theatre where cinephiles flock nightly, parking themselves in the front row where they're guaranteed to "receive the images first.” Among these front row “insatiables” are a quiet American exchange student, Matthew (Michael Pitt), and the twin offspring of a famous French poet, Théo and Isabelle (Louis Garrel and Eva Green). When the Cinémathèque is shut down by the government – after the dismissal of its beloved curator, Henri Langlois – the friends are forced to seek out other forms of entertainment. With their parents away, the twins invite Matthew into their home where he is awakened the very first morning to Isabelle's theatrical game. Mimicking a scene from Mamoulian’s Queen Christina, she strolls around the room seductively running her hands along the walls as Bertolucci cuts back and forth between her and Greta Garbo "memorizing" the room. Obviously testing Matthew, the intercut makes it feel as if the reel itself is turning inside Isabelle's mind.
Having seen The Dreamers numerous times before reading the book, I quickly realized there was little left on the page for me to imagine. The characters had already been cast and every moment played out in my memory like frames from the film. A shared passion for the art of film is what first unites these characters and Bertolucci ingeniously intercuts scenes from classic cinema to not only inform viewers of the narrative connection, but to illustrate the trio’s encyclopedic knowledge. One of the many beautiful tributes to French New Wave appears when Matthew agrees to submit to yet another test put forth by Isabelle. This time he joins the twins in a race through the Louvre in an attempt to break the record set in Godard’s Bande à Part. Here, the juxtaposition of the two scenes highlights the exhilarating joy among the group at the onset of their friendship. Elated to have found one another, the moment depicts a more innocent time before the game becomes an isolating obsession.
In Adair’s book, the game begins innocently – guess the film or pay a monetary forfeit. The stakes are more about one-upping each other's knowledge than they are about testing limits. However, on screen things ramp up much faster, skipping the monetary forfeits entirely and jumping straight into more lascivious requests. Once initiated into the group – with a chant of "We accept him, one of us!” and an adjoining clip from Tod Browning’s Freaks – Matthew quickly becomes privy to the incestuous nature of Théo and Isabelle's relationship. In the film more than the book, he views them as two halves of the same person and falls in love with them equally. While he and Isabelle become lovers as a result of the game – a forfeit administered by Théo in retaliation – his desire for Théo, while consummated in the book, is only implied in the film. Regardless, what starts out as a game of sexual discovery leads to jealousy when Matthew's relationship with Isabelle threatens the unwavering bond between the siblings.
While there are some subtle changes to the dynamic between the characters on screen, it's Matthew who differs the most from the book. On the page, he’s painfully insecure and eager to please. Michael Pitt, on the other hand, brings more spirit and personality to the character. Instead of allowing the twins to use him as their plaything, there are limits to how far he’ll go to prove his love. Although the book diminishes his role to “hardly more than a pet” to the twins, the film succeeds in making him more assertive and valiant. Book Matthew never dares to stand up to the twins or come between them for fear of losing them. Unfortunately, this means he never asks Isabelle out on a date, either, which is one of my favorite sequences in the film.
Isabelle is a much less intimidating presence in the film than she is on the page, which is a testament to Eva Green’s unforgettable presence. She brings such vulnerability and depth to the character – a feat even more impressive when you consider this was her acting debut. In both versions of the story she’s a very serious girl and is obsessive to the point of being unstable. She speaks of committing suicide if her parents discover the nature of her relationship with Théo. However, the attempt she makes at the end of the film never occurs. In fact, the film’s ending may be the biggest departure from the source material. Most notably because, instead of refusing to get involved in the riots, Matthew goes along with his beloved friends and is tragically killed trying to protect them. What’s beautiful about this more melancholy ending is that it circles back to the beginning. The riots and protests have ended and the Cinémathèque is reopened with Langlois reinstated as curator. Théo and Isabelle sit together in their rightful place among the cinephiles in the front row, in tears over a song in the film that reminds them of their fallen friend.
There’s a lot of beauty to speak of in The Dreamers, beginning with the backdrop of Paris, but it’s the unprecedented love for cinema that truly resonates. Having never been satisfied with The Holy Innocents, Adair thought of the film as a more complete vision of his story. As a result, he was inspired to revise the entire novel. In the afterword, he muses that this new edition and the film “may be twins but…they’re not identical.” Thanks to the collaboration between the author, the cast, Bertolucci, and the numerous filmmakers enlisted to embody the imagination of these characters, the story feels very much alive on screen. Sheltered in their cinematic dream world, Matthew, Théo, and Isabelle manage to escape reality for much longer than the runtime of any film. Unfortunately, every reel reaches its end. And every dreamer, even the one in the front row, is forced to wake up.