Why Are Meir Shalev's Works Not Fit for the Big Screen?

Despite a recent wave of movies based on books by Israeli authors, one of Israel's most successful and esteemed writers, Meir Shalev, has yet to see one of his works adapted into a film.

Among the recent wave of films based on books by local writers, one prominent author is conspicuously absent. David Grossman's "The Book of Intimate Grammar" and "Someone to Run With," Yehoshua Kenaz's "Infiltration" and "On the Way to the Cats," and A.B. Yehoshua's "The Mission of the Human Resource Man" have all been adapted to the big screen. Last year an adaptation of Amos Oz's "A Panther in the Basement" also hit movie theaters (under the title "The Little Traitor," directed by Lynn Roth ), and the actress Natalie Portman has announced she will make her directorial debut with a movie based on Oz's memoir "A Tale of Love and Darkness" (which she also stated she would film in Hebrew ).

Meir Shalev
Meir Shalev.David Bachar

But what about Meir Shalev? How is it that one of Israel's most successful and esteemed writers has yet to see one of his literary works adapted into a film?

"There were several attempts in the past to adapt my books into films, but they were dropped because my books are very hard to script and also often require big budgets as they span different eras and contain subplots and numerous lead characters," says Shalev. "My books are sagas that include many different heroes, wardrobes and accessories, as well as broad scenes and vast images. I have no problem with a scriptwriter choosing just one plot from the book, but apparently the preference in Israel today is for books that ... have fewer details and involve less period reconstructions."

Now the writer and director Ori Sivan ("Saint Clara," "In Treatment" ) is giving it a stab: He is currently working on a film adaptation of Shalev's book "A Pigeon and a Boy," to be produced by July August Productions (a director has not yet been chosen for the project ). Given the failure of previous attempts, Shalev is curious to see the results of this latest effort. One failed effort that particularly disappointed him, Shalev relates, was when the Italian director and scriptwriter Gabriele Salvatores ("Mediterraneo" ) approached him, looking to make a film based on his book "As a Few Days". Salvatores began writing the script, but in the end had trouble finishing and eventually dropped the project. "The cancellation of this project upset me," says Shalev.

So is Shalev correct in his claim that some books are indeed easier than others to adapt to the screen? "There are some writers who are more cinematic, and some who are less so," says Prof. Yigal Schwartz, the head of the Hebrew literature department at Ben-Gurion University and an editor at the Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir publishing house.

"A Russian critic once wrote that Tolstoy is a writer for the eyes and Dostoyevsky is a writer for the ears," he says. "There are some writers whose world you recognize through their voice, through the dialogue they use to build the world, and there are others who are more cinematic, more visual, like Tolstoy. Yehoshua Kenaz is like that to a large extent. Grossman, on the other hand, is a writer for the ears."

Pulp fiction is easier

On the surface, it seems apparent that it would be easier to adapt books that contain more visual descriptions and less thoughts, streams of consciousness or inner emotional states. Producer Amir Harel ("Jellyfish," "On the Way to the Cats" ) says the most suitable book for film adaptation "is usually one with a strong and dominant plot that involves action, as opposed to contemplation or an internal monologue. It is no coincidence, for example, that many of the best adaptations are of detective stories or pulp fiction. Film can capture a limited plot that progresses from one scene to the next, not something on a larger scale."

The editor of the publishing house Hasifria Hahadasha, Menahem Perry, takes a firm stance on this issue. "The better a book is from a literary perspective, the more difficult it is to create a cinematic adaptation, because it is built on language and nuance," he says. "Think of the Bible, for example - it is built entirely on language and is therefore very difficult to adapt to the screen."

"When I'm contacted by people who want to make a film version of 'The Blue Mountain' or 'Esau,' I usually tell them from the start that if the aim is to encompass the entire book, don't waste your time. With 'A Pigeon and A Boy' there is a greater chance of succeeding, but it's still difficult," Shalev says.

As far as he is concerned, a scriptwriter can simply draw inspiration from a book and approach the movie differently, or use only part of the book instead of the entire thing.

"The important thing is that there be a match between a director or scriptwriter and a book that excited him, thrilled him, moved him," says Shalev. "It's like a blind date that did or didn't go well between a book and a filmmaker - what the story did to him, his emotional response. This is where it all begins."

Some are hesitant from the start about turning books into films. Perry, apart from a few exceptions, sees no justification in adapting a book to another medium.

"I hate going to theater performances based on books, because plays are a different genre and a playwright should be the one writing the play, unless he is doing some kind of far-reaching hybrid - like what Hanoch Levin did with Chekhov's stories," Perry says. "Why should a playwright adapt a novel? Afterward we tend to compare the result to the original work and it's never comparable."

Neither is Harel "a big fan of adaptations," he says. "I don't think most books are actually suited to cinematic adaptation. What usually works well in such an adaptation is a short story, novella or several short stories. Novels are suitable for film only if there is a personal or radical interpretation of the work. If not, there's always a feeling that the literary original is superior to the adaptation. And so the question is why even bother. After all, the story has already been told in the book, so why is it necessary to tell it again in film? There has to be a good answer to this question. If the person behind the adaptation has a good answer, this indicates some courage on their part, but when there isn't a good answer, the end result is often a film that seems to be have been made only because the person who created it had nothing else to do."

Nevertheless, few novel writers will turn down an offer to adapt their work for the big screen, also in the hope that the film will help expose their writing to new audiences. Successful films often result in a renewed interest in the original literary work and sales of the book can surge. A contemporary example of this is Ron Leshem's novel, "Im Yesh Gan Eden" ("If There is a Heaven" ) on which the 2007 film "Beaufort" was based. The success of the film, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film and won Joseph Cedar the best director award at the Berlin International Film Festival, spurred interest in Leshem's book. This was also the case with Yoram Kaniuk's books "Dead Flesh" and "Adam Resurrected."

According to Perry, however, sometimes the opposite actually happens. As an example, he cites "My First Sony" by Benny Barabash. "This book sold well over the years, but the television series based on it, which was obviously not as good, even though it was made by Barabash himself, pretty much killed it," he states.

The stream will turn into a trickle

According to data compiled by the Israel Film Fund, only around 10 percent of the movies produced in Israel are based on literary works. This year, a third of the 18 films that contended for Ophir prizes are based on books: "Intimate Grammar"; "Infiltration"; "The Mission of the Human Resources Man"; Dan Wolman's "Gey-Oni" ("Valley of Fortitude" ), based on the novel by Shulamit Lapid; "Hitpartzoot X" ("Naomi" ) directed by Eitan Tzur and based on Edna Mazya's book; and Avi Nesher's "Once I Was," inspired by Amir Gutfreund's book "When Heroes Fly."

A review of the films expected to reach local cinema screens in the coming years, however, indicates this is a one-time accumulation of books in adaptation. In the near future, we will not see this trend continuing with the same intensity. Although there are still efforts underway to make intriguing cinematic adaptations of local literary works, they will apparently reach movie theaters in a slow trickle.

Among projects that have already been approved by the two major film funds are "The Fifth Heaven," based on Rachel Eytan's book, which Dina Zvi-Riklis is just starting to shoot; "We Are Not Alone" which Lior Har-Lev is to direct, based on the book by his brother, Izhar Har-Lev; and "Night After Night" to be directed by Tamar Yarom, based on the book by Aharon Appelfeld.