Book vs. Film: 'Tony & Susan' vs. 'Nocturnal Animals'
Nocturnal Animals. It was one of those big "must-see" movies at the end of 2016, a quasi-sleeper hit of the Christmas season, the little arthouse movie that could, despite competition from big-budget franchise behemoths like Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts, as well as standalone feel-good fare like La La Land, and video game adaptations like Assassin's Creed. Now here we are in 2017, and pretty much no one saw Assassin's Creed, everyone saw Rogue One and, to a lesser extent, Fantastic Beasts, and everyone universally loved La La Land, including that meaningless stalwart The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, known colloquially as the Oscars. This is of course also the name of the little gold men the Academy hands out every year, and it seems rather likely they'll give more than a few over to that aforementioned Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone-starring musical, with indie darlings Moonlight (a wonderful movie, go see it) and Manchester by the Sea receiving "lesser-than" accolades (i.e., not Best Picture). From a public and awards-doling establishments standpoint, Nocturnal Animals came and went, having received two major nominations at the Golden Globes—one of which, Best Supporting Actor, turned into a win, due to Aaron Taylor-Johnson's rather unnerving performance—and only one major Oscar nomination for Michael Shannon in another supporting role (and he is quite good in the film). Not even a Best Adapted Screenplay nod for Tom Ford, who also directed the film.
Is this a case of major film organizations snubbing a well-made work of art because of its dark subject matter? Possibly. The likelier scenario, however, is that Nocturnal Animals didn't receive very many Oscar nominations because, unfortunately, it isn't all that good. It has the makings of something really great, and I personally struggled for the better part of a week to decide whether I enjoyed it or not, finally landing on a hesitant yes, but only towards certain parts and definitely not towards the whole. It's an okay film so long as you ignore its numerous flaws, but the more you think about them, the less you admire it.
But what of the book Tony & Susan, upon which Nocturnal Animals is based? A more or less obscure novel written by Austin Wright over 20 years ago. Does it occupy the same kind of wishy-washy state as its film adaptation?
In short, the answer is no. It's a complicated, no-easy-answers kind of read that sticks with you long after the final page, letting you chew over its characters and events in a wholly good way, with no debate over whether or not you actually enjoyed reading it. And much of what makes the novel Tony & Susan so good has everything to do with what makes the film Nocturnal Animals so bad, or at least not as good as it could have been. Let's dig a little deeper and find out why.
The Need for Change
In case you're unfamiliar with the plot of both Tony & Susan and Nocturnal Animals, it involves a woman, Susan (played in the film by Amy Adams) receiving a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom Susan hasn't seen since they divorced twenty years prior. Edward asks his ex-wife to look the novel over and give him some notes, and asks that they meet up at some point during his visit to her city (Chicago in the book, L.A. in the film) to discuss his work. From this point forward, the narrative splits its time between the novel-within-the-novel, also titled Nocturnal Animals, and Susan's reactions to its characters and content. We also see Susan's reminiscing about her failed marriage to Edward, in particular his struggles to become a writer, and his rather insufferable inability to take her criticism (which of course makes it odd that he would send her a manuscript asking for her notes, establishing the theme of the transient nature of peoples' personalities, how much we do change as we age).
As you might expect, this is a tricky story to translate to the screen. Edward's novel is the easy bit—it's a psychological thriller of sorts about a man named Tony (also Gyllenhaal in the film) who, while en route to his summer house with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter Helen (or India in the film, played by Ellie Bamber), gets run off the road by three maniacs in a car (the leader of which, Ray, is played by the aforementioned Taylor-Johnson). These men proceed to kidnap Laura and Helen/India in their car, while one stays behind and forces Tony to drive out to the middle of nowhere, where he's dumped and basically left for dead. However, Tony finds his way back to the road and calls the police. He pairs up with a tough-guy cop straight out of a hard-boiled pulp novel, Bobby Andes (played by Michael Shannon, hands down the best aspect of the film), and together they discover that the maniacs raped and murdered Laura and Helen/India. The remaining narrative deals with Bobby and Tony seeking out justice against Ray and his cohorts, while Tony battles his tremendous guilt and his inability to stop the men from taking his family. As one might expect, the whole thing ends in more bloodshed and Old Testament vengeance.
Ford handles the novel-within-the-novel quite well, cutting out the fat and presenting a lean and beautifully shot neo-noir. However, as with Wright's book, Edward's story, while well-told, isn't anything exceptional—not a must-read by any means, but not a hard pass either. What makes the overall narrative exceptional is the inclusion of Susan's take on things, her introspection and analyzation of Edward's novel, her bursts of paranoia surrounding the work, and the way the dark content insinuates itself into her daily life. Where book-to-film adaptation is concerned, the most pertinent question the screenwriter musk ask is, "How do I make a plot line involving a woman sitting, reading, and thinking about a book interesting to watch over the course of two hours?" Flashback scenes to Susan and Edward's marriage were of course expected, and they do appear, but for everything else, Ford had the right instinct: getting Susan out of the house and interacting with her friends and co-workers, allowing all her internal struggles to manifest in external, unexpected ways (as in the scene where she thinks she sees Ray's face in a baby monitor app on her friend's iPhone, which was kinda cheesy, but it gets the point across).
But while Ford showed good instincts with the nuts and bolts of his adaptation, it's how he fleshed out Susan's external world that pivots the film from good to not-so-good, arguably even bad territory.
The badness of the film, furthermore, can be summed up with one major change from the page to the screen...
The Title Says It All
As previously mentioned, Ford borrowed the name of Edward's novel for the title of his film. Nothing too egregious here, as Nocturnal Animals is a much flashier title than Tony & Susan. But he also adds a connection between the novel-within-the-novel's title and Susan and Edward's past: Edward used to refer to his wife as a nocturnal animal, because she's an insomniac, but also—as we will see—as a kind of insult, this connection between Susan and the dark, "evil" things of the night. Edward also dedicates his novel to Susan, another addition of Ford's that did not appear in Wright's novel.
Why? Well...buckle up. This is going to be bumpy.
The Wright Ending
In the novel, Susan is primarily a housewife and part-time English teacher at a community college. Throughout the course of the narrative, we learn that she met her current husband, Arnold (or Hutton in the film, played by Armie Hammer) while Edward went off to the woods for a month to write the great American novel. She began an affair with Arnold. After Edward's return home—in which he is more moody and irritable than ever, having failed to write anything substantial during his furlough—it becomes blatantly clear that their marriage isn't working anymore, and she wants to be with Arnold. Susan divorces Edward and marries her once partner in infidelity. Looking back, Susan realizes much of what inspired her to marry Arnold was the guilt she felt at cheating on Edward, because she understands now what it feels like to be in his shoes. You see, Arnold carries on an affair with his secretary, and expects Susan to be a-okay with it (which she of course is not). Susan knows, deep down, that her relationship with Edward never would have worked out, but she regrets the way things ended, and hopes to become his friend again after they meet to discuss his book.
However, Edward never returns her phone calls during his visit. She knows he still came to town, because the concierge at the hotel confirms his presence there, but for whatever reason he decides to snub her. Maybe it was too hard for him to see her again, maybe it was an intentional "fuck you," forcing her to read this dark and heavy novel that just might contain some crude jabs at her, or just might not—Susan notes these possible jabs, but she can't be sure she isn't just reading too much into them. In either case, Susan's feelings are hurt at Edward's snubbing, but she gets a little "fuck you" back at him by sending him a terse note that simply says (and I'm paraphrasing here) "I read your book. Let me know if you want to know what I thought of it." The novel ends with Susan attempting to think about a way to jab Arnold a little too—she briefly considers forcing him to read Nocturnal Animals, but she doesn't believe he'll actually learn anything from it.
With this ending, Wright gives us is protagonist that is forced to reexamine the decisions in her life. She doesn't entirely like what she sees upon reflection, but it is clear she looks to a way forward, rather than a way back. Her own little "fuck you" to Edward is a relief, because we've heretofore saw Susan behaving as the dutiful, subservient wife, supporting Edward's seemingly impossible dream to be a writer, bringing in all the money to their household while he hammers and struggles and plays the tortured artist role, all the while refusing to grow as a writer by taking Susan's constructive criticism. She breaks loose from this relationship but falls right into another, one she commits to making work because, in her mind, she has to make it work. She gives up everything—her marriage, her life, the approval of her parents (who just love Edward) to be with Arnold. It can't all be meaningless, she tells herself. It simply cannot. But of course, two decades down the line, she realizes that in spite of all her efforts, this other marriage is also failing, but now the stakes are so much higher—she has children with Arnold, she has a house and a job nearby and an entire life built up around this relationship, which also entails an expectation that she simply say nothing about Arnold's affairs, which she isn't comfortable doing. (It's worth noting that she originally asked Arnold to be faithful to her before they ever got married, he being the highly non-monogamous type; but despite his nature, he promised he would be faithful, but is now flagrantly breaking that promise.) Overall, the novel ends on a bit of a question mark—where will Susan go now?—but it feels an appropriate denouement to everything that preceded it.
Ford As Punisher
Not so with Ford's film. In Nocturnal Animals, Susan manages an ultra-modern art gallery known for its fiercely (and altogether emptily) subversive and offensive installations. The film, in fact, opens with one such work, videos of nude, morbidly obese and elderly women wearing star-spangled majorette hats and twirling batons—a bold, body-shaming grotesquerie Susan outright calls "bullshit." This protagonist is a jaded but excessively wealthy woman with a face plastered in makeup and a closet full of designer dresses. She lives in what New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis calls a "palatial Modernist mausoleum," and she generally gives off an "Ice Queen Bitch" vibe. As this Susan reads Edward's novel—the one titled after her old nickname, the one dedicated to her—she reflects back on her failed marriage just as her literary counterpart does, but in a way that is decidedly anti-Susan and pro-Edward. There is only one scene depicting her ex-husband's inability to take her criticism, but it's played with Susan taking the wrong path toward criticism: she gets flustered, frustrated and blurts out just how IMPOSSIBLE he can be, with Gyllenhaal's Edward slinking off and muttering, "I just wanted you to like it."
Moreover, Ford brings in Susan's mother (Laura Linney) for an onscreen appearance, but unlike in the novel, where this woman adores Edward, the woman in the film is a stereotypical domineering mother, done-up like Barbara Bush and drawling snootily about Edward's lack of money or ambition to give Susan the proper (read: wealthy and luxurious) life she deserves. The parallels between this mother and the "present-day," make-up-caked and elegantly-dressed Susan are more than apparent, especially when one considers the contrast between the overly-painted mother and young Susan's simple, naturalistic look we see throughout the flashbacks.
Then we meet Ford's Arnold—again, renamed Hutton, for whatever reason. Now, it should be noted that in the novel, Arnold and his mentally-ill wife Selena live in the same building as Susan and Edward, and while Edward is away, Selena has an "episode" involving a kitchen knife, and has to be temporarily institutionalized. Susan invites Arnold over to dinner as a friend, to console him and give him some company (and to give herself someone to talk to, because in Edward's absence, she is lonely). They continue having dinner together every night, and one thing leads to another, instigating their affair. It's clear this infidelity comes from a place of loneliness and desperation, and it is perfectly understandable given Edward's obsession with writing, which has isolated him from his wife. In the film, however, Susan notices Hutton in one of her classes—this handsome, burly man-man who gets her undies in a twist the moment she lays eyes on him. Edward does not leave for his writing retreat in the woods, but Susan carries out the affair anyway.
Now, here comes perhaps the most major change Ford makes to Susan and Edward's backstory: Susan discovers she is pregnant with Edward's child, and because she doesn't want to complicate their separation, she decides to have an abortion and not tell Edward. We then watch Susan sobbing in the car with Hutton, declaring her regret at having terminated the pregnancy and wilting into his big burly man-man arms, all the while a cliché rainstorm bellows outside—and of course, who should be standing in the rain, watching the whole sobbing affair, and somehow hearing every word Susan said despite the rain and the fact she's sealed up in the car? Edward, that's who. He storms away, a broken man.
Ford pointedly draws connections between this abortion and failure of marriage to Tony's harrowing narrative in the novel-within-the-film. Just as Tony loses his wife and child to a cruel and sadistic person, Edward loses his wife and child to the cruel, icy whims of a woman who just doesn't understand him. The first connection is, obviously, the choice to cast Gyllenhaal as both Edward and Tony, despite the fact in the novel Susan actively works not to think of her ex-husband in the role of his protagonist, as Tony bears no physical resemblance to Edward. There are shades of Edward's personality there, for sure, but these aspects neither confirm nor deny an act of vengeance on Edward's part against Susan. In the film world, these physical distinctions may or may not be present, as we get neither Edward's descriptions nor Susan's chiding herself for casting her ex-husband in the role. It is Gyllenhaal without question.
There's also a fairly telling set of color choices around the beginning of the film and near its end. The highway attack and kidnapping scene plays out under an eerie green glow, slightly suggestive of night-vision footage and the wild things that crawl in the dark—like these off-kilter, violent men, for instance.
Now remember, in the film, Edward dedicates his novel to Susan and titles it after his nickname for her, ostensibly because she's an insomniac, but after seeing his labeling of kidnappers, rapists and murderers as "nocturnal animals," combined with the connections of Tony and Edward losing their families, one wonders if the nickname wasn't a jab at her budding "ice queen" personality to begin with, the transformation of Susan into her mother. To punch up this correlation between ex-wife and the late-night predators who take everything from Tony, look at the color of Susan's dress just prior to meeting Edward at a restaurant for their long-gestated reunion:
This is the only time Susan wears a green dress in the film. If she wears any other green articles of clothing, they are not featured so prominently—lit in such a way that only Susan, her very green dress, and the outline of a mirror appear in the frame. In this same scene, Susan also wipes off her heavy lipstick, returning herself to the "natural look" she sported two decades ago, and thus, symbolically, turning herself back into the nice, sweet girl Edward fell in love with, the girl who had the capacity to love someone as lofty and creative as Edward.
Now, if we're buying into this notion that Susan was once a nice, sweet girl who was nothing like her icy, domineering, overly made-up mother, but then due to her uncontrollable libido and the influence of said mother, she became the very thing she hated, in this scene we're supposed to be happy for Susan, cheering her on as she reclaims something of the woman she used to be. This changed woman, this new-old Susan, will go to the restaurant and have a fine time with Edward and drink and laugh and maybe, yes maybe, there'll be a spark of the romantic permeating the evening.
But no, Ford has other, more cruel designs for his Susan. She sits at the restaurant, waiting for Edward all evening, only to discover that he has snubbed her, left her alone and vulnerable in a fancy restaurant all by herself. The sadness on Susan's face is palpable: she is absolutely crushed—and that's where Ford leaves us. Now recall, in the book, Edward simply never calls Susan while he's in town, which hurts her, but doesn't necessarily topple her, and she gets in her own little "fuck you" by way of a terse note that just might indicate she hated his novel. There are no small victories for the cinematic Susan. She wears the green dress, after all; she's no better than the creatures that robbed Tony of his wife and child—only in her case, she was the wife, killing her own child as well as Edward's. At least Ray, the sadistic leader of the clan, gets an off-screen death, but there's no cutting away from Susan's heartbreak, at least until it's time for the credits to roll.
Altogether, It feels less like Ford wants to show us a portrait of a complicated woman thrust into two complicated marriages as a result of her own decisions—as Wright does in his novel—and more about punishing Susan for being an Ice Queen Bitch, for turning into her stereotypical mother, for associating herself with phony L.A. artist types, for painting her face and altering her "natural" appearance (Susan even attacks one of her co-workers for just that, cattily pointing out the "grotesqueness" of her multiple face-lifts), for killing Edward's baby without even consulting him (and suffering her own weepy ailments after the fact, as though she's committed this deep and unforgivable sin), forcing Edward to stand in the rain like the clichéd cuckold he is.
It's sad to say, but the whole thing comes across as highly misogynistic. Just like with David Fincher and Gillian Flynn's adaptation of her novel Gone Girl—in which we're made to feel more sympathetic for the male character, tormented by this insane woman, when in the novel he is just as despicable as she is—Ford's adaptation of Tony & Susan becomes a parade of unlikable female characters and sympathetic men—even Bobby, the hard-boiled cop, who moves outside the restrictions of law to ensure Ray and his gang are brought to justice, even some of the killers and rapists, who have moments of genuine pathos when faced with their own mortality. Laura and India, Tony's ill-fated wife and daughter, are nice and idealized, but they become victims long before we have a chance to learn their nuances (which, admittedly, happens the same way in the novel, but at least there's Susan to make a note to tell Edward she hates the trope of the sexually-victimized woman—and this from a novel published in the mid-90s, before such tropes were as actively discussed as they are today, twenty years later). Only one woman, Susan, has the potential to be a likable character, but her conformity to "likable" female norms—wearing less makeup, getting back to her sweet, complacent roots (which, yes, entails "liking" Edward's writing, just as he always bemoaned she would) is all too little, too late in Ford's view, and as such, her punishment must be the last thing we see.
All this combined deteriorates the quality of Ford's adaptation of Edward's novel. It would all play much better if, like the title of the film suggests, he had simply adapted Nocturnal Animals, the novel within the novel, and left the framing novel alone—i.e., left out the Susan and focused only on the Tony. But as it stands, Ford's film is decidedly maligned and too wrapped up in its skewers for Susan to be anything of real note—a film that could've been talked about, years down the line, as a great example of 21st century neo-noir, but will likely be forgotten as the decades go by.
What's your take on Nocturnal Animals? Have you read Austin Wright's original novel? Do you think Tom Ford's handling of the Susan character was cruel or fair? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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