Unlike many of his literary contemporaries, Saul Bellow’s novels don’t exactly lend themselves to film adaptation. There’s no paucity of ideas and cultural reference points in his books that a screenwriter might get a toehold into before hoisting themselves up, but the fact is that many of Bellow’s ideas tend to be closed circuits that light up and fade out in brief illuminations, or are painstakingly constructed bridges to nowhere. In a story sense, the texture is often rangy and ruminating which is hard to translate into screen language and in a plot sense they are often hyperbolic, with little it seems in terms of character development. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Like Alexander Payne films, the world that buffets the Bellow protagonist doesn’t appear to engender any change in their worldview, but rather an accommodation to it which can be moving. Or harrowing. Or boring.
The only Bellow novel that was adapted for screen (although Herzog was optioned) was Seize the Day – starring the cloying and mawkish Robin Williams. Seize the Day was presumably chosen because of the shrunk down and manageable scope of the story, but it would have been better to let this one escape into the back-blocks, never to be seen again. The problems in the film, which are legion, lie not necessarily in the screen translation but within the novel itself, which probably should have remained a play. The third incarnation of the story was not a charm.
The story, published as a play in 1956 (which is evident from the skeletal cast of characters and locales) then as a novel in 1957, centres on Wilhelm (Wilky) Adler who is the opposite of the American Adam; a man born to lose himself in the vast urban wilderness of America, aided in this depressing trajectory by his nasty and boastful father, Dr Adler.
The condensed version of this story is of a loser who has always been a loser and loses again without anyone having learnt a thing, notably the reader.
When we first meet Wilky early in the novel he is middle-aged and defeated; impoverished but inexplicably living in a hotel also occupied by his retired and financially successful father. Like an American Raskolnikov, Wilky is barely hanging onto the threads of his sanity and has lost any sense of dosage in terms of how to conduct himself in interactions with other humans.
Wilky, we soon learn, once had dreams of becoming an actor in his youth and despite gloomy prognostications from his parents, took flight to LA, a place where “all the loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn’t tightly screwed down had slid…” Someone not screwed down is precisely what we’re dealing with here – another anonymous body dropping silently into the vast American chasm.
Wilky’s celluloid dreams when we meet him are 20 years old, hangovers from a time before he got married, became a salesman (the pre-eminent occupation in American literature to outline inhered character flaws), got retrenched, divorced and became a pill-popping mess.
Part of the problem of this novel is its flattening first principles which are laid out on the table early. There’s no great fall for Wilky, no flower of youth that slowly or suddenly wilts and withers. When we meet middle-aged Wilky he’s already done for. In short order we step back to Wilky’s youth where we can see he’s a hopeless urban rustic, a fact illustrated by his acquaintance with acting agent Maurice Venice, the first of several shysters who take a sizable chunk of flesh from Wilky. Venice, who Wilky already knows is a fraud, claims to see something in Wilky, namely that he’s “the type that always loses the girl”.
Despite knowing Venice is a fraud who damns him with faint praise, it’s the hope and attention that a fraudster provides (as opposed to the cold ruminations of a distant father) that seems to draw Wilky in. So in this contrived world where one must play a role, Wilky makes a half-hearted effort at re-invention. He changes his name to Tommy Wilhelm, the actor, but soon after a screen test, Wilky’s flaws are magnified and the swampy Venice – who is later charged with ‘pandering’ – drops Wilky like a cold potato.
Very early we learn that Wilky enters into questionable relationships and enterprises despite bad personal omens and forebodings: going to LA, getting married, loopy investments. Venice is the figure associated with loss in LA, his wife Margaret with marriage (the overly generous and beaten down ex-husband is a bit of a theme in Bellow’s work, as evident in Humboldt’s Gift) and the philosophising conman Tamkin who uses Wilky’s last $700 in a ludicrous share venture.
In the first chapter we are acquainted with all the characters, none of whom are sympathetic, least of all Wilky because as the reader is informed, he walks into these traps of his own volition and in spite of his own forebodings. The other observation to make is that there is endless description without event. It feels like being gass-bagged to in a musty retirement village – the novel is set in a hotel seemingly full of geriatrics – while you watch life pass you by outside. That claustrophobic sense might have been affecting if the reader felt there was a chance of breaking out, a sense of agency and variable fortune, but Wilky is already clapped out, his papers stamped.
Wilky’s father, Dr Adler, refuses to assist his son financially while boasting to other tenants about the high-point of Wilky’s earning capacity as a salesman of crappy plastic play equipment. Wilky may have been a flake since early adulthood but Dr Alder won’t accept any share in his damaged son’s life. They both stand separately as lamentable and pitiable figures. If there are corresponding characters in popular culture to draw upon, Dr Adler would be Charles Dance as the ugly patriarch Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones. Wilky is comparable to the ‘target’ James Lingk in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross – a man whose lack of agency and dignity renders him entirely unsympathetic.
In terms of story development, once again everything is morbidly telegraphed at the beginning and does not deviate. Dr Adler remains a prick, Tamkin fleeces Wilky of his last dime, Margaret calls for her alimony cheque and to rub salt in as Wilky relinquishes the last small portion of his dignity by wailing in the last few pages at a stranger’s funeral.
Watching the film adaptation was a trial made worse by the irritating presence of Robin Williams. Nevertheless, like Dostoyevsky’s The Prince (an unmercifully long and tedious book), Seize the Day has a function and a lesson, and that is to give heart to aspiring writers. That great writers can produce (and have published) grating work and remain superb writers is gratifying to learn. The other lesson here is to write your story in the appropriate format, which in this case was a play and probably an ordinary one at that. As a novel Seize the Day stretches the reader’s patience and shrinks down the world unnecessarily, but as a film, the meagre observations by Bellow about the world or of character are obliterated and presented as an unending series of miserable and whiny interactions. I enjoy Bellow as a writer so it’s not his style per se, but Seize the Day is just too flat in story shape and barren in character development to provide much of redeeming value, other than as a minor commentary on lost dreams gently floating down the American river.