Thank You, Carter Smith

This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing my first novel made into a film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The novel is called One for Sorrow. The film is called Jamie Marks is Dead. Early on in my novel, the narrator, Adam McCormick, observes in his high school yearbook after Jamie Marks is found murdered, that he and Jamie share the same page, the same square even, but Adam’s photo is on one side of the page, and Jamie’s is on the other. For me, coming away from watching Jamie Marks is Dead feels similar to that moment of two people’s souls blurring and mingling into one.

Carter Smith, the director and screenwriter for the film, kept that moment intact, actually, as well as a lot of the novel. Though there are some changes, the story has retained the essence of the book for me. I’ve already noticed some fans of the novel online who had managed to see it at Sundance mention the changes from book to film, but that’s the nature of novel adaptations–they modify a very large story, 320 pages in this case, to fit into an hour and forty minutes of screen time. Novels and films are two different forms, and taking a novel into the film format will, by necessity, mean some things will have to change. Unless the adaptor is doing a literal translation of book to film, which for me always falls flat, simply because the two forms don’t do the same things, don’t function in the same ways (though they do have crossover points, obviously).

So in this adaptation of One for Sorrow, you’ll see that it’s a troubled single parent household instead of a troubled two-parent household, that Adam comes from. There’s no grandmother in Adam’s memory who taught him how to count crows to the counting crows nursery rhyme, which explains the change in title. And instead of squatting in an abandoned church, Adam squats in an abandoned warehouse. Some events in the book have been collapsed, or moved around in time. There are some pieces of dialogue that have been moved from one scene in the novel to a different placement in the film. And there’s even at least one entirely new scene that Carter created for the script that I absolutely love (involving the ghost of Frances Wilkinson), and that feels entirely organic to the story, made from the same essence of how I imagined Frances in the novel. 

I loved every moment of it, even the changes. Carter created a visual poem using the imagery and motifs of the novel, and watching the film was absolutely fascinating for me to see all of those codified metaphors and symbols unfold on the screen like one of those flower teas that, once dropped in water, seem to bloom and bloom again, until they fill their container.

The film focuses on the relationships between the teenagers in the novel, so other side storylines have been pushed into the background or excised altogether, and that, I think, was the entirely right choice to make. Those were the relationships and that was the storyline that were the center of the novel, too. Novels have room for background characters and side plots that might make a film feel clunky and overpacked if absolutely everything was brought over in the transfer.

This movie is dark, cold, blue and green. It holds the essence of winter and death and regret and longing inside it. And somehow, hope flowers in its darkness. That’s the book, too, really, or what I hoped I’d achieved as the tone and essence with the novel.

So I feel like I couldn’t have asked for me and my story to have been placed into better hands. Carter and his cast and crew made something I can feel good about being a part of. I can’t wait for people to see the absolutely gorgeous cinematography that Darren Lew brought to the film, too. It’s dark magic, the look of the entire thing.

Park City is unlike any place I’ve ever visited, and is the complete opposite of my daily life in the declining town of Youngstown, Ohio. A tiny skiing town nestled in the mountains, where Christmas apparently never goes away. Lights were strung from street corner to corner, throughout the trees, ever so precious that even the bulbs in the trees were made to seem like seeded berries. The people at the festival seemed professionally beautiful, as if they’d stepped out of magazines, and they lined the streets waiting to get into overfull restaurants and huddled around each other in the hopes of getting off the wait list for certain movies.

For most of the premiere day, I was nervous and felt like I was swimming through a haze, couldn’t collect my thoughts well, and kept bumping into things or feeling dizzy, much like Adam in the novel does after the body of Jamie Marks is found. But when I arrived at the theater, Carter appeared out of a knot of people and when I saw his smile everything seemed to go back into focus. I went through the media tent with him and the actors, who happen to be some of the nicest, warm people I’ve met, and any nerves I might have had that day were just gone in an instant. It helped to see the actors and Carter himself also felt anxious. I think being around everyone who had a stake in the film allowed for an easier pre-show experience of butterflies.

The lights went down, the lights went up, and everything afterward has felt a little altered for me. I’ve felt a bit like the character Adam in the days since, feeling like I’m seeing two worlds merging together in front of me, back and forth, one laid over the other. I feel stunned, to some extent, but in a good way. My vision will come back into focus again at some point, like it did when Carter came out to greet me and the proverbial light from the lighthouse brought me back in to shore safely.

Other than life (thanks Mom and Dad!), I think this may be the greatest gift anyone has ever given me. In the book, Adam gives words to Jamie to help him sustain a meaningful existence in his afterlife. At one point, Adam learns the power of the words, Thank you, which you would think a simple thing. But simple things are reduced in significance by overuse, a flattening of meaning by the scripted nature of our daily lives and that’s a loss for all of us when we fall into routine engagements with the world.

I learned the significance of Thank you some years ago, when I needed the help of other people to get through a dark period and other people did, in fact, help me, even when I felt at my most alone. I learned the power that connecting with others can have, with making friendships and relationships that make life worth living. And I learned that giving back and forth, that exchange between our individual spirits, binds us together.

To see and be seen, to be understood and to comprehend another.

This has been one of the most meaningful exchanges I’ve ever experienced.

So I want to say thank you to Carter Smith, who has given my words back to me in a different form.

In an interview he did at Sundance, he said after reading One for Sorrow, he was haunted. After seeing Jamie Marks is Dead, I want to say, Likewise. I’ve been bumping into things in the days since I left Sundance. Walls, lockers, people. Doesn’t matter what, I’m walking into it.

And I’m glad it was you.

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