Martin Amis, author of London Fields and Money, has long since ranked among the most highly regarded novelists of his generation, and stood, since the passing of John Updike, as our greatest novelist-critic. The use of “our” there, of course, is deliberate: Having recently moved from his native Great Britain to the proudly vulgar New York, he is now one of the city’s most esteemed writers in residence. On November 4, Amis presents a screening of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth at BAMcinématek. I spoke to Amis on the phone about Polanski, Shakespeare, and the nature of adaptations.
Twenty years ago, in the introduction to Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, you wrote that “Roman Polanski no longer makes interesting films.” Do you still think that’s true?
Roman Polanski? Hmm . . . let’s think. The Pianist was very good. What’s he done since?
I think Bitter Moon would have been next after you’d written that.
Oh, that was terrible.
And since he’s made The Ninth Gate, The Ghost Writer, Carnage . . .
Well, I was being a bit flippant. I think he’s a wonderful director, but, like most artists, he’s lost something over the years. That’s what happens. I mean, if it happened, in different ways, to writers like Updike and Nabokov, then it’s going to happen to most artists. Updike lost his ear in the last couple of books — some really elementary howlers, repetitions, and rhyme. And Nabokov lost his sense of . . . well, to put it bluntly, the dignity of 12-year-old girls. Three of his last five books had the pedophilia theme, but not handled with the humility and complexity that he used or brought to bear on Lolita and The Enchanter, much earlier books. So, you know, it’s not peculiar to Polanski that he should be left with less now that he had 30 years ago.
What it is about Macbeth specifically that still resonates, or is still relevant?
I think, for one thing, he sees that the witches are the key to the play, and he does the witches with great, Polanski-like gusto. I mean, having them naked is a very typical Polanski thing — just as in that seance at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, everyone’s standing there naked. It’s very shocking and it’s very effective. And the witches, of course, are the heart of the play. They’re very brilliantly done in the film. Also, toward the end, when Macbeth still has trust in the witches’ prophecy that he will not be killed by a man who was born of woman, there’s a marvelous sense that he does believe he’s invulnerable. Those last fights, when they storm his castle and he’s the only one there, it’s as if he thinks that, well, one is enough — he thinks he’s going to win. He sort of strides around and kills three or four soldiers as if invulnerable. I’ve never seen that brought out quite so well in a production of Macbeth.
There’s almost a sense of boredom in those fight scenes, as though this invasion were just some tiresome thing he’s resigned to deal with.
Yes, yes. And everyone’s sort of hypnotized — that soldier just stands there gaping, and then Macbeth smashes him in the face with his dagger. And then he takes his own weapon and drives it into his groin. I also like things like the death of the Thane of Cawdor, which is, again, very shocking and very authentic-feeling. The linking role of Ross is very clever, too, I think — that’s Kenneth Tynan’s contribution, though, isn’t it?
I really think the film is without weaknesses. Polanski got a great performance, too, out of that otherwise completely forgotten actor who plays Macbeth. What was his name?
Jon Finch, right. Now, he did one other film, I think, a science-fiction film or something, and then he disappeared. He’s not a very good actor, I don’t think, but Polanski got a tremendous performance out of him. Francesca Annis provides tremendously strong balance as Lady Macbeth. She’s tremendously important, of course, but there’s also this sort of suggested link between Lady Macbeth and the witches.
In the nudity of the sleepwalking sequence, you mean?
That, too, yes, that’s one of the ways he links them. But also her susceptibility to the equivocation of the fiend. I mean, she’s absolutely resolved by the time Macbeth gets back to his castle. She’s quite unflinching and ready to do it, and even taunts him into doing it, partly. The tragedy wouldn’t work unless one has a sense that Macbeth is basically not an evil man. The two forces playing on him are the witches — the equivocation of the fiend — and his own wife. And I think that’s beautifully done in Polanski’s film.
There are few off moments, I think. The dagger is one — it looks cartoonish.
It hasn’t dated well, no. The effect looks quite old-fashioned.
And I thought it looked wrong even when I first saw it, the year it was released. But apart from that, it’s got a very good texture, and the killing of the children works very well.
It was charged at the time with vulgarity. Many critics felt it was crass.
Well, yeah. But whenever you hear the word “vulgar” you should take it with a grain of salt. That’s just the taste of the time. That’s just the shallow consensus of what people think in that particular period. “Tasteless” is another good one. You know you’re going to see something good when people call a movie tasteless.
You said once that the novel, as a form, offers an incredibly intimate portrait of a writer. Do you think the same is true of films and filmmakers?
It’s not so intimate. Saul Bellow casually said, years ago, that films are about externals and novels are about internals. I mean, it’s rather mysterious, the way a novel does reveal everything about a writer. It may well be that only novelists see that, or novelists above all see that in other writers — because if you’re a writer yourself, you’re always identifying with the writer rather than with the characters. J.G. Ballard went to such lengths to make sure his children didn’t read his books because he didn’t want to sort of freak them out. Bea Ballard, his daughter, was once being driven from London to Yorkshire to take up a university place. The guy who gave her a lift up was the English tutor, and he said, “Are you any relation to J.G. Ballard?” and she said, “Yeah, he’s my dad.” The guy didn’t believe her, because he adored Ballard’s writing. So he said, “Come on, then, name me one Ballard novel.” And she couldn’t do it. They were in the car for hours and she couldn’t convince him that she was Ballard’s daughter. That’s how little she was aware of her own father’s writing. Ballard had set about that on purpose. “If they read me,” he said, “they’d know all about me, and I don’t want that.”
They’ve just started working on an adaptation of Ballard’s High-Rise, actually. Yes, which I know has been in talks for ages, but now apparently it’s happening for real. What’s interesting to me about that book in particular — and I suppose this is true to some extent of all Ballard — but the prose is so much the central element that it’s hard to imagine it being translated cinematically.
I thought that was true of Crash — that the prose was everything there. And it took me years to realize that it was a book about shock. It’s a book written in a state of shock — that’s the idea, that’s the center of it. In this state of shock he is susceptible to the idea that the car crash can be sexual. You know, it’s a ridiculous notion, but it’s completely convincing, and unblinking. But I didn’t find the prose as accomplished anywhere else, except for perhaps that strange collection of short stories, Vermilion Sands. But High-Rise I thought was quite perfunctorily written. Concrete Island was close to the ridiculous, I thought. You know, we say we love a writer’s work, but we only love about half of it. I think that’s universally true. And that’s one of the books of his that I don’t think works. Hello America I don’t think works, either.
When we see an adaptation, whether good or bad, how much of the success or failure can be attributed to the work on which it’s based?
MA: Well, Shakespeare is different — he’s the exception to that rule about only half of his stuff being worth reading. He escapes all generalizations. But I would say, as a rule, the better the prose in the novel, the less likely that a successful film will be made of it. Or at least successful in the artistic sense. You really want something that’s written like The Godfather, where the prose is nothing much, but a great director can re-imagine it with the power of someone like Nabokov. So it’s like seeing trash transformed into beauty. Obviously, what you want for a film is a gripping storyline. I mean, look at Kubrick’s Lolita: It has some very good things in it, but all that messing around with Peter Sellars. . . . You’re always thinking, God, you know, what that novel contains, and look at [Kubrick] wasting his time on all this imported stuff, all these imitations of Sellars’s.
And have you seen the Adrian Lyne version of Lolita?
Yes I have. I thought that had some very good things in it — just how sad the story was, that was well brought out early on. What an awful situation. But I thought Jeremy Irons wasn’t saturnine enough. He makes the terrible mistake of grinning at Lolita. It’s disastrous. Humbert grinning? A toothy smile of adoration? No! Everything’s got to be contorted and from within. James Mason, I thought, was brilliant.