We're so accustomed to that line that we don't think it strange to make one kind of artwork into another. Movies aren't made into sculptures, paintings aren't made into symphonies, but we accept a movie "based on" a novel. What it usually means, however, is that the filmmaker takes whatever liberties he wants with the original, changing plot, characters, setting, tone, and title.
Not this time. "House of Sand and Fog" may represent one of the closest relationships ever between novelist and filmmaker, and the result is a film unusually faithful to the work that inspired it. The question is, will filmgoers accept the tragic story on film as droves of readers did in the novel? Dubus and Perelman are betting they will.
Andre Dubus III, 42, has already had a dizzying ride, even without the movie. He and his wife, Fontaine, and three children live in half of a book-cluttered rented house in this old waterfront city while the new house he is building takes shape not far away. Besides working at such jobs as carpenter and bartender, he has taught fiction writing at Harvard, UMass-Lowell, Tufts, and Emerson and has dabbled in theater. (He also has a small part in "House of Sand and Fog.")
Dubus grew up here and in Haverhill. As the son of a famous writer with the same name (Andre Dubus died in 1999), he had to struggle to establish his own identity. In 1989, he published "The Cage Keeper," a short-story collection, and in 1993 his first novel, "Bluesman." "My first novel was reviewed well in Library Journal," he recalls. "They referred to it as `Bluesman,' by the author of . . .' and then listed all my father's books."
Set in Northern California, "House of Sand and Fog" concerns an isolated single woman, Kathy Nicolo, whose house is seized by the county for nonpayment of taxes and sold at auction. The buyer is Massoud Amir Behrani, a proud Iranian immigrant who was a well-connected colonel in the Shah's army before the revolution but who has now fallen on hard times. Lester Burdon, the policeman who evicts Kathy, becomes increasingly involved in her cause. The intensifying confrontation between the parties, as Kathy tries to get her house back and Behrani refuses to sell, escalates steadily to an outcome that seems at once avoidable and inevitable.
The novel was written between 1992 and 1996 and was rejected by 22 publishers before W. W. Norton published it in 1999. It sold respectably in hardcover and was a finalist for the National Book Award, which propelled sales of the paperback edition. It had already sold 165,000 copies in paperback when it became an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000. Since then, more than 1.8 million copies have been sold in 25 languages.
After the post-Oprah blastoff, the telephone started ringing. "It's nice when you get a call from Hollywood," Dubus says. "I thought, `We can bring in a little money.' We've always struggled. My wife is an artist, and I'm in the arts. I started getting four or five calls a week for a year and a half. Julianne Moore wanted to play Kathy. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's company called."
It was heady, but there was one problem, says Dubus. "They would say, `We really liked the book, how dramatic it is and the characters, and the suspense, but of course we would have to make the ending more palatable.' I would say, `Why would you have to change the ending?' and they would say, `It's a downer. You're not going to sell a bunch of tickets with a downer.' That is universally how the conversation went." His universal answer was, "We have nothing to talk about."
"The happy ending is a grand Hollywood tradition," says Patrick McGilligan, the Milwaukee-based biographer of directors Fritz Lang, George Cukor, and Alfred Hitchcock. Speaking by telephone from his home, McGilligan explains, "Audiences have come to expect feel-good endings. The guilds and censorship groups and producer organizations have always tried to dump the downbeat ending. The films that turn out to be hits are `My Big Fat Greek Wedding.' The downbeat ones get shunted off to art houses."
But then Dubus got a call from Vadim Perelman, 40. Born in Ukraine, and still with a hint of an accent, Perelman had made ads and music videos but never a feature-length movie. "We talked for an hour," Dubus recalls. " `I have been reading your book,' he says. He tells me about his life growing up in Kiev. He said, `I have never made a movie, it's true, and you may get a lot of money from a big established person in Hollywood. But they will take your baby and kill it.' I said, `What are you going to do?' He said, `I'm going to make a movie from the book you wrote.' "
Perelman had bought the paperback by chance in an airport and read it on a trans-Atlantic flight. "The book blew me away," he says, speaking by telephone from New York. "I wept. I saw a lot of myself in it, being an immigrant and becoming an American, then becoming disillusioned and separating from my family and becoming like Kathy for a while. It's a story of disintegrating families."
Dubus went with Perelman, who wrote a script and began shopping it. Perelman approached actor Ben Kingsley about the role of Behrani and received a shock. When the book was published, Fontaine Dubus, artistic director of Exit Dance Theater in Newburyport, immediately pictured Kingsley as Behrani. She impulsively mailed him a copy. When Perelman offered him the script, he said, "I've already read it." Startled, Perelman asked, "You've read the script?" and Kingsley explained, "No, the book. The author's wife sent it to me." After reading the script, he eagerly took the Behrani role.
With Kingsley on board, all doors opened to Perelman. "Every leading lady wanted to be Kathy," Dubus says. "Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts. Tom Hanks called and wanted to be Burdon. It was bizarre." In the movie, Jennifer Connelly plays Kathy, Ron Eldard is Burdon, and Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo plays Nadi, Behrani's wife.
Clearly, actors had no problem with the ending. "They're artists," says Dubus. "They've got the vocabulary for it. It's a dramaturgical form called tragedy. It's far better for us to witness tragedy in artistic ways, and have it shoot through us, then to have it happen to us in real life."
Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks produced the film, and the maker of "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" didn't insist on a happy ending. Perelman consulted Dubus closely on the few narrative changes between novel and film, and he was determined not to sweeten the ending. "I promised Andre I wouldn't," he says. Besides, he agrees with Dubus that tragedy in art "is very important in our lives. We should live through tragedy vicariously. Americans try to avoid tragedy their whole lives." They may enjoy unlimited violence on film, he says, "but can't bear to see people suffer emotionally."
"House of Sand and Fog," which has already won for Perelman the award for best directorial debut from the National Board of Review, isn't the only tragic film of the season. Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's "21 Grams" are also heart-renders. Perelman suspects there may be a new openness to tragedy since Sept. 11. The events of that day, he says, "made our hearts more pliable. It broke through that callous tissue we use to protect our hearts."
Dubus has finished a draft of a new novel and has made a start on another. Despite a recent 10-day round of appearances with Perelman and the film's cast, in his jeans and rough blue shirt he seems very much the North Shore kid he once was. He says his years of not being taken seriously as a writer taught him to love the art for the doing, not for the acclaim that might follow.
"Luckily, I don't live in New York or Los Angeles," he says. "My life revolves around my children, shopping for groceries, working on my house. I am grounded in a quotidian existence as a father and husband and sometime teacher and carpenter. I'm always so focused on the task at hand that nine out of 10 days, I don't think about the world noticing what I am doing."
David Mehegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.