Why The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet Will Never Be a Movie


Had David Mitchell written his historical epic forty years ago, the world would have witnessed a wonderful thing: a climactic battle royale where the greatest directors alive fought each other to the death for the right to film the movie adaptation. Akira Kurosawa battling John Ford in a Samurai vs. Cowboy duel; Francis Ford Coppola playing a game of Russian roulette with Martin Scorsese; Goddard skulking in the shadows throughout it all, waiting to stab the last remaining competitor in the neck with an ice pick. The result would have been The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: The Movie. It would have been five hours long. Toshir? Mifune would have received every imaginable award for a supporting role. It would have been taught in every film school in the world and Roger Ebert would have magically grown a brand new jaw from the sheer will of not being able to shut up about how great it is.

Of course, Mitchell’s book was not published forty years ago. It was published in 2010 and, so far as I know, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has not been optioned and will never be filmed. But perhaps this is in all actuality some small mercy. As the film adaptations of Akira and The Last Airbender have taught us, Hollywood’s disdain for anything even remotely Asian in nature, its practice of whitewashing the first pair of almond-shaped eyes they see ensures that any attempt to film the book will have Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox cast as Ogawa Uzaemon and Orito Aibagawa, and the producers will have done everything possible within the realm of their black magics to get Mickey Rooney to reprise his yellowface role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for their main villain.

Don’t misunderstand. This is not some damning condemnation of perceived racism in the movie industry, this is more along the lines of a sad observation that, somewhere along the way, the cocaine that flowed in studio boardrooms like rivers during the hedonistic insanity of the seventies must have run dry and not a single producer left has the balls to take the risk of making a movie out of a story so emotionally complex and staggering in its artistic scope. This is not always the case, obviously: every once in a while we’ll get something that restores our faith in the creative spirit of man, but keep in mind that Christopher Nolan–hot off the nigh-mythologized acclaim of Dark Knight–practically needed to pull every favor he was owed before the execs allowed him to create Inception, a then-unknown quantity with no favorable pedigree beyond the talent of its creator. They were certain it would tank at the box office, and when it succeeded beyond all expectations and changed the way we looked at dreams and at films … nothing changed. The most original movie in years–a badly needed breath of fresh air that proved sweeping, big-budgeted spectacles could walk hand-in-hand with intelligence and art, that they didn’t have to be emotionally-void, check-your-brain-at-the-door exercises in post-literate entertainment–and we learned nothing. There was no Grand Renaissance in cinema; we walked out of the theater saying, “Well that was nice. I wonder when the next Transformers is coming out?” and Meanwhile! In Hollywood! someone green-lights yet another young-paranormal-romance Twilight derivative while punching a hooker in the face.

This is not some impassioned manifesto calling to turn the movie industry on its head, some call to arms for a cultural revolution to eject the Old Guard in favor of the New and Hip, the ones Who Get It. That would be as pathetic and self-serving as buying a ticket to see Taylor Lautner tear out of a shirt for two hours.The fact is that even though movie sales in the US and Canada are down 20% from 2010, Hollywood still makes too much money from pointless sequels, soulless remakes, and mindless, multi-million dollar masturbatory fantasies of pretty white people, explosions and tits to turn away from its formulaic, paint-by-numbers way of running things. No, this is not a manifesto. Again, this is just a sad observation, a defeated acceptance of how nothing–not even art, especially art–exists beyond the bounds of the rich bastards with too-white smiles and soft hands holding the purse strings. With every ticket bought for the next supercilious 3-D wankfest, every Katherine Heigl movie we sit through in vain hopes of getting laid afterward, we’re paving the toll road to some unimaginably depressing ancient cinematic ancestral ground where old noir films and sun bleached Westerns journey to die and Sergei Eisenstein spins in his grave every time someone mistakes Battleship Potemkin for Das Boot.

All this is no new thing, of course. All of you already know this. This dearth and permadrought of originality in Hollywood has been lamented infinite times before, and infinitely better as well. This is merely myself seeking some comfort in the collective misery of others. It hurts, you see. Not merely from the viewpoint of a jaded cinephile, but from a human being who stubbornly, if foolishly, believes in the capacity of people to, in all things, Fix Shit and Do Better. It hurts, this realization that we are indeed capable of going beyond our own self-imposed borders of mediocrity but can never fined the will or drive or resolve to do so. It hurts because for every island of creative genius like Black Swan I see I am all the more reminded that those islands sit unprotected and lonely in a turgid sea of Jason Friedbergs and Aaron Seltzers and those fucking parody films. It hurts because I’ll pick up a book like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoetand imagined it filmed a thousand different ways, with the innovation of Orson Welles or the dreamlike surrealism of Federico Fellini, with the keen observation of Ingmar Bergman or the visual stimuli of Jean Renoir, and I will put it down knowing it will never, ever happen.

If culture is spirit and art is the world (and they are), then this is not exactly Hell but you can see it from here. In fleeting, too-few moments, we are artists; in all others, we’re Michael Bay jerking it to a car chase.

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