After seeing the film I bumped this one right up the list, and I’m glad I did. With the film so fresh in my mind, I felt like I really got to see a bigger picture than I would have if I’d waited, or if I’d only read or seen one version. I’ve read plenty of books that were made into films, and seen plenty of films that were adapted from books, but nothing quite like this. Warning, this is going to be a rambling essay about the book and film in equal measure, because they’re both hopelessly tangled up inside me. Possible spoilers for both.
I don’t know what exactly made it so different an experience – was it the slow, introspective nature of the book? Was it the director’s quiet, sun-drunk style of filming? Was it the combination of both?
I’ve never read anything by Aciman before, but I have seen Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, so I was quite comfortable with his directing style (I actually didn’t know it was by the same guy until afterwards, and thought it was just pleasantly like A Bigger Splash in terms of sun-bleached palette and wonderful depiction of holiday laziness), and that impressed me even more – Guadagnino made a film in his own distinctive way that was still astonishingly faithful to Aciman’s book.
Seeing the film first shaped the experience of reading the book in a certain way (the same way I imagine the order that you read the two halves of Ali Smith’s How To Be Both* for the first time alters the story for you forever). Not only did I have the actors’ faces and bodies and postures there to fill in the visuals for me, but there were moments of silence in the film, long looks and deep currents of thought that were shown only outwardly, that I spent the film trying to understand. Those looks and inner monologues are there in the book, recognisable, adding depth to the film sequences.
It’s not a scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot adaptation. The film leaves out some characters and events but fills out other things that the book skims over, using those cast-off moments and throwaway lines to portray things that it can’t do in words like the book can. It’s not a simple recreation, almost a dialogue between book and film.
The book is in first person, from Elio’s perspective, and the film takes advantage of its medium to go beyond this, giving us moments where Elio isn’t present to fill in some of the world around him – we get to see what exactly his parents know or suspect is going on. And having that knowledge added new aspects to some of book-Elio’s skulking around, the way he tries to hide his extravagant teenage crush. There’s only the four of them in the house (plus cook and gardener) – of course they know.
So, this book probably isn’t for everyone. It is really quite slow, and very introspective, and on top of that it’s a painfully honest teenage account of love, with all the weird embarrassing things and feelings and ideas that go along with it. The prose is dense and purplish, the emotions all-consuming, and Elio’s ideas of appropriate ways to get or be close to someone aren’t always suitable for polite company.
But of all the things he agonises over, fancying a man isn’t one of them. Elio and Oliver’s relationship is prickly and full of misunderstood silences, touches, words, but Elio’s bisexuality is as much a part of him as his affinity for music, unquestioned. More like this, please.
As for Oliver, the crush himself, it’s less clear, but then everything about Oliver is less clear. In both book and film, Oliver is the impenetrable other. All we know of him is what he says, and we have to trust him (or speculate around our lack of trust). He has flings with local girls, and later he marries a woman, and I was never sure of his intentions. Was there some shame there? Was he hiding because it’s unseemly to be leading on the young master of the house, or was he hiding because he wasn’t as comfortable with that side of himself as Elio was? Was he as serious as Elio? Does he consider same-sex relationships to be inherently less serious than heterosexual ones? Does he see no future for them by default? Was it the prospect of the inevitable distance? The age difference? We never get the answer, and neither does Elio.
The ending is where book and film diverge the most. The film ends when the relationship finally, truly does. Guadagnino’s trilogy is themed around desire, and it makes sense to focus on the presentness of the crush, follow it through the summer and then leave. The book lets us see further – we follow Elio to the US, years later, to visit the life Oliver took up when he left Italy. We get to see Elio’s own life peripherally around the thread of his feelings for Oliver. Would they have been happier if they’d chosen each other? You can never really know. Are the memories that hold onto us like this privileges or curses? That’s for each of us to decide.
*Also on my list, and I am very excited to get to it!