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Book Reviews: 'Dream Story'; 'The Haunting of Hill House'; 'The General's Daughter'; 'I'm Losing You'

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It takes less time to read Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story than it does to watch Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick updated the setting from early-20th-century Vienna to late-20th-century Manhattan and changed Fridolin and Albertina to Bill and Alice in his feverish adaptation; as you may have heard, he imported Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman for the purpose, too. But, strikingly, the late filmmaker otherwise hewed very close to the structure of Schnitzler’s novel, which was published in 1926: The opening party, the wife’s confession of sexual fantasy, the husband’s nocturnal wanderings that lead him to a masked orgy, the coda in which the husband admits to his wife, ”No dream is entirely a dream” — minus a role for Sydney Pollack, it’s all there on the page.

Still, what’s spare and shadowy in Schnitzler’s fiction is febrile and obsessive on screen. What’s psychoanalytically charged in the writing of a doctor/novelist highly influenced by his contemporary Sigmund Freud is buried in Kubrick’s idiosyncratic imagery. (What Freud might have made of Kubrick’s cinematic leitmotivs is surely grist for some scholarly mill.) And although few contemporary readers might have picked up Schnitzler’s small novel were it not for the recent Cruise-Kidman commotion, it’s worth doing so now, as a number of well-known books make their way on screen this summer, to explore that book-to-movie conundrum: What is lost and what is gained in translation?

In the case of Dream Story and Eyes Wide Shut, then, what’s lost is the mysterious element of psychological fantasy — stuff that takes place in the head — while what’s gained is the final astonishing theatrical set pieces of a great filmmaker. On the other hand, in the case of Shirley Jackson’s small, suggestive, enjoyably spooky The Haunting of Hill House, grossly remade as The Haunting, what’s missing is: smallness, suggestiveness, and enjoyable spookiness. What’s there is a house, a doctor conducting an experiment in paranormal phenomena, three neurotic subjects, and a housekeeper who’s evidently a member of the same reptilian service workers’ union as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.

One creation has nothing to do with the other. The pity is, the movie is so dopey, the book — which, with singular marketing chutzpah, has been retitled as The Haunting in the new Penguin edition — may not attract new readers. The antidote is, read the book and forget you ever saw Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones in such dire straits.

The Rx for The General’s Daughter is more complicated. Clearly, Nelson DeMille’s pulpy best-seller about a raped and murdered young woman (she of the title), herself a military officer who’s so furious at Daddy that she becomes a slut, is not in danger of being coarsened. (”The general’s daughter was a whore, but what a magnificent whore. I can’t get her out of my mind. If I had been obsessively in love with her and found out she was f—ing for everyone, I would have killed her myself … ” is how investigator Paul Brenner poetically imagines filing an early report.)

Yet it’s one thing to write with pumped-up efficiency of a woman’s torture in the service of some tough-guy notions about the effect on men of women in the military. It’s quite another to see that objectified body. Pinned. Spread-eagled. Nude. Repeatedly viewed, thanks to direction that demands more of a corpse’s nipples than of a live actress’ emotional range.

The novel The General’s Daughter is a plane-and-commuter-train action story, and in such a setting, in such a genre, magnificent whores have an honored place. The movie The General’s Daughter is a wide load of hooey starring John Travolta, and with such an important star, capable of such dignity, DeMille’s heavy-breathing tale is contradictorily weakened, not strengthened, by strenuous Hollywoodification.

Which brings us to I’m Losing You, Bruce Wagner’s bracingly acidic 1996 novel of Hollywood dysfunction, now appearing on selected screens as I’m Losing You, the directorial debut of…Bruce Wagner. I can’t say enough in praise of Wagner’s unique prose and coruscating worldview; this novel, from the man who wrote TV’s Wild Palms, belongs next to Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust and Peter Lefcourt’s The Deal. Yet in morphing from book to film, I’m Losing You acquires an entirely different palette. Blacks and screaming oranges give way, let’s say, to mauves and dusty blues as the writer jettisons some of his own most vicious and funniest turns to create something much gentler and more mournful. I’m Losing You is a book to love. I’m Losing You is a film to like.

Maybe, under the circumstances this summer, that constitutes a reader’s rave.
Dream Story: B Eyes Wide Shut: C The Haunting of Hill House: B The Haunting: D The General’s Daughter (book): C+ The General’s Daughter (movie): D- I’m Losing You (book): A I’m Losing You (movie): B