Wildlife, Paul Dano’s 2018 adaptation of the Richard Ford novel of the same name, is a strong directorial debut and a film featuring several strong performances, from Carey Mulligan’s Jeanette, a mother worn down by constantly needing to be the adult and pragmatic in her marriage, to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry, the insecure father who finds no other way to prove his self-worth than abandoning his family when they need him most, and Ed Oxenbould as Joe, the son through whose eyes we see everything unfolding. Dano’s direction is traditional and quiet but serves the material well, evoking a very specific 1960s America we don’t often see and allowing the performances to create a complex, layered emotional landscape. It is a faithful adaptation, but not a mere flattening out of the novel into overly literal illustrations of the literary material.
In doing so, however, Wildlife has ended up in a strange in-between state. It uses cinematic means to achieve what Ford did with his prose, but it does so in such an unassuming way that there’s not all that much point for anyone who has read the novel to see the film. For better or for worse, after seeing the film, my main thought was, “Yup, that’s Richard Ford’s Wildlife.” Can an adaptation be too faithful?
Let me be perfectly clear here: Paul Dano’s adaptation is a subtle, compelling piece of filmmaking. Dano uses the means at his disposal to serve the story. He does not embellish, he takes no shortcuts. It is clear that he cares about the material. His faithfulness does not come across as slavish devotion, but it has resulted in a weird doppelganger, a nearly-identical twin. There are many adaptations that do little more than provide us with handsomely crafted by flat dioramas of the stories they’re transposing into a different medium; Wildlife isn’t one of those. It feels like a film, for want of a better word. Dano hasn’t done anything wrong, but neither are there any surprises.
Perhaps this is in part because Ford himself creates a very precise image of these characters who wish to escape themselves, the stifling atmosphere, the moment of Joe being suspended in between being a child and becoming an adult. The material isn’t what would traditionally be called ‘cinematic’, but it is strongly evocative in its naturalism. It has been a few years since I read Wildlife, but when I watched Dano’s film I felt like I was watching my memories of reading the novel.
What should an adaptation do? First and foremost, it needs to translate, from one language into another, and Wildlife the film is a highly skilled, heartfelt translation of Wildlife the novel. What it is less so perhaps is a specific interpretation, Dano’s interpretation, of another author’s text. Watching the film adaptation, it feels like there is no need for another adaptation: Dano got it right. But by the same measure, Ford had already got it right. What does Dano bring to the table, other than having created a version of Wildlife that does what the novel did but only takes two hours to get through?
I liked Wildlife. I loved its performances and the way we see its adult characters through Joe’s eyes, the way we see both his mother and his father changing as he looks at them, slowly changing himself. Dano’s film was a strong reminder of why I had liked the novel. But my favourite adaptations do more than that – or, perhaps rather, they do something different. I like adaptations that are interpretations, that provide a new angle, that make us look at the material . Borrowing a technical term from another domain, you could call Dano’s Wildlife a ‘lossless conversion’, and really, that’s not a bad thing: there will be a fair number of people who watch the film without ever having had the intention to read the novel, and they will get a version of the story that is well worth watching. But other than for the craftsmanship, I’d find it difficult to recommend the film adaptation to people who have read Ford’s novel – because, essentially, by reading Wildlife they have already seen Wildlife.