The star of the film Call Me by Your Name is screenwriter James Ivory.
Certainly the actors Timothée Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver deserve a lot of credit as does director Luca Guadagnino who brought their performances to life. But the haunting look in Chalamet’s eyes and the tortured covert courtship dance between him and Hammer is magic wrought by the hand of James Ivory.
Adapting a novel for a film is a complex process. Novels and films are fundamentally different art forms. Adaptation requires an imagination that resonates with the written word and conjures it into visual images. Difficult decisions have to be made about what to keep from the text and what to exorcize. But the biggest challenge is to capture the spirit, the tone, the essential atmospheric core of the book.
I saw the film at its première at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2017. I have just now in February 2018 finished reading André Aciman’s novel on which the film is based. It’s as if those five intervening months did not exist. The symbiosis between the book and the movie is so complete for me that I might as well have been reading the book while sitting in the theatre or, conversely, watching the film with the book’s text superimposed on it.
The crazy thing about my experiencing such profound symmetry is that the two are radically different. There are significant characters in the book that never appear in the film. Locations are changed. Whole scenes from the book are cut in the film and a few scenes in the film never occurred in the book. And, perhaps most dramatic of all, the ending is different.
No, that’s the second most dramatic difference. The most dramatic deviation is that the novel is written in the first person. The story is told by Elio. As we are reading the book, we are seeing the action through his eyes. We know what’s going on in his head and his heart because he is telling us. A common device used by screenwriters when translating such a personally narrated novel is to use voice-overs in the film. That sometimes works but it is also, in my opinion, a lazy way out. Much more difficult is what James Ivory has done. The screenplay is so brilliantly crafted that it is as if we are Elio, falling in lust/love with Oliver from the moment that he sees him arrive at the villa, struggling with Elio to decipher whether signs from Oliver are positive or negative, riding Elio’s rollercoaster of emotional responses as the relationship takes on an intimate reality while Oliver’s summer sojourn in Italy draws towards a close. What James Ivory has done in the screenplay is to evoke the atmospheric essence of the novel — the soul of Elio.
James Ivory is 89-years-old. He and Ismail Merchant were romantic life partners and creative professional partners for forty-four years from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005. The two of them together with Ruth Prewar Jhabvala in their company Merchant Ivory Productions won awards at the Oscars, BAFTA, Cannes Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, New York Film Critics Circle for films such as A Room with A View, Maurice, Howard’s End, and The Remains of the Day.
I have admired and respected James Ivory’s work for years.
I love his work on Call Me by Your Name.
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For information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, see my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com