Monday, May 21, 2012

"It's Pronounced Fron-kon-steen."

Hello. I’m here to expand a bit today on the topic of What I’d Do if I Were A Creative Writing Teacher.

In my last post, I mention how one of the assignments I’d make my creative writing students do would be to take their favorite film – or at least a portion of it – and turn it into a novelization. By doing this, the students would learn how visual and cinematic elements can make a story go from Mr. Mediocre to Outstanding. I mention as well that I’m one of those writers who could benefit from such an exercise.

Why am I harping on this at the moment, aside from my short – squirrel! – attention span?

Gilbert Pearlman.

Yes, he had a connection when he was tapped to write the novelization of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (IMDB tells us he’s Gene Wilder’s brother-in-law).

But he took the silk purse that is Brooks’ film and turned it into the sow’s ear that is the novelization.

First, the critique, then I put my money where my mouth is to see if I could do better. After a little conjecture on what I imagine the restraints might have been on the novelization portion of the project.

Here’s my favorite scene from the movie:

What I love is how Wilder projects a man trying to anchor himself in a situation in which he feels completely ill at ease – he clings to his reputation as a brilliant surgeon when he absent-mindedly points out one of the physical deformities of the man sent to the station to greet him, after being completely flustered by Igor’s stunning appearance, the odd setting, and the raffish surety Igor presents. He can only cling to normalcy trying to correct the pronunciation of his name. Feldman, in contrast, is completely at ease in his environment, so at ease he’s able to smirk and sneer at everything Wilder does. Two men from different worlds on the same platform.

Ninety-nine percent of this is all said in their eyes, not in their actions or words. That’s the visual, cinematic portion that ought to be captured. And is not. Here’s Pearlman:

It was getting dark. And he could sense that a storm was brewing. He had notified Herr Falkstein of the time of his arrival; why hadn’t someone been sent to the station to meet him? By God, if he got caught in a storm, heads would roll. When he got to the caste, he would fire the whole incompetent bunch. They would think twice before they ever left him standing at the station again.

Thunder rumbled. The sky had become an inky black as the clouds were churning ominously. There was a sudden crack of lightning. In the flash, Dr. Frankenstein saw a face. It was no more than a foot away. Startled, he drew back. But the face followed, stopping only inches from the doctor’s own face. The eyes in the face twinkled mischievously – or perhaps evilly.


“Fron-kon-steen,” the doctor informed the man.

“You’re putting me on.”

“No, that’s the way it’s pronounced. Fron-kon-steen.”

“And do you say Fro-derick?: the man asked.

“Of course not. It’s Fred-erick. Fron-kon-steen.”

“Why isn’t it Fro-derick Fron-kon-steen?”

“Because it’s not. It’s Fred-erick. Fron-kon-steen.”

“I see.” The face seemed to accept the fact.

Squinting into the darkness, the doctor managed to see the rest of the man. He was draped completely in a black, hooded cape. He looked like he was standing in the center of a tent, peeking out the top. There was also one other factor that would tend to make him stand out in a crowd. He was a hunchback.

“I am Aye-gor,” the man said.

“Isn’t that Ee-gor?”

“Not any more. Now it’s Aye-gor.”

“Are you from the castle?”

“Look at me – where else would I be from?” Igor answered.

“Were you sent by Herr Falkstein?”

“Yes. My grandfather used to work for your grandfather,” Igor told the doctor. “Herr Falkstein thought it might be ironically appropriate if I worked for you.”

“How nice.”

“Of course, the rates have gone up,” Igor said.

“Yes, yes, But I’m sure we’ll get on splendidly.” Wanting to show the man that he was willing to go at least halfway to be friendly, he gave him a comradely slap on the back – and was reminded abruptly, and to his embarrassment, that Igor was a hunchback. “Sorry,” he said.

Igor shrugged.

“I don’t mean to be personal or anything,” the doctor said, “but, you know, I’m a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help you with that hump.”

Igor looked at him puzzledly. “What hump?”

“On your – Well, never mind.”
Four hundred and sixteen words. The dialogue from the movie is there – most of it, can’t account for some improvisation on the part of the actors – but the feeling is not there at all.

Now, constraints. I’m sure Pearlman didn’t have the advantage of sitting there, watching the film unfold on the screen. I’m sure he got handed a copy of the script (hopefully, one of the later revisions) and was told to novelize that, not benefitting from the cinematic effect of watching Feldman and Wilder interpret the characters together. That’s a significant restraint, one perhaps Pearlman couldn’t get around, due to other constrains likely involving getting the novelization done in time to go out with the movie.

Then again, the novelization is only 152 pages long. We’re not talking War and Peace length here.

And – here’s a big and – given the success of Blazing Saddles as a movie – not as a book – you’d think the schedulers and such would realize that a novelization that strayed from the movie or that did not capture the movie’s feel would not be welcomed by the audience. But then again, this is an audience that enjoyed a movie that was basically centered on fart jokes, so perhaps I’m giving the audience too much credit here.

But in my class, the writers live in a perfect world where they’re able to see the film after it’s cut and then are able to write it out.

Here’s my attempt, which, in the spirit of brevity, have kept as close to Pearlman’s 416-word count as possible.

What relief, Frederick thought. That heavy case off the train. And here I am!

He looked at here. A dingy station with signs in a language he should probably have read up on before he arrived. What’s a zug? And s staadt? And is Transylvania always so damned foggy?

The train chugged out of the station, adding its acrid coal-smoke stink to the damp-black air.

European trains. They sound so odd. Chug. Slip. Chug. Slip. It’s as if . . .

“Dr. Frankenstein?”

He jumped at the face in the darkness. Bulgy-eyed, topped with dark eyebrows. Below, cheeks white as tallow, a grin grim as the crescent moon.

“Fron-kon-steen,” he said. Staring into the eyes that stared back, not blinking. His own looked for another reference to pin that ghastly face, but the black cloth draped over the man blended with the fog, leaving only the eyes and those cheeks and that wicked, innocent grin.

“You’re putting me on,” the sneering face said.

“No, it’s pronounced Fron-kon-steen,” the doctor said to the face, waiting for something else to be said.

“Do you also say Frod-erick?”

Such an impish voice. He’s putting me on, the doctor thought. “No. Frederick.”

“Well, why isn’t it Frod-erick Fron-kon-steen?”

He shook his head. No use fearing a face. Stand your ground, man, and the face will soon fear you.

“It isn’t! It’s Frederick Fron-kon-steen.”

He tried again to find something else to look at. But the zug and the staadt of the station could not draw his eyes glancing at two things at once, that smirking mouth.

“I see.”

I’ve won, the doctor said to himself. Won what? An argument with a stumpy hunchback who could be the village idiot for all I know. “You must be Igor.”

“No, it’s pronounced Aye-gor.”

Zug this. The man smiled that crescent grin, nodded for the doctor to continue the argument.

“They told me it was Igor”

“Well, they were wrong then, weren’t they?”

He tried to look in the fog for Herr Falkstein, any other face, a policeman, a drunk, a madman. If there were hundreds on the platform, he could not see them. Only the face.

“Uuh, you were sent by Herr Falkstein, weren’t you?”

“Yes. My grandfather used to work for your grandfather,” Igor said.

“How nice,” the doctor said. I’ll run, he thought. I’ll leave the case here. Herr Falkstein can retrieve it in the morning.

“Of course, the rates have gone up,” Igor said.

The doctor laughed nervously. “Of course! I’m sure we’ll get on splendidly.” He must be from the castle. Maybe if I show him I’m friendly, he won’t, well, won’t whatever they do in Transylvania. He patted him on his hunch, which echoed like a ripe watermelon thumped.

“Oh!” He pulled his hand back as the face stared at him, lips drawn into a thin line. “Uh, you know, I don’t mean to embarrass you, but I’m a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I could help you with that hump.”

Igor stared, still as an icon from a country church. “What hump?”

Finally, Frederick broke his eyes from the face and stared off into the fog. Perhaps the train hadn’t left after all. He could get back on it, abandon his case – but the tracks were empty.

“Let’s go.”
Okay, I’m cheating a little. This is over one hundred words longer than Pearlman’s scene. But I did cut it down from my original 677 words. I think I come out of this one the winner.

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