Spoiler Alert. Read ahead carefully.
Birdman is based on a Hollywood B actor, portrayed by Michael Keaton, trying to put on a play. Because I was too busy to read about the movie when it came out, I had no idea that this play is based on the short stories of Raymond Carver. This was a delightful surprise.
It was also an odd sensation. The first scene showing the play in progress was shocking because characters I’d often read about came to life. Of all the Carver stories, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” is probably the most often anthologized. Haruki Murakami even got permission from Carver’s wife to use a takeoff on that title for his memoir about writing and running, What We Talk about When We Talk about Running.
I’ve taught the story to at least fourteen sections of writing students. I’ve enjoyed using it because it asks hard questions. Does Mel, the cardiologist, really have some insights about love? Do any of us ever understand what it is that we’re talking about when we broach that topic? Is there hope we might find out? (You can find a draft of the story on the New Yorker website.)
I’ve read lots of essays from students on this story. Some use the characters’ words and actions to explain their own version of true love. Some use the material to explain that true love doesn’t exist and that we’re wasting our time looking for it. It’s hard to fault either view. That’s the beauty of the Carver story. It leaves so many thoughts in the air. The complexity of love simply won’t fit under our microscope of easy understanding.
As a movie viewer, it’s great fun to watch the actors inhabit these characters I already know. The actors easily bring them to life on stage. In the meantime, for me it’s a double pleasure to reimagine a story I’m completely familiar with inside a movie that’s making a point about many things—including that tough old subject of love.
It’s one thing to go to a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movie knowing full well that the films are based on books. It’s a completely different experience when you don’t realize that’s what you’re getting into. In the case of Birdman, it’s also a treat.
What are your own favorite surprises about fiction coming to life at the movies? Naturally, I’d love to see my own characters come to life on film, but for the moment, they’re only on paper! http://www.drransdellnovels.com