December 10, 2007

Should Frances Mayes Follow Jorge Amado's advice?

by Fernanda Watanabe

Brazilian writer Jorge Amado, the famous author of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, refused to watch the adaptations of his novels to the small screen because he said that his stories couldn't be recognized. Check it out if Frances Mayes should do the same about the adaptation of her book UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN to the big screen.

The book: Under the Tuscan Sun is Frances Mayes' report of her life in Italy when she and her second husband Ed decide to buy a house - Bramasole - in a small Tuscan village - Cortona. Being a creative writing professor she skillfully describes the difficulties of buying and renovating an old house in a foreign country, which are aggravated by the fact that she lives half of the year in San Francisco, US, and has to count on a group of non-professional Italian and Polish builders. But her summertime in Italy is not only about worries: she competently narrates her impressions of the country, the people and especially the local food. Her mouthwatering recipes give us the smell and the taste of Tuscany while her lyrical narrative gives us the colors of her garden and the region. Most of all she gives us the feeling and the pleasure of being under the Tuscan sun.

The film: After a traumatic divorce Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) travels to Italy to heal from the depression she sank into and in an impulse decides to buy an old house - Bramasole - in a small Tuscan village - Cortona. She has to renovate the house with the work of a group of immigrants and deal with unnattended guests and eccentric neighbours. But apparently her main purpose is to find a new love - rather than starting a new life. After some failed attempts with her real estate agent Martini (Vincent Riotta) and with a handsome stranger - Marcello (Raoul Bova), who she meets in a weekend trip to the Amalfitani cost, she eventually meets an interesting man - Ed - at a party in her new house.

Well, if you had the impression that these are two completely different stories that share the same characters' names and the same scenarios you're not far from the reality. While the book's central point is Tuscany - or Frances Mayes' impressions of Tuscany - the movie focuses on Diane Lane's character - who can't be seriously called Frances Mayes - and her search for love. It certainly wouldn't be easy to adapt a narrative lacking action and events to the big screen but everyone who read the book would be expecting something related to Babette's Feast (directed by Gabriel Axel, 1987) or a funny movie based on the exploitation of the local's idiosyncrasies. Surely it would be too optimistic to expect a movie about enjoying the delights of relaxing, gardening, cooking and eating side-by-side to a good partner.

Nevertheless, the approach chosen by the producer, director (Guinevere, 1999) and screen writer (The Truth About Cats and Dogs, 1996; Shall we Dance, 2004) Audrey Wells is fairly disappointing. Giving her background, a comic love story would be expected. She could, for instance, have made a funny film about the troubles of a freshly married couple living in an old house recently bought in Italy and yet her story would be more faithful to the original one. But creating a flirt that never happened between two real people - Mayes and Martini - or a hot weekend with a complete fictional character - Marcello - is inexplicable. First because Mayes was supposedly recovering from her depression. And also because one of the charming points of the book is the fact that her project of buying a house in Italy and part-time living there was fully supported by Ed, with whom she shared her dreams and accomplished Bramasole's renovation.

The film in itself is light and amusing entertainment and has some noticeable features: Tuscany scenery is magnificent and actually makes you feel like going over there - in fact this is the best point of the movie. Diane Lane's character isn't a stereotyped superwoman; instead, her performance is quite convincing and captivating as a vulnerable woman. Besides, Sandra Oh playing Frances' lesbian friend Patti gives us a hint of why she stood out later in TV series Grey's Anatomy. And Raoul Bova is so gorgeous that it's worth watching the movie just to see him.

The problem is that the story is totally forgettable. It gives the impression that Audrey Wells is one of these love stories writers that has a prompt formula - professionally brilliant but romantically inapt middle-aged woman tries to find Prince Charming, always falling for the wrong guys, but is finally rewarded by meeting "The One" - who only change names and places. This time it was set in Tuscany. Another problem is that it's a movie made for women - and not the feminist kind. Men won't appreciate the romantic tone and the fact that the film is about women's issues. Feminists will be upset because Frances is portrayed as someone whose happiness depends on being with a man.

And above all: why make a movie based on a book if next to nothing of the original story will be kept? Just to take advantage of its success? If the screen version doesn't make you envy Frances Mayes for spending her summers in Tuscany, in her very own great house, eating fresh tomatoes dripping olive oil, relaxing, taking her time in a lazy Mediterranean pace, it doesn't deserve to be named Under the Tuscan Sun.

So, if you still intend to watch the movie, don't read the book first. But don't forget: READ THE BOOK!

"Under the Tuscan Sun"
Written and directed by Audrey Wells, based (?) on the book by Frances Mayes.
A Touchstone Pictures release.Length: 1:53.
Frances - Diane Lane
Patti - Sandra Oh
Marcello - Raoul Bova
Martini - Vincent Riotta
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Anonymous said...

I never saw this film, but it makes me think about "A Good Year", a movie based on a very light, entertaining Peter Mayle account of his life in Provence, which was turned into a film with Russell Crowe in the main role. Like "Under the Tuscan Sun", the screen version didn't do the book justice.
Merry Christmas!

fernanda said...

Hi, Laura,
thanks for your comment.
I also saw "A Good Year" but I didn't read the book, I only read "A Year in Provence", which is very funny! Yes, unfortunately it seems to be very tough to make good adaptations, doesn't it?
The good thing is that both Provence and Tuscany are soooo gorgeous that any movie set in there become "watchable"...
Merry Christmas to you too!