16 October 2005

High Fidelity

Just finished Nick Hornby's first book, High Fidelity - a witty, wonderful, and swift read. (I was going to go with 'whirlwind' for the perfect alliteration, but that's not really accurate to the book, and 'swift' does just as good a job on the poetic front, I think.) I came to the book in a rather roundabout way. First, I saw the John Cusack movie from 2000, not even knowing it was based on a book. Next, I read About a Boy, Hornby's second book (loved it). Then I saw the Hugh Grant movie from 2002 (liked it). Finally, I read Hornby's first book.

The John Cusack movie is about an American who owns a record store in Chicago. The book is about a Brit who who owns a record shop in Camden. The move folks evidently saw it as no problem at all to change the setting, and the movie was fairly successful as far as I recall so perhaps they were right. And yet, the book is nothing like the movie, and the difference is really all to do with the setting. Both movie and book are about two things: music, and relationships (to family, to friends, to lovers). Despite the fact that the story tries to tap into certain commonalities in the human condition concerning music and relationships, those variables change dramatically when one switches countries. Our protaganist's relation to his parents is thoroughly English in the book; his central relationship is refracted through his one-night stand with an American singer-songwriter and it's crucial that she's American; all of the norms of couples are distinctly different in the British context, with marriage playing much less of a role; all of the commentary on class, status, fashion, trends, etc. play out through the demographics of London neighborhoods; and the humour is, obviously, unique as well. In short, the book tells a completely different story than the one in the movie.

Or, to put it differently, there's a significant amount of cultural translation going on when one makes the move from 'pubs' to "bars," from 'mates' to "friends," from 'snoggging' to "making out." (None of this is to mention 'shagging', a term for which I can't think of even a good rough translation - "sex" seems too clean and clinical and "fucking" too crude to get at it.)

Of course, it's obvious why this all fascinates me. Just as Hollywood assumes the simple translation from UK to US context (and back again), so do most Americans (and probably a majority of Brits as well). And yet, in the lived experience the sameness is all so very different. And if that doesn't make any sense, then rent the DVD and read the book (in whatever order you please) and I think you'll see what I'm getting at/living.

3 comments:

dan said...

Maybe "hooking up" works for shagging, at least for now? I think people still use that. People I know still use it, anyway.

Of course, my Mom uses it a lot as well, but she has the implication a bit off. I understand why she finds it a convenient phrase for meaning "to meet up with," but in my mind it always sounds funny. Mom: "Did you have a chance to hook up with anyone while you were at the beach?" Me: [thinking] "That's really none of your business!" Mom: "I finally hooked up with this guy I met online!" Me: [thinking] "My, how things have changed since I was a kid..."

Sam said...

Yeah, 'hooking up' might be very close. But the ambiguity you (hilariously) mention with you mom probably marks a big difference. As far as I can tell, 'shagging' certainly involves having sex. Whereas 'hooking up' is anything from meeting someone, to getting together with a potential sex-partner (but perhaps not actually having sex), to sex.

What is certainly clear: the English language has no shortage of terms to get at these notions...

Ruth said...

The geographic-translation things drives me particularly crazy in Waterland, Graham Swift's novel translated to the screen in the early 90s. For some reason -- perhaps only so that Ethan Hawke didn't have to learn how to do a British accent -- the film has the novel's protagonist, a very, very, English man, teaching history in a high school in Philadelphia. No explanation, of course, as to how he got there from his native Fens. And the novel is fundamentally concerned with the links between landscape and identity, the ways a sense of place affect one's actions and perceptions -- even one's sense of god. It's about History, for crying out loud -- the history of places, and thus of the people who inhabit them. The Fens? Greenwich? Philadelphia? Sure -- why not?!

Having completed my rant, however, I will say that it's a good movie: very well cast, and a pretty good take on a text that would seem too convoluted and talky to make a good film. Not out on DVD, of course -- on either side of the Pond. But the book's fabulous...