For thirty years, Hollywood has had the opportunity to bring Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel Winter’s Tale to the screen; Martin Scorsese even toyed with the idea at one point, before reportedly deciding the book was simply un-filmable.
There’s not much denying that Helprin’s book is one of the most beautifully crafted stories of the 20th century. There are also few stories that are more intricate (and—let’s call a spade a spade—long).
Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who won the Oscar for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind) was as taken, I can assume, as any of us who have loved the book. He spent the better part of a year crafting the screenplay and then decided to go a step further and make it his directorial debut.
It’s impossible, obviously, to watch the movie as if I hadn’t read the book; I imagine that many audiences (especially the more gooey-hearted folks) will get caught up in the love story and enjoy it for the most part. But it's almost criminal what they're missing.
On the surface, Winter’s Tale is the story of an early twentieth century thief named Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), who decides to rob the home of the editor (William Hurt) of New York City’s largest newspaper. Thinking the house is abandoned, Peter breaks in, only to find young, beautiful Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) inside. The girl is consumptive, however, and her imminent demise makes her much more calm and forgiving at the intrusion than she would be otherwise.
Peter and Beverly are immediately drawn to each other and, in the short time they have together, fall in love. All the while, though, Peter’s ex-boss, criminal bigwig Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), is hunting the young man down. (Readers know why; moviegoers never really find out.)
There’s more to the film, sure-- including some time-jumping, some heavy-handed angel-and-devil imagery, and a lot of talk about destiny. What’s missing, though, is pretty much the entirety of the novel, including (readers, you hear me talking) any mention of Hardesty, rainbow bridges, Praeger de Pinto, the Cloud Wall, and Craig Binky. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Not even a ten-part mini-series would be enough to fully bring Winter’s Tale off the page, which raises the question, "Why try?"
Along with Caleb Deschanel’s stunning cinematography, the chemistry between Farrell and Findlay do keep the movie afloat any longer than it really has a right to. Winter’s Tale, though, ultimately gets bogged down not only by the scatter-shot story but by yet another horrifically hammy performance from Crowe. (He apparently didn’t learn a thing, post-Les Miserables). And then there’s the unintentionally comic cameo by an A-lister (I won’t spoil it), which is so completely out-of-nowhere that you may just have to stifle a chuckle.
To be fair, I give Goldsman a pat on the back for even making the effort. Even though the vast majority of the book’s plot, characters, imagery, and themes (oh, that's all?) didn’t made it into the film, he was still able to put together a nice little Valentine’s Day-appropriate love flick—at least as long as Farrell and Findlay are on screen together.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that putting together a nice little Valentine’s-appropriate love flick was what he really set out to do.
And it’s not nearly what Helprin’s masterful novel deserves. If that's even possible.