From the first moment I saw 1776, I have been in love with musicals. It was as if reality could involve people spontaneously break out into choreographed song and dance routines. As if our world were too big to be as mundane as we live it. Naturally, I had to see a film adaptation of Nine. And naturally I began to compare it to the stage version.
It was irksome to discover favorite songs truncated or left out entirely. It was bizarre to find only eight women, and I believe it was mentioned* that the child was eight and a half.** With all this in mind, I think it’s obvious: this movie is not an adaptation of the stage performance at all. Rather, it’s the best film adaptation yet of the book Tristram Shandy.
To start with, they’re both gratuitously about sex while straight-facedly claiming to be about anything else.*** Shandy claims that the story is about his own life, but can’t seem to advance the plot all the way to the moment of his birth. Nine is supposed to be about a Great Artist’s struggles to make a movie, but instead gets stuck talking about his childhood. The life and struggles for both protagonists are set when they are too young to exert much– if any– influence over that path.
Those are pretty surface level events, however. Structurally, they both do things with the format that are simply not done. For Shandy, this means creating space within the book to jump between time periods– often these jumps happen within a page. The phrase “winding the clock” came to be very dirty over the decade in which it Shandy was published. The book itself, however,
wound revolved around a certain set of events, which didn’t quite climax with the birth of the author. See how I said that again, but slightly dirtier? That’s how the book goes. Rather than being a book about a subject, in many ways it’s a book about the act of… being a book.
Nine plays with the structure of film. Remember what I said yesterday about film not being capable of showing the interior life of a subject? Well, that was a thumping lie. What Nine does brilliantly is use music to illustrate the thoughts of the subjects. Contini is not literally sitting with his mother, he is imagining what that conversation might be like. His thoughts are not life-like, but rather larger than life. Musical.
Contini states that it is his ambition to get ideas out of his head and onto the screen with as little “talking about it” as possible. This is a musical based on a play based on a movie about making a musical. It is about the very structure of ideas itself. In that, it is a very worth adaptation of Stern’s masterwork.
*I could be wrong about this, my date noted it and I did not.
**This would, of course, be a reference to the original film 8 1/2 on which the stage production of Nine is based.
*** Wait a minute, you’re asking, is Nine any good? I’ll cover that in a footnote****
****Nine was a musical involving half-naked ladies singing how much they want to get laid. That’s going to be enjoyable pretty much no matter what.