The most intractable issue in dealing with any adaptation of Carver stories is that a large part of the Carver oeuvre, particularly the earlier works, have already been through a major “adaptation” (or revision, co-option, disfigurement, censorship) at the hands of Carver’s editor Gordon Lish. As D. T. Max put it, in “The Carver Chronicles” (New York Times Aug. 9, 1998), “the early collections, which Lish edited, are stripped to the bone. They are minimalist in style with an almost abstract feel. They drop their characters back down where they find them, inarticulate and alone, drunk at noon.” Before the Carver/Lish editorial files were examined, the shift from this pared-down style to the fuller, more expressive, and less taciturn language of the later works was often put down to changes in Carver’s narrative voice. But, as the release of the documents showed, it was largely at the insistence of Lish that Carver’s work acquired that dense, fragmented, and often incomprehensible manner for which “Carver” became noted. The incursions by Lish were so massive as to call into question the concept/role of authoriality. In the New Yorker article (December 24, 2007) showing graphically the enormous differences between Carver’s original “Beginners” and Lish’s edited version “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” it is clear not only that we have moved onto a level of re-composition that greatly exceeds that of Pound’s influence on Eliot in “He Do the Police in Different Voices”/The Waste Land but also that the famous Carver style may in fact be more attributable to his editor than to the author. Given that the evidence for Carver’s acquiescence to Lish’s interventions is very murky, when we look at any Carver story, particularly an early one, in its adapted form, it is not merely a matter of charting the changes as we move to another medium, but of questioning the role of agency in the transfer. See also the Charles McGrath NewYork Times article “I, Editor Author,” (October 28, 2007).
This general problem is further exacerbated in dealing with two artists as allusive and quirky as Altman and Carver. From his early career (M*A*S*H) and on through Nashville and Gosford Park, Altman preferred to work on a large narrative canvas, with multiple story lines and multiple characters (often further complicated by his use of deliberately overlapping voice tracks), and we can easily see how he was attracted to adapting Carver stories, particularly combinations of Carver stories, in distinction to the several other movie versions of single Carver stories (e.g., Everything Goes [not seen], directed by Andrew Kotatko, and based on Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?”; Jindabyne, [not seen] directed by Ray Lawrence, based on Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home”). There is some precedence to Altman’s multiple adaptation in the Arcola Theatre’s London production of Carver in 1995, based on five Carver stories. The Altman movie was finished in October 1992, but the screenplay first written in 1989, just a year after Carver’s death. The nine short stories and poem that Altman used (“Neighbors,” “They’re Not Your Husband,” “Vitamins,” “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” “A Small, Good Thing,” “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” “Collectors,” “Tell the Women We’re Going,” and “Lemonade,” (a poem)) come from various periods in Carver’s career, and it is not clear a) whether Altman was aware of the original manuscript versions of the stories versus Lish’s revised versions and b) whether he really cared about the distinction.
The challenge to Altman was to keep the narrative lines of the Carver stories sufficiently in the viewer’s awareness throughout a long (188 minutes) and visually complex casting, including several of the actors Altman had already worked with as well as a who’s who of Hollywood and Indie perfomers (Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore–in her break-out role–Anne Archer, Andie McDowell, Lyle Lovett, Jack Lemmon, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey, Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Madeleine Stowe, Annie Ross, Peter Gallagher, and Frances McDormand), in addition to using Lori Singer as a cellist playing both solos and quartets under her own name, as well as playing a character in the narrative (the disturbed/suicidal daughter of the cabaret singer, played by Annie Ross). Inevitably, there are some moments in the movie when we might not be entirely sure which narrative we’re in, but the use, for example, of the eight-year-old Casey’s being struck by a car driven by Doreen Piggott (Lili Tomlin), together with the hospital scenes with the boy’s grieving parents (Bruce Davidson as Howard Finnigan and Andie McDowell as Ann Finnigan, with Jack Lemmon as the shiftless grandfather), and the ongoing reference to the trio of fishing buddies finding the body of a dead girl in the water do manage to keep the separate narratives both separate and interlocked (as when one of the fishing trio goes to pick up the pictures he had taken of the dead girl in the water and is mistakenly given the gruesome, but fake, pictures of a mutilated woman, Lily Taylor as Honey Piggott Bush, wife of make-up artist Bill Bush, played by Robert Downey, Jr.). The shock and disgust registered by both parties at the mixed-up photographs gives the interlocking narratives a shiver of unreality. It might be that the earthquake called in as a sort of deus ex machina at the end of the movie could be seen as a trite and strangely “unnatural” plot device to achieve sort of closure, but the fast cutting (“short cuts”) among all the narratives as the characters take shelter from the earthquake serves as a sort of temporary resolution of the multiplicities.