Essays

HBO (Isn’t) Filming The Corrections at My Parents’ House: TV and Fiction

By posted at 6:00 am on January 20, 2012 16

1.
A location scout came through my parents’ neighborhood last month and slid a letter printed on blue paper into each house’s screen door. The letter had HBO’s (fuzzily reproduced and definitely not hi-res) logo at the top and announced in all capital letters that a production team had descended on Mount Vernon, N.Y., in hopes of finding a “HOUSE WITH AN ATTACHED GARAGE.”

It happens that Chez Aronstein has one of those, and my mother found a copy of the letter when she got home from work. She called me in Chicago.

“Look, I won’t keep you,” she said, in a greeting that has become standard for our conversations, “Someone from HBO came to our house. Have you read that book called — what is it — ?” I could hear her rustling some papers on the other end, “The Corrections?”

“They want to film the TV series at our house,” she said.

2.
In a short essay written for The New York Times Sunday Book Review last month, Craig Fehrman points out that HBO has recently decided to pay attention to serious fiction — or what used to be known in the TV industry as “Stuff We Don’t Buy.”

coverLast year, the premium channel acquired rights to The Corrections for a full four-year series and convinced Jonathan Franzen to write the scripts. Noah Baumbach will direct at least a few episodes. HBO execs also swiped up Jennifer Egan’s 2010 A Visit from the Goon Squad as well as two of 2011’s best-received novels, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding. In the case of the latter two, it seems as though the TV rights were negotiated along with publishing rights, so quickly did HBO decide to option them.

Writers have long been squeamish about selling their work to Hollywood directors, let alone to television (not all writers, of course). In his own famously crotchety essay “Why Bother?”, Franzen offers the familiar lament that television dumbs down cultural consumption. He argues, “Broadcast TV breaks pleasure into comforting little units—half-innings, twelve-minute acts — the way my father, when I was very young, would cut my French toast into tiny bites.” To the Franzen of 1996, when compared with television (the Internet wasn’t yet on literature’s radar as an existential threat), the so-called “social” novel simply can’t match up on the issue of popularity. Neither can it win a resource war. “Few serious novelists,” he adds, “can pay for a quick trip to Singapore, or for the mass expert consulting that gives serial TV dramas like E.R. and NYPD Blue their veneer of authenticity.” Viewed as an enemy combatant, television competes directly with novels for eyes, attention, and dollars. Franzen’s essay ends on a hopeful note for books, but the assumption remains that TV and other forms of media will win away the majority of readers. Literature gets the consolation prize of mattering to an important few.

The Franzen of 2011 had a very different perspective when speaking with David Remnick at The New Yorker Festival. Describing his involvement with the HBO series based on his book, he excitedly insisted, “We had an opportunity here — because it’s not a miniseries, it’s an actual series — I think to do something that has not been done.” I don’t assume that an individual’s intellectual positions have to remain consistent over a lifetime, but this marks a pretty significant shift — and one that characterizes what seems to be a growing number of writers. TV no longer stands as the primary enemy of fiction, as long one can write for the right kind of TV. Or: getting a contract with folks like HBO has become the new ideal.

What’s changed?

For one thing, the rise of premium cable has produced practical advantages for authors. Higher production values and an emphasis on multi-year serial dramas allow for financial security, giving them an incentive to stay involved with television projects. Moreover, HBO has demonstrated a willingness to allow novelists to maintain control of their work, offering folks like Franzen (and Egan, who turned down the opportunity) the opportunity to write the scripts. And perhaps most importantly, the popularity of shows like Mad Men, The Wire, and Homeland — all of which find a place in what Fehrman rightly dubs “post-Sopranos” cable — enables producers to make compelling cases for slower, unfolding, deliberate narratives. Slower, unfolding, and deliberate narratives comprise the bread and butter of literary fiction. Perhaps television audience tastes have simply come in line with the tastes of readers, while new content-delivery preferences make it possible to exploit the similarity. Tivo and OnDemand everything allow viewers to string together episodes of series on their own schedules — to cater their media consumption to individual attention spans.

But especially interesting about Franzen’s position with regard to the series is his insistence that TV has allowed him more creative room to explore the themes of The Corrections than did the novel itself. In the same conversation with Remnick, he explains:

Because we had so much more time to work with than there was material in the novel, it was an opportunity to tell a story at many different points in time — that is spread over thirty years — and have those all have equal weights […] To figure out how to make that work, it seemed like it could be really cool.

By his account, it turns out that television will present freedom to explore plotlines that the novel limited or foreclosed. For the reigning king of American realist fiction to confess this point — and to do it readily — marks a sharp change of direction, suggesting that perhaps we need to start thinking differently about the relationship between television and fiction.

I don’t mean to make hasty qualitative or hierarchical distinctions between TV and novels. It’s easy to say indignantly “Novels are better than TV, you sell-out jerks!” like a petulant writer with exactly zero novels to his credit. (I’m working on it, OKAY?) But I don’t think anyone should begrudge writers like Egan or Franzen for working with HBO. At the very least, Franzen sounds a lot happier than he did 15 years ago, and the fact that The Corrections will reach millions more potential readers on HBO (and on DVD) sounds like an unmitigated win for literary fiction.

Nevertheless, we do need to think about the implications of suggesting that television’s aesthetic capacities can complement, or even supplant, those of novels. For once, we might not have to ask, “Will the novel survive?” Instead, we need to ask what it means that the novel’s future depends on a relationship with TV — and whether this relationship will be a productive one in the long run.

I started thinking about all of this when it suddenly became possible that The Corrections would be filmed at the house where I grew up.

3.
For young(ish) writers, reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has for a long time seemed like a kind of prerequisite to engaging in literary practice: writing, reading, thinking about novels and their future or lack of future, or whatever else. When I was in college, the book seemed a kind of talismanic object, a guidebook, a blueprint to follow if I ever wanted to write serious fiction. At the same time, 18-year-old A-J secretly worried that Franzen’s depiction of American middle-class despair and loneliness, and the concurrent self-torture about the shallowness of this despair and loneliness, obviated the need for anything I would ever come up with to describe same. (It’s possible 18-year-old A-J should have been worried about other things, sure, but this is how the story goes).

Regardless, my copy of The Corrections bears the scars of obsessive, borderline psychotic reading: highlights and underlined passages; exclamation points and YESes; check marks and squiggles (most of which have no significance to me now). As an overzealous (and, it can’t be overemphasized, really obnoxious) undergraduate I wrote a chapter of my rambling 120-page thesis (a ponderous object titled “Realistically Speaking: The Politics of the Contemporary Realist Novel”) on Franzen’s work.

I also bought a copy of The Corrections for my father one Christmas and distinctly remember telling the family it was my favorite book. I later found it on a bookcase in our living room, wedged between How to Clean Practically Anything and The Bible for Dummies, its spine un-cracked.

I started giving my mother a précis of this personal literary history, but she cut me off and asked whether she should call HBO. She added that they offered anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 for every day they were filming. My response was something along the lines of:

“YOU HAVE TO TELL THEM THAT YOU WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO FILM THIS SHOW IN OUR HOUSE.”

The fact that our house could play a central role in The Corrections validated a long-held suspicion that our Mount Vernon abode — scene of my childhood — had something quintessentially American about it. Its “ATTACHED GARAGE,” its magnolia tree and vegetable garden, its slate walk and bay windows could stand in for Franzen’s work. He may have written a book about such a house. But I lived in that house.

[For anyone else keeping score, it’s Aronstein, unpaid freelance essayist and freshman writing teacher, 1 – Franzen, National Book Award-winning author and American literary icon, 0].

I excitedly wondered how HBO would transform my parents’ home into that of the Lamberts, the family at the heart of The Corrections. Some rooms wouldn’t need any modification at all. For example, our garage seemed ready-made for Lambert patriarch Alfred’s metallurgical lab. The production designer wouldn’t have to move anything. The boxes marked “For Yard Sale” and the 1960s-era rocking horse, the Tupperware containers packed with quilts, and the workbench populated with dusty shot glasses all fit almost too perfectly with Franzen’s vision.

Then again, how would this transformation (or lack of transformation) warp my own reading of the book? And more unnervingly, how would the depiction of my childhood home on screen, written into the scripted version of a novel I’ve read at least four times, change the way I remembered and wanted to write about my own experiences? The translation of this particular novel to the screen seemed to have more personal ramifications than those of a general conversation about the relationship between cable and novels. It had to do with my own source material for fiction — and the potential consequences of seeing what Franzen would do with the scene of my childhood.

And that idea weirded me out.

4.
The formal challenge of novels has always been to represent human experience in a way that attempts to transcend limitations of language: to create something like a shared consciousness among readers of a common text. That this shared consciousness takes place entirely in the realm of thought grants fiction its unique identity, distinguishing it from visual forms of media. What a novel leaves unsaid is often as important as what it does say, and for this reason a piece of fiction’s textual construction of narrative requires a lot of mental work on the part of authors and readers. It has less to do with the scope of a novel’s plot, and more to do with the depth of its inquiry into consciousness.

When we read, we take a mental inventory of the objects and people that inhabit our world and map them onto whatever the author offers us. No matter how meticulously an author creates an environment from words, we still find ourselves spending part of our time with a book trying to match up our own life, possessions, sensations, ideologies, misunderstandings, and relationships with imagined plots, settings, and people. We have to imagine how the sunlight glints through the magnolia tree, how a mother’s voice shouting “MEATLOAF” resonates off of light fixtures, how the wallpaper peels off the walls, how the dog howls at shadows on the ceiling during dinner. Regardless of the size of the screen or the total length of the movie/series/miniseries, visual forms of representation take away this pressure (and pleasure).

That is, in my reading of The Corrections, the Lamberts’ house has always felt and looked like my parents’ house.

What can I say? The brain is sometimes lazy. It conjures approximations of Mr. Darcy, or Daisy Buchanan, or Chip Lambert based on people we know. We try to understand a novel in the vernacular of our own experience. Our relationships condition our mental, emotional, and psychological connection with characters. And when we say that literary fiction is “character-driven,” we mean this: our private interactions with texts depend as much on the associations and imagination of the author as on the associations and imaginations of the reader. Our desire to know them — and to know them on our own terms — drives us to read.

Then again, once we see Viggo Mortensen playing Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, it’s difficult to imagine him any other way. Once Rooney Mara walks into the frame as Lisbeth Salander, all we can do is hem and haw about how her interpretation of the character either matches up with or fails to meet expectations that have been molded by books. And I worry that once Ewan McGregor puts on a midwestern accent and a pair of leather pants, I won’t be able to imagine myself as Chip Lambert ever again. Movies and television shows have the uncanny ability to restructure the way that we read novels because they gives us definitive answers about how to see them. When we say that movies fail to live up to expectations created by novels, it’s not just because they don’t comport with our individual imaginings of how the world of a novel is supposed to look. It’s because they rob us of the sense that we have a claim to a private interpretation.

Or more simply: even if I had always imagined our house standing in for the Lamberts’ house, I didn’t want the television to tell me that our house had to be the Lamberts’ house.

What makes novels unique when compared with television has little to do with having enough room to explore certain plotlines in a more detail. What distinguishes them from (even the best, most tasteful, best-acted and directed) television arises from the form of textual engagement itself. Serial dramas on premium cable might in some ways be able to increase the size of the canvas available to fiction writers, and certainly expand the reach of their work. They might demand more mental work than forms like the sitcom. But a novel like The Corrections can seem limitless to readers precisely because it leaves meanings open, leaves parts of characters’ lives only implicitly explored, allows readers to fill in the blanks.

It’s these blanks that I’m worried The Corrections on HBO will fill in.

5.
A representative from HBO came to my parents’ place. After walking around for about 30 minutes, he told them that the house was the right period, but likely too small. To film the scenes properly, they would need a lot more room for the cameras and crew.

It was likely the kind of house that they wanted, but they couldn’t film it effectively.

And, I think, it’s just as well. I’d like to write about that house one day.

Photo courtesy the author.





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16 Responses to “HBO (Isn’t) Filming The Corrections at My Parents’ House: TV and Fiction”

  1. Gary
    at 10:03 am on January 20, 2012

    I hold Franzen in relatively high esteem, though not as high an esteem as he holds himself in. And, frankly, it’s far more than arguable that he’s the “reigning king of realist fiction.”

    Anyway, have we considered the idea that maybe Franzen didn’t decide to work with HBO because of some deep, paradigmatic shift in his thinking and ideals (despite whatever he might say to disguise his real motives, he’s a writer and thus has a decent imagination after all) but, rather, because they quite simply paid him a lot of money? And, also, wouldn’t that popularity and wealth jive nicely with why the Franzen of today is much more pleasant than the Franzen of 15 years ago? Because, let’s face it, most people would be much happier, at least outwardly, working on multi-million dollar HBO TV scripts than they would on a nebulous novel they have no idea whether will succeed or not from the confines of a sound-proofed 100 square foot room in Harlem?

    Lastly, I really like your ending to this piece.

  2. Nick Moran
    at 10:09 am on January 20, 2012

    Outstanding piece, A-J.

    Gary, I think Franzen made plenty of money off his writing before HBO came knocking at his door. So much money, I’d estimate, that he doesn’t have to make creative decisions for financial reasons ever again.

  3. AJ
    at 10:44 am on January 20, 2012

    Gary – I don’t know if anyone holds Franzen in as high esteem as Franzen. ha. Dubbing him Realist Royalty is simply a nod to the fact that he’s written two of the arguably most critically considered books in the past 10.3 years; was on the cover of “Time” (which, yes, used to carry more weight, but still…); got this huge HBO contract; is Oprah-approved and is most often discussed on sites like this, but also in places like NYTimes.

    In other words, aesthetic distinctions aside, the claim is essentially that, when it comes to this kind of fiction, he’s top dawg.

    On the second point, I think I just kind of agree with Nick. Though if he DID make this decision solely for the $$, what can we do but shrug? Authors have gone that path before. If you watch that Remnick clip, he’s got a great quote from Faulkner about literature’s relationship with Hollywood.

    Thanks to both of you for the compliments, and for reading.

  4. donna
    at 12:10 pm on January 20, 2012

    I really have a hard time buying Franzen’s sincerity here:

    Because we had so much more time to work with than there was material in the novel, it was an opportunity to tell a story at many different points in time — that is spread over thirty years — and have those all have equal weights […] To figure out how to make that work, it seemed like it could be really cool.

    Does any artist really think “it could be really cool” to return to and mire themselves in (for possibly years) a finished work? Doesn’t matter if it’s transforming it to t.v., film, or opera, it’s not moving forward, and most artists want, no need, to keep moving forward. He’s really gotten himself into a pickle, I fear.

    p.s. I don’t know many people who go out and read the book after seeing the movie, no matter how good it is. For sure, though, the sales of Franzen’s books after (if) the t.v. series becomes well-know, which for sure it will. Paradoxically, he’s secured himself as a novelist through his move to t.v.

  5. Gary
    at 1:34 pm on January 20, 2012

    AJ- Understand the clarification about Franzen’s place in the contemporary canon. I’m glad you’re just acknowledging where others are putting him, not putting him there yourself. That Time Mag cover was one of the more banal things I’ve seen (though, as I recall, the piece was pretty good).

    Nick’s point is a good one that he was already rich when HBO came knocking. But Donna hit the nail on the head that I was missing – which is that I don’t necessarily believe Franzen. First, however much money he made off Corrections and Freedom, he’s sort of a smug, prideful dude. It would not surprise me in the least if more money, even if he didn’t really need it, would sway him.

    Secondly, how long did it take him to write Corrections? 10 years or so? That wasn’t enough time to decide what of the writing of it was really important and worth including? Like Donna, I find it hard to believe he wants to not only dust off all those old notebooks but reread them at length and start exploring plot lines that he (or his editors) previously deemed not worth including.

    And, again, thanks for the piece.

  6. Ryan Ries
    at 4:30 pm on January 20, 2012

    The fact that Franzen would be willing to revisit the work he spent a decade working on (and another decade talking about) speaks volumes. I mean, good lord, he spent 10 years writing Freedom, which is simply a cleaner (and more boring) version of the Corrections, and here he is going backwards yet again. The guy either doesn’t have anything left to say, or he’s financially motivated to keep retelling the same story over and over again.

    For a guy whose career started out so promising, this decade-long decline in ambition really is disappointing. We get it, the Corrections was a nice little book, but get over it already.

  7. Tyler
    at 5:41 pm on January 20, 2012

    It’s fascinating to me that most criticisms of Franzen are about Franzen and rarely about his work. Does it really matter that he’s a dick? I’m not trying trying to be friends with the guy; I’m just interested in what he has to say.

    Maybe he’s out of ideas. Maybe he’s just “smug” and “prideful.” Maybe he’s just doing it for the money. Maybe he wants to re-explore past characters. Maybe he’s become more reflective in the wake of DFW’s death (Wallace, by the way, was more than supportive of his own film adaptation of “Brief Interviews.”)

    But isn’t it at least possible (even likely) the HBO version will be good?

  8. Nick Mamatas
    at 8:03 pm on January 20, 2012

    Yeah, I’m jealous of Franzen too, just like the other commenters! Boooo doing stuff!

  9. RCH
    at 2:54 pm on January 21, 2012

    A wonderful essay.

  10. Jenny A.
    at 7:18 am on January 22, 2012

    We live in Chestnut Hill, PA, and our house is currently being considered for the Gary Lambert scenes. I came home from work one day and found a similar copied note in my mailbox, from Julian the location scout. It took me all of 20 seconds to call back and offer my house, with visions of Gary bleeding and consuming vodka in various rooms.

  11. Matt
    at 3:13 pm on January 24, 2012

    If John Jeremiah Sullivan taught me anything in “Peyton’s Place,” is that having your house as the set of a major production suddenly makes it not your house.

  12. CJ
    at 5:00 am on January 27, 2012

    Maybe Franzen has never actually left The Corrections; maybe, like his spiritual mentor Gaddis, he has been obsessing over getting everything right(er) ever since publication.

    Just a thought.

  13. What I Read This Week - A Literal Girl
    at 8:56 am on January 28, 2012

    [...] HBO (Isn’t) Filming The Corrections at My Parents’ House: TV and Fiction (AJ Aronstein at The Millions) And when we say that literary fiction is “character-driven,” we [...]

  14. mattheww
    at 5:47 pm on January 30, 2012

    I work in TV, and coincidentally recently embarked on a catch-up tour of 90′s reading that was prompted by “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” and came to include “Infinite Jest” as well as essay collections by both Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.

    It made me nostalgic and amused all at once to see how much of an almost existential threat both authors viewed television to be. They saw it as some unstoppable cultural infantilizer laying waste to art, viewers and nearly everything it touched, which was nearly everything.

    Who could have predicted that the internet would lay waste to television so quickly? In providing people with endless options, and people in turn taking advantage of them, we learned a few things that in retrospect seem obvious:

    TV was not dumbing anyone down. Nor was it buffing distinguishing features off our culture. It simply by its nature had to appeal to the entire world’s population at once. There are only so many things you can say to the entire world at once and expect everyone to understand. Moreover you have to keep the overall intelligence level of the material fairly low to account for not just the median IQ of the world’s population, but additional hits to comprehension as a result of language and cultural differences within the audience.

    But it turned out that no one in the audience liked TV just fine as it was. Even morons preferred their entertainment even more moronic — witness the rise of TMZ.

    And TV wasn’t the great anesthetizer either. The minute more engaging options appeared, people ran for them. For the longest time TV was simply, by virtue of technological limitations, the only game in town.

    So the TV that Franzen is now embracing is a fundamentally different, and hugely diminished, TV than the thing he once railed against. In fact TV is even starting to seem as quaint, neglected and irrelevant as the novel once did.

  15. Book news: ‘Albert Nobbs,’ lady friends, and fiction and place | My Blog
    at 2:14 am on January 31, 2012

    [...] of literary people and the screen, writer A-J Aronstein writes in The Millions about HBO coming to the suburban neighborhood he grew up in to film “The Corrections.” Aronstein’s childhood home was up to be the [...]

  16. AJ
    at 11:08 am on February 1, 2012

    @Matthew I think the point that TV is “hugely diminished” is an important one to the conversation here–and one that I think I agree with, if what you’re talking about is the relative decline of scripted shows in comparison with reality TV.

    Audiences are still enormous when you’re talking about broadcast television. But scripted shows aren’t the most popular. Reality TV has taken what DFW feared in “E Unibus Plurum” and Franzen talks about in “Why Bother?” and made it into our national televisual past-time.

    For example: the top two most-viewed shows on television last week were both American Idol (and the eleventh was an encore broadcast of one of the episodes). The previous week, Idol was beaten out for the numbers 1 and 2 spots by football–but Idol did occupy the 3 and 4 spots. The kind of televisual consumption that Franzen worried about is very much alive and kicking (In these past two weeks, Idol *averaged* more than 6,000,000 per new episode (somehow….I still don’t quite understand it). Television audiences are not diminished by the presence of more media–weirdly, they’ve just coalesced around reality tv….I think. Maybe I’m wrong about this, or seeing a trend where there isn’t one.

    The premium networks still don’t have NEARLY the same audience numbers as some of TV’s biggest shows. But I agree ultimately that it may be a good thing for premium television that the audiences for scripted dramas are diminished…..it makes for better writing on the shows that actually do get made.

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