Book covers, film trailers & carnival barking


Given the recent calculated furore over Faber’s cover for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, it’s probably a moot point to say that book covers can be deceptive. The near chick-lit (I almost spew at such a vile term) cover for Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, a writer I’m currently interviewing, gives little indication of the subtle, layered brilliance within. Admittedly this seems to have been the intention, given one of Levy’s many remarkable skills as a writer is her ability to construct literary Trojan Horses. She’s working undercover behind enemy lines.

If we regard book covers as unreliable narrators in themselves (there’s an incredible collection of them here incidentally), we might equally view film trailers with the same degree of scepticism. Editors, by their very definition, are liars, through omission and inclusion. So too are writers. There are three films due for release soon based on novels that I happen to love. Given the cliché that mediocre books tend to make for better adaptations and vice versa (the exceptions such as Heart of Darkness, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Roadside Picnic are so notable and prevalent as to suggest that’s not true), I’ve been intrigued but slightly hesitant about seeing them. Watching two of the trailers has had the effect of lowering my expectations to such a abyssal degree that I can only be pleasantly surprised by the end result, even if they were just hours of hideous droning feedback and footage of people weeping and rocking back and forth.

To accuse a Baz Luhrmann film of being gaudy would be to chastise the pope for shitting in the woods and, predictably enough, the trailer for his adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is as understated as a meth-crazed Liberace can-caning in slow motion through an exploding Caesars Palace. It’s all glitter and no knickers and that’s before we start on its bad points. I simply cannot wait to see it.

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The second, Michel Gondry’s adaptation of Boris Vian’s masterpiece Froth on the Daydream (retitled Mood Indigo), has at least the benefit of bringing a magnificent and much-overlooked novel to the public’s attention. The trailer appears worryingly saccharine though with that fucking omnipresent and anemic Lumineers song being as welcome as a dog in a game of skittles. We can hope Gondry’s kindergarten-ketamine imagination is allowed to run wild rather than being reined in, as woefully happened in the second half of Be Kind Rewind, that Audrey Tautou is given more than a Medicated Pixie Dream Girl role and the real grief-stricken darkness as well as the gallows humour present in the book is not excised.


The third seems the most promising even if it’s from a much more flawed origin than the others. Jack Kerouac never recovered from the nervous breakdown he depicted in Big Sur (on a side-note, the book I wrote last year on Kerouac is out next year with Reaktion Books and focuses a great deal on this episode). The trailer for Michael Polish’s adaptation is a small masterpiece, helped not inconsiderably by the doo-wop soundtrack (The Flamingos’ ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’) and some incredible soft style cinematography by M. David Mullen. Where Luhrmann and Gondry have gone for glam and charm respectively, Polish has gone for a beautiful desolation, which, call me a drink-sodden lapsed-Catholic mama’s boy, seems to strike as much of a note with me as the book did. Fingers crossed for all three.

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31 Responses to Book covers, film trailers & carnival barking

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Big Sur at least looks more promising than the On The Road movie…. Nice trailer. As for Froth on the Daydream – I’ve never heard of this so thanks for pointing me at something new and intriguing!

    • it’s a class book, very surreal, sad, funny, poetic, I can’t recommend it highly enough. the Quartet Books version is excellent, I’ve heard the Tam Tam Books’ translation is good too, though it goes under the title ‘Foam of the Daze’.

  2. Yes, “Big Sur” definitely looks promising. What is the approach in your book on Kerouac?

    • it’s been so long ago I can’t really remember ha. I’ll have to reread it and let you know. i know it tells the story of his life via a critical study of his novels. quite harsh on his sexism, lot of Freudian stuff on his dead brother and mother, how he was primarily a Catholic writer and not a Beatnik, his bisexuality (he was one of the great unacknowledged gay and religious writers of the century which no-one really mentions), damning on his many faults and flaws. I remember growing to hate him in the middle of writing it but being really sympathetic towards the end, remembering what drew me to his writing as a teenager. good experience writing it. I need to reread to remember the interesting stuff, I’d been reading a lot of deconstructionist/historicist stuff then and was in the middle of the world’s slowest, quietest and most uneventful nervous breakdown so I dread to think what I was writing…

      • Great. I’ve been dipping in and out of his “Windblown World” journals, still only in 1948 but enjoying immensely the light its throwing on his writing practice and his early seeming hope and tenderness (and melancholy).

  3. Sean Fraser says:

    I like this essay. “…Gondry’s kindergarten-ketamine imagination…” or “…as a meth-crazed Liberace can-caning in slow motion through an exploding Caesars Palace.” et al are someplace between Tom Wolfe (e.g., The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby) and Hunter S. Thompson. Luridly florid sentences that are sensibly written.

    Doesn’t everyone have those shifts of fondness after knowing a writers life?

    • thanks Sean, that’s quite a compliment. it’s funny though I haven’t actually read much of Hunter Thompson (I did like his Hells Angels book and parts of Fear and Loathing…) and I haven’t read any Wolfe. i’m sure you’re right though, maybe the influence came through their descendants or it was floating around in the ether.

      you have a point about empathy, I know reading about the life of someone like Celine or Wagner (whose work I love) has made me understand more their unpalatable aspects if not forgive them (though who the hell am I to absolve anyone?). it can work both ways though, I’m a great admirer of William S. Burroughs’ writing but reading Ted Morgan’s biography of him, particularly the killing of his wife, I found it difficult to see his work in the same way. the same with Norman Mailer, who was essentially an articulate thug. Will Self makes an excellent point though in his recent article on Wagner & Hitler in The Guardian about our infantile almost Victorian desire for artists to be nice, wholesome characters,

      “But really there’s no need for these complex dissections to separate head from heart, or morality from art. To adopt the contemporary idiom, Hitler was indeed a great music lover – get over it! He could be one, and still prosecute the deaths of untold millions by word and deed.

      Hitler loved music because many humans – including evil ones – love music. He loved Wagner’s music both despite and because Wagner was an antisemite – it all just fed into the semiotic mix. Hitler also adored Franz Lehár’s light operettas because he was a petit-bourgeois Austrian from the sticks, and that’s what people like him, from there, at that time, loved. It’s no more bizarre than Charles Manson loving the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, and considerably less strange than American shock-rocker Marilyn Manson’s choice of a stage name. The real shocker, though, is that classical music aficionados still believe there can be something intrinsically morally ennobling about music.”

      Kerouac’s interesting not because he’s redeemable in any sense but because he probably isn’t, he’s fundamentally flawed and in those cracks might lie the things that made him fucked up and thus human. I’ve had feminist friends chastise me over writing books on Kerouac and Gainsbourg because they’re sexist, which in my opinion misses the point, that’s one of the reasons why they’re interesting, neurosis makes for good literature, niceness leads nowhere. with Kerouac I ended up surveying a seriously messed up individual, I don’t think people appreciate how disturbed the man was but a certain empathy comes out of that and his books change remarkably as you grow older. it’s hard to believe I once read ‘On the Road’ as a treatise of freedom and possibility when really it’s a monumentally sad story about age and loss and impossibility. but the book didn’t change one word, we did. there’s some dispute over whether Kerouac was a great writer but he is in my eyes for the ability to do that.

  4. Sean Fraser says:

    Concise line “…for artists to be nice, wholesome characters…” that. Alcoholics are acceptable; opium, hashish and morphine fiends are exotic; herion junkies are junkies; and, madmen garner disappointment or sympathy. Political leanings distance readers; and, as you noted, these days sexist writers, too. There are two methods for knowing a writer’s personal life: reading biographies and newspapers years later; or, reading articles during their lifetime. (Burroughs’s “William Tell” adventure was popular reading when it occurred.)

    Burroughs and Kerouac were considered Beats in the identical fashion Duchamp was considered a Dadaist. I didn’t like Kerouac’s writing; I liked Burroughs for “Naked Lunch” but I was more interested in him as a character than as a writer.

    I worked at a bookstore in Los Angeles where Burroughs was autographing “Cities of the Red Night”. My sole responsibility was to make certain he had continuous Vodka and Coca Cola. He was a fussy old gent. Afterwards, I asked him to sign several signed/numbered books on the title page. He thought that was stupid. I asked him to cross out his name on the title page and autograph just below: he refused. [Edward Gorey would cross out his name on the title page before signing. I collected Gorey pieces.] Burroughs did autograph the books but refused to speak with me any further. Burroughs was exactly in person what I had imagined him to be.

    And, Darran, as for “…niceness leads nowhere.”, Apollinaire and Mallarme were nice.

    For me, De Sade is the singular example of personal life versus published works. His personal life was petty; he published works are best remembered for his violence against women even though his written violence was against nearly everyone. Few people remember that, because of his anti-Royal/anti-Religion passages in his works, he was an invited member to the Reign of Terror.

    It’s – after all – what the Reader wants to remember: the written piece without prejudice induced by knowing personal traits about the author; or, applying shifting political correctness.

    • I admit the niceness leads nowhere line was much too sweeping a statement Sean. I think I was letting off steam regarding the cult of eminent mediocrity that tends to dominate contemporary celebrity and this creeping moralism (and voyeurism) where people in the public eye are paralysed into appearing to be role-models, a grotesque and untenable position to be placed in.

      for a biographer though the very traits that make a person so repellent are the ones that make them interesting to write about. even in a climate of political correctness, in fact especially in such a climate, the salacious (and the neurotic) makes for good copy. after reading Graham Robb’s brilliant biography of Rimbaud, I became more obsessed with the poet’s life and work and even more glad I’d never been forced to spend time with him. Plutarch summed it up best, “It does not follow that because a particular work of art succeeds in charming us, its creator also deserves our admiration.” people forget that. you’re right about Apollinaire, though he’s a good example given he’s been eclipsed to an extent by his friend Picasso, who was manifestly not a nice chap and at least part of Picasso’s appeal is the myth of the lustful Spanish bull as well as the talent obviously (Arianna Huffington’s otherwise atrocious biography is enlightening on how much Picasso fucked over his friends including Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein without hesitation or guilt). its not something to necessarily celebrate but neither is it something to be surprised by.

      that’s fascinating about Burroughs by the way and funny you should mention Gorey (of whom I’m a big fan), I have a line in the Kerouac book, probably nicked from somewhere, about Burroughs looking like a mortician from a Gorey book, that tall foreboding air he seemed to have had.

      I’ve read quite a bit of De Sade. he seems interesting much more politically or philosophically than sexually. I studied a great deal of anarchist literature years ago (George Woodcock and so on) and De Sade was always a character who seemed to point out where the limits of liberty lay, when freedom and the power therein turns to thoughts of torture and slavery. “every man at the point of orgasm is a tyrant” I think one of his lines went. I think Pasolini realised the political implications in Salo but a lot of people miss it, distracted by the erotica if we could call it that. without the political aspect, it’s ‘just’ the cyclical ramblings of a madman, like Nijinsky’s diary.

      there’s a historical and critical buffer zone between us and the likes of De Sade and Celine and so on which makes it easy to write about them whilst appearing brave in doing so. given the outrage a mildly transgressive writer like Houellebecq can arouse, it’s interesting to consider what critics would do if a morally reprehensible book, along the lines of The Turner Diaries or The Gates of Janus, was written now and had unquestionable literary merit. say an evil version of Infinite Jest. you could say such a thing would not be possible given Foster Wallace’s empathy is one of his great strengths but suppose it could happen. would they censor themselves, attack it or admit it was good? it would illuminate the limits of free speech and thought much in the way De Sade did.

  5. Girding my loins to the the Luhrmann extravaganza and now somewhat excited for a Big Sur treatment.

    • yeah they’re interesting in different ways, one a sprawling cornucopia of camp, the other an atmospheric nervous breakdown in the woods. two of my favourite things 😀

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  7. My husband and I love Moulin Rouge and are really excited to go to The Great Gatsby! I’ve actually never read it, but I’m leaving for vacation this week and have packed it for the trip! Congrats on getting freshly pressed!

  8. Jnana Hodson says:

    I’ve been looking at book covers lately and thinking how few of them I like from a purely aesthetic point of view, apart from their relationship to content.
    Even those I’ve long loved — especially the New Directions series — often seem primitive by today’s graphics advances.
    And yet there’s no substitute for great typography and photography when they connect to what’s inside the cover.
    The Big Sur example, by the way presents one of my pet peeves: the photo’s been flipped! Just look at the license plate. How shallow can they be?
    Some of my favorites are the early Richard Brautigan volumes from the hippie era: nothing psychedelic, just nice black-and-white portraits plus a touch of color.

  9. Just to inject a tedious note into this high-minded debate…a book cover may be a choice the author absolutely hates yet has no veto power over. I love the covers of my two NF books but if I had not? Tant pis.

    A great cover is a little dreamy. I just finished the Picador version of the Patrick Melrose novels and the black and white photo is perfect — I can’t tell what they’re doing, but they’re elegant. Seems about right.

    • yeah it seems insane to me that many writers aren’t consulted about their covers. especially when a cover can rightly or wrongly define a book and place it in a genre. can’t imagine a record company doing the same to a band regarding an album cover.

  10. Great article! For other great stuff on children’s books, visit!

  11. It’s so interesting to see “The Great Gatsby” comes alive in theater again. I remember how interesting it was when I had to watch the film and read the book, as an English major in college. Interesting piece of post.

  12. benjames96 says:

    Lovely review

  13. northernmalewhite says:

    nice book covers


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  15. What did you think of the Gatsby movie? I was actually pleasantly surprised by the amount of lines used from the novel. But, I agree with you that book covers are deceptive. I like that because it doesn’t give away any of the mystery inside.

  16. Fugitive says:

    I’m sure you came across this recent ingenious cover for Orwell’s 1984 ( but it came immediately to mind while reading your post. Thanks!

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