Television Review

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The Independent Culture
NITPICKING IS an antisocial habit but, unlike nosepicking, someone has to do it. The following pedantic observations on literacy may cause the reader to retch, and I make them solely because they both appeared in films about literature.

A caption in the Bookmark (BBC2, Saturday) on Louis de Bernieres explained that Captain Corelli's Mandolin "has captured reader's imaginations". Given that this film was made for the same reason that next month brings a themed Bridget Jones Night to BBC2 - both books have spent their entire paperback shelf-lives on the bestseller list - that misplaced apostrophe looked not just wrong but mean-spirited.

Meanwhile, on The South Bank Show (ITV, Sunday), a study of Bret Easton Ellis included an interview with a man identified as "Jay McInnerney", who looked remarkably like the novelist Jay McInerney. McInerney was once fact-checker at the New Yorker - a paid pedant. While he may have wondered why Ellis, the much younger radiographer of big-city alienation, got to be the subject of a South Bank Show first, I bet the misspelling will piss him off even more.

For all the obvious differences between de Bernieres and Ellis - and I'd say the crucial one is de Bernieres' characters enjoy sex far more than Ellis's - this pair of profiles offered proof that writers of whatever strain present the same narrow set of choices for documentary film-makers. Both films visited the haunts of the books - Cephalonia for de Bernieres, Los Angeles and New York for Ellis - and the locations had an osmotic effect on the filming style. The South Bank Show was a work of glistening dissonance, with loads of fast-forwarding, shakycam and gothic underlighting. Bookmark was a slow, cautious, lyrical ramble on the back of a donkey.

On the question of quotation, the literary film has really only two options: to read from the work or, despite constraints imposed by budget, to enact it. Ellis's depictions of life in the well-heeled hell of urban amorality are a bit of a gift in this respect. Director Gerald Fox thumbed through the novels to dig out the more, ahem, telegenic scenes. Two teenagers frantically masturbated side-by-side in bed. A middle-aged woman imagined the pool attendant lavishly frotting her breasts. There was even enough spare cash to put Rachel Weisz in a bubble bath.

The Bookmark film nosed around Cephalonia like a tourist, looking for photofits of the characters. By inviting the book's more celebrated fans to read extracts, it also took the opportunity to illustrate the breadth of de Bernieres' constituency. In one corner Jo Brand leant on the prow of a tank; in another Sister Wendy Beckett lectured to camera in her Thatcherite style. Throw in Richard Eyre to represent the clever clogs, and a taxi driver to fly the flag for the hoi polloi who liked the book but didn't have the critical lexicon to explain why. Ellis, by this unscientific reckoning, has a much more selective fan base. Roll up Will Self to explain that Less Than Zero "annuls Schiller's distinction between naive and sentimental art".

The actual interviews with the writers reversed expectation. Both appear to be single, and you'd assume de Bernieres would be the one to have an Anglo-Saxon reticence on matters of the heart, whereas it was Ellis who kept his counsel in this area, and possibly even vetoed enquiry. The film tested the strength of the umbilicus between Ellis's life and work, so that the author was mostly on the back foot denying a weakness for couture threads and brand exfoliants. But on the main charge of misogyny - the women in American Psycho are disassembled by the narrator with carpenter's tools - Ellis's defence felt incomplete.

It fell to Self, who said he usually shrinks from ad hominem judgements, to wonder whether the book's butchery points to unresolved questions of sexuality. The question itself remained unresolved until a sly coda to the film found Ellis touring nightclubs in a limo with two drunk friends, one of whom asked him if he had "ever been with a woman". Finally, it felt as if you'd been told the full story. This is probably why Ellis reportedly dislikes the film.

It wouldn't have been in Bookmark's interest to do the same, but The South Bank Show, routinely accused of trotting out hagiographies, will be relieved that it can still affront its subjects.

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