If the short-story writer is to create the illusion of reality, he must sing mostly aria and very little recitative. As a result, he uses a series of technical devices, often quite simple inflections of style, the end effect of which we call the story tone. A novel written in one dominant tone becomes intolerable; a story too often deviating from it risks chaos.
The relationship between E. L. Doctorow’s story “Jolene: A Life” and Dan Ireland’s film Jolene provides an illustrative example of the importance of tone to the short story, indicating that even in a highly plotted, episodic story, tone is more important than plot.
The Film Jolene, (2008) directed by Dan Ireland, from a screenplay by Dennis Yares, is based on the story "Jolene: A Life" by E.L. Doctorow from his collection, Sweet Land Stories. Ireland is perhaps best known for having directed the film The Whole Wide World, which introduced Renee Zellweger.
The film introduces Jessica Chastain as Jolene, and features the following well-known supporting actors: Frances Fisher (Cindy), Rupert Friend (Coco Lerger), Dermot Mulroney (Uncle Phil), Zeb Bewnab (Mickey), Theresa Russell (Aunt Kay), Denise Richards (Marin Lerger), Michael Vartan (Brad Benton) and Chazz Palminteri (Sal Fontaine).
The film runs two hours, but the screenwriter and director do not really have to invent a back-story filled with new characters or episodes, for the story itself is so episodic that it actually takes two film hours to tell the story of Jolene, who begins as a teenager in a foster home and ends up in her mid-twenties in Hollywood, but with her dreams intact.
As a brief aside: I just finished reading Kenneth Slawenski’s recent biography of J. D. Salinger, in which we are reminded that once upon a time Salinger sold the film rights for this great story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” The result—a typical Hollywood romantic tear-jerker remembered for only two things: the title theme song, “My Foolish Heart,” and the fact that it convinced Salinger never, never, never to sell the film rights to another of his works, no matter how much Hollywood begged for the rights to Catcher in the Rye. Basing a film on a short story often requires the invention of an elaborate plotted back-story for the story’s single scene, something Salinger perhaps did not anticipate. A more successful example, in which the back-story actually works, is the film version of Hemingway’s “The Killers,” which starred Burt Lancaster as the doomed boxer.
A notorious recent example is the new Will Farrell movie, “Everything Must Go,” which the credits list as being based on a story by Raymond Carver. No such thing! If you have never read Carver’s wonderful little story “Why Don’t You Dance?” and if you are a diehard Farrell fan, you may like this movie. But I suspect that only reason it is credited to Carver is because the producers thought it might “sell” the film. It’s too damned bad.
E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime (1975), Loon Lake (1980), and Billy Bathgate (1989), is much better known as a novelist than a short-story writer. Acknowledging that the novel has always been his typical rhythm, Doctorow, in an interview after the publication of this collection of stories, said that while editing Best American Stories: 2000, he discovered that many authors were not writing the tight epiphanic Chekhovian story, but rather were going back to the more leisurely plot-based story typical of the nineteenth century. The result of this realization are these five long stories, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker.
The stories in Sweet Land Stories are primarily plot-based, recounted in a seemingly artless, casual tone--three told in first-person by deluded male narrators and two narrated in third person by ironic storytellers. What is arguably “sweet” about these stories is the naiveté and innocence, thus ultimately the self-delusion, of the central characters as they seek to achieve the American dream, find transcendence in a savior, or uphold their ideals in the face of political chicanery.
The heroine of “Jolene: A Life” has her dreams, even though she starts out with several strikes against her. She marries Mickey Holler when she is fifteen to get out of a foster home where the father molests her and the mother beats her. But it is a move from the frying pan into the fire, for Mickey and Jolene have to live with his Uncle Phil and Aunt Kay, and Uncle Phil has an eye for Jolene. In comic fashion typical of these stories, Uncle Phil finally has his way with Jolene by coming up behind her one day while she is scrubbing the floor, picking her up with the scrub brush still in her hand, and carrying her into his bed. When Mickey finds out, he beats up Uncle Phil in a slapstick battle and then jumps off a bridge and kills himself.
Jolene is put into a juvenile loony bin, but in a silly bit of good fortune, a woman in the place smashes a mirror and cuts her wrists with a sliver. When all the mirrors are removed and nobody can see herself, Jolene begins a business of drawing portraits of the girls so they would know what they look like. She then makes friends with an admiring female attendants, but when the woman gets Jolene out, Jolene promptly leaves her and hits the road, finally ending up, at age seventeen, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Like other protagonists of the American Dream stories in Sweet Land Stories, Jolene appreciates the fact that in the West nobody cares much what you do. She meets a tattoo artist named Coco Leger, moves in with him, and starts working at his Institute of Body Art, that is, until one day, Coco’s first wife shows up with a baby on her hip. Jolene finds Coco’s cocaine, calls the cops and tells them about it, and then takes off after getting fifteen dollars for her wedding band.
Arriving in Las Vegas, Jolene, still young and shapely, gets a job dancing topless, and meets Sal, a distinguished gray-haired man, who puts a diamond choker on her neck and asks her to move in with him. When Sal is killed by mobsters, Jolene takes off again, this time to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she meets and marries Brad G. Benton and becomes a young matron of the upper class. After she has a baby and Brad starts to beat her, she gets a divorce, but Brad and his family get custody of the child. Finally, Jolene takes off for Hollywood, the land of dreams and opportunity. The story ends in Doctorow’s usual comic pathos, with Jolene thinking that maybe she will act in movies, so that one day she can go back to Tulsa in a Rolls-Royce and her son will answer the door to meet his movie-star mother.
The stories in Sweet Land Stories are entertaining and diverting tales told by a master storyteller. However, in their simplistic, self-indulgent shots at innocence, ignorance, and naiveté, they fail to provide any important insights into either the nature of individual human hopes or the national mythos about the American Dream.
What interests me most about the story/film relationship of “Jolene” is how much the story depends on tone and how much the film depends on character. Because of its wry tone, the story is actually quite comic, in spite of the many tragic travails of the heroine. However, the film, because it is deprived of the storyteller’s tone, is sweetly sad, although the character of Jolene, played irresistibly by new actress Jessica Chastain, manages to endear herself to the viewer in spite of her many mistakes about men. Not a great story. Not a great film. But interesting, nonetheless, for what they suggest about the importance of tone to the short story as a form.