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Ask the Critic: Paratexts and Critical Reception of the Film Ask the Dust in the United States

Introduction

Films and their consumption have evolved in recent years. Nowadays movies find their way into our lives in very different forms. It is no longer necessary to go to the cinema and chain queues for a ticket, popcorn, a visit to the restroom… Streaming platforms project new releases directly on our TV sets and sundry websites allow us to (legally) download the latest movies onto our laptops. Our dates with our favorite actors and stories can now take place in familiar territories the likes of our sofa or our bedroom. But just as any love affair we have experienced, there is more to this intimate relationship than the moments we are together. It starts before the climax, and it continues afterwards. There is a large group of matchmakers working hard to make this possible: they go by the name of paratexts, and their second-tier nature has made them almost invisible for the field of film studies. As Gray points out, research in adaptation studies has traditionally (and wrongly) used movies or TV shows as its focal point, thus neglecting the cardinal role other materials related to them play in creating thresholds of interpretation, meaning, sense, or expectations (8).

The present paper embraces Gray’s call to expand the horizons of the field and interlocks the analysis of paratexts with adaptation studies to delve into particular aspects of Robert Towne’s Ask the Dusk,the film adaptation of the homonymous novel by John Fante. More specifically, this general goal can be branched into three main objectives:


— Examining the visibility of the author and the original novel in a series of paratexts related to Towne’s Ask the Dust, its release, its promotion, and its reception by North American film critics.


— Identifying the extent to which the film’s fidelity to the book is a matter of discussion in the texts issued by specialized reviewers.


— Determining if the book-film comparison is used as an argument to debase the movie, to praise it, or whether it fulfills a different function.


By exploring and intertwining these aspects, the paper seeks to make a twofold original contribution. On the one hand, it intends to highlight and tap the potential of paratextual analysis not only as an instrument to assess the reception or the angles of interpretation of a particular movie but also as a tool to chart the lay of the land of central matters in adaptation studies such as the (in)fidelity issue in contexts beyond academia. Standing in very close connection, the other hand of this essay purports to enrich and expand on the existing bibliography related to John Fante’s influence in contemporary culture. In this vein, it will rely (again) on film paratexts to try and illuminate a series of unmapped aspects of Towne’s movie, one of the latest and most popular products that have stemmed from Fante’s fiction.

John Fante and Ask the Dust

John Fante was an Italian American writer born in Denver on April 8, 1909. After spending his childhood and early youth years in Colorado, he moved to Los Angeles in 1930 where he developed his writing and scriptwriting career and where he would die on May 8, 1983. The overture of Kordich’s first chapter achieves a perfect encapsulation of the author’s biography in three lines of text: “John Fante’s is a dramatic life story of humble beginnings, ambition, early success, tenacity, hope, disappointment after disappointment and, in the end, more acclaim than he had allowed himself to expect” (1). In a superb summarizing exercise, the precited passage sections Fante’s life in different chapters, each one encompassing a panoply of events that are represented in the bulk of his bibliography. Fante’s literature was strongly informed by self-experience and most stages of his life were mirrored in an extended list of short and long works with varying levels of accuracy.  If Fante’s early stories explore the vicissitudes he experienced while being raised as a Catholic in an Italian American family (Kordich 2), the Molise quartet delves into the conflictive nature of Fante’s father-son relationships (Collins 188), their multiple angles and ramifications and finally, in The Brotherhood of the Grape, into the feelings that stem from death and loss (194) and the need to settle scores, forgive and let go (242-243).

In line with the above, Fante’s arrival in Los Angeles, his emprises in the declining neighborhood of Bunker Hill, and his ups and downs as a burgeoning author and scriptwriter are at the core of two of his most relevant works: Dreams from Bunker Hill and the book at hand, Ask the Dust (1939). Thiswas Fante’s second novel and the third volume of the Bandini saga, which started with Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), and was subsequently completed with The Road to Los Angeles –published posthumously in 1985– and the precited Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982). Ask the Dust is strongly rooted in the LA of the early 1930s, a novel in which the city is way more than mere context: it is a main character that epitomizes the love-hate, success-failure dynamics the protagonist experiences throughout the text. Against this backdrop, the plot unfolds and walks the reader through Bandini’s attempts to thrive as a writer, to accept and consolidate his racially-prejudiced love for a Mexican waitress, Camilla, and to find his place in the City of Angels surrounded by the eccentric hosts of the even more (architecturally) eccentric Alta Loma Hotel.

Albeit time has turned Ask the Dust into Fante’s most successful and influential work, its release and reception were far from the expectations of the author. Reviews fluctuated greatly and ended up running a wide gamut of opinions, from devoted praise to blatant indifference or scorn. On the bright side of the spectrum, the novel gained kudos from writers like John Chamberlain or E.B. Garside, who described it as a powerful work and a career-changer for its author (Collins 90). Similarly, Kordich underscores the reviews included in The New Republic and The Nation as clear examples of a positive reception: whereas the formerlabeled Fante’s work as “inventive,” the lattercelebrated his prose as an excellent example of equipoise between humor and desolation that, at the same time, managed to shun the easy ways of melodrama (21).

Per contra, some other critics painted their analyses in different shades of gray that occasionally took a pitch-black tone. Compliments were mixed with touches of disdain in newspapers like the New York Times, whose pages read as follows: “[The book was] a novel experience. But on the whole, novels about novelists, particularly young novelists, make a tour de force rather than a naturally interesting story” (Cooper 1). Likewise, The Sunday Literary Review promising opening was immediately qualified with a blunt array of disparaging remarks: “It is charming, it is fantasy, and it isn’t real. In our own way of thinking, Mr. Fante has done enough of this. It is past spring now and time for Bandini to feel the really great pangs of mortality” (1). In like manner, reference can be made to H.L Binsse’s description of the novel as “strange” or to a review in The New Yorker whichconsidered it an inferior literary effort if compared to its prequel Wait Until Spring, Bandini (Collins 91).

The marginal sales and mild critical reception of Ask the Dust may have curbed Fante’s enthusiasm but not his firm belief that the novel was something extraordinary that deserved to be saved from vanishing (Cooper 3). Time proved him right and several forces aligned to propel Fante’s sway and literary career in the author’s dusky years. Charles Bukowski’s role in reigniting Fante’s popularity is almost common knowledge by now: in 1978, Buk convinced his editor, John Martin, to reprint Fante’s novels and vindicate the talent of a writer he considered one of the greats (3). Other agents, probably less transcendental than LA’s enfant terrible but nonetheless important, also helped unveil Fante to a new and wider audience. Poet and Los Angeles Times contributor Ben Pleasant, for instance, played a pivotal role by publishing several interviews and pieces about the author that caught the attention of the publishing industry (Holiday 227).

And so the renaissance of Ask the Dust began. After the Black Sparrow Press reissue in 1980, the novel and its author gained a momentum that still vibrates nowadays: John Fante has sold thousands of copies of his works worldwide, especially in Europe and countries like France; Italy organizes a literary festival in his honor each year, and his beloved city, LA, inaugurated John Fante Square in 2010 (Holiday 228). The ramifications of Fante’s revival have also reached the oftentimes adamant academic circles, paving the way for a multifaceted bibliography around his work with still myriad possibilities for further scrutiny (Cooper 5-6).

Considering the traction gained after its literary value, critical acclaim, and solid and ever-growing base of devoted fans, it was only a matter of time before Ask the Dust made its way into the big screen. Initial and fruitless attempts were done by Fante himself in the 40s and 60s (Cooper 2). In a clear parallelism with the fall and rise of the novel’s popularity, Ask the Dust would not have to wait until spring2, but until the turn of the century to see its pages adapted into a movie. Firstly, it inspired Jan Louter’s evocative and underrated documentary A Sad Flower in the Sand, produced by Illumina Films and released in 2001; but it would be five years later when the genuinely global, far-reaching event (Hollywood always speaks louder) took place: Robert Towne’s film adaptation, Ask the Dust, premiered in 2006.

A Lover of Books and Films Alike: Brief Notes on Film Adaptation

Fante’s most avid readers will immediately identify the parallelism between the (poor) play on words that entitles this section and Bandini’s recurring self-description as “a lover of man and beast alike.” The pun not only stems from this scholar’s limited talent for humor but, most importantly, from a question that has haunted the field of adaptation studies since its inception: Is the film better than the book?

This interrogative, the comparative framework it inevitably creates, and the debate around the (non-)existing fidelity between both types of works have been at the core of a long list of papers on the discipline, either as points of study or sources of criticism. No doubt there is a tidal wave seeking to strip faithfulness from the core of adaptation studies. Scholars like Leitch have championed this idea to the point of defining fidelity as “the bad object” of the field (“Adaptation and Intertextuality” 103). Others have not been so categorical and have suggested that academia should try to square this concept with the discussion of film adaptations by finding “a more sophisticated approach” to it (Lopate). These are but two short examples of how the book-film correspondence has been as neglected and frowned upon as it has been pervasive and fruitful. In this regard, readers can turn to manifold solid studies the likes of Lopate’s, Clarke’s, or Leitch’s3, which discuss these matters way more comprehensively than the present one.

For good or for ill, however, it is undisputable that the book-film correspondence has articulated myriad discussions about film adaptation for years, and probably for years to come. In fact, as a part of the analysis section will expose, fidelity as a key parameter to assess film adaptations is still deeply rooted in groups that play a relevant role in the circulation of movies. That said, the immense potential of adaptation studies and the numerous research opportunities it offers are also indubitable. Bruhn, Gjelsvik and Hanssen, for instance, recognize the centrality of fidelity and the comparative nature of the field (5), but they also pinpoint a battery of alternative approaches that range from teaching applications or the possibilities offered by new media and technologies to the relation between adaptation and screenwriting (4). On a different note, Smith assembles a joining of voices that explores concepts such as artistic imitation, film exploitation, or remixing. And the list of credits goes on. The multiplicity of branches and possibilities offered by the field, together with its expansive nature, pave the way for positing and delving into very diverse points of study such as those this paper intertwines: paratexts, fidelity, and the reception of film adaptations.

Additionally, as expounded in the introduction, it is worth underscoring that these are aspects that have not been yet explored in relation to John Fante’s work and its derivations. As it has been stated in previous sections, the author’s revival from the early 80s onwards triggered a growing critical interest and a corresponding multiplication of research books and papers. Hitherto, most of them have focused on Fante’s literary production (Cooper and Fine; Kordich; or Collins, among others), whereas a more marginal percentage has been devoted to Fante’s impact on other areas and artistic forms (for some examples, see Cooper and Donato). However, none of these works has delved into the precited points of study. Thus, the present paper can contribute to expanding upon the existing research on Fante’s work and its impact beyond literature by focusing on a series of angles and ramifications that have not been addressed heretofore.  

Now (More Than) a Motion Picture: Film Paratexts

The story of the film Ask the Dust is almost as labyrinthian as that of the novel it is based on. Its director, Robert Towne, discovered Fante’s book in 1972, while he was working on the script of Polansky’s Chinatown and trying to collect documents reflecting the way people in California talked in the 1930s (A Sad Flower in the Sand 00:04:15-00:04:40). A friend of his (also a friend to Fante) recommended the book, and a love story began in the turn of a page. Towne felt the book “right away came to life. It had an immediacy that just threw me back … I was enthralled with it... and I immediately thought it would make a wonderful movie” (00:05:20-00:06:03).

However, if the idea of making a film came instantaneously, its materialization did not. In the 70s, Towne’s previous professional commitments prevented him from writing the script (Rabin4 240). Personal problems ensued in the 80s, and in the 90s, Towne’s impetus collided with the interests of the Hollywood apparatus: nobody in the film industry wanted to finance the film (241-242). After ten years, the project was again revitalized. Colin Farrell first and Salma Hayek later came on board, and with them, the necessary funding to fuel the production of the movie (241-242). After more than 30 years, a film adaptation of Ask the Dust was finally about to see the light.

Towne’s admiration and unrelenting efforts to turn Ask the Dust into a motion picture have been solidly and sufficiently established by the director himself and writers and scholars with an interest in John Fante and the transcendence of his work. Still, other aspects related to Towne’s adaptation, such as the use of the original author and work as instruments to promote the film and lure spectators into movie theatersor the impact of the book in the reception of the motion picture by particular audiences, are still uncharted territories. 

Enter paratexts. This concept was coined by Gérard Genette in the book Paratexts: A Thresholds of Interpretation, and it is not an easy idea to grasp, probably because of the author’s numerous examples and digressions. In this vein, Batchelor completed a magnificent synthesizing exercise to provide a straightforward definition of the term: paratexts are “any element which conveys comment on the text, or presents the text to readers, or influences how the text is received” (12). As it can be easily surmised from the terminology used hitherto, Genette’s studies focused mainly on (French) literature and its circulation. However, as Barker avers, Genette himself opened the possibility of extending the study of paratexts to other fields (239). Thus, in parallel to the exponential and incessant evolution of technology and artistic forms, paratexts have embraced the fluctuating signs of the times and adapted to new formats and media as they boomed. The film industry provides a breeding ground for the proliferation of paratexts that take the form of “all manner of ads, previews, trailers, interviews with creative personnel, Internet discussion, entertainment news, reviews, merchandising, guerrilla marketing campaigns, fan creations, posters, games, DVDs, CDs, and spinoffs” (Gray 1), among others.

Such a wide variety of paratexts also multiplies their impact and functions. As Barker discusses at length, their function is not fixed: it is fluid and may change depending on myriad factors. Accordingly, most paratexts tend to play a twofold role that reveals a double nature (236): on the one hand, they can help shape expectations and create streams of opinion amongst certain audiences; on the other, they may also reflect how a given product penetrates particular segments of population. Film critics’ reviews are a perfect case in point in this regard, since they not only show the opinion of a specialized group of writers, but they can also have an impact on the way mass audiences receive the movie. In this study, we will delve into the former function so as to explore to what extent critics acknowledge Towne’s Ask the Dust as an adaptation and whether/how they have assessed it in comparison to Fante’s book.

Paratexts typologies were comprehensively charted and categorized by Genette but, under all his enumerations and catalogs, a basal distinction underlies: the one between peritexts and epitexts. According to Genette, the former encompass those materials appended to the text (12), whereas the latter are those paratexts that are not attached to the work at hand (344). Additionally, the author introduces a core criterion to determine the concept of paratext: function. As cited above, paratexts should play a role in presenting, commenting on, or determining the reception of a particular text, an inherent quality of peritexts that does not necessary apply to all epitexts. Consequently, the latter will only be considered paratexts if they fulfill at least one of the three precited functions (Batchelor 12). 

Barker expands on this condition in order to list four basic requirements for an ancillary material to be called a paratext. Firstly, they should exist because of and in relation to a given work. Secondly, they should draw attention to specific features of said work and comment on them in particular ways (a point analogous to Genette’s functionality). Thirdly, they must be relevant, interesting, easy to categorize, and clearly relatable to the work they stem from. Finally, each kind of paratext will have its own distinctive features and, at the same time, the capacity to interact with the other ancillary materials that shape the paratextual ecosystem (242-243). 

In some cases, whether ancillary materials can meet these four prerequisites may spark an interesting and multifaceted debate. However, the subsequent analysis delves into a sample of both peritexts (opening and end credits) and epitexts (posters, trailers, film-related interviews, and film reviews) that clearly resonate with both Genette’s requirement of functionality and  Barker’s four conditions: all paratexts stem from and point towards a specific work (the movie), are relevant and easily categorized, fulfill specific functions, and have their own distinctive traits as they also coexist and “dialogue" with other paratextual elements related to the film in different ways (they supplement, replicate, or even contradict one another).

Methodology

The upcoming analysis of paratexts is organized as follows. In the first place, peritexts and epitexts issued prior to the movie release or during its first year running in US cinemas are dissected in order to determine whether Fante and his novel are cardinal or secondary factors in the promotion of the film. The former category includes both opening and end credits, while the latter encompasses trailers, posters, and a short list of interviews (10) with the director and protagonists of Ask the Dust.

The second phase of the analysis addresses another type of epitexts, reviews by film experts, and bifurcates into two substages. On the one hand, it seeks to establish if the conclusions that stem from the first part of the analysis cohere with the visibility of John Fante’s work in the critiques issued by film critics. On the other, it intends to determine in how many cases this visibility is limited to a technical datum and on which occasions the novel plays a bigger role in the assessment of the movie. Ultimately, this last figure will be broken down to quantify the presence of the fidelity issue and document whether the book-film correspondence is used as a tool to dispraise the film, to highlight its qualities, or with a different purpose. The sample of reviews handled throughout this phase amounts to 50 written critiques retrieved from different US media.

Where is Fante? Paratexts and the Critical Reception of Ask the Dust

Let opening credits open the discussion. The first remarkable element in the overture of the film is that the cast is presented to the audience with the pages of a book turning one after another to successively introduce Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland… (Ask the Dust, 00:00:40–00:01:15). Not incidentally, the cover of this book is the same as the one in an early edition of Ask the Dust.There is a sole difference between both: in the film, Fante’s name has been removed (Figure 1). After missing this obvious opportunity to introduce and underscore the author whose work ignited Towne’s dream/nightmare project, we have to wait two minutes and read a long range of participants in the inception and construction of the film before the text “Based on the novel by John Fante” pops up. The writer’s role is once again veiled in the end credits. After dozens of names and capacities have paraded before our eyes, the film displays a brief dedication to Fante and his wife—“For John & Joyce; gratefully, Robert” (01:51:30)—just 30 seconds before the screen goes black. A nice gesture as this may be, it is unlikely that spectators would wait on their seats until Towne’s heartfelt acknowledgment appears. Even Bandini himself would have left the building long ago.

Ask the Critic: Paratexts and Critical Reception of the Film Ask the Dust in the United States
Bruno Echauri-Galvan , Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. A replica of the cover of the novel (without Fante’s name on it) in the opening credits of the film.

In a similar vein, the official trailer of the film backgrounds the source on which Ask the Dust’s script was based. Towne’s name (01:01) and status as an academy-award winner (01:12) are the two first written messages related to a person we can see during the teaser, a fact suggesting that the director and his Hollywood résumé are a more powerful enticement to lure people into a movie theatre than the mercurial popularity of a cult writer. Farrell (01:53) and Hayek (01:57) are the next in line. To see Fante’s name on the screen we have to wait for the list of credits at the end of the trailer (02:16) in which the author is, again, one of the last names to be named. And no, no voice-over narration, a resource used extensively during the film, mentions him or the novel in the 02:22 minutes this promo lasts.

The teaser of the film hints at something the official poster of Ask the Dust confirms: if there is a writer behind the story to be highlighted that is not Fante but the scriptwriter and director Robert Towne. Once again, his name and achievements occupy a privileged position on an epitext of the movie. In fact, it is the first piece of information we will encounter in a top-down reading (“Directed by the Academy Award Winning Writer of Chinatown”). On the center of the sheet, we can find the names of the protagonist duo in lowercase dark letters adjacent to the title of the film in a golden, bigger font. At the bottom of the poster, there is a catalogue of participants in the movie (production companies, producers, editors, costume designers… the usual drill) in minuscule almost unreadable letters (using a brown font against a dark backdrop does not seem the best strategy to boost legibility). Almost at the end of this list, in penultimate position, John Fante pops up. This practice is, by the way, enhanced in another peritext that mirrors the design of the poster: the official DVD. Using the same palette of colors, Fante is here relegated to the back of the box. His name is so small and surrounded by so many additional elements (a synopsis, snapshots of the film, age rating, run time…) that it is hard to find even when you already know it is actually there.

Such decisions are not uncommon, since the use of the source text as an argument to justify the price of the ticket depends on whether the novel’s cachet or success makes it worthwhile to advertise the film as an adaptation in paratexts like posters, trailers, or press kits, among others (Hunter 11). Fante and his book, however, become more visible when the focus and spotlights move to the interviews with the main players involved in the film. Especially when the speaker is Robert Towne. The devotion he transmitted in Louter’s documentary (see previous sections) permeates each tête-à-tête with the press: his fascination for the Italian American writer is transparent, and so is his will to vindicate his figure and his role as an inspiration for the movie: “If there’s a better piece of fiction written about L.A., I don’t know about it” (Golden Scene); “I had not ever read anyone who had really captured the Los Angeles that I remembered as a child… I had forgotten that that Los Angeles really existed until I read Fante” (Ross); "I stumbled across Ask the Dust. And I was amazed, affected deeply by it. It jogged my memory about my own experiences” (Rabin); “It was tremendously meaningful to me, that and the character of Bandini” (Groucho Reviews); or Towne’s direct comment to Fante, “John, I think this is the best book about Los Angeles ever written. It's a much better book than The Day of the Locust” (Anderson) are just some of the panegyrics he shares with his interviewers. In like vein, producer Paula Wagner joins Towne’s eulogy and points out that Fante’s work is a superb anatomy and exploration of Arturo Bandini, “an inner monologue that takes us through the mind and the soul” of the protagonist and allows us to “experience his emotional state, his sense of the world, his fears, his obsession with achieving the American dream” (Golden Scene).

Fante also surfaces in some interviews with Salma Hayek, but, admittedly, his presence is more intermittent. In her conversation with Cunningham, she makes no reference to him. In Golden Scene, she just utters a descriptive remark to state Fante “placed Arturo and Camilla in the middle of a very difficult social and political fissure.” It is when talking to Balfour and to Lee that we get her more enthusiastic opinions. In the first case, she praises the plot of both the film and the novel and supplements her statement by affirming “It would take a writer like John Fante to write the book and a writer like Robert Towne to write the script.” In Lee’s interview, Hayek discusses the book to admit she did not read it before shooting the film and that, given her eventual bond with Camilla and the strong emotions triggered by Fante’s first pages, it took some time for her to gain the necessary strength to brave the whole tome. All in all, the attachment to the novel she conveys is nowhere close to Towne’s—something understandable if only because of generational and provenance reasons—, yet she still recognizes Fante’s talent as a storyteller and a cartographer of alienated people’s feelings in 1930’s Los Angeles. Farrell, on the other hand, never acknowledges the role Fante’s work played in shaping the film he stars in, although it must be noted his contribution to the only interview in which he participates is rather peripheral, as his words are only recorded twice (Golden Scene).

To sum up, the author and the novel seem to play an ambivalent role in the distribution and the marketing strategy that framed the release of the film. Whereas most interviews underscore, with varying levels of intensity, Fante’s figure and work, the rest of the paratexts analyzed hitherto veil the Italian American writer and the role of his novel as a scaffold for Towne’s script. And yet, despite this divided scenario, film critics are well aware of the material the film is based on: all the reviews consulted—with a sole exception (Pejkovic)—mention John Fante and his book throughout the text. The extent to which this is a relevant issue, however, fluctuates substantially across the different items of the sample.

Before delving into this matter, a general appraisal of the reception of the movie may help introduce and contextualize upcoming remarks. In this regard, critics’ overall evaluations of Ask the Dust are fundamentally mild or negative. Only 16 out of the 50 reviews consulted (32 %) could be labeled as positive; on the other hand, 6 could be considered mixed and 28 (56 %) are clearly discouraging. These figures show an evident inclination towards the unfavorable side of the continuum, with a small percentage of reviewers positioned in the middle of the scale. This conclusion resonates with the data found in some of the most relevant collectors of film reviews the likes of Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. In these websites, the average rating of Ask the Dust by film experts is 58 and 35 points out of 100 respectively. But what matters the most for the purposes of this study is the impact of the book on critics’ assessment of the film and the types of opinions it triggers.

Picking up the thread posited two paragraphs before, the visibility of Fante and his work in the sample analyzed is pervasive but shows different relevance degrees. Two categories should be established in this regard. The first one encompasses those texts in which the information about the novel and his author is peripheral, even anecdotal. 13 reviews only mention the book briefly, as a kind of technical datum embedded in the text. Some examples of this trend are the analyses by Kennedy, Lemire, or Waffle.

An emanation of the numbers above is that 28 % (including the one critique that overlooks the original source) of the sample does not assess film adaptation in terms of fidelity but analyzes the movie fundamentally as an independent product and understands that the leap from one medium to another entails (and paves the way for) a wide array of modifications that make movie appraisal more than a mere comparative process. In a way, this fact could be interpreted as an echo of the new trends in adaptation studies that advocate letting fidelity and faithfulness be bygones. But, as the next passages showcase, rooted ideas, like bad habits, die hard. 

In this respect, figures are clearly higher when we focus on the texts in which the book-film comparison is one of the bricks that helps build the review. In this case, 36 out of the 49 reviews (73.46 %) that mention Fante and his work include, to some extent, fidelity as a point of discussion. For this paper to meet its purposes, this figure should be further subdivided into two categories: critiques where the book-film contrast triggers positive remarks, and texts in which the precited comparison articulates or helps supplement a negative opinion of the film. This classification has produced the following data: 9 reviews praise Towne’s doing in adapting the novel, while 22 criticize the movie as an alleged reflection of Fante’s work. The five remaining texts escape a clear-cut categorization: Linden’snalysis combines both positive and negative remarks about the adaptation, whereas Berardinelli’s and Ebert’s address fidelity not as an instrument to praise or debase the movie but from a non-judgmental angle. Anecdotically, two reviewers do mention the source material in their texts (both as a potential explanation for the flaws in the film) but admit to not having read Fante’s novel (Snider, Havens).

The high percentage of instances in which reviewers question Towne’s adaptation work encapsulates the answer to one of the secondary objectives of the paper: critiques that address the book-film correspondence tend to wind up portraying the former under a rather negative light. The intentions of some of them are transparent right from the start. Hornaday’s title to open her review, “John Fante’s Superior Novel Leaves Film in the Dust”, starts a current followed by Leszczewicz’s “Towne Drops the Ball on Fante's Classic Ask the Dust”, or Reed’s “Ask Towne: What Went Wrong?”, among others.

As we continue erring on the side of cautionary advice, we find texts developing comparisons between the film and its literary source that are sometimes scathing, sometimes more nuanced. Amongst the former, Smithey labels Towne’s film as a “misguided rewrite that reverses the novel’s narrative significance” and “mucks up John Fante’s classic Depression-era novel,” as Hornaday categorically affirms that Ask the Dust is “a novel that was meant to stay on the page.” In a similar, more aggressive vein, Smithey avers that “No one gets away unscathed in Robert Towne’s overblown attempt at transfiguring John Fante’s novel to film,” whereas Uhlich describes Fante as “one of those hard-boiled eggs whose prose practically drips a uniquely male breed of cynicism and atmosphere masking a perpetually tormented emotional center” immediately before stating that the “film replaces down-n-dirty with spit-n-polish.”

The second category encompasses a gathering of voices that are not so harsh on Towne’s adaptation, but still pinpoint several flaws when compared to Fante’s work. Edelstein (2006), for instance, affirms that the director “has lost touch with the book’s youthful delirium.” In a more comprehensive comparison, McCarthy opines that some features, reflections, and behaviors of Bandini “were acceptable on the page,” but have a difficult translation into the big screen. Similarly, he considers that Towne’s ending “elaborated significantly from the novel, ends things on a flat note” (Figure 2) and underlines that filmic Camilla “may not be as cheap and bedraggled-looking at the outset as one imagines the character on the page,” albeit Hayek gets kudos for a brilliant performance. Other critiques are topical in nature. Levit instantiates this trend as he notes that “The movie supposedly intensifies the novel’s incipient racial tensions” but “racism doesn’t feel to be in the air.”  Finally, in a nuanced mirror of Hornaday’s previous remark, Wright underscores that “you can’t help but feel that [the film] would work better in the page.”

Ask the Critic: Paratexts and Critical Reception of the Film Ask the Dust in the United States
Bruno Echauri-Galvan , Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2. A notable example of said “elaboration”: Bandini-Farrell next to Camilla’s grave in one of the final shots of the film.

A recurring aspect that is unfavorably portrayed by the authors of these reviews is the romanticization of Fante’s plot. Appelo, for example, avers that “Towne pares down John Fante’s autobiographical cult novel into a melodrama about a tubercular Mexican waitress… beloved by Italian-American aspiring novelist Arturo Bandini.” This basal idea is reiterated by a long list of reviewers who, among other things, state that “Ask the Dust's die-hard fans are lined up to attack the film as a softening of the hard-boiled novel. They have a point: Towne's salty script turns bittersweet and disappointingly pedestrian in its last act” (Canavese); highlight the fact that “in turning Ask the Dust into a more conventional romance, Towne has muddled the triangular relationship of Bandini, Camilla” (Edelstein); or define the film as “a romantic melodrama told very prettily and clearly with deep respect and affection on Towne's part, but without an ounce of Fante's wit or muscularity” (Hornaday) (Figure 3). Although probably obvious to most Fante and movie addicts, Hoberman perfectly discloses the most plausible reason behind Towne’s modifications in this regard: “a concession to popular taste.” Albeit box office prospects were never too high, some compromises to the Hollywood apparatus needed to be made, especially if we consider a) Towne’s long-standing difficulties to get the movie funded, and b) the “difficult transition from page to screen” (Canavese) of Fante’s story.

Ask the Critic: Paratexts and Critical Reception of the Film Ask the Dust in the United States
Bruno Echauri-Galvan , Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3. Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) and Camilla (Salma Hayek) in one of the many romantic scenes in the final act of the movie.

The examples discussed in previous paragraphs have yet another implication, which is related to the ceaseless criticism against Towne’s execution of his task as the scriptwriter and director of the film. This fact resonates with the previous analysis of the peritexts issued by the distribution company, Paramount Classics, and puts into question a part of the strategy to advertise the film. Highlighting Towne and his reputation definitely provides the average spectator with two good reasons to pay for a ticket; but any plan proves itself right or wrong after a while, and not all of them come together eventually. In this case, the path taken by Paramount seems to partly backfire in the eyes of a long list of film critics: hype does not always pay as expected.

As stated above, however, there is another range of critics writing in the opposite direction. And they can craft transparent titles too. Tirella’s heading “Will Colin Farrell Make John Fante Famous? ‘Ask the Dust’ Gives a Forgotten Author Another Chance at Fame” paves the way for an examination with a special focus on the novel in which the reviewer intersperses and praises the parallelisms between the source text and the film. This trend in which the book-film similitude is positively depicted is followed by fellow critics like Mapes, who highlights the fact that “the movie is faithful to the angry, conflicted tone of the source,” Dargis, who applauds Towne for turning “Fante's glorious howl into a requiem for a city and those who escape its gilded clutches,” or Fox, who defines Ask the Dust as “a nicely played and deeply personal” but “not exact adaptation” of Fante’s work. Some reviewers even see light where others saw a long drain for the film to run down. Dargis considers that sugarcoating the plot is not a flaw but “a concession to the reality that all those pages crammed with Arturo's thoughts, observations, digressions and dreams wouldn't easily translate to the screen”; additionally, she states that, by underscoring the protagonists’ affair, Towne foregrounds and expands on the idea that “Camilla isn't just another Angeleno who feeds the fires of Arturo's imagination … she is where he finds a sense of self and belonging.” Likewise, Levy endorses the director’s decision of further stressing “the racial divide” in his adaptation, a choice that makes the film “quite poignant in showing the relative position of racial minorities in the social hierarchy.”

There is still another particular that stems from the previous discussion. "Ask the Dust may steer some curious viewers to the original book, and that would be a boon,” writes Hornaday in her evaluation of the film. Even if they are losing traction in the ever-growing field of film epitexts, critics’ reviews can still play a role in shaping the expectations and preconceptions of general audiences; thus, it is more than likely that this long list of analyses mentioning Fante’s novel and its main traits will unveil the source material to some readers… as it somehow cements fidelity as an axis in the discussion of the movie. Due to length restrictions, it has not been possible to include the analysis of general spectators’ comments and reactions as a part of this study. These and other elements can surely help draw a more comprehensive picture of Fante’s impact on the overall reception of Towne’s Ask the Dust and on the relevance of the fidelity debate in the assessment of the film; concordantly, they will surely make a terrific sequel to the matters addressed in this paper. Coming soon.

 

Conclusions

In the expression credit where credit is due, “where” is sometimes more than a mere component. The influence someone or something has exerted on our work can be acknowledged in varied fashions that may foreground or overshadow our muses. In this vein, John Fante might have inspired the film Ask the Dust, but not a relevant part of its promotion campaign. “If you never read or even heard of John Fante don’t fret: you’re far from alone,” states Tirella in the overture of his review. Behind this appeal to common (un)knowledge underlies the fact that Fante’s status as an underrated/cult writer is not magnetic enough to make him a pole of attraction worth foregrounding in the advertising of the film. According to the Hollywood formula, Towne, the winner of an Oscar and a respected and renowned screenwriter, fits way better in this part. Towne’s pronouncements in the media are precisely the main counterpoint to Fante’s secondary role during the promotion of the film, a rather understandable position considering the director’s 30-year obsession with the project.

The invisibility of the source in several promotional paratexts is not mirrored, however, by film critics. Almost all reviews credit Fante and his work, and although not all of them engage in this discussion, a big percentage tackle, at some point, the book-film debate. The winner of this argument is, on most occasions, the novel, a fact that echoes the long-standing axiom that the source is systematically superior to the text that stems from it (Stam 58). A few reviewers, however, do acclaim Towne’s Ask the Dust as a commendable counterpart of Fante’s tome, and two of them, Levy and Dargis, even analyze the film as a means to explore new dimensions of the novel and establish a dialogue between two texts that are fated to complementarity. MacCabe5 would be definitely satisfied.

End credits or a final note that seems relevant to the field of adaptation studies at large. Earlier on, readers can find a list of scholars that have disputed the appropriateness of the book-film comparison as a pivotal tool in the development of the discipline. Right as they may be, the paratextual analysis presented on previous pages lays out that this message has not totally percolated into audiences other than academia. Movie experts still articulate part of their analyses on film adaptations within the frame of the is-the-book-better-than/faithful-to-the-film? rationale. Leaving aside the obvious need for novel approaches to circulate in a nimbler manner and reach further audiences, it is also true that the discussion is, like the Star Wars saga or the Marvel Universe films, still far over. And as long as this debate exists, research should pay due attention to it—either through a descriptive or prescriptive lens—and try not to debase the matter by labeling it as an allegedly outmoded argument when this does not resonate with the current state of affairs in spheres beyond specialized studies. Sequels are not necessarily good or better than the original movie; and yet, we watch and talk about them with (in)conspicuous contempt… or, sometimes, a secret, undisclosable joy.

Notes

1  Member of the research group RECEPTION and the Research Group on Contemporary Literature (University of Alcalá).

2  Fante’s first novel, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, was adapted into a film in 1989 by Belgian director Dominique Deruddere.

3  See Leitch 2008 and 2012.

4  This paper is based on an interview published in AV Club in 2006 that will be used in subsequent parts of the study.

5  Based on the substratum of Bazin’s ideas, MacCabe averred that novel and film should establish a dialogical relationship in order to create an “ideal construct” that amplifies the meanings of the former (6).

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