Call Me By Your Name: When the Film Is Better Than the Book

It was Easter, I was stuck at home, so I decided to watch Call Me By Your Name (2017), a film which had been on my to-see-list ever since I had failed to go and see it in the cinema when it was released. One of the reasons why I kept putting it off was the fact that the film is adapted from a novel. I’m biased, for I really like books, but I find that film adaptations rarely match up to the novels they are based on. As I found André Aciman’s novel rather tedious I didn’t have high hopes for the film. But the trailer looked interesting, I’d been assured by several people that the film was worth watching, and with nothing better to do I decided to give it a go.

For the uninitiated, Call Me By Your Name is about seventeen year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) who spends summer with his parents in their second home in Italy. Oliver, an American PhD-student played by Armie Hammer, comes to stay with them to work on his thesis. Although Elio and Oliver don’t get on very well at first, they gradually fall in love, even if they know that their relationship isn’t meant to last.

I have to admit that I liked the film far more than I liked the novel. For starters, the film adds what the novel couldn’t possibly offer: imagery. Normally I don’t really need to know what a novel’s setting looks like – give me basic description and my imagination will do the rest – but it really benefits this story, which is light on plot and heavy on atmosphere. The film is set in Lombardy, Italy in 1983 – and yes, it feels weird to watch people merrily go about their days there in these times of crisis.

Also, the film has a soundtrack. This is important when its plot relies heavily on music. Elio is a talented musician and hearing the classical pieces he performs in the film gives the narrative some much-needed depth. There’s one particular scene where Elio plays a Bach piece for Oliver in an attempt to show off and win Oliver’s approval. It’s funny, awkward and moving all at once, and it just wouldn’t be the same if we couldn’t hear Elio’s performance.

But the most important change is the film’s focalization. I found the book tedious because it’s narrated from Elio’s perspective, in first person. This means we get the full extent of his obsessive, narcissistic, repetitive thoughts about Oliver, and it really began to annoy me when I was about halfway through the novel. You can hardly blame Elio for being a self-absorbed nutcase: adolescents in love tend to be insufferable. I know I was. But to paraphrase Dutch author Gerard Reve: true story is no excuse. Realism is great, but not when the result is a boring story.

The film almost completely loses the focus on Elio’s feelings because it – cliché alert – shows rather than tells. The masterful performance of the two lead actors gives the film a wonderfully subtle tension because, contrary to the novel, so much is NOT being said. This really adds power to a story about love and desire.

It also creates room for Oliver’s perspective. In the novel I often wondered what it is that makes Oliver so attractive to Elio (Elio doesn’t bother to tell his long-suffering audience). But in the film we get to see Oliver – courtesy of the excellent Armie Hammer – and therefore see how he feels. The pained expression on his face in a close up near the end of the film is telling: Oliver is a rounded character with a personality and feelings of his own. Whereas in the novel, he was merely the object of Elio’s obsession.

I don’t mean to say that the book is bad, it just tells the story in a different way, and the film’s narration simply suits me better. I do encourage everyone to read the book and watch the film and make up your own mind. See them as companion pieces rather than competitors. And enjoy them both: there’s nothing like a love story to keep up one’s spirits in challenging times. Even if Call Me By Your Name is as bittersweet as it is exhilarating.

P.S. A sequel to the novel was released in 2019. I haven’t read the book yet but it received mixed reviews. A sequel to the film is also reportedly in the making. Whether this is good or terrible news I don’t know – I’m not sure if the result will be able to live up to the expectations of the film’s loyal fan base. For now, I’m mostly looking forward to seeing Timothée Chalamet star in Denis Villeneuve’s film Dune (another book adaptation!) set for release in December 2020. If Chalamet’s performance comes even close to Call Me By Your Name, we’re all in for a treat.

Image my own – Summer flower

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