From Story to Song to Cinema: Re-interpreting Raymond Carver

What we talk about CarverAt the South by Southwest music and film conference in Austin, Texas, in March this year, writer Larry Ratso Sloman attempted to flatter Nick Cave by telling him that, for a drug addict, he was more productive than William S. Burroughs.

‘I dunno, really. I don’t know his stuff. Is it any good?’ Cave replied. ‘I’m more for Edgar Rice Burroughs,’ he added, helpfully explaining to the audience that the alternate Burroughs wrote Tarzan.

But I don’t see too much Tarzan in Nick Cave’s work. And I can’t imagine that someone with his interests wouldn’t have an intimate knowledge of William S. Burroughs. Surely he was taking the piss?

The inspiration drawn by writers, musicians and filmmakers from each other’s work is intriguing and instructive. When a musician or filmmaker uses the words of a writer in the creation of a song or a movie, the interest in both works is enhanced. Audiences want to hear all about the interpretation of one artists’ work by another, particularly when both are respected and successful.

To me, Nick Cave is more often like Cormac McCarthy than either of the aforementioned Burroughs. If you think of themes like being hunted and the heavy burden of facing your approaching death, his screenplay for The Proposition and his novel And the Ass Saw the Angel could be seen as more focused renditions of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. All are stories of men who set their own blood-thirsty rules and have no regard for normally accepted societal codes. In his more light-hearted moments, such as with Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! Cave reminds me of the Coen brothers circa Barton Fink, Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski. No Country for Old Men, which the Coens released in 2007, was based on the 2005 McCarthy novel of the same name. Nick Cave should have done the soundtrack for that. But these connections are simply within the interests and temperaments of the artists. There is no reinterpretation of one’s work by another.

Looking within our own shores, singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and filmmaker Ray Lawrence have both re-interpreted the same Raymond Carver short story: ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’. From the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ delivered six pages of such intensity that it inspired Paul Kelly to pen the lyrics for ‘Everything’s Turning to White’, and name his album after Carver’s short story. Ray Lawrence’s 2006 film Jindabyne was also heavily based on the Carver piece.

The story begins: ‘My husband eats with a good appetite. But I don’t think he’s really hungry.’

Such a beginning could be prosaic in the hands of a lesser writer, but in Carver’s stories the reader knows that those two short sentences are pregnant with meaning.

The narrator is the wife of a man who decides to leave the naked body of an apparently murdered girl floating just downstream, while he and his mates spend the weekend fishing, exactly as they had originally intended to do. In the days after her husband’s return from his fishing trip, Claire has to figure out who her husband really is, what their marriage really means and what they’re both talking about when they talk about love.

Carver’s Claire wishes her husband Stuart had gone fishing at any place closer to home. That way, he wouldn’t have found that girl and she wouldn’t have had to find out what kind of man her husband really was. He’d still be that man, but she wouldn’t have needed to acknowledge it. She could shield herself from it, deny it even. Everything would not have to turn to white.

One of the keys to Carver’s brilliance is how skilfully he portrays mood and narrative depth with what his characters don’t say or do. There’s an often a brooding, sometimes sinister feel to his stories. In the short story, Stuart twice takes Claire to bed: ‘In bed he put his hands on me again and then waited as if thinking of something else. I turned and opened my legs. Afterwards, I think he stayed awake.’ The next morning Claire pretends to sleep in bed while Stuart makes their son breakfast and gets him off to school before leaving himself. Only then does Claire rise: ‘In the kitchen I find a note from him. It’s signed “Love”. The omission of every other detail from the note, except the word ‘love’, tells us all we need to know about Claire interpretation of Stuart’s love. She tolerates it, but she doesn’t accept it and won’t return it.

The songwriter, in contrast, only has a few minutes to do this. Kelly tells us in the chorus that Claire is pretending, that nothing is working inside:

When he holds me now I’m pretending
Nothing is working inside
And behind my eyes, my daily disguise
Everything turning to white

Film adaptations have more to play with: run time, actors, sets and landscape (indeed the open, rolling hills, the murky water and jagged bush are central to the mood of Jindabyne). Kelly’s and Carver’s Claire have both emotionally withdrawn from Stuart. Lawrence’s Claire, on the other hand, has a responsibility to hold our attention for quite a bit longer. She has no choice but to commit to a journey. She is more sensual, more emotional, and is more interested in reconciling her relationship with Stuart than either of Kelly’s or Carver’s characters.

This re-interpretation, one of the real strengths of the film, is a result of the collaboration between Lawrence and screenwriter, Beatrix Christian. Christian stays true to Carver’s themes, but she adds and embellishes. When Carver’s Claire attends the funeral of the murdered girl, she doesn’t approach the girl’s family, doesn’t divulge to anyone who she is or why she’s there. Christian and Lawrence have Claire announce herself, uncomfortably telling the grieving family she’s just come to pay her respects. But it’s her own feelings, not theirs, she’s most aware of.

In the South by Southwest interview, Nick Cave said song writing is ‘like pushing 13 watermelons out of the tiniest orifice. Whereas a book is just one long watermelon. Once it’s open, it just starts sliding out.’

In re-interpreting his songs as works of prose, the fruit doesn’t change much for Nick Cave. But give Paul Kelly or Ray Lawrence one of Raymond Carver’s watermelons and the skin grows a little thinner, and the flesh changes from a deep red to something a little paler. They taste different, but just as sweet.

This story originally appeared as Let’s Talk Carver, on the Readings blog ( on 17th April 2013

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