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Watching Film Adaptations of My Novels Is Very Strange

Question: Do you think your novels, which rely on many uniquely novelistic devices, translate well into film?

Jonathan Safran Foer: You know, I can only say, I’m not the best person to answer that question.  I can only say what I like and don’t like.  And then I’m a terrible person to answer the question because it’s so emotionally complicated.  You know, I wrote my books as books.  I didn’t write them a screenplay.  I wrote them as book because I thought that was the form the story should take.  And I wrote them as I did because I thought that was exactly the way they should be.  Anything else is not what I would have chosen.  

That having been said, you know, when Liev Schreiber made a film of "Everything is Illuminated," I really relinquished all control and opinions because they weren’t going to be helpful.  The best adaptation, film adaptation, of a book is not the most faithful one at all.  Or at least it’s not the one that’s faithful to the text.  It’s probably the one that’s faithful to what the text is referring to.  So you know, it’s like if you saw a portrait of somebody you thought was very beautiful, you wouldn’t want to ideally spend the rest of your life with the portrait, you’d want to spend it with the person.  So I think when Liev made that film, he was trying to make a film about what the book was about.  

But as I said, it’s complicated because it’s like hearing your voice on an answering machine.  Just much, much stranger.

How do you feel about the term “magical realism” being applied to your books?

Jonathan Safran Foer: I don’t give a lot of thought to the term, “magical realism.”  I guess I don’t give a lot of thought to criticism of any kind; good or bad, you know. It’s not what I do. I think that creating fiction and understanding fiction are two very, very different things.  And our culture makes the mistake of thinking they’re more similar than they are.  

There’s a great old saying that a bird is not an ornithologist.  You know, just because it flies doesn’t mean it can explain the physics of flight.  Doesn’t even necessarily mean it chooses to fly.  It just flies because it’s a bird.  And I think a lot of art is produced because it’s what the maker makes.  There’s really no explanation for it.  And to assume that the things we produce are the result of lots of deliberate and conscious choices, I think that can be a mistake.

Recorded on August 26, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Safran Foer likens the experience of watching films of his novels to hearing his own voice on an answering machine—except far stranger.

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