On ‘Barney’s Version’: Paul Giamatti Is Barney Panofsky
February 24, 2011 | by Richard J. Lewis
David Bezmozgis | February 23, 2011
Well apparently I am also not a Talmudist. I believe I was thinking of the practice of posing questions in order to merit religious and philosophical debate. I don’t know what that’s called. As far as I remember, I was either thrown out of or skipped almost everyone of my Hebrew school classes. I vehemently protested the idea of having to sit in another classroom after I had already endured a full day of real school. I may have acted out a bit. So what do I know?
I agree with you. Film is elastic. And even though the screen is two-dimensional, the illusion is that we travel down the Z-axis and into the world beyond the screen’s proscenium. I’m thinking about the new technologies that amplify this experience like CGI and 3-D. I’m also thinking about gamers who put on those geeky glasses and sit in a simulated car seat in order to increase their visceral enjoyment of their pseudo adventure. Is that what we are after? A more intense experience? Perhaps this is why we take a book from a flat page and then send it through our mind’s processor in order to set up a blueprint of what the experience would be like? Movies can be like your imagination on steroids. Who doesn’t like that? But beyond this, if we are to move from style to substance, it could be that at the heart of any great book is a character with whom we fall in love. And when it comes to fictional characters we love, people just don’t want to buy into the old adage "It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Instead, they opt to take their relationship to the next level. I loved Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but in the end I lost her to the executioner. Imagine my delight when she showed up as a young Natassia Kinski in Polanski’s movie.
The same holds true for Barney Panofsky. Ultimately, he is what ignited my obsession with making this film. I couldn’t shake this character, nor did I particularly want to. I remember taking to him and his foibles almost instantly. Even in the early part of the book, which, as you know, is somewhat meandering, I still saw the cinematic potential. First of all, I heard his voice. It was at once both eloquent and crass; direct and digressive. Then I saw a distinct image of him, disappearing into the bathroom off the main hallway while I listened to him swear profusely about his malfunctioning prostate as he tried to pee. Next, I saw him staring quizzically at the colander in the kitchen. And then one by one, I met the other characters Mordecai had so richly drawn. Boogie, Clara, Irv, and the absurdly hilarious, the Second Mrs. P. By the time I got to the pièce de résistance, the part in which Barney leaves his own wedding to chase Miriam onto the train, I was hooked. I mean let's face it, Dave, Barney Panofsky was made for the cinema. We are talking a life that spans two continents, three wives, and forty years. Not to mention a murder mystery and the added pathos of Alzheimer’s. I always knew in my gut that this book had the elements necessary to make a great film. It’s easy to pare away what is not essential. What is difficult is a book adaptation in which so much has to be invented because there is not enough fuel or fodder.
The biggest problem for me was the narrative device, and I have to say it still remains a problem. Even though Michael Konyves brilliantly carved out a way to tell the story without Barney’s first-person narration, I miss it. I really do. My initial drafts told the story through Barney’s addled mind from the confines of a nursing home. And I felt I was being true to the idea of “version” embodied in the title. The unreliable narrator that we find in the footnotes (as written by Barney’s son, Michael) is an inventive literary device that doesn’t have a cinematic equivalent. But once you have seen Paul Giamatti play Barney Panofsky you suddenly understand why people want to see book characters on the silver screen. Mr. Giamatti was never out of step with Barney. He wore him as comfortably as an old, winter sweater and now when I think of Barney, I no longer imagine my grandfather or Mordecai. I think of Paul.