For me, world-building is one of the greatest aspects of reading, but the images we translate with our own minds don’t always match what’s on the page. A person's life, what they’ve experienced up until whatever it is that they’re reading, impacts how the story plays out for them. I think that’s why film adaptations of a novel can attract such high levels of scrutiny – how does the page match the screen match your mind?
This past Fall, in anticipation of the eagerly awaited film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name, I picked up a copy of the novel by André Aciman. To say the novel moved me would be an understatement. To say it captured me would be closer to the truth. The point of view of the novel is that of Elio Perlman, a 17-year-old boy living with his academic parents in Northern Italy in the 1980s. For six weeks, every Summer, Elio’s family hosts a grad student in a sort of exchange/internship program. One such Summer, Oliver the American, enters Elio’s life through this program, and what ensues is a neurotically erotic dovetail into first love. And it’s not just first love, but first same-sex love.
While reading, I couldn’t help but build a world where I was Elio, the feelings on the page eliciting memories of coming to terms with my own sexualtiy. The self-doubt, the hope, the fear, the thrill that Elio experiences with Oliver is a thing of relatable beauty. But because the novel is from Elio’s perspective, Oliver lands the uncertain role in any budding relationship – what exactly are they thinking? Feeling?
Months after finishing the novel, I saw the film by Luca Guadagnino, starring Timothée Chalamet as Elio, and Armie Hammer as Oliver. It was time to see how the page matched the screen matched my mind. While Elio in the book placed me firmly in his mind, Elio in the movie shared something more. Chalamet’s performance captured a side I didn’t notice during my reading – charm. He was damn charming. The aloofness he exudes in the book loses some of its edges in the movie, and becomes a sense of magnetic attraction instead. A push/pull more than a push driven by fear. The movie changed my perspective of Elio, with his bravado shining through, in a way not in conflict with the book, but offering a sense of synergy. This is something truly beautiful about film adaptations that are done right, when they elevate, even illuminate, the source material.
The story manages to transcend all its genre trappings: This isn’t just a luxurious vacation movie, but it’s still crammed to the gills with gorgeous shots of the Italian countryside and Elio’s family home. This isn’t just an erotic drama, and yet the love scenes are all choreographed with care. And most importantly, this isn’t just a coming-of-age tale, but the ardor Elio and Oliver have for each other feels utterly vital, as if every touch will be seared into their memories.
Sims later writes that, “Each element is carefully calibrated, but deployed with consummate grace—this is a film to rush to, and to then savor every minute of.” Listen to Sims’ account, if you haven’t already seen the film, and rush to the theater. Chalamet’s Elio, which is deservedly nominated for an Oscar, exemplifies the power of a great performance. While Hammer’s depiction of Oliver offers incredible eye-candy, his performance is much like what the book offers, with his own attraction to Elio only becoming clear once he verbalizes it – an equivalence between page and screen. There are a few surprises, but there is more joy in the the view.
Tyler Coates wrote a review of the film for Esquire, where he shares, “Call Me by Your Name feels different and fresh, and not just because it's a queer film. There is no talk about sexual identity, no drama about the struggles for the pair to keep their love a secret. It's there, of course, in rich subtext [...].” Continuing with, “First loves are the hardest to shake, as evidenced in the film's closing moments. Never before has a movie treated an inevitable loss with such dignity and beauty, [...] through a stunning monologue delivered by Michael Stuhlbarg [playing Elio’s father].” Coates hits the nail on the head. This film is about first love, and the joyous heartbreak of such a thing. And that stunning monologue? It’s one of the most heartfelt moments from the book, and executed perfectly on-screen.
‘Look,' he interrupted. 'You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don't snuff it out, don't be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we'd want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!
Now, imagine a world where all parents embody that level of empathy and understanding for their kids, for queer kids. Where love is love is love is love is love. This book, this movie, they left me feeling vulnerable. They left me feeling seen. They left me excited for what’s possible in love. With love. Call Me by Your Name didn’t just try to match the page to mind, it highlighted and fused this story into something more.