It’s officially Hollywood awards season, which means anxious moviegoers around the world can finally watch and compare the movies we’ve been hearing about for ages.
Perhaps the most elusive is Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. The film is currently only playing in New York and Los Angeles and awaiting a wider release, which means that you have time to read the book while you wait for it in another city or part of the world.
But contrary to all instinct, you may want to wait before reading. Call Me By Your Name is deeply fulfilling on both page and screen, but Call Me By Your Name may just be the rare case where you should watch the movie first before reading the book.
I read Call Me By Your Name in December, before seeing the film that had just arrived in New York. The novel is unapologetically gripping within the first few pages as André Aciman superbly describes Elio’s attraction – his love, his obsession, his unfettered desire – to Oliver. Aciman’s words are chosen with almost chemical precision to create a vivid and exact portrait of how young love consumes. The story soars, in large part, because of Elio’s hyper honest narration, which gives the reader an intimate and unparalleled account of one person’s journey through love.
Watching Call Me By Your Name on film lets the actor and audience interpret the meaning of every look and gesture.
However, the movie of Call Me By Your Name does away with Elio’s narration, so viewers don’t get those marvelous words. Instead, you get Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer acting the heck out of Elio and Oliver’s desires and impulses, without any words of narration to aid them in conveying their attraction.
Watching Call Me By Your Name on film before reading the book lets the audience interpret the meaning of every look and gesture of Elio and Oliver, before learning of every detail of every single thread of thought that led Elio to a single moment as Aciman depicts in the book.
Art is inherently subjective, much as we criticize it. Having the opportunity to freely interpret a relationship as complex as Elio and Oliver’s as an outside, third-person viewer, rather than through the novel’s first-person narration, only adds to the depth of Call Me By Your Name.
Take, for example, one crucial interaction the two share early on. Oliver touches Elio’s shoulder while a group of people are playing volleyball, and Elio wiggles away.
In the novel, you’re treated to this passage:
…I was so spellbound that I wrenched myself free from his touch, because a moment longer I would have slackened like one of those tiny wooden toys whose gimp-legged body collapses as soon as the mainsprings are touched…It never occurred to me that what had totally panicked me when he touched me was exactly what startles virgins on being touched for the first time by the person they desire: he stirs nerves in them they never knew existed and that produce far, far more disturbing pleasures than they are used to on their own.
It’s a deliberately relatable sensation, placed early in the book to show you that Elio’s passion is rooted in desires we’ve all shared. Not until later do we have the inkling that this brief moment is something beyond a casual interaction at a volleyball game.
In the movie, though, you see that scene play out over a split second as Elio squirms away. No explanation is offered, leaving the viewer to ask “Is he hurt? Is he being cautious? Is Elio even interested in Oliver?” Where the novel embeds you in Elio’s psyche, the screen version gives you neither Elio’s desire nor Oliver’s doubt in the moment. The scene is loaded with potential precisely because of its ambiguity — we could be any of those casual volleyball game bystanders, unaware that something far more tender is blossoming in their midst.
And those moments of viewer interpretation are echoed again and again throughout the movie. For instance, after Elio and Oliver’s first night together, Aciman spends pages and pages on Elio’s complicated thoughts about what just happened. As Aciman outlines in the novel, Elio and Oliver’s coupling is not the be-all-end-all bliss Elio imagined, but Elio feels that if it had remained in his imagination he would have gone mad wanting to live the experience.
Something bordering on nausea, something like remorse – was that it, then? – began to grip me and seemed to define itself ever more clearly the more I became aware of incipient daylight through our windows…I had known it would hurt. What I hadn’t expected was that the hurt would find itself coiled and twisted into sudden pangs of guilt.
Elio feels disgusted with himself, yet he cannot regret the decisions he never questioned. He feels an unbridgeable distance growing between him and everyone and everything tied to his life before the night with Oliver.
The beauty of the movie is that instead of analyzing [the scene] for us, we as the viewer get to watch Elio experience it.
In the film, all of those conflicting thoughts must be conveyed through Chalamet-as-Elio’s face, where it can be hard, as a an outside viewer watching an actor, to piece apart all those warring emotions just by watching.
But once again, that ambiguity may be the film’s strength. It seems impossible that this building, tumultuous romance would include the sort of temporary revulsion Aciman describes in the novel. It is the paradox of not wanting someone once you find out they want you, and the beauty of the movie is that instead of analyzing it for us, we as the viewer get to watch Elio experience it.
That’s not to say that Elio has cast away Oliver. The moment Oliver leaves for the day, Elio longs for his company as both friend and lover. In the book, readers are offered:
He was my secret conduit to myself – like a catalyst that allows us to become who we are, the foreign body, the pacer, the graft, the patch that sends all the right impulses, the steel pin that keeps a soldier’s bone together, the other man’s heart that makes us more us than we were before the transplant.
The very thought of this suddenly made me want to drop everything I would do today and run to him.
In the movie, viewers see this:
We see what Oliver sees, which is a confused kid grappling with sex and longing.
And perhaps that reveals the film’s greatest strength. Call Me By Your Name‘s not-so-secret weapon is Chalamet, whose performance communicates everything in Elio’s head and more if you watch closely enough.
Call Me By Your Name‘s not-so-secret weapon is Chalamet, whose performance communicates everything in Elio’s head and more
Take for instance, the film’s emotional closing, one long shot of Chalamet’s face presented during the credits in which we watch Elio process his relationship. Few other actors could carry such a powerful ending. Once again we are maddeningly distanced from Elio’s inner thoughts and can only wonder how he feels after everything that’s happened. You’ll relive every moment the two of them had together and hope it’ll yield answers. You’ll ache for him, a mere boy, as you watch the magnitude of the summer wash over him.
As it happens, the book ends well beyond that, with Elio recounting Oliver’s whereabouts and their missed connections well into adulthood. If the movie broke you, the book may offer some comfort in filling in what follows. Then again, it may break you all over again.
This isn’t as simple as a book or movie being better than its counterpart. Call Me By Your Name can and should be experienced in both forms: each text only enriches the other and bolsters this already soaring story of love, lust, and longing.
The novel is phenomenally written, but the film offers a rare opportunity to interpret two people’s incredible journey of falling in love. It’s an opportunity that should be experienced before reading exactly what the main character feels in the novel. Instead of poring over the text beforehand, we can savor the opportunity to witness Elio and Oliver’s love without expectation, subject to our honest reactions and the actors’ raw performance. And afterward – as the Oscar buzz builds – we can read the book and marvel over what inspired such a magnificent movie.
We do not deserve either, to be clear. But we can damn well try to earn them.