Paolo Giordano’s debut novel – La Solitudine Dei Numeri Primi (The Solitude of Prime Numbers) has been a huge hit in Italy and its success will only spread through an English  translation and the movie version. I don’t read as much as I should in Italian, but this is one novel I persevered with and enjoyed . I can’t say the same about the movie which captures the look of the characters but sacrifices the originality and pathos of the novel for clichéd melodrama.

The novel centres covers a 24 year time frame from 1983 – 2007 and centres on the troubled lives of Alice and Mattia. Alice suffers a serious leg injury from a skiing accident as a child, has an oppressive father and a mother with severe health problems. Her anorexia is symbolic of her psychological fragility.

Mattia is also emotionally traumatized from a childhood incident. In his case, he is plagued by guilt over  the disappearance of his mentally disabled twin sister after he left her in park to go to a fancy dress party. He is an isolated figure who resorts to cutting himself  as a form of self-inflicted punishment.

Mattia is also a wizz at mathematics and the title of the novel references this ability. Prime numbers are divisible by  one and by themselves and among these are twin primes,pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other but divided by a single even number, for example 11 and 13, 17 and 19. Giordano uses this as a metaphor for the two main characters: “Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost but not close enough to really touch one another”.

This idea is ruined in the movie version by being spoken by Viola, a woman who at school orchestrated a campaign to taunt and bully Alice.  Given that the author co-wrote the screenplay, such insensitive changes to the plot are baffling.

What it illustrates to me is that  director Saverio Costanzo is a bad choice since he has the vibe of the novel all wrong.  This is a real pity as the  choice of actors in the key roles is excellent. Alba Rohrwacher as the adult Alice is particularly impressive – she lost 10 kg to play the part and looks scarily convincing as a sufferer of anorexia.

The musical score is by Mike Patten, a highly accomplished and versatile musician whose brief was clearly to create the feel of a romantic horror movie. It isn’t his music that creates the discord, but the use of original songs. The most significant of these are the pop standard Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes and the disco fodder of Yes Sir I Can Boogie by Baccara. Neither of these are in tune with the story of two lost souls trying to make sense of their world.

So what music might have worked?

In fairness to the filmmakers, musical references in the novel are few and far between.  I concluded from the novel that Alice has as much taste for music as she has for food i.e. practically none. Take this description for example: “On her way to Mattia’s house, Alice kept the music turned up  but if, when she got there, someone had asked her what she was listening to, she wouldn’t have been able to say”. This implies that she turned up the volume just to drown out the silence and later in the novel when we are told : “She took a CD from one of the ones stacked next to the stereo, without thinking too hard about it. A little sound was all it took to clear the air”.

Alice’s inattention and/or disinterest in what she is listening to is ultimately not  shared by the novelist who, in the closing chapter,  makes a specific reference to a lyric from Damien Rice‘s melodramatic song about loneliness  ‘Grey Room’ (“oh coz nothing is lost, it’s just frozen in time”) . Coming as it does so near the end of the novel, this should be a gift for Costanzo  especially since the rest of the lyrics to this song are highly appropriate: “Well I’ve been here before /
Sat on the floor in a grey grey room  /Where I stay in all day /  I don’t eat, but I play with this grey grey food”.

Surely it would have been easy enough to get the rights to Rice’s song but,  instead, the director inexplicably decides that a reprise of the hideous  Yes Sir I Can Boogie would sound best over the closing credits.

With such a lack of sensitivity you have to conclude that this is one bestseller that should have stayed on the printed page.