Book-to-movie adaptations are more often than not underwhelming. There’s always the question of remaining “faithful” to the source, and runtime is another issue. Perhaps, the biggest limitation is translating literary language into something visual. In the case of André Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” (2007) this is particularly true, as the novel’s strongest feature is its lead character Elio’s narration: the way he describes falling in love and feeling desire heightens the central romance in the book. Impressively, the movie adaptation has the same effect using visual language. With careful direction, strong performances and smart choices regarding the script, the movie triumphs over expectations and delivers one of the most tender moments in film history.
Set in the Italian countryside in the summer of 1983, the movie centers on Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a dreamy, intelligent 17-year-old. Elio’s father, played by Mark Stuhlbarg, is a professor of archaeology and each summer the family hosts graduate students for academic mentorship. Enter Oliver (Armie Hammer), a confident American who Elio’s mom refers to as “movie star.” Elio and Oliver start off as friends, but their friendship takes a turn and Elio is soon head over heels in love with Oliver, which also marks Elio’s sexual awakening. Elio’s perception of Oliver in the first half of the movie is difficult to follow, as his feelings shift quickly from indifference to interest to desire and later love. Chalamet’s eyes and gestures guide the audience throughout these changes. Without any words, the audience is able to understand what Elio is feeling each time he interacts with Oliver.
The movie’s second half focuses on Elio’s romance with Oliver. Director Luca Guadagnino stated that the movie is the last entry of his “desire” trilogy, and the second half hits the mark addressing desire in the purest way possible. Sensual and compassionate, Elio and Oliver’s relationship is beautiful and inspiring to watch. The story’s charm derives from how quickly Elio and Oliver’s relationship evolves, but despite the swiftness they still manage to be convincing.
The movie is as sexual as its source material, but sex is used as a way to investigate the couple’s relationship rather than a filler plot device. In many ways, the infamous peach scene defines Elio and Oliver’s relationship and their devotion to each other. Visually, Guadagnino’s shots display the male body and sexuality in the most stunning way possible, which compliments the sensual atmosphere. Sufjan Stevens’ music is a nice addition, although Stevens’ contemporary folk sound doesn’t really match with the books setting and period. The heart-rending music and lyrics make up for the anachronism.
Although most of the conversations between characters replicate those in the novel, there are drastic changes made between the source material and the film. The main non-English language spoken is French rather than Italian, and some minor characters and plot points such as Vinnie and the launch party in Rome are omitted. The decision to exclude these elements is a smart choice, as it allows the movie to investigate Elio’s relationship with Oliver more. One of the admirable qualities of the movie is its simplicity, and introducing new characters and subplots would complicate the narrative.
The end is significantly altered as well, which has allowed many to speculate about the potential of a sequel. Instead of the book’s original ending, which features multiple flash forward scenes, the movie ends on much simpler terms by cutting the last 20 pages of the novel. If it weren’t for Chalamet’s heartbreaking performance, the new ending might be disappointing, but the last scene is arguably his biggest moment. As the end credits roll, the audience is still glued to the screen, unable to let go of Elio, Oliver and the beautiful Italian countryside.