As M. Night Shyamalan's misbegotten fantasy Lady In The Water rapidly heads downhill at the box office, fans who've followed his directorial career from The Sixth Sense through The Village are likely wondering what was going through his head when he came up with this clunky, talky, self-indulgent story. They probably won't find out from Shyamalan, a generally private man who gives few interviews. Unfortunately, they also won't learn nearly enough from The Man Who Heard Voices, Michael Bamberger's book on the subject. In spite of unprecedented access to Shyamalan throughout the filmmaking process, Bamberger rarely gets below his subject's skin; his book is an awkward collection of romanticized surface impressions, manhandled into a stagy story that feels no more like real life than Lady does.
Bamberger's awe over Shyamalan saturates the book, and it regularly prevents him from coming to grips with his subject. Not that he utterly lionizes Shyamalan; he praises him effulgently, but also portrays him as fumbling, temperamental, and easily discouraged, particularly when people respond to his art with anything less than unbridled excitement. Shyamalan is a complicated figure, filled with equal parts arrogance and self-doubt, demanding candor when it suits him, but resenting it when it turns against him. But instead of grappling with these contradictions, Bamberger overexplains and justifies them, or predigests them into a simplistic story about the genius director whom no one properly understands.
Bamberger is primarily a sports writer—currently at Sports Illustrated—and that background shows throughout The Man Who Heard Voices, not just in his too-frequent sports metaphors and repeated comparisons between Shyamalan and Tiger Woods, but in the way he strains to impose linear meaning on action from a distance, and the way he falls back on underdog-story clichés. He tells plenty of moderately interesting production stories, but he seems generally baffled by the creative side of the endeavor, from the genesis of Lady's story (which he never explores) to the titular inner voices that serve as Shyamalan's guides. And unfortunately, what he doesn't understand, he can't investigate.