(in ‘Selected Stories of A.E.Coppard’, introduced by Doris Lessing, Cape,1972 and in ‘Country Matters’ (2-dvd set, Region 1, Koch, 2008).
A.E.Coppard is a writer I only recently became aware of, but one that has caught my interest. In the nineteen seventies a selection of his stories was published which coincided with the production of a mini series by Granada TV including adaptations of two of them. These programmes were recently re-issued on dvd in America, where Coppard seems better known than in the UK. One of the two was The Black Dog, a story of love across social and class barriers, set in the nineteen thirties.
As with many Coppard tales, the story has what some think of as an ‘open’ ending, in that it leaves the protagonists at a moment of decision, or perhaps indecision, inviting the reader to imagine a projected future in light of the past and present they have read.
Small details in this story are worth looking at. There is a switch, in the last paragraph, from the past to the present tense, a reference to what the protagonist might do, in the future. This places the teller of the story in our present, places us in the protagonist’s present, and the story becomes an explanation of why he is where he is, in that endless, fictional now.
This is one of those places where a film adaptation can do no better than have a voice over narrative – with the curiosity that in the Country Matters adaptation, by Hugh Leonard, that voice is heard over the image of Gerald travelling back by train to London. The film is trapped in the real time of its events. The narrative of the short story is freed from it. Voice over narrative in fact is often essential, where stories must be told, rather than shown!
There are other little changes. The station porter still has the exchange with Gerald, near the beginning of the story (nearer in fact in the written, than in the filmed version), but whereas in the film he refuses a cigarette, smoking only a pipe, in the text we have:
‘Take a pipe of that?’ said Loughlin, offering him the pouch.
‘Thanky, sir, but I can’t smoke a pipe;’
His reasons remain the same in both, though: to keep me from cussing and swearing’. The change is minor, but obviously deliberate, and raises the question of why it was done.
Would it have been awkward to film? There’s a scene in the book, The Lord of The Rings, where Gimli is given strands of hair as a gift from Galadriel. In the film this is cast into reported speech, simply because (according to the actor’s account in the ‘specials’ dvd), it was technically too difficult to enact. What would he do with his thick gloves? Where would he put the strands of hair? The pipe versus cigarette dilemma seems less obvious. Of course, establishing the protagonist as a pipe smoker would involve the character in other complexities, not to mention unsightly bulges in his pockets. For him to get out a cigarette and light it from time to time is nowhere nears as complicated – can be done almost unnoticed.
Could there also have been a change in the way we wanted to see our English gentlemen? Did the pipe, at the time of the making of the film, have a resonance unsuitable for the story the film-maker wanted to tell?
There is a languid quality to the film that softens the hard edges of Coppard’s story. The prettiness, of the characters, the costumes, and the settings of the English countryside, rivers, meadows, branchline steam railways, and higgledy-piggeldy rural buildings, the relentless sunshine, the incidental music, all tend to idealise this story. The common title, that black dog, loses some of its threat.
‘In their favourite glade a rivulet was joined by a number of springs bubbling from a pool of sand and rock. Below it the enlarged stream was dammed into a small lake once used for turning a mill, but now, since the mill was dismantled, covered with arrow heads and lilly leaves, surrounded by inclining trees, bushes of rich green growth, terraces of willow herb, whose fairy-like pink steeples Orianda called ‘codlins and cream,’ and catmint with knobs of agreeable odour.’
If we look at the words Coppard uses, do we find them evoking the same feelings as are evoked by the images of the film-maker? I think not, and here is problem of adaptation, and here the reminder that writers tell, and film-makers show. Coppard’s passage of description is flatter, more dispassionate, than the camera’s sound-tracked and technicolored scene. He could do lush and poetic if he wanted to: look at the descriptions that top and tail his very short story ‘Weep Not My Wanton’. There is also the fact that the rural background must always be there in the film, as his characters talk, but in the short story, it must be intermittent. Stories must be told one word at a time. Films are shown in many images simultaneously. We hear the dialogue over pictures. We read it between them. How does the film maker give us ‘arrow heads’ for lilies, or more correctly, how could he ensure that we think of them? How does he capture Coppard’s ‘vacillating leaves underscored the clamour of the outfall, gave to it the very serenity of desolation’? The ‘serenity of desolation’ is powerful verbal image, but if we each drew it, or photographed it, how many of us would replace the others’ images with that phrase, if we did not know what it was that they had tried to capture?
Yet, the mood, the ambience, of a Coppard piece is often, to my way of thinking, its major element, its point even. The events serve the mood. The mood is not there to support our belief in the events.
Churchill referred to his bi-polar depressions as a ‘black dog’, and there is a black dog dogging this story. It dogs Gerald Loughlin’s love for Orianda, her father’s and Lizzie’s love for each other, and Orianda’s attempt to return home. That black dog is created by Coppard’s choice of words, not by his choice of scenes to describe.
The film is, nevertheless, a powerful evocation of a lost England. Bare walls and the rough clothing of the rural poor, capture something of the bleak existence. Along with others in the series, it has a strong elegiac sense of nostalgia. Coppard though, was not being nostalgic. He was not writing about only the rural poverty either. His stories are of thwarted or failed love, unable to overcome obstacles of class, background and outlook. His characters struggle to cross gulfs of understanding, and to overcome their own natures.
In The Black Dog, Gerald Loughlin is eventually unable to cross the class barrier between himself and Orianda. He says ‘life is enhanced not by amassing conventions, but by destroying them’, but he cannot be the ‘barbarian’ that Orianda says, in the book, that she wants, and in the film, that she needs. Another minor detail change here signals something of the differing contexts of the tellings. The film strongly implies that Orianda seduces Gerald. She presses his hand to her bosom, and does something to him, off camera. We see his his wide-eyed reaction, and hear their breathing, before they sink out of shot. The book ends this scene differently, with Orianda turning ‘away for a moment or two’ before taking his arm and walking on. In both she has said, just before: ‘short of marrying me I could make you do nothing.’ Coppard is not being coy here. He is being explicit, for she has already said ‘you could do anything with me’, repeating the ‘anything’. This is an offer that he cannot accept, and to imply, as the film does, that he can, lances the boil of the scene, and the story, in addition to proving her second statement instantly wrong!
My guess is here that the film-maker didn’t let a good story spoil an audience expectation, and from what I remember of the nineteen seventies, we were egging our TV producers on to show us as much sex as they explicitly could. Coppard’s more thoughtful and poignant revelation of his characters was perhaps sacrificed, rather than overlooked. We like to believe that writers of Coppard’s era were repressed, or suppressing sexuality in their stories, but perhaps they were more interested in the motives, the passions, of their characters, than in their mechanical arrangements.
If you can play Region 1 dvd’s, the set, in which 4 Coppard and 4 H.E.Bates stories are adapted, is well worth the watching. Coppard’s stories are readily available second hand, especially the first half dozen collections (which are usually considered to contain his best work).