Novel by L.P. Hartley (1953)

Film by Harold Pinter (screenplay) (1971)

You would no more make a film of The Go Between without paying homage to its opening line, than you would one of The Importance of Being Ernest without the handbag! What’s more, because it is such an iconic line – even people who are not familiar with the story are likely to recognise it – we are all waiting for it.

            The film does not make us wait long, giving it in voice over as the two boys, Marcus and Leo, ride in an open coach and horses, towards Brandham Hall.

            ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’

            Thus the film gets out of the way what is expected of it, but also adroitly skips a dozen or so pages of the novel that I suspect are not so well known. Hartley’s opening line may have rung down the decades, but his opening chapter is a bit of a turkey, getting out of the way (or in it, if you have to wade through) a great deal of backstory, about Leo’s character and situation, that the film knows it can do without, or dribble in later, or leave us to guess, from what we see, and from what happens subsequently.

            In fact, reading those pages, I’m drawn to think that only a few lines of them are really important, but that the rest gives us a context in which we can believe in those lines: ‘Had it not been for that diary (….) I should not be sitting alone.’ It is the fact that Leo, as a middle aged man, is alone, and that his loneliness is a consequence of the events we are about to read of, that is the burden of this first chapter. This is the context of the telling of the story.

            The film plays down this context, although it does not entirely abandon it. Instead of giving us it at the outset, the film builds the concept, scene by scene in a series of short, unexplained insertions, in which we see the older Leo revisiting places that we recognise from that ‘foreign country’ as we are led through it. It is another way of reaching that final confrontation between Leo and Marian, in which she is enabled to give him her words of wisdom, an answer to his opening position which I quoted above: ‘There’s no spell or curse except an unloving heart’.

            This poignant message, which Leo will carry to Marian’s nephew, shakes the self-protecting veneer of Leo’s adult life. ‘Why then was I moved by what she had said? Why did I half wish that I could see it all as she did?’

            The book pairs the scenes of older Leo, as prologue and epilogue to the events between. The film builds them, piece by piece into the fabric of the story, but in the novel it is clearly Leo’s reflection on how he has reacted to the events of the past that is the point of the story. The question to ask is, does the framing of the novel enhance the poignancy of her final assertion?

            In the film young Leo’s story eclipses the old man’s memory, and his final self revelation seems less important. Perhaps a clue to why this is lies in the portrayal of the characters. Looking back at the film over forty years it seems more dated than does the novel over sixty. This is because the novel evokes, in words, the time it is set in, yet the film, in pictures, in sets, and costumes, evokes the period in which it was made. Here’s a difference between telling and showing. Words must be interpreted. Pictures must be viewed. Even if our interpretations evolve they will still mean what we think they are meant to. What we see remains the same, but it may not mean the same as it once did. Alun Bates as Ted, perhaps despite an intention to accurately reflect the last years of Victoria’s reign, looks like a nineteen seventies folk singer! And because we see Leo as a young boy without having suffered the dreary conditioning of the back-story in that first chapter, it is his story, and that of Ted that we focus on. We do not see it through the older Leo’s eyes, as I think the book intends us to.

            It is not necessary to see this change of emphasis as an attempt to subvert the book. It may simply be Pinter’s way of accomplishing the book’s aims in a different medium. Certainly, what follows in the book that brilliantly simple and startling opening line is a hard read, and had the film tried to follow it the narrative would have come to an abrupt halt. Both book and film were well received, yet in both I have an uneasiness with Marian’s final attitude to what had happened. In some ways it seems like self-deception, rather than some sort of more highly developed grasp on reality, and the ambiguity is there in the older Leo’s response too. The tragedy of Ted is perhaps a little heightened in the film, as it is part of the ongoing story, rather than, as in the book, of the recollection.

            This remains a curiously well matched pair of tellings though. The film made twenty years after the book was written, both set in a period long passed into history at the time of their creation, and both now belonging to a time itself long gone. Comparison with The Shooting Party seems not inappropriate, where the same society is examined, from a similar distance, though the film there was done in the same generation as the writing. It always struck me as important that in her opening lines, Isobel Colegate pushed her story into a past that disconnected it from us, as does Hartley’s first line. Perhaps that has to guide my closing observation: that the novel and the film, in The Go Between, were different generations’ views of the ‘foreign country’, and of what was most interesting in it, and of how we might relate to it.