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We have to imagine what we’re told, but observe what we see.

Taika Waititi’s 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople was based on Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress. Set in the New Zealand bush both versions celebrate a strand of the Kiwi psyche, and several hundred square miles of its wilderness.

I encountered the film first, courtesy of my daughter who was living in Auckland at the time. Knowing my interest in how adaptations can change stories, it wasn’t long before the novel turned up, tracked down by my wife!

There are many ways in which, and many reasons why film makers change the stories they adapt. Technical issues, economic pressures, and the intent to put the story to the service of their own political or social agendas are the common ones. Out of the few dozen adaptations I have perused though, this one is perhaps the most unusual. The cast of the film is expanded both in numbers and in depth – the only cut is from two dogs to one, and I’m not sure whether that would be for technical or economic reasons! There are so many pigs, deer, possums (plus one Kiwi bird) and other animals killed, dismembered, cooked and eaten in the book, that I was tempted to do a headcount and list them, as was done with Peckinpah’s blood-fest Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, but really, the time required would have been above and beyond the call of this blog!

The film is nowhere near so bloodthirsty, though the two boars that are killed are killed suitably bloodily!

What the film adds are conversations and the characters to have them. Conversations from the book are expanded, new characters are added, existing characters are changed, usually to exaggerate their idiosyncrasies. Incidents are moved around, merged, or separated out. Even the two main characters, Uncle Hec and Ricky, are subtly changed, the thirteen year old part Maori delinquent seeming more competent, the tight-lipped old man seeming, perhaps less so in the book than in the film. Of course that might be because it is Ricky who tells the book’s story (apart from a chapter at the end, in which another character reflects upon the events, and speculates about the ultimate fate of the two runaways who have for a second time vanished into the bush together). An omniscient third person camera lens shows the film’s version.

Crump was hugely popular in his lifetime, and this novel was seen as his masterpiece. He too vanished into the bush from time to time and Uncle Hec might be seen as a proxy for him, both as a bushman, and as a sociopath. Writing a preface to the novel one of Crump’s sons refers to Crump as having a ‘sidekick ….. not a woman but a nine year old Maori boy’, and dates the encounter to around the time the book was first published. He refers also, to his own difficulties in relating to the eccentric Crump: ‘I never lived with my father’. ‘They were very relaxed and comfortable with each other, which is more than I can say for the old man and me;’

In fact if Hec is the proxy for Crump that anti-social streak must have been strong, and the fact that the author was described as a ‘great storyteller’ doesn’t really gainsay it. Telling stories, writing them, can be a way of distancing yourself from people as much as and perhaps more so than, one of connecting with them.

Crump’s story sees boy and uncle flee into the bush to avoid the boy being sent back into the Welfare system, and for nineteen months they evade detection and capture despite a developing hue and cry. The incidents of the story are mainly about the hardship of the trail, the repetitive killing of the game they live on, and the avoiding, where possible, of any human contact.  There’s an awareness to Crump’s book though, that is irrelevant to the film, and in the fact that, as Ricky’s narrative makes clear, survival is based, not only on the animals they hunt, but also on the supplies they find, left for emergencies in the various park huts that they visit – and also, to some extent, to the gear they steal from other ‘trampers’. Crump knew what it was to live in the bush, and presumably knew its limitations. The film doesn’t need to make the point, though it does show us the two fugitives finding, and using supplies in such huts. In fact, apart from the long period of Hec’s recuperation from a broken foot they sleep in huts probably as often as they camp out in both film and novel.

Crump’s style is described as ‘direct’ and ‘simple’, and even compared to Hemingway’s, as being ‘minimalist’. There’s a flatness to the story telling, that shows in descriptions of making a billy of tea being no less exciting than experiencing an earthquake, and vice versa. The pace doesn’t vary, the tension never seems to rise or to be resolved. Perhaps this is Crump attempting to capture the boy’s voice, or perhaps it reflects the way he saw the incidents that fill the book, and maybe how he experienced those which, presumably filled his own periods of bush-time. It’s almost as if a depressive were telling the story, certainly a detached narrator.

There was no sense, for me of any rising crescendo, no story arc, though there is a climax of sorts, just before the two fugitives decide to hand themselves in. I have often found that the ‘middles’ of stories can be more malleable, their component parts more easily switched around, than could the beginnings or endings, that it is only detail within those middles that needs to be sequenced carefully. In this story that is, I believe, especially true. The order in which the various creatures are slaughtered, the rains experienced, even that earthquake, do not seem to contribute to the development of an idea, or an outcome. That isn’t to say that there is no idea, but to find it, you have to look at the conversations between Hec and Ricky, and the reflections upon them that pass through the boy’s mind. My first reflection after finishing the book was that these conversations had been few, and relatively short, but re-reading showed that to be a false impression. In fact, Hec and Ricky talk quite often, and sometimes for a more than a page. It’s the limited depth of their conversations, perhaps, that gives the impression  of brevity and infrequency.

The incidents into which these conversations are embedded, I found as tedious, and for similar reasons, as watching somebody else’s holiday movies. If you’re into stalking and shooting and skinning and gutting and cooking on an open fire, I can imagine the story might entertain you with that for longer than it did me, but it’s interesting that Waititi chose to dump most of that stuff, having paid a lip service to it. One of the most remarkably ‘alive’ sequences of the book, comes at the end, when the sheep-station manager who has befriended the pair (and talked them into giving themselves up), describes his first encounters with them. He is graphic on their condition, which contrasts so powerfully with the story Ricky has told, that one begins to wonder if Crump had deliberately flattened that narrative voice, deliberately blunted its perception of what was really happening. It’s a technique that I could see working well in a short story, but over nearly two hundred pages of a novel, it must be a high risk strategy.

The sheep station manager, Robby Barton’s chapter is another first person narrative, and in a recognisably different voice. Here’s a sample of what he tells us about the two ‘bushmen’ after a year in the wilderness.

 

‘They were both dressed in rags tied around them with strips of torn cloth and flax……the boy’s trouser-leg had frayed off above the knee and                                 the leg was covered with old bruises and scratches……And they stank. Badly. Both of them.’

 

The film offers nothing like this description of the protagonists. They are never that ragged, that dirty, that unkempt. They are never desperate in the way that the book shows them to have been. Barton’s character and its viewpoint are not in the film.

There are two major elements the film brings to the story that are clearly not in the novel. Most obvious is the chase and shoot out sequence near the end, in which armoured vehicles and soldiers with automatic weapons pursue the fugitives, with Ricky driving a stolen car, across some sand flats. It’s a Keystone cops sort of chase, a spoof shoot out, and there’s nothing remotely like it in the novel.

The other addition is less extreme, but becomes a fundamental thread of the film’s story. This is the introduction of two characters, that will represent the pursuing authorities throughout the film. They add a humour that I didn’t find anywhere in the book. One is a world weary and cynical, though kindly, policeman, and the other is a Child Welfare Officer. They make a comic duo, with him constantly undermining, and commenting on her. She becomes more manic as the story progresses, making a comic rather than a sinister ‘baddy’, and the focus of the story, because of this duo’s repeated appearance, shifts from the two fugitives to the wider world from which they try to escape. In fact the whole film turns more towards the pursuers than the novel ever does, giving them more story time, more dialogue, and more actions – all of which have a comic tinge, lacking in the book. As a cameo role, this is most notable with the character Psycho Sam who replaces the book’s more mundane Quiet Brian. The names, and the change of names nicely encapsulates the difference between book and film, and implies the reasons for the changes.

Another addition is Kahu, who conflates separate elements of the book. She rides, with Ricky hanging on, to the house where she and her father are staying, and where there is a phone that Ricky can use to call in help for a sick man. Ricky spends the night with them, while Hec remains at a park hut, looking after the invalid. In the book’s equivalent Ricky goes only as far as the hillside above a house to yell for help, and refuses the offer to come down. In the book, the overnight stay becomes a prolonged one, much later in the story, with the sheep station manager. In the book it is he who rides the horse. Film makers extract small details that they presumably like, and recombine them in quite different ways to the original.

It seems to me that in this adaptation, the director has taken a popular story and recognised that it could not be merely transcribed to the screen. Yet he has not brought any new agenda to it, and the changes have not been for technical or economic reasons. Adding characters, and armoured vehicles would cost money, not save it, and there would have been no technical difficulty in showing the deaths and processing of dozens of animals. It would, however, have been simply boring. A way had to be found to make the story interesting: to make the events in the book into a story, because the story in the book is carried, between the events, in the relatively few exchanges between Hec and Ricky, and in the thoughts that Ricky has about their relationship.

Cinema audiences (and readers) are interested in the situations of their characters, but also in how characters react to those situations, and to each other. It is those reactions, and conversations that the film has focussed on, cutting out the detail of the events into which the book has embedded them. Crump wrote a book called Bastards I have met, and is cited by the anonymous commentator of the second preface to Wild Pork and Watercress as believing that ‘bastards’ outnumbered ‘heroes’ by 15,000 to 1. The simplistic division of people into these two stereotypes (perhaps among others) seems to underlie the story, and though the film goes a little deeper, none of the characters are more than caricatures, and even Ricky and Hec do not develop much beyond gaining a grudging respect, and liking for each other.

There are many stories in which characters are pitted against a wilderness, but few, in my experience where they are not trying to survive in order to reconnect with other people. In this story, in both versions, the protagonists’ intent is always to limit, and if possible avoid human contact, even with those whom they believe are trying to help them. Even their own relationship seems tainted with this attitude. Curiously, this element reminded me of Frank Herbert’s Soul Catcher, which I wrote about recently, for in that wilderness novel one of the features of the relationship between the boy and his Indian captor, is that the Indian distrusts the language connection between both him and the boy, and between the boy and the natural world. He is forever rebuking the child for speaking, rather than silently observing and listening. Even where the point is not being explicitly made, it would seem, language and how we use it is an issue of the stories we tell (even when we are showing them). I’m tempted to say that Taika Waititi’s story is better than the one Crump told, but that would be unfair. Crump’s told story gains from the richness of its readers’ imaginations, but Waititi’s shown one has to depend on what we see and hear. If you’d like to read more about adaptation, Take Two, how adaptation changes stories by Mike Smith is available here

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Went to Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake last night to see Hymn To Love, a showcase for Edith Piaf’s songs, and an imagined glimpse into her life. Set in a hotel where she is rehearsing for a gig, Piaf is haunted by guilt over the death of her Boxer boyfriend Marcel Cerdan. She talks and sings, linking the songs to the remembered episodes of her life. It’s a gripping piece, played by Elizabeth Mansfield as Piaf. Patrick Bridgman is the pianist to whom she pours out her heart. What’s clever about this show is the way he allows her to speak, nudges her to continue, and shows that he has heard, but never pushes the audience to a particular response, or makes a judgement of his own on what we are hearing.

Disappointing was the fact that all the songs save one – and yes, that one, to translate which would end up, no doubt, as Faux Frank Sinatra – have been translated (albeit cleverly) into English. Translating songs is like translating poems I suspect: the meaning can approximated, but the music is often entirely lost – the music in the words, I mean. Disheartening, was to hear in the after-show discussion, that an earlier production had soon revealed the unwillingness/inability of an English audience to stand an evening of songs in French. Pity, I thought, that they chose to change the songs rather than the audience.  Last night’s audience, whatever their ‘identity’ seemed to share the disappointment, even those of us not fluent in French (and English).

Hymn To Love is on for another week or two, and then moves to York, and will be in London in the summer. Well worth seeing.

 

The Dvd cover blurb for this solemn Danish film must have been written by a copywriter who either hadn’t seen it, hadn’t understood it, or simply thought it wouldn’t sell well if sold the way it was.

It’s the slowest developing film I’ve ever seen, but not slow in the way paint dries. It’s more like the slowness of a rich, intricate coral growing. It’s a dark film, and brings out the darkness of candlelight. The exteriors are shot on grey days, and reminded me of the stark black and white landscapes of the film Nebraska. The Jutland coast is layered with almost monochrome horizontals of land, sea and sky, and the scenes in the village street seem hemmed in by the simple boxes of the houses: dark, colourless thatch, white walls and grey timbers, the untidy grass ‘to the very door’, but grey rather than Wordsworth’s green.

The interiors are gloomy, the light tightly controlled. Think of the ‘pinhole’ setting on a digital camera and you might get the idea. Light falls on the faces of the protagonists, and shadow crowds behind them. It sparkles in the facets of the wine glasses, and in the eyes of those who drink from them. It vanishes into the darkness of the corners of the rooms.

The costumes of the old people whose story this is, are dark: blacks upon which the panels of white lace are not so much highlights, as skeletal. The story is simple and remorseless, and heartbreaking. I woke this morning in tears from a half-sleep, thinking about what I would write for this review.

The eponymous feast is a luscious counterpoint to the pious, consciously un-sensual lives of the villagers, and through it they awake, not only to these pleasures of the flesh, but also to a renewed sense of celebration of, and in, those pleasures. More than that, for some particular characters there is the revelation, perhaps the reminder, that love is all we have, and that we have it, by reason not only of what we do, but also by the simple recognition of it.

I’m not going to tell anything more about what happens, and fear I might already have told you too much. Watching the film, I thought how like a short story it was, and how difficult it would be to write such a story. It was, of course, I soon discovered, the adaptation of a short story originally written by the Danish writer Isaak Dinesen (better known as Karen Blixen).

I was surprised to see the date on this masterpiece. If you had told me it had been made earlier this year I would have seen no reason to doubt you. Perhaps that is a measure of the timelessness of the story (or of my insensitivity). I’m glad, though, that I didn’t see it when I was thirty years younger, but at an age when I can see myself more clearly in its characters. 

That short film Tape  of Freya’s is making its way in the world ….and now a nominee…at Thursday night’s screening too!! http://opencitylondon.com/films/docheads-best-uk-short-award-0
IMG_7421 Well done, chuck!

That daughter of mine has got her film Tape into another film festival:BHDandME shorn

There’s lots going on….

Did you know BHDandMe are putting on a Workshop as part of the Colonsay Book Festival (April 23/24th)?

Before that, BHD hopes to be at the Big Lit Weekend at Gatehouse of Fleet, on Friday 15th April to Sunday 17th.

Also we’ve been busy putting up books on Amazon. There’s a second volume of the Readings For Writers sequence: Love and Nothing Else  begins with a look at a story by Stacy Aumonier, and there are eleven others – some have appeared on the Thresholds website and some on this blog, including the final essay, comparing Huston’s film with Arthur Miller’s original short story of The Misfits.

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I’ve also finally got around to publishing ‘An Early Frost‘. These 10 poems (with the additional ‘Ullswater Requiem’ sequence) were written during my time working at Bank House, above Howtown pier on Ullswater in the English Lake District. All the poems except one, have appeared in magazines, on websites or in anthologies, and the Ullswater Requiem was one of a group of poems that won a Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust award – the first, I think, made to a piece of Creative work.

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I was given a dvd of The Admirable Crichton this Christmas. The 1957 film, starring British actor, Kenneth More is set in Edwardian England and was adapted from the stage play by J.M.Barrie.

Barrie’s play has a contemporary setting, being performed for the first time in 1902. There are some details of the productions including illustrations from that first production, on Wickipedia, where it lists also the dates of later productions, and of several adaptations to film, TV, and radio. I’ve not seen the play, but it’s the dates that interest me, and three dates in particular.

The first is that date of first production (1902), the second that of the Kenneth More film (1957), and the third, (2016), the year in which I watched it. Co-incidentally around fifty years apart, these three dates can be viewed as giving onion-skin like perceptions of the issues raised by the story.

There is a fistful of well known novels, plays and films set in Edwardian England. The period is seen as the last, idyllic summer of the Victorian world, turning to the autumn of 1914, and the four year long winter of the First World War. The Importance of Being Ernest, The Go Between, and The Shooting Party are three of my favourites – the latter dating from 1983, a lifetime after the events it describes. As one who takes an interest in the English short story I’m aware of A.E.Coppard popping up on the scene in 1919, at the beginning of what was in many respects a new world at the end of that war. In Norman Nicholson at 100, (Matthews & Curry,eds.Bookcase,Carlisle,2014)  a collection of essays about the Cumbrian poet, I contributed an essay contrasting the seemingly opposite outlooks of the two poets Nicholson, born 1914, and Geoffrey Holloway, born 1918, the former looking backward, the latter forward.

In the case of The Admirable Crichton, play and film, we see an examination of the English, perhaps British, class system reviewed after fifty years during which a single world war, with an intermission of twenty years, brought forth our world. To watch that film, fifty years after it was made, gives another view. The Second World War has often been described as ‘the people’s war,’ but ‘The Great War’ has tended to be seen as one between the European Ruling Families. Perhaps what the families began the peoples had to finish. Here, play and film, look at the same issues of class, and, perhaps unconsciously, gender from different sides of that divide. From our present perspective we see both aspects from a distance.

 

The story is relatively simple. The father and three daughters of an upper class family, along with a couple of young suitors, and the eponymous butler and a ‘tweeny’ maid – my adoptive grandparents, and this makes, to quote Robert Frost, ‘all the difference,’ were ‘in service’ (not to be confused with being ‘in the services), are cast ashore on an uninhabited Pacific island. There, the competence of Crichton is contrasted with the incompetence of the others, leading to a reversal of roles. He becomes ‘the governor’ in a benign  patriarchal dictatorship that lasts until rescue arrives. Then the roles revert, almost to what they were before. That almost concerns the eldest of the three sisters, Lady Mary, with whom Crichton has fallen in love. In the film version – and I suspect, from clues in the Wickipedia entry, in the play too – she is keen to carry on their relationship, and to defy convention, but Crichton is, at heart, a conservative, and ‘falls back’ on the convenient ‘tweeny,’ who, cor blimey, is happy to get him. They set off for a new life, with a bagful of pearls he has saved from the island. Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets spring to an ironic life for me at this point, for several of those stories dealt with the disasters of working class people coming into capital! (I wonder, as we speak, so to write, how those two £33,000,000 winners will fare?). J.M.Barrie, apparently, wanted to have Lady Mary and Crichton continue their relationship, but felt that ‘the stalls’ would not accept it. The filmmakers too, balked at what might have looked like a Hollywood ending. I think if I were adapting it again today, and translating it into modern times, I’d have to say the same. Perhaps that would be a worthwhile experiment – to see if the story, with either ending, could be made acceptable to ‘the stalls,’ or even to the writer. The characters do seem stereotypical, and dated stereotypes too, but, when one becomes old enough to look back far enough, what seemed avant garde when we did it can look awfully stereotypical in retrospect!

What I’m left with, watching a fifty year old version of a fifty year old comedy of manners, is a series of questions. What was taken for granted, and what ironic in the two versions? What do we take for granted? What do we find ironic now? Is Crichton’s innate conservatism, and Lord Henry’s skin-thin republicanism to be believed in, or laughed at? And the sexism, the inverted snobbery? Where do they fit, in 1902, and 1957, and 2016? How far have we come, and what arc has the trajectory of social change left in our sky (poetic, huh!)?

Wincing, amongst the laughs. I found the characters both embarrassingly out of date, and reassuringly familiar – but not necessarily in the right order (to quote Eric Morecambe).

BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby….

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I had the pleasure of a trip to Shetland recently, in the company of Birder/Presenter Stephen Moss. Without going into the details of the seasickness, among the many delights was mention of a wartime film called Tawny Pipit. When I got home, I ordered myself a copy from Movie Mail.

Co-directed by, and staring Bernard Miles, this was a propaganda piece aimed at supporting the Home Front. These period pieces can be fascinating for bringing into focus what we might think of as ‘our’ country, if we live here – or, I suppose, if we don’t! Powell and Pressburger produced several of the genre. I know Where I’m Going (with the mesmerizing Pamela Brown stealing the show for my money), A Matter of Life & Death (starring a London Tube escalator), and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (reputedly hated by Churchill). There was also Cavalcanti’s amazing Went The Day Well, based on the Graham Greene story, The Lieutenant Died Last. I blogged at length about that sometime ago.

All these films lay on the rose coloured spectacle view to some extent, but what they are all trying to do, is to present what it is we, whoever that may be, think, or thought then at least, was what was worth fighting, and dying for in the ‘British’ way of life, and, more than implicitly, in the ‘British’ place of life. I put British in quotation marks, because it’s not quite the simple label it must once have been thought. I never think of myself as British, for the simple reason that I want to make no claim on parts of the United Kingdom that I have no claim on. Scotland, for example, I think of as my favourite foreign country, and I have thought that way for as long as I can remember – this is no post referendum stance. But there is another reason for questioning the term where these wartime films are concerned, for mostly, they are set in England, and in the south east quarter of it for that matter.

There is perhaps a practical element to this. The bulk of the population lives there, for example. London, more importantly, is situated there, and London stands at the heart of what the ‘state’ was fighting for, and has done since Roman times. Bonnie Prince Charlie, it’s worth reminding ourselves, was not marching to London to liberate Scotland, but to secure his hold on London. Arguably, who holds London holds the rest, if they want to.

Yet the England (or Britain), that these World War Two films was selling to that South-East, London-centric population was the England that lay just outside the capital: the Home Counties. Cumbria, it’s worth pointing out, and Staffordshire – where I come from – lie well outside those green and pleasant heartlands. I’m not sure what word you’d describe the counties with which are not ‘Home’ ones, but it would have to suggest somewhere and something  else.

Tawny Pipit is set in the fictional Lipsbury Lea and was filmed in the Slaughters villages of the Cotswolds. Out of all the films I’ve so far mentioned it has been the one where the stereotyping of  English society has been carried to such an extreme that it goes beyond charming, or idiosyncratic, or even ‘grotesque’ – the word used to describe Coppard’s ‘English of the English’ stories – and enters the realm of what I would have to call odious.

From its attitudes to women, to the rusticals, to the lower classes, to foreigners, and to warfare itself, the minutiae of the film seems horribly dated. The background story still resonates: the eponymous birds – in fact Meadow Pipits made up to look like the rare, continental Tawnies, which, of course, in wartime could not be accessed –  have made their nest in a corner of an English field, for only the second time ever recorded. The villagers, rallying round, protect them from bird-nesting boys, avaricious egg-collectors, and various ministries of state. It is a timely story to revisit perhaps, with several thousand refugees on our borders again. Despite the underlying decency, from a liberal-democratic perspective, of the story, the words and actions of the characters, intended explicitly to make plain that decency, betray to the hindsightful eye the darker side of British, or should that truly be English, culture.

I love these old films, but I had watched only a few minutes of Tawny Pipit, before my hackles began to rise. It’s a simple scene, as the hero, Jimmy  Bancroft, played by Niall MacGinnis and his girlfriend, Hazel Broome, make their way back to the village, having seen the birds. MacGuiness leads the way, opting to jump a gate, and walk down through the fields to the village, lying, beautiful, below.

Wait a minute? Where’s the fingerpost? Taken down for the war, to confuse the invader? He doesn’t mention it being a Right of Way. I grew up in the English midlands, where you wouldn’t dream of crossing anyone’s field, if you didn’t know them and had permission, unless you were sure you were on a Right of Way…and even then, you’d have to be braced to argue the point, possibly, and this happened to me, with a man holding a shotgun. Scotland really is a foreign country, and in this respect especially. In Cumbria too, I’ve been faced off, in the nineteen seventies, by a farmer who had actually taken the trouble to move the stile so it took you off the path and into what was more or less a swamp. I was working for the County Council Planning Department at the time, on a footpath project, but when I got back to the office – rather shaken – there was no appetite for sorting out the issue. So perhaps my raised sensitivity prejudices my viewing of the film. There was also the issue of who the MacGinnis character is: a fighter pilot recuperating from wounds received in the Battle of Britain; a DFC, and DSO, but also a middle class man, nicely spoken. Perhaps he would feel he did have the Right, whether or not there was a Way? Perhaps the landowner, or tenant farmer would have agreed.

There’s a scene later in which a land-girl, who is in fact a grown woman, offers a lift on her horse-drawn cart, to some old buffers from the Ornithological Society, up, or rather down, from the city, to twitch the birds. The oldest of them, old enough to be her father, sits close behind her on the cart, far too close, I would have said, and treats her to a patronage that to my ears sounded cringe-makingly cheesy. The scene is used as one of the dvd sleeve stills. She laps it up, and I guess there would be individuals then and now who would do so. But uneasy doesn’t cover the sense of discomfort I experienced watching the scene. Personally, I would like to have seen her smack him one, and throw him off the cart, or insist that he travelled the rest of the way under the netting, with the pigs! The scene might be intended to be mildly comic – the film is categorized as ‘comic’ by the distributors of the dvd – but it is a comedy that has not time-travelled well.

The treatment of the locals is interesting too, being both timeless, and very much of its time. Shakespeare we know, was famous for his comic rusticals. My favourite is Bottom, played by gangster-playing movie star James Cagney, in the 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Shakespeare was already in the footsteps of Chaucer and no doubt the ignorant and stupid, slow-witted local was by his time already a well established figure of fun; but also one who, as in Tawny Pipit can, and will run rings round his incomer adversary – usually an urbanite. This is in the tradition that leads to Local Hero among others.

Class, which is not quite the same thing, and social and working roles are also shown. Notable here is the scene where the usher, or whatever you might call him, tiptoes on squeaky shoes into the meeting of the ornithologists, to pass on the professor’s note about the finding of the pipits. He is waved away, twice, almost with contempt, though his message will completely overshadow the boring talk being given, when it is finally read.

Attitudes to children have changed too since the nineteen forties. Within the first half hour or so of the film, we have seen them humiliated by a teacher, manhandled by a stranger, and sent out on their own into the far corners of the locality: abuse, risk, and assault by modern standards. It didn’t do them any harm. They were the generation that went on to popularise sex, drugs and rock and roll. Thanks for that chaps. Much appreciated.

More explicitly political is another early scene, in which Colonel Barton-Barrington, played by Bernard Miles, at the invitation of the vicar, chairs a village meeting, in the open air of this glorious summer of their self-content, and puts forth the official word, on democracy, community, and foreigners. It is an astonishing assertion of values with which one could hardly disagree, yet couched in language, and enacted in a setting that more than undermines and actually contradicts some of what is being said. The Colonel’s speech presses so many buttons, some of them intentionally, others without, perhaps, even an ironic awareness. Here are some nuggets from it:

Of the foreigners: ‘a lot of them are pretty decent people’  besides which ‘they can’t help being foreign.’

Democracy, is distinguished from Nazism: because ‘the hun doesn’t know the meaning of play the game. He never did and he never will.’ – the idea of ‘playing the game’ in contrast to ‘fighting a war’ was the main theme of the aforementioned Powell & Pressburger Life & Death of Colonel Blimp.

The villages are told ‘it’s for you to decide,’ but also reminded that they will decide ‘on the right side.’

 

The Colonel isn’t so much electioneering, as making plain what the local establishment wants to happen, and not a single dissenting voice, gesture, or expression is shown. That some of this was intended to satirize the Colonel cannot be doubted – a very young child, from its pram, burbles a parody of his words  – especially his jibe about ‘them’ not being able ‘to help’ being foreign, but there is much that is prejudicial here, in the general ambience of the film, about foreigners, about women, about the capabilities and even rights of what we might fudge as ‘ordinary’ people, and about democracy itself. There is a point at which proselytizing becomes dictatorial. How could it be otherwise, in the circumstances?

The war itself is described, by the hero, as like a cricket match before an unusually large crowd – I’ll leave you to imagine what might be its fours and sixes, its leg before wickets, and its bodyline bowlings.

There are counter-currents though, and that British capacity for laughing at ourselves, without enquiring too deeply into why we should. Though the tank commander does not take seriously the story being told by Hazel Broome to persuade him not to drive his tanks through the field, he defers instantly to the specialist knowledge of his corporal, who is an ornithologist. This shows a real change in British attitudes, one that had come about during the war, but could trace its roots back to the previous war, as technical expertise began to replace breeding as the quality upon which the functioning of the armed forces depended. The scene tells us not only that such a change was happening, but that it had been recognised as doing so. Indeed, Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp is based largely on that premise.

The message throughout though, and perhaps in films like this it always has to be, is that things are basically all right the way they are, with everyone in their place, and knowing it. It is that security that gives us the strength to take in and nurture the outsider. The fact that the battles are fought against ‘intransigent authority’ is, I feel, another example of the ‘safe’ revolution, which both people and Establishment can indulge in without actually changing anything. Kate Fox, in her Watching the English, sums it up rather well in her proposed English revolutionary  slogan: What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course.’ I quote from memory, the book being lent out!

After a protracted set up, the discovery and identification of the birds and the plan to protect them, the potential assaults against them seem progressively less threatening. McKee hadn’t written his book on story, in those days, so perhaps they didn’t know, or perhaps the types of threat they offer carry different magnitudes of jeopardy to modern eyes. The tanks on exercise are turned away easily enough, and the Ministry plan to plough up the field, though insisted upon by the officials, is quickly overruled by the Minister himself, when he discovers that the Colonel is in charge of the ‘save the pipits’ campaign – he was the Colonel’s fag at Pubic School.

The renegade farmer who decides to plough anyway has his tractor sabotaged, and the ‘professional’ egg-stealer bumps into a military exercise and is easily overcome! There’s a half hearted attempt to link all this to real foreigners, with a visiting female Russian sniper, giving a rousing chorus of the ‘Internationale’ to which the Colonel raises a fisted salute (though the vicar doesn’t approve wholeheartedly). A village girl (sic), hopes that she too would kill as many Nazis – though not with a wood axe as does the housewife in Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well! The whole thing has the feel of a school play: enthusiastically shallow, skimming the surface of truths, rather than plumbing their depths. When the villagers sing that revolutionary song, I’m reminded of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley, but not by similarities.

 

The question I came away asking, was to what extent did the film makers recognise and consciously carry out what seems now such an exercise in hypocrisy? Was it conscious? Were they deluding their audiences only, or themselves as well? Or is it one of those situations in which we are genuinely blinkered, in which we really don’t see the true implications, or even the explicit meanings of the words we are saying?

Britain, by 1943, when the film was made – it was released in spring of 1944 – had suffered four years hardship and loss. Those at the top might have been fairly confident, though by no means sure, that the victory would go to them, but for ordinary people that could still have been only a hope, and for people who had suffered from the loss of friends, relatives and loved ones, and who had seen their towns and cities, and their individual homes destroyed, it must have seemed at times a forlorn hope. What we can see from a distance, will of necessity look different from close to.

But can films of this type and from so long ago still speak to us of what Britain, or England, is, or was, or might be wished to be? The love of the natural environment still rings true with us, and nowadays at what is perhaps a deeper level, though the threat to it is greater than it has ever been. Our idea of rural England is still, perhaps, unrealistic, but we have footage here of actual scenes, and we can find our way to the places from which that footage was filmed, and we can make our comparisons. I have a paperback booklet of English villages, published in the late nineteen forties. What strikes me about those black and white photographs, of village streets in particular, is the lack of road vehicles, stark even by comparison with the minor Cumbrian lane with its five dwellings to the mile that I live on now. The wartime HMSO magazine-format history of the Land at War, tells a tale of some of the darkest days in the British farming industry, and shows how wartime necessity tried to turn it around. How to use the land without ruining it, and yet still make a living from it, and feed the mouths that need to be fed, is still an issue today (a current Archers storyline touches on it).

The human environment too, still carries echoes of the nineteen forties. The voices are so different, yet so similar. The rusticals might seem positively Shakespearian, even music-hall, but regional accents are still strong, and revered too, because, perhaps, and not despite that, they divide us. Class accents are still here, and they represent the same classes, even though we are often in denial about their continued domination. I shan’t live to see the great celebrations in 2066 of the arrival of the current ruling class, but what, I wonder, will be seen of them? Will a thousand years of Norman-French occupation be celebrated on the streets, or behind the closed doors of those who recognise it as their victory?

The notes included with the dvd throw an interesting light: Miles, they tell us, was the son of a farm labourer, but won himself a place at Oxford. He was not only co-director, but co-writer. Was he the man who put the words into the mouths of the film’s yokels, and into the mouth of the character he himself played? Also in the notes is a reference to A Canterbury Tale, the Powell & Pressburger film nearest in spirit to Tawny Pipit. From the point of view of rural images, and characters, the similarities are striking. As the children in Miles’ film cycle out to the scattered rural properties to call in the people for their open air meeting, we see locations very like the carpenter’s workshop in Powell’s. Yet Powell’s film, apart from an uncomfortable sequence with a ‘village idiot’ – which seems out of place in the film – seems to be able to stereotype, and propagandise without offending the sensibilities of even a half a century later. The Tawny Pipit notes describe the film as ‘light’, ‘bucolic,’ and ‘benign, ’ and I’ve no doubt that was what it aspired to be, and was seen to be at the time, but in the harsh light of the twenty first century those labels cast a shadow, even when we take into account the possibility, the likelihood even, that some of the scenes were mildly satirizing what they displayed. We have come a long way from the in-built unfairness in our way of ‘playing the game,’ but we have a long way to go. We still haven’t levelled the playing fields. We still haven’t even considered starting the game with a score of nil-nil. What was said of Coppard’s England still holds true, that ‘accidents of heredity and environment’ outweigh industry and perseverance.

Tawny Pipit remains a visual feast though, of a people, and a place that might have been, and perhaps was, and which, if we look hard enough, and carefully, might still be.

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American writer Arthur Miller is best known for his plays, and in the case of The Misfits, probably for his screenplay. The 1961 John Huston film though, was based on Miller’s short story of the same name, dated to 1957 in the 2009 Presence, Collected Stories (Bloomsbury).

There is lot of documentation and testimony regarding the film adaptation. The story of the filming is as epic as the film itself and carries echoes of the short story’s themes. Huston was said to be addicted to gambling. His male lead, Clark Gable, pushed himself to the limits, and died a fortnight after filming finished. Marilyn Monroe was moving towards divorce from Miller, and she too died less than two years after the film was released. Montgomery Clift was said to be already experiencing problems with addiction.

Perhaps to cope with his unravelling marriage, Miller was re-writing the screenplay as the filming took place, adding more and more to the role that Monroe was cast in. In that sense the original story was progressively being left behind. Yet the short story remains the starting point for the film, and what remains of it, as well as what was removed, and added to it, can still hold the interest of the student of adaptation, and of story.

 

In several respects the short story is a much tighter construction. It takes place almost entirely within sight of the truck that belongs to the main character, Gay Langland, and that truck remains within the few square miles of Nevada desert where the three cowboys are hunting their wild horses. Only in the last page, when the cowboys have driven off towards the nearby town, does the story linger, and close, out in the desert, with the four tethered mustangs, and the colt.

It is not so much the addition of other places however, that marks the biggest change between text and film. That comes in the shape of Marilyn Monroe, for the character she plays in the film, exists in the short story only in the words of the narrator and in the thoughts and words of the two protagonists, Gay, and Perce Howland. Guido, the third cowboy, does not refer to or think about her.

Here is one of the clear cut differences between the shown story of the film, and the told story of the word. In the text version know what the narrator, and the two characters think she is, but the presence of the shown Roslyn, with her own words, her own actions, and her own observable character traits demands that we form our own opinions. It also tips the balance of the story away from the relationship between Gay and Perce and towards the relationships between each of them, and her.

 

In his introduction to the Bloomsbury collection – taken from the much earlier ‘I Don’t Need You Anymore’ (Viking, 1967) in which The Misfits was included – Miller makes several observations about the short story form, and also, at least by implication, about the film. Telling us that a short story tries to ‘catch wonder by surprise’ might give us a clue as to what we should look for, but more useful might be his assertion that the ‘great strength of a good short story’ is ‘to see things isolated in stillness’. He writes at length too about dialogue: ‘..when the author…stopped chattering and got out of the way;’ These three snippets alone would give us a reasonable approach to The Misfits in its text form, and one from which to  view the diverging road to the film version.

Before looking at some examples in detail, one other general point might be useful, which is that there is a difference between the way that metaphors in text, and those in film work. In film we observe, or hear, the actual sight or sound on which the metaphor is built. If the roar of an engine does not sound to us like a growl, then the metaphor isn’t brought into being. In the short story, the wheels of the light aircraft with which Guido chases the wild horses out of the mountains have ‘doughnut tires.’ How many of us, I wonder, would think of that when we see the tyres of the movie’s plane? That this is a story full of metaphor suggests much risks being lost in the adaptation.

The most obviously powerful scene of the short story, for me, is where the stallion is brought to the ground. Unlike the other mustangs this one is not neatly roped and hog-tied and tethered.

 

 

‘The stallion’s forefeet slipped back, and he came down on his knees

and his nose struck the clay ground and he snorted as he struck, but he

would not topple over and stayed there on his knees as though he were

bowing to something, with his nose propping up his head against the ground

and his sharp bursts of breath blowing up dust in little clouds under his nostrils.’

 

He goes down stubbornly, slowly and with a sort of dignity, resisting until the very end, when Gay ‘came up alongside the stallion’s neck and laid his hands on the side of the neck and pushed,…’

In the film, Perce frees the stallion, to please Roslyn who is present in the desert. Gay recaptures it, in the scene that may well have triggered Gable’s fatal heart attack less than two days after filming ended. This is the most action packed scene of the film, in which Gable was dragged, apparently behind the horse, but in fact behind a vehicle, for a distance of several hundred feet. Despite the padding, he was severely cut and bruised, and it’s said that he told his wife that it had been ‘an accident.’ Like the character he was playing though, Gable had made a choice; his being not to use a stand-in. His character then releases the stallion, telling Roslyn that he wanted to make his own decisions. Such a sequences would have no place in the textual story, and would in fact, undermine the essential metaphor of the piece, that the mustangs, whatever they are, cannot escape their fate, and neither can the cowboys. It is ironic that the actor in reality, was playing a role nearer to that of the character in the original story, than is the character he was portraying in the film.

 

There are nuances of dialogue and thought in the told story, especially where Gay recognises the futilities of his life, and the inevitability of his choosing to prolong them. Like the colt, trapped by its dependence, though un-tethered, by the side of its mother, Gay is tied to his own image of what a man should be, and specifically, what a cowboy should be. Perce too is trapped, and even as they recognise their situation, they support each other’s denial of it.

Gay’s sense of freedom is compromised by his dependence on the truck.

 

‘Gay owned the truck and he wanted to preserve the front end.’

 

‘The transmission fork was worn out, he knew, and the front tires were going

too.’

 

‘The time was coming fast when he would need about fifty dollars or have to

sell the truck, because it would be useless without repairs. Without a truck and

without a horse he would be down to what was in his pocket.’

 

At that moment, he has precisely four silver dollars, given to him by Roslyn. He has been taking money from her, for doing odd jobs and driving her around. She is an ‘Eastern’ woman, of means, in the short story. The film avoids the issue, having Gay and Roslyn restoring a house together. The dependence experienced in the short story irks Gay, and when Perce refers to it, Gay’s reaction is instinctive:

 

‘he felt angry blood moving into his neck.’

 

There is a deeper irritation though, which is the knowledge that his way of life is mistaken, and ineffective. He uses the younger man to help maintain the denial of this truth.

 

‘”Well, it’s better than wages.”

“Hell, yes.”’

 

This exchange, and variations on it, is repeated more than once, as both men struggle to avoid acknowledging their situation, which is comparable to that of the horses they are pursuing.  In fact, this is made explicit, for they refer both to themselves, and to the horses as ‘misfits.’ In the end though, it is an inescapable truth. Even the money they will make from the mustangs is poor: ‘there would be no way to explain it so it made sense,’. For the much younger Perce, the truth is held further at bay, which is how he can support Gay in the delusion. Even when he wins big prize money at the rodeo, Perce has no sense of needing to hang on to it: ‘the boy was buying drinks for everybody with his rodeo winnings…’

Perce in fact likes Gay because he ‘never thought to say he ought to be making something of his life.’ There is no suggestion, that I can see, that Perce understands in the slightest that Gay cannot make such a suggestion, because his own life demands that he remains in denial of such ideas.

All three of the short story’s cowboys could have ‘done better’ in that traditional sense, but have turned down the chance, opting instead for a freedom as fragile, and ephemeral as that enjoyed by the mustangs they have captured.

Perce, in fact, already knows his fate: ‘I’m never going to amount to a damned thing.’ As he allows Gay to convince him that this is acceptable, Gay needs Perce to do the same for him. They are at opposite ends of the same journey. When Gay tells Perce that the colt would not be saved, even if left to run free, because ‘He’d just follow the truck right into town’ if the mare were on it, we recognise it as a metaphor for their own compulsions. The Roslyn of this story ‘razzes’ them on their way of life, but cannot save them from it, though the implication is that somewhere soon, she will save herself. Certainly Gay is conscious of holding himself ready for that: ‘you never kept anything…’ ‘She would go back East one day, he knew, maybe this year, maybe next.’

This short story is one of those that sticks in the memory, because the more closely you read it the more you find in it, deepening, and refining the message it carries. Rather than pick out quotations here and there to support a point, one should be taking it line for line and explaining how each adds to the context in which we will understand what follows. The ending that the film works towards is not so much a consummation of that context, as a subversion of it, as Roslyn and Gay recognise the opposite of what the Gay of the short story recognises, and ride off into a Hollywood sunset together. Cowboys can, and will let you down, but film endings can’t!

In the short story, it is Perce, the fellow-loser, whom Gay needs to make his future with.

 

‘”You comin’ up to Thighbone with me, ain’t you?”

“Okay,” Perce said and went back to sleep.

Gay felt more peaceful now that the younger man would not be leaving him. He

drove on in contentment.’

 

This is the happy ending that might have finished the story. Three asterisks separate it from the page that follows, for it is not going to be Miller’s ending. He takes us back to the desert, where the horses have been left. His description of them is our extended metaphor for the situation of his cowboys, and its end is focussed on the plight of that colt, which will make what we know will be a fatal choice. Reading the Wickipedia entry for Miller, there is a reference to him asserting that circumstances drive the choices of his characters. Gay, and Perce, and Guido, act as if they were like the colt, beyond rational choice, but Miller is pointing up the human tragedy, which is that we are not beyond it, but only incapable through our own natures. The film cannot go this far, and one wonders to what extent it was the genre, or the personal circumstances of the writer, or the requirements of the studios, that placed this limitation upon it.

 

The film makes explicit, not only the character of Roslyn, but also the wider context in which the protagonists’ lives are lived. The memories that the short story Gay has, of bars and towns and rodeos, are made flesh, and are fleshed out with extra characters. His relationship with Roslyn is examined by that third person inquisitor, the camera, rather than by his thoughts and statements about her being eavesdropped upon by the reader. The film’s Perce and Guido too are shown in their interactions with her, rather than through the filters of memory, doubt and suspicions. In true Hollywood style, Roslyn is made significantly younger than Gay. In the story, we are told, she is ‘about his age’. Hollywood men, and their audiences, were presumably incapable of dealing with women of their own age, and perhaps still are. In the film, Gay does not have to confront his ageing, though the actor was actually doing that, with lethal results. In the short story, the character contemplates turning ‘forty six soon, and then nearing fifty’ and getting grey hairs. Clark Gable, looking, and behaving, fitter than he was, had already turned fifty nine. In fact the film has increased the gap between Gay and Roslyn to a quarter century, pushing her back about fifteen years, and him forward nearly as many. This alone changes what the story can be about, as well as what it is.

In the short story Gay ‘sensed the bottom of his life falling if it turned out Roslyn had really been loving the boy beside him’. In the film we see exactly what the relationship between Perce and Roslyn is, and her relationship with Guido is developed explicitly, from what, in the short story, is an equally explicit narrative denial: Thinking of the ‘yearning for a woman’, Guido is pleased that ‘he was free of that..’ It’s worth considering that in the short story, Gay’s fear seems not so much of losing Roslyn to Perce, as of losing Perce to Roslyn.

In the film, references made by  short story’s narrator, or in the thoughts of Gay, have to be shown. So we see Gay wanting to introduce his lost family to Roslyn, and becoming distraught when they vanish. But whereas, in the short story, these references are part of the context in which we consider his relationship with Perce, in the film, they relate to his relationship with Roslyn. Perce’s home life is referred to by the narrator in the short story, but again, has to be made explicit in the film, in which we seen him talking to his mother in a phone kiosk. The camera cannot tell an internal story, but only show an external one.

The short story, in contrast, tells us the internal story and evokes in our imaginations the desert in which it takes place, and the images of the events and the players in them:

 

‘A wild river of air swept and swirled across the dark sky and struck down

against the blue desert and hissed back into the hills.’

 

‘The jacket had one sleeve off at the elbow, and the dried leather was split

open down the back, showing the lamb’s-wool lining. He had bombed

Germany in this jacket long ago.’

 

All these changes stem from the introduction of Roslyn as an actual, rather than as a ‘thought about’ character. From that first step the film has to move away progressively from the agendas of the short story. She draws the focus towards her, and changes what the story is revealing.

The final section of the film shoehorns in much of the action of the short story. The cowboys, with Roslyn tagging along, do go into the desert. Guido flies his beat-up old plane, and in his beat-up old flying jacket, to drive the wild mustangs out of the mountains and onto the plains, but the significance of his doing that is quite altered. He is no longer the device by which Perce and Gay get the time and opportunity to talk, and for Gay to think. A different role has to be found for him. He cannot be simply written out, for the plane is the means of getting the horses onto the plain! So he too, in direct opposition to his character in the short story, becomes romantically involved with Roslyn.

The character of Roslyn too, changes the agendas of the story. No longer imagined she has to be ‘realised’ by the author, and Miller, for reasons we can only speculate about, makes her childlike and vulnerable. She is not a character for whom going ‘back East’ would be an act of volition, so much as a running away. In that alone she changes the story’s agenda, for Gay is not challenged, in his way of life, by her superior grip on it, as in the told story, but only in his ability to compromise in order to protect her from her own inadequacies.  Her driving force seems to be an inability to accept the nature of life and death. In particular she has a rising revulsion against the hunt for the mustangs. An already over the top performance – her face barely stays still for a moment, but is constantly twitching and grimacing – leads to a wonderful temper tantrum in the desert, as spectacular as a four year old’s in a mall! This precipitates the release of the captured horses, taking the shown story that final step away from the told one. Gay recaptures the stallion, exhausting both the fictional character, and the actor who portrays him, but then releases it, in a gesture of futile control, after which he and Roslyn ride off in to a Hollywood ending. The great differences are two-fold. The text has he and Perce make that exit. More importantly, the horses are free, and there is no equivalent to that final page of Miller’s original text, highlighting the metaphorical comparison with the misfit cowboys. In fact, at the end of the film it is hard to see either horses or men in that role. In the film, Clark Gable’s character has retained his freedom, and so have the horses. Miller’s short story was about him, and them, failing to do so.

 

John Huston was used to adaptation. His final film was a ‘faithful’ adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, and is especially interesting for its closing sequence. There, Huston understood that he could do no better than have the final paragraphs of the short story read in voice over, while a shot lingers on a landscape similar to the one being described. This level of sensitivity to what is important to the story seems at odds with the changes wrought in The Misfits. Was that because, in this case, the adaptation was being driven by the changed agendas of the writer? Or was it something to do with Hollywood’s need to present the stereotypical roles of man and woman? A character not even hinted at in the told story, is that of Roslyn’s female sidekick, an older woman with a veneer of cynicism over a seam of old fashioned romance, and played with show-stealing enthusiasm by Thelma Ritter. Her function in the story is to tell us, repeatedly and explicitly, throughout the first half of the film, that ‘cowboys’ are real men, and thus OK, even if they have a propensity for vanishing. Once she has got this message clearly across, and, presumably, fixed in our heads, she is dropped from the story: job done!

The New York Times gave the film, on its release, a damning review. Its characters were shallow, it said, and its ending was sentimental. There is no hint that the reviewer knew of the short story that preceded it. My interest isn’t to set one form above the other, nor to rate the success of an adaptation in relation to its ‘fidelity’ to the original, but to ask if the differences tell us anything about story and how it is used by storytellers.

The Misfits gives us a clear distinction, between a textual story, that examines the lives of, predominantly, two men, who are at different stages on the same road, and who use each other to avoid facing up to their failures, and an audio-visual one that strips the sense of failure from its male lead, and in fact validates that and other stereotypes by having him ‘get’ the girl in the end. In the former, the location, in time and place, and the events are used as a metaphor for the situations of the men. In the latter they become merely a visual accompaniment to the words and actions of the protagonists.