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Adaptation often, and perhaps usually, involves cutting out elements of the told in text story for conversion to the shown in sound and visuals one. Streamlining is a word that has been used for the process. Yet every now and then a novel or short story is adapted that doesn’t quite fit the minimum time period felt necessary for a movie, or whole pages of such a story are filled with thoughts, speculations and reflections that can, and must be reduced to a few seconds of what Joey, in Friends, famously called ‘sniff the fart’ acting.

That old favourite novel (or novella? One day I’ll get those two successfully differentiated in my mind) The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate is an example of a story where a little bit needed to be, tastefully, added. And I can recall, on the ‘specials’ CD of a collector’s set of Blade Runner, I think, a movie-maker saying how difficult it would be to convey the thoughts of Deckard when they can’t be translated into actions that will show how he feels!

William J. Locke’s story Ladies in Lavender, which I mentioned but didn’t explore in an earlier blog-post, is another that had to be filled out to make the full-cut of a film. The film sticks remarkable closely to the characters, actions, and situation of the short story. Andrea, the Polish virtuoso violinist is washed up on the beach of Ursula and Janet, and is taken to their house where he is looked after. Even small details of the story crop up in the film – their attempts to learn his language, his theirs; the dressing of him, the buying of the suit, the discovery of his musical talent.

Even the storyline follows the same path. The foreign young lady hears his music, and has a brother who is big in the business, and who will offer Andrea a new, and successful career. The comedy, the pathos of the two maiden ladies and their delicate, suppressed lust, the desire for love, the jealousies between them and the jealousy they both have for the young women, which they fight against for his sake: all are in the film as they are in the short story. Yet there is significant difference too, and it’s a difference that highlights the differences of the two media, and brings us back to that issue, mentioned before, of how the internal life of characters can be ‘shown’, when telling is no longer desirable. The voice over is said to kill the ‘movie’ story, and it remains a source of glee to me, I confess, whenever I see it having to be resorted to (in an episode of Bridehead Revisited, and at the end of Strick’s Ulysses, for example, and at the end of John Huston’s earnest adaptation of The Dead).

There’s more though, for there are many scenes in the film of Ladies in Lavender, and especially towards and including the ending, where what the characters, or narrator only refer to (leaving it to our perfectly well developed imaginations to create) is played out before our astonished, and unimaginative gazes.

In particular, there is the ending of the film, and the ending of the short story, which fall quite differently, not only in time and place, but in intent. The film takes us on beyond the written story’s ending, to that successful career, which is only hinted at, and not even promised in the told version, and to a reconciliation between the sisters and the wonderful boy that is entirely absent.

The short story ends with Ursula looking out to sea – where the sea air, no doubt, rather than the fart, would have to be sniffed – and realising that a subtle change has taken place in the relationship between her and her sister; thinking that she, the previously weaker of the two, must now be the one strong enough to help the other come to terms with their mutual loss. The film’s pat reconciliations are cruder, perhaps to the point of triteness, and they are accompanied by another difference, for the sisters in the story nurse not only the boy, but the photograph of the father who has bequeathed them their seaside nunnery and its lonely life. In the film, the photograph is of a younger man, lost the more to one of them, in a war that hadn’t taken place when the original story was written (Wickipedia dates it to 1908), and which is certainly not referred to in it. In fact the film explicitly dates the story to 1936, adding a whole agenda of suspicion and undercurrent to the story, turning it from a study of two specific personalities under stress in an Edwardian ambience, to one with a historical consciousness of a later period, as held in 2004.

The agenda of the film is not that of the short story, and perhaps could not have been.

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I recently watched the 1968 film, The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster. It’s based on a John Cheever story of the same name, published only a few years before. I’d read this about a decade ago, and much of the detail in the film was totally absent from my memory, not surprisingly, as it turned out, when I got another squint at the text.. The premise, and plot, is simple. Set in a vaguely dated America – filmed in Westport, Connecticut – the hero, without much introduction, and already dressed for the project, suddenly decides to ‘swim home’, by using all the pools in the gardens of his wealthy neighbours.

In both original and adaptation, that’s what, simply, he does, and as he passes through the lives and parties of those neighbours, little shafts of light, metaphorically, fall on his backstory, so that by the time he arrives home, weakened to the point almost of collapse by his journey, we are not quite surprised to find that the home stands locked and empty, the ironwork of its garage doors (in the told tale) and its gates (in the shown one) rusted.

As always, similarities and differences between the told original and the shown adaptation fascinate me. Why have such changes been made? Why have they not? Sometimes it is to do with the differing agendas of the producers of that adaptation. The First Blood adaptation, and its follow-on franchise is a good example of that. But here, with Cheever’s story, filmed in the same few years as it was written, the differences seem to be more to do with the nature of the medium into which the story was being re-cast.

The movies, as the name might imply, are about moving pictures. The short story, written down (or even remembered) is about words and what they mean to us. Movies favour action, and actions, whereas short stories favour meanings and significances.

In Cheever’s story the descriptions of the actual crossing of the pools is almost perfunctory. In one paragraph near the beginning he crosses five in as many lines. In the film the camera follows him stroke for stroke, in close up, in long shot, medium shot, trick shot, and sometimes, repeated shot! A sequence in a horse ring shows him and another character – not present in the short story – leaping the jumps over and over again. In the written tale, the ring is by passed ‘overgrown’ with the jumps ‘dismantled’.

The film is a wordy showing of the story. The original, an almost wordless telling of it, at least as far as dialogue is concerned. At several pools people do exchange words with him, but the conversations are fragmentary and hardly ever developed, passing into reported or recalled speech, dissipating into further narrative. In the film, conversation dominates, often beginning with the written story’s openings, but taking them further. Much of the narrative is retained, but re-cast in the mouth of the protagonist himself, either addressed to other characters, or as if in monologue.

Several new characters are introduced, and existing ones are examined a little more fully. Notably the twenty year old girl -in bikini, of course- who accompanies him on a section of the journey, until his interest in her becomes frightening, is a pure introduction. And so is the lonely boy with the flute, at the drained swimming pool of the Welchers.

A told story takes as many words to tell as it takes to tell, but a shown one has to run for long enough to justify the ticket price of the bum on the seat. That alone might explain the additions, and perhaps the bikini. And the told story, in this case, seemed almost like a thumbnail sketch, a hurried tale, skipping over the landscape, and barely dipping into the pools, with the conversations as truncated as the descriptions. The film, by comparison seemed slow, with its endless repetitive images of Lancaster swimming, leaping, walking down tunnels of trees. Filled out with montage shots of woodland, water, leaves, flora and fauna, none of which, to echo Hemingway’s concerns, ‘belong to the story’, the film struggles to fill its minute count.

The hurried narrative of Cheever’s tale is packed, not only with barely described actions, but with questions posed to the reader. Why does Ned Merrill do this? Why do that? What does he think? What has he forgotten? And beneath it all hangs the question of just what is his backstory, and his future? The film is a little more forthcoming, providing a hot-dog trolley that he has made, now being used by his neighbour who bought it at a sale. In both versions we get the growing inkling that not all is as it appears, that he is not what he seems to be; that his popularity is based on a past that has gone, and has worn thin to the point of antagonism for some of those he encounters.

There’s an essay on Cheever’s story in The reference Guide to Short Fiction, published by St,James’ Press, in which comparisons are made with the mythic Odyssey and later versions of it. Film struggles to do internal reasoning, the posing of questions, and speculation as to their answers. The short story can excel at it. Here’s the root difference between the two, even when the story they are both trying to convey is essentially the same. The film, being more explicit in this, loses some of the density of the short story, but even the short story, respected as it is, left me wishing there were a more tangible context for the dislocations I sensed.

Something that has interested me for many years has been the way that some films seem to change the agendas of the original stories from which they are adapted. I first noticed this with the story Roller Ball Murder, the film of which seeming to celebrate the sort of ‘entertainment’ that the short story appeared to satirise. Even more noticeable was the difference between that novel of personal competition, First Blood, and the film that followed ten years later, in which those personal stories had been turned into a conflict about the treatment of Vietnam Vets.

Over the years I’ve written about many articles about text to film adaptations where differences seem to be about more than technical difficulties or cost cutting, and now have gathered together more than twenty of them for publication in paperback and for Kindle: Take Two, How Adaptation Changes Stories is now available online, here.

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. 

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….