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I finally got around to reading Isak Dinesen’s short story, Babette’s Feast, the filmed adaptation of which I wrote about on this blog a couple of months ago.

It is one of those adaptations that saves you the trouble of imagining the story, rather than being one that brings a new agenda to it. There are changes. The short story is set in a Norwegian fjord, which evokes an enclosed place for me, whereas the film is set in Jutland, where the village houses are plonked down on a flat coastal plain like children’s toy houses on a grey-green cloth. Curiously this echoes Dinesen’s words: ‘the small town of Berlevaag looks like a child’s toy town of little wooden pieces’.

Dinesen’s toys are ‘painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colours’, but the film, it seemed to me, veered away from such brightness, sticking to its greys and dull greens and heavy browns, with the houses a dirty, light absorbing, rather than light reflecting, white. The film is heavy with shadow too, from which the sparkling highlights of candle flame on cutlery and reflections in cut glass shine brightly.

The echoes of the film’s dialogue were strong, making me wonder just how precisely the actual direct speech of the story had been lifted, and seamlessly added to! What struck me most forcibly though, was the distance of the narrative voice, seemingly greater than that of the camera lens in this instance.

Rather than eavesdropping and witnessing a series of events, as to a large extent we must do with a ‘shown’ film, Dinesen’s narrator simply tells us a story, and even when its characters speak out loud, we are unlikely to forget that it is the narrator who is passing those words on.

An exercise I’ve done with a Hemingway story sprang to mind – where I separated out the direct speech from the rest, producing two not quite parallel stories, each of which told not quite the whole story! In that story the word count of direct speech was about a third of the whole. Here, in Babette’s Feast, I would guess it at significantly less than a tenth. What direct speech there is falls isolated among the narrative, often qualified, before or after, by the narrator’s commentary upon it. Full dialogue, where characters speak to each other – rather than having individual statements from them relayed to us – are few and rarely protracted. Two or three exchanges, between two or three characters is the most we might expect.

Yet at the end of the story, which is split into 12 ‘chapter headed’ sections, the pattern is broken.

Babette’s Feast is a rich tale, of time, and reflection, regret, and transcendence, in which three main characters, the two maiden sisters, Martine and Phillipa, and General Loewenhielm see, reassess, and see beyond the failures and disappointments in their lives.

A fourth character, appearing for one of those sections, and later writing a letter that triggers the arrival of the eponymous heroine, is really no more than an elaborate plot device, and Babette herself is not so much a character study in her own right, as a catalyst for our understanding of the significance of what has happened to those other characters.

It’s an age thing I think, to some extent, but the film brought forth tears, and the book brought forth more of them! In both cases, it was the words spoken by the characters, rather than the authorial nudges, that caused the reactions.

In that final section Babette and the two sisters have the longest exchange of spoken words in the whole story, a dialogue that spreads over nearly five pages of a forty plus page story in my paperback edition. Here the proportions of speech to narrative are virtually reversed, and it is what these three characters say, finally, and to each other, that carries the burden of what Isak Dinesen is saying to us.


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’ve spent a lot of time considering the changes that adaptation can make to stories, but of course editing, even slightly, can have similar effects: sometimes changing the focus, or even the implied intent of a story.

Last weekend Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom was shown on terrestrial TV here in the Untied Kingdom. I’ve mentioned it before, and particularly the very short sex scene: as the two runaway children go into a clinch, he says, it’s hard, and she replies, I like it. This pithy analysis of sexual attraction resonates with more than just the characters of the film, but in the context of the film makes explicit what might otherwise be left implicit, and thus subject to being ignored, denied, or even not noticed.

And yet, and yet, the ratfinks and fuckwits who put out this stuff saw fit to remove that scene, and what’s more they did it professionally (i.e. for pay!). Wouldn’t it be a good idea, seeing as we can’t stop these people committing this sort of butchery on works of art, couldn’t we at least insist that they include a real time insert of blank screen where the intended content has been excised? Then we would get to see, not what was missing, but at least that there was something missing, and we would know that we have been sold an adulterated product.

The better the story the more difficult it is to make any changes without profoundly affecting it, and Moonrise Kingdom tells a very good story, when it’s allowed to.---_0261

And while I’m at it, I thought it must be may age, being unable to make out what was being said by the ‘Archer’ character in SS-GB…relieved to read that others – younger than me – had trouble too! Good novel. Shame about the adaptation (which looked like a good storyline. Never thought of using the subtitles, but wouldn’t have anyway).

img_8098 img_8099There are several – some might say many – pairings of books and their film adaptations on my shelves. One pair that gets taken down and watched and read more often than most is Isabel Colegate’s novel The Shooting Party and Geoff Reeve’s film of the same name. I’ve written about this pair before as an example of the ‘faithful’ adaptation, but that fidelity doesn’t mean it is a slavish copy, a filmic re-enactment of the scenes readers might be expected to imagine (as has been said of the film version of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, for example).

Recently I watched and read, the Colegate/Reeve pairing with a closer eye than usual, looking, to begin with, for what I thought of as filmic equivalents to the told story’s content. Perhaps because Reeve has captured the tone and characters of the film so well and in many cases has replicated word for word the dialogue of the told story, I was surprised to recognise just how many changes I had not been conscious of when the watching and reading were weeks and perhaps months apart – or when the attention to detail was overwhelmed by the enjoyment of absorption in the story, told and shown!

In fact, even where those dialogues had been lifted ‘faithfully,’ they had often been placed differently in the film to where they lay in the original, both  in time, and place, and on several occasions had been put into the mouths of different characters. Many had been turned from internal monologues, to comments made in public.

Speaking on the DVD ‘specials’, Rupert Fraser, who played Lionel, remarks that there is only one scene in the film that is not in the book – the fancy dress scene that takes place on the stairwell at Knebworth (which took the role of Nettleby). I have said as much – and written it! But it is not, in fact, the case. There is at least one other – where Lionel and Olivia, in the film alone, go riding and have a faithfully reported conversation from the book – but not at the same point in the story nor in the same location. Other scenes have their conversational and incidental content switched around, the dinner party, in the film, for example, allowing words that are only thought to be exchanged aloud and thus made available to the watcher as they were to the reader.

The point I want to make is not so much about the particular novel  and film, but about the fluidity of of stories – how conversations can be manipulated, moved from place to place, and time to time, and mouth to mouth, without obviously changing their significance in the story, and, at first glance, or indeed any ‘glance’, without changing our perception of the characters that speak them.

Yet on a close examination it might be that a story is changed, subtly, and that its characters will be different, and not so subtly? One case I would give is where, in both versions, Sir Randolph, the key reader-proxy and opinion touchstone of the story, talks to Aline, the mistress of Charles Farquhar (in the book), and of Sir Reuben Hergesheimer (in the film), and accuses her of ‘wickedness’ in her speculations about the ‘affair’ between Olivia and Lionel. In the former version this is quite a long conversation, but in the latter is equally brief. More sharply potent perhaps, is where, in the film, Sir Randolph confesses to Hergesheimer that copying the Sandringham shoots almost bankrupted the estate. In the book, though the rest of the conversation does take place, Sir Randolph only recalls this to memory. He does not share it with his house guest. The shift in our perception of Sir Randolph may be slight, but is in a definite direction: In the first case what he is shown taking an interest in seems to me to be narrower and more focused in the film, broader in the novel. In the second, the told Sir Randolph’s reticence seems more in keeping with his character than the film’s more expansive version – yet, without that remark the audience of the shown version could not know that particular detail.

This isn’t offered as a criticism, only as an observation, and one that might support the contention that the business of shown, rather than told stories is one of sharper focus – streamlined is a word I have heard used by film-makers in relation to the adaptation process. With a novel our imaginations, sparked by what we are told, might run more freely, than with a film, where we must observe what is put before us.

Of course, whether or not considering this helps, when it comes to writing a story, might be a moot point. Another story set in the past but not made into a film (yet) is BHD’s A Penny Spitfire,  available here (but only for a couple of months more).


That short film Tape  of Freya’s is making its way in the world ….and now a nominee…at Thursday night’s screening too!!
IMG_7421 Well done, chuck!

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

I visited Keswick Film Festival this weekend, to see the Osprey shorts section, and once again was reminded of the similarities between the film and the short story genres (and some differences!).

Notably, I was aware of that short story issue of ‘knowing when to stop’. It’s a skill, ability, knack – call it what you will, unless somebody already has – that writers like Dickens and Chekhov were said to have, and which all of us need. I’ve quoted before from Susan Lohafer’s essay in Professor May’s ‘The New Short Story Theories’ – over twenty one years old now! – who found that short stories had embryonic endings embedded within them: places where the story could have stopped, but didn’t.

Films, and especially, I suspect, short films, can have the same places. Some of the ones we saw at Keswick certainly did. These aren’t necessarily places where the stopping would have improved the story, but they aren’t necessarily not so either.

What’s at stake I think (and thinking steak makes me realise, I’m writing this late in the day, and haven’t had supper yet), is some acts of faith on behalf of the writer, or filmmaker, especially in the case of endings that wouldn’t have been premature.

The faiths, and there are two of them, are faith in the reader or viewer, to know what you have been driving at, and faith in yourself that you’ve driven at it! There’s a broader idea too here, about having those faiths throughout a story, however it’s told. Repetition for emphasis can be effective – read Frank O’Connor on James Joyce, in The Lonely Voice – but where it’s used to bolster our own doubts about whether or not we’ve already said what we meant to say in the story, it’s, by definition, a weakness.

Where there are two or three endings, and Lohafer made a convincing case for it, if each one improves, deepens, strengthens – what you will again – the story, then it’s probably been a good thing to have them all. But where each subsequent ‘ending’ lessens (etc) the story, it’s undoubtedly bad!

If we have no faith that our writing has done the job we intended, it’s no use sticking on another bit to recoup the situation. We should go back and re-write, so that it works the first time, and I guess the same is true for storytellers in film. If we have no faith in the reader/viewer, then maybe the answer to that one has nothing to do with the storytelling anyway!

BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby…. 

It’s the local writers’ get together this Wednesday (March 2nd …12.30-2.30pm approx!) at Cakes and Ale, in Carlisle (England) by the way!

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….