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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.

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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. 

The flight from Auckland to Dubai is said to be the longest single ‘hop’ in the commercial, passenger airline route list. It takes about 17 hours, an hour or so longer than the west to east outward journey.

On that outward journey I’d watched the whole of series Five of Episodes, a comedy series my daughter used to work on. On the homeward leg though, I couldn’t find anything on the ‘blockbuster/boxed set’ listings on the back of the seat in front of me.

I’m not a natural traveller, and least of all in ‘planes and boats (trains are fine by me). My logical brain tells me that aircraft are the safest form of transport, and I remember from  childhood a Biggles story (Biggles in India perhaps? Or the Cruise of the Condor(?) which were two favourites) in which after a hair raising take off from a river, Biggles and his chums – my adoptive family actually used the word ‘chums, being of that generation – Biggles and his chums narrowly avoided going over a waterfall. Uncompressing his lips for a moment, the fair-haired, clean shaven hero pointed out, that it wouldn’t have been as safe in a canoe! Common sense though ( of the type that leads us to our political choices) tells me that so many tons and so much bulk, as are A380s made of cannot stay so serenely up in the air.

With this in mind, before I fly, I try to put myself into a frame of that ilk, where the possibility of death might be faced with equanimity – at least until the moments of sheer terror and panic! I make a point of saying goodbye to those who matter – yes, that did mean you – and leave messages for those I cannot directly communicate with. Letters, left ‘where they may be found’ (to mangle a line), can be used for kindling if the chance arises.

Perhaps that not quite transcendental caste of mind is what prevented me from throwing myself into the viewing of any particular movie, or TV show. As it was I did something rather unexpected instead, and unexpectedly, found it to be rather interesting. I watched, without access to the sound, the programmes being watched by the two who sat either side of me, and by two others, two rows ahead, whose screens were visible, obliquely through the gaps between the seat backs.

There’s something curious about watching movies, or any programmes, with the sound missing.  As black and white images seem to focus our attention on the forms within the frame, so silence demands that we focus on what we see. And there’s a surprising amount to be seen, that not having to focus in the normal course of events (as is the case for most of us), we simply overlook.

Facial expressions and body language suddenly take centre stage, and in fact are, in terms of mis-en-scene, exactly that. More subtly perhaps, we notice those phases of a story when the characters are doing very little, except exchanging words, and words, by the looks of it, not laden with emotional upheaval. We get a gist of the story, that may be misleading, but makes, nevertheless, a story that we think we are following. I’ve quoted often – usually disparagingly – C.S.Lewis’s carp about ‘unliterary’ people ‘flooding’ written stories (‘wretched material’ he calls it) with their own imaginings, and for a large part of that long haul flight, I guess that’s what I must have been doing.

Not so subtly, my attention during all this was drawn to the action, and specifically to the violence. How much of it there was, and how relentless, graphic, pitiless, and vicious. I worked for several years in the criminal justice system, where I saw a large amount of low level, intermittent, ineffective, clumsy and pathetic violence. I have not found it so entertaining since, though it runs, like a thread of corruption through the flesh of many of my stories. How could it be, I asked myself, at 40,000 feet, and still serenely sailing, that people were so content – for want of a dozen other words – to sit through this onslaught?

And there was another thing (no quote intended). How much of this unrealistic violence involved a ‘hero’ – for want of a better word – seemingly impervious to fear, or damage, slaughtering countless numbers of anonymous ‘enemies’. Is this the rage that festers away inside us? The desire to kill the stranger?

The cover story for this mayhem is that the stories are about the victory of righteousness over wickedness, but the Greeks, or so I believe, told such stories without any action being seen on stage. The violence, for them, even when it was not gratuitous, was not the entertainment.

Click on the image for a dozen stories by BHD (in which the violence is off-stage) available on Amazon for Kindle, or as a softback.

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).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe took a trip to Caldbeck, d’ye ken? last night, to the Caldbeck Film Club, a flicks-in-the-sticks set up, where you can watch a movie in the comfort of the village hall without the schlep of being bombarded by advertising, and in the company of like minded folk – at least as far as films are concerned!

 

The film in the frame was Moonrise Kingdom. I had no idea what to expect, and had to think hard afterwards about what I’d experienced! It was introduced with the remark that Bruce Willis, who more or less stars, doesn’t smirk once, and it’s true. Worth watching for that alone, I’d say.

This film is often described as ‘quirky’, which seems to be shorthand for saying that whoever’s using the term doesn’t know how to call it either. It had the quality of a cartoon in some places, that of a graphic novel in others. Montages and set piece shots looked like the frames in a comic book. The incongruity of the scissors, hanging on a wall in the opening trans-interior pan of the Bishop household was not lost on this viewer, and I’m no eagle-eyed observer. And there was a shot near the climax that was almost a photo-still, where four of the main adult characters are head-and-shouldered in the hatchway onto the church roof.

The two leads, a boy of twelve called Sam, and the undisguisedly older Suzy would, in real-world UK – I know nothing of the New England legal system – end up on both the at risk, and sex offenders registers! Both would be well placed too, to arraign each other for sexual misconduct during their twilight years.

There’s violence too. A dog gets it in the neck, which the RSPCA would take a dim view of, and there are various human assaults causing actual, if not grievous, bodily harm by blade and pellet. Most of which, but not all, is adroitly ignored after the moment of action, by the storyteller. This is quite a profound film in some ways, but it is not profoundly realistic.

By turns it reminded me of Swallows & Amazons, Deliverance, and The Blue Lagoon, with a haunting echo of a C17th century play I saw on TV about four decades ago, starring Peter Jeffries and in which two misfits embark on a course of revenge, and love. I can’t remember the name of it, and am too old (or proud?) to look for it on the net!

Behind the innocence of their sexual encounter – Sam: It’s hard. Suzy: I like it. – there lies at the heart of this film the adult longing for sexual innocence. This is neither a film for, nor about children. At Caldbeck we were a mature audience – none of us I think as young as any but two relatively minor characters in the film. That may have accounted for, after a single aborted clap, the silence which greeted the end of the film. There had been chuckles throughout – intriguingly, not at the same time and from different parts of the crowd – so that silence wasn’t about not having enjoyed the film. Was it, I wondered, that we were pondering the adult sub-texts of this ostensibly childlike film? The last time I experienced such a post-projection silence was after a viewing of The Elephant Man!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I recently watched director John Huston’s 1987 adaptation of James Joyce’s short story The Dead, from Dubliners.

Ever since I heard of this adaptation I had wondered how it would deal with the ending. Short stories, as someone said, ‘are all about their endings,’ and this ending in particular includes what is probably my favourite paragraph of fiction.

We’ll leave that thought hanging, like a cliff-edge storyline and turn to other issues. I had previously watched the adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, not the recent one, but the dreamy 1981 version. There’s an episode in this story where Charles Ryder and Julia cross the Atlantic in a storm. While Ryder’s wife is confined to her cabin with sea-sickness, Charles and Julia roam the decks, re-building their friendship, and recalling the past. What is interesting about this episode is the way it is presented: we are not shown only what they are doing in present time, but are told, with voice-over narration. For film-makers this sort of voice-over montage is seen as a negation of the cinematic art. For writers it might rather be interpreted as the point at which the words cannot be reduced to visuals: the point at which the story has to be told, rather than be shown. If story is a triangle of action, character, and thought, then this is the case where ‘thought’ is dominant.

I’m no film-maker, but I couldn’t imagine how John Huston would present those final lines of James Joyce’s story. How else, I wondered, could you do it, but by some sort of montage, of the images the words evoked, with the voice-over narration of the words themselves?

So, when I finally got to watch the film, you’ll not be surprised to read that I was pleasantly disappointed to find that Huston had done just that with the ending! Smug, as I’m sure you know, is just Smaug without the treasure!

 

I could leave it there, but that movie ending raised another question: the question of what adaptations are for. John Huston’s ‘The Dead’ is what I would think of as a ‘faithful’ one. Huston was was said to be contemplating his own death during the making of the film, a perhaps not inappropriate state of mind for such a task, and I found no detectable change of agenda, such as I have looked for, and found, in other adaptations. There were no great changes made for reasons of technical difficulties or economic limitations. That montage/voice-over technique is used elsewhere in the piece, notably during a song, where instead of lingering on the singer Huston lets his camera wander over the period details of the rooms, and thus of the lives, of his characters: an efficient translation of the snippets of detail Joyce has given us in words.

So what then has the adaptation done? What has it achieved? Sympathetic, evocative of the lives of its characters and of the story that Joyce told, sharing an ambience with that story perhaps, one might say it has paralleled the text. It has successfully translated the story from one medium into another. I enjoyed watching it, as I enjoyed reading the story. Huston has cleverly visualised what Joyce has written.

And here’s the key to understanding the nature of adaptation itself. Huston has visualised the story, and has brought that visualisation to life: he has brought his response to the language of Joyce into existence. I have not made a film of The Dead, but I have imagined it. His characters have different faces to mine. His rooms are not so darkly shadowed as mine. His characters are a little less shabby than mine too. His images were drawn from his imagination, and found in real life – as actors, props and sets, as camera angles and lighting, as sounds. Mine too were drawn from life: we can imagine nothing that we have not seen already. The words we read draw from us the memories that we have forgotten in our conscious everyday lives.

What the faithful adaptation does is share a single visualisation of a story. What a reading of the original text does is create within our minds such a visualisation. If we want to share that, we must either talk about it, or make our own adaptations.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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I have favorite pieces of film – a few seconds or minutes at most – from full length movies, that I can watch repeatedly. The attack on the Cong village from Apocalypse Now is one – and to be more specific, those few seconds (longer in the early version than in Redux I think) where the helicopters rise into the air to the sound of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. The barn-raising sequence in Witness is another.

A longer piece is the drive of Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins, through the early morning snow to their destinies in the film version of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain. I can watch this clip, which opens the film and runs throughout the titles and credits, over and again and the hairs will still stand up on the back of my neck. I first saw film simply because this scene had hooked me unexpectedly in the act of turning off the TV after watching a programme I’d intended to watch.

A large part of the attraction, for all three, is the soundtrack music. In fact, in the case of The Human Stain, the clip could be a ‘video’ to the music, rather than the music a background to the movie. Not that the visual themselves aren’t gripping – the soft slipping of the vehicle over the snowy road; the baleful eyes of the headlamps; the faint glow of those headlamps’ beams on the surface of the snow; the bare trunks of the trees; the close-ups on the faces of Hopkins and Kidman.

Even without that first time surprise of finding out what happens, the scene is potent and haunting, it has that quality of ‘a certain surprisingness’ which C’S’Lewis tells us is why we can read and re-read a story – through whatever medium perhaps – without losing interest. Text, Music, Image, to borrow a title from Roland Barthes, all can provide us with such tropes.

The word itself is worth a glance. You’ll find it in Scholes’ Dictionary of Music (and probably on Wickipaedia too), where, in relation to liturgical texts and music, it’s described as ‘an intercalation of music or words’. More helpful, perhaps, is an explanation offered to me by the leader of a Gregorian Chant group. Tropes, he said, were small musical fillers put in, as one might put grace notes into a line of song. Scholes says they appeared in the 9th century, and were banned in the 15th. My friend suggested that in between they got a bit too big for themselves, as practioneers used them to show off their musical talents! The term is still used, musically, but now for a form of hymn, intended to stand alone.

You’ll find the word also in dictionaries of literary terms. The Penguin one pins it to the Greek word for ‘turn’, and for myself, that’s ‘turn’ as in party piece. Popular usage has it referring to sections of secular text that stand out from their surrounding stories. I can think of a few: Gerty McDowell showing her knickers to Leopold Bloom in James Joyces’ Ulysses springs to mind, but that often happens! In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the backward running film of the bombing raid on Germany is one. So is the death of Simon, to my way of thinking, in Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The death of Little Nell, the murder of Nancy, and the meeting of Pip with Magwich are among many from Dickens. They are the pieces he used to perfom on stage, sending tight corsetted Victorian Ladies gasping for their smelling salts, and stiff-upper lipped Victorian gentlemen for their handkerciefs. These are the sort of tropes that won for themselves the description of Purple Passages – sections from larger stories, famous for their heightened emotional content.

My examples are all from novels, and it might be said that novels are really archipelagoes of tropes in seas of tropelessness. Adopting another metaphor, tropes might be seen as the emnotional punches novels subject us to, and all the rest is the fancy footwork, the ducking and weaving, jabbing and probing, that goes on to set the writer up for throwing those punches, and to manouevre the reader into the most vulnerable position for receiving them.

Perhaps, we might argue, a difference between the novel and the short story, is that whereas the former may contain a series of tropes, the short story is built around one – a knockout blow delivered at the end.

In many cases, authors often ploughing the same furrow, or at least the same field, repeatedly, the trope might be seen as type of content, or a type of style that is in common use by that author – a way of doing things; a reason for doing them: a step away from that older meaning, but still, in some ways ‘a turn’. You might even say, that a trope is a flourish, a signature, a maker’s mark, the hallmark of an author at his trade.