Monday, 18 August 2008

3-year books make bad 100-minute films

On Saturday I finally allocated some time to finishing off the novel I've been reading, Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt. Lee gave me the book about 3 years ago, and I essentially read it over two periods: the first two thirds of it then, and the last third over recent months.

The time it took me to finish the book shouldn't be interpreted as a slight on its quality. It is well-written, and although the poetry sections can be slow-going at times, I came to appreciate their contribution to the story. I thought most of the characters were well-drawn, showing a range of personalities and motivations in the sphere of literary academia in which the novel is set. The exceptions are perhaps La Motte, who feels too imbued with the stereotypical passivity and victim syndrome of 19th century literature, and perhaps Maud, who can be a bit blank at times. The plot moves nicely, bouncing between the 19th century fling between the poets and the modern mirror between the critics. The Brittany phase, while evocative in some of the ambience it painted of the area, felt weak in terms of the story, perhaps partly because it dwelt upon, or even wallowed in, the less edifying aspects of Christabel's character. Nonetheless, that was followed by a nice little section of pomo self-reflection, a nice albeit not quite credible ending, and a very elegant epilogue.

While reading the book, I was conscious that there was a film adaptation, directed by Neil LaBute and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, who seemed to me a good casting option for Maud. I tracked down a copy of the film last night and watched it, with the book fresh in my mind.

This is only the second time that I've watched a film adaptation soon after reading the source novel, the first being Le Carré's The Constant Gardener. That film was a much better film on its own merits, and the experience of comparing the two renditions of the story was an amusing exercise in understanding the filmmakers' reasons for trimming the elements they did.

This time, though, felt more like counting the casualties of the adaptation, and wondering if the greater damage was done in adaptation or in editing. The film is far, far too short at 100 minutes long. Neither the 19th-century couple nor their modern counterparts are given a chance to develop any credible chemistry. Ash and LaMotte's tryst, in particular, lacks all the intellectual motivation of the book, which was entirely the point. The casting is quite poor. The character of Roland is so very English, but is inexplicably recast as an American. Blackadder is, seemingly for no reason, cast as an Irishman rather than a Scot.

The casualties of the adaptation range from the minor, like the disappearance of Dog Tray, who I quite liked, to major, as in the absence of Beatrice Nest and particularly of Leonora Stern, who offered an interesting alternative view of the academic, and Val, whose relationship with Roland was so important to his character and his subsequent relationship with Maud. More concerning is the absence of any real character development, so often the case in a book-to-film adaptation. Aside from the relationships between the 4 main characters, parts like Cropper and Fergus are given no chance to develop credibly, and Roland's arc is lacking in its beginning, in his relationship with Val, and its end, in his finding professional and creative escape at the story's resolution. The other absence, I suppose, is poetry. I concede that poetry is almost impossible to adapt for the screen, but without that underpinning, the film seems to lack fundament.

I will confess that watching the film and thinking about its shortcomings did make me appreciate many of the aspects of the book, in particular the way it had developed characters and relationships, and the different ways the characters related to the literature that was their work. Obviously, though, this is damnation by faint praise. The book was a poor choice for adaptation - the story's poetic base is unfilmable, and there are too many characters (that there are 4 distinct leads cannot be avoided) - and a 102 min running length made the task all but impossible.

1 comment:

Emily said...

Well I won't bother with the film after your review. Thanks for lending me the book last year, I enjoyed reading it while travelling.