Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr, NYRB Classics, 2000

A Month in the Country, Starring Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, & Natasha Richardson, Written by Simon Gray, Directed by Pat O’Connor, Channel Four Films, 1988

I don’t typically fault novel adaptations to the screen. The two media being so dissimilar, screenwriters and directors have to take enormous liberties in order to successfully make a film out of a novel. A great number of viewers of their beloved classics fail to grasp this elementary distinction and huff and puff about how Hollywood ruined their favorite.

Rubbish. Utterly ridiculous rubbish. Hollywood no more ruins books than operas do. Yes, Hollywood (or other centers of film) can take a book and from it make a hideous movie that isn’t worth the film stock its shot on. By the same token, Hollywood can take pap and turn it into gold (see Touch of Evil by Orson Welles for a textbook example).

But to suggest that what is done in one medium effects what happens in (or one’s estimation) of another is to get all mixed up. Films stand alone. It’s worth repeating that. Films stand alone. They are never going to be sufficient to winkle out every little nuance of a novel; they are going to be cast horribly wrong, aiming for box office rather than fidelity; they are going to be something different. The best we can do as viewers is to judge them on their own merits.

That said, watching Pat O’Connor’s adaptation of J.L. Carr’s luminous little 1978 novella A Month in the County was an overwhelmingly disappointing experience. And mostly for gripes like the ones I’ve enumerated above. The casting, though, I can’t fault. If Colin Firth has turned in a bad performance, someone point me at it because it’d be a novelty. Branagh is his old reliable self, prior to his superstardom and his near levels of self-parody of later years. Natasha Richardson is almost hidden in her period hair and costume, though her eyes remain alight with a fire that being trapped in a small town life with a small-minded minister can’t quite dampen.

The story told in the both the film and novel centers around the character of Tom Birkin (Firth), an impoverished veteran of World War I, who comes to the small town of Oxgodby to uncover a 15th century mural that’s been painted over in the local chapel. Like him, Branagh’s James Moon is also a war veteran, also hired under the terms of the will of a rich widow, the church’s benefactor. Birkin is to uncover the mural, Moon to find the body of the widow’s ancient relative buried somewhere just outside church grounds.

These two damaged outsiders pursue their goals and develop a camaraderie based on their work and their status in the town. Birkin, gathering a touch of glamour from the ancient painting, is accepted more in the town and slowly enters into the lives of the people there. Part of his time, therefore, is for him a healing process. Part of that also is the slow development of the unspoken affair of the heart he has with the minister’s wife, Alice Keach.

The way Carr unwinds his story is through understatement and seemingly unconnected events. In a town as small as Oxgodby, things like Birkin’s dinner with a town family and his polite chat with their daughter becomes grounds for widespread rumors that he may marry her and settle down there. This rather fact-less but swift bit of gossip prompts a visit from Mrs. Keach and some additional, chaste kindnesses from her, further enflaming Birkin’s heart.

The novel is a quiet piece of beauty distilled down into 130 pages of rapturous silence. There is a kind of radiating goodness both from Carr himself and his narrator, a sense of humble decency under the wreckage, and that combination makes for a very pleasant read. You sincerely like Tom Birkin in the novel, while in the film, you more pity him than like him.

What the film does with this book is unsettling as they focus on what feels like the wrong tone and the wrong aspects of the novel. Less is made of Birkin’s character of decent human being and much more is made of his post-traumatic stress disorder. A good example is Birkin’s stammer, which gets precisely two mentions in the novel (page 6) then never again. In the course of the film, it dominates his character, crushing all his dialogue to snippets and further alienating him from those around him. We watch their faces as pity overcomes them too. Of course, this stammer manages to magically disappear by film’s end – one of those completely unsubtle ways films telegraph meaning to the viewers.

Likewise, we are treated to any number of scenes of Birkin’s nightmares of trench warfare, the movie going overboard in its visual context. It’s part of what makes adaptation such a tricky business. Novels, often being fundamentally interior stories, don’t necessarily lend themselves to more flashy visuals while films seek out some kind of behavioral or appearance-based hook on which to hang larger character assessments and traits. Going from the novel’s delicacy to the film’s overtness has a shocking quality to it.

The film also dallies on certain aspects of the story and hurries on others. We could easily do away with Birkin and some congregants of a competing church going organ shopping if it would allow us a lengthier time spent with the family of those congregants back in their home. Then the film goes about speeding up the development of certain scenes and shifting the order of them so that behaviors that flowed naturally from a succession of events in the novel here abruptly thrust themselves into the narrative. The fine moments in the novel where Birkin visits the Keach home only to find no one there, his crush on Alice readily apparent, are cinematically done away with, only to instead provide us with more late night thrashing about in bed.

The moment I first heard of the film version of this novel, I imagined any number of ways it could be done cleverly and with taste. There are moments throughout the film when everyone involved either grasps that perfection or are within sight of it. The shame is that too often the film is no better than merely pedestrian, one of Masterpiece Theatres less well done productions.

Oh well, I shall always have the novel.


Brown in Oberlin said...

I understand, to an extent, your dismissal of those who link their judgment of screen adaptations to the novels themselves. Perhaps a film should stand alone, evaluated through independent criteria. However, I cannot imagine detaching myself so thoroughly from my reading of a novel as to not make comparisons when watching the film. In film, I want to see characters the way I imagined them in the book. I want to see themes that I felt were important explored. In the end, I want to see my vision up there on the big screen.

Of course, that sounds terribly egocentric and close-minded, as if the only representation that matters is mine. But it's not that another's perspective won't be interesting or good, it will just never be as interesting or meaningful as that which is created in my head.

The Critic said...

In film, I want to see characters the way I imagined them in the book. I want to see themes that I felt were important explored. In the end, I want to see my vision up there on the big screen.

Pshaw! Impossible goal. Even if you wrote, directed, cast, starred in, and edited the film, I suspect it still couldn't match what you saw/felt when reading the book.

Citizen Carrie said...

I'm afraid I'm one of those people who are usually disappointed with film adaptations of novels, particularly when the film seems to ignore the main premise of the novel. If I DO like the movie, it's usually because it just happens to focus on a character or a plot point in the novel that really resonated with me.

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