It needs real nerve to come out of a film based on a famous novel and declare unreservedly that you enjoyed the film much more than the book. I mean, books came first. Literature, as a study, preceded film by decades. Adaptation of novels into film brings out the cultural cowardice in so many of us. Could you imagine anyone daring to “prefer” a film version of, say, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations or Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady to their illustrious predecessors? Well, courageously, that is what I’m about to do.
Much of the reputation of the “new Australian cinema” of the 1970s was derived from somewhat decorous films adapted from respected Australian novels, preferably set in the past and most often with a coming-of-age narrative line. Fred Schepisi, having made his name with The Devil’s Playground (1976), from his own screenplay, next adapted Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), again writing the screenplay himself, and no one could have thought of this as “decorous”: set in the past certainly, the film, however, confronted issues central to contemporary Australian life. Schepisi went on to direct several impressive films derived from literary sources: Plenty (1985), from David Hare’s exploration of a woman’s attempt to come to terms with life in post-war England; the very smart and witty Six Degrees of Separation (1993), from John Guare’s play; and best of all, Last Orders (2001), the beautiful, affecting version of Graham Swift’s novel. And now he’s taken on Patrick White.
In his function as adaptor – whether as director or screenwriter or both – of other men’s fictions, Schepisi has shown a respect for the antecedent works without letting this topple into a crippling reverence. The movies he has made from novels and plays suggest a filmmaker who has found something to excite his attention in the original and to suggest cinematic strategies for rendering this “take” on the original. In the case of Jimmie Blacksmith, he and Keneally both made painfully clear the fact that Jimmie, at the end, belongs nowhere, but, whereas Keneally arrives at this point via an austere choice of words, Schepisi does so through a passionate arrangement of images. In the case of Plenty, screenwriter David Hare (adapting his own play) is on record about Schepisi’s wish to retain more of the original dialogue, but the film never feels like a mere conversation piece, even though it doesn’t undervalue the impact of the eloquent spoken word. It moves fluently between past and present in cinematising Susan Traherne’s (Meryl Streep) adjustment to the present as she comes to terms with her wartime experiences as a Resistance worker. In the process of rendering this, the film also works as an allegory of England’s loss of direction and prestige in the decades after the war. In relation to Plenty, Schepisi acknowledged the importance of Streep’s star power in getting the project adequately funded and distributed. That is, there is more at stake than just a matter of “transferring” a story and characters created in one medium to another.
Six Degrees of Separation is a film that makes daring demands on its audience from several points of view. Schepisi, working from Guare’s adaptation of his own play, insists that we listen carefully to an incessant flow of often-dazzling talk, far more than is the case with most films. However, it is no more a conversation piece than Plenty, and it requires the closest attention as it darts about in time and place, depending on the minutiae of mise en scène to keep us informed about its narrative twists and turns – and about its philosophical and cultural intentions.
The matter of establishing a fluid concurrency of past and present, of here and there, is crucial not just to Plenty and Six Degrees of Separation but also to Last Orders and to The Eye of the Storm, and this feature, common to several of Schepisi’s adaptations, is an area in which the screen is potentially and peculiarly adept. Playwrights and novelists risk confusion if they fragment the time continuum in this way: it presents staging difficulties for theatre and even novels which embark on such alternations of tense and that need to prepare the ground a little more thoroughly than film, in which a shift in mise en scène may reorient the viewer immediately.
This was brilliantly achieved in Last Orders. I had the experience of reading Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel just prior to seeing the film, and was amazed at how closely it adhered to the book’s sequence of events and to its ways of narration, of letting bits of information slip in. It was hard for me to sort out what I knew from the book, what from the film. By this I don’t mean it was a tediously non-cinematic exercise in fidelity to the original; only that, to an extraordinary degree, it sought and found cinematic means of rendering the emotional texture and elegiac atmosphere of the novel as well as its incidents and characters. It is much easier to replicate incidents and characters, far less so texture and atmosphere – even supposing the filmmaker wants to, and in my view there is no reason why he/she should feel any such obligation. It’s the filmmaker’s job to make something new and compelling, whether he/she is working on an adaptation or from an original screenplay; and Schepisi now has an impressive record of doing just that.
Which brings us to his latest venture in adaptation. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Patrick White has not attracted much film attention. There have been several TV versions of his plays (A Cheery Soul, 1966; Big Toys, 1980; The Ham Funeral, 1990); Jim Sharman made a moderately interesting film of the novella, The Night the Prowler (1978), for which White wrote his own screenplay; and there was talk of a film version of Voss, to be directed by Joseph Losey from a screenplay by David Mercer, that never came to anything. Now, Schepisi has filmed The Eye of the Storm from a screenplay by former actor, Judy Morris, and while sticking to the overall trajectory of White’s narrative, he has honed persuasive drama from the family tensions at its heart.
For my money, Schepisi has achieved a major success in recycling a novel of misanthropic malice and irritatingly over-ornate and affected stylistic posturing, and keeping a more humane eye on the lives of the dying Elizabeth Hunter, her son and daughter, and various others who touch on the Hunters’ affairs. Having just reread the book, I couldn’t quite rinse out the nasty taste by the time I saw the film, but, even if it had nothing else going for it, the film lasts only two hours as distinct from the 580 pages it takes White to rub our noses into the more repellent aspects of his characters’ lives before a flick of “grace” at the end. As if that stood a chance against all that had gone before, whether lovingly rendered details of snot or shit or misogynistic observation of a woman’s least attractive features.
So what, in narrative terms, is being adapted? Elizabeth Hunter, rich, once-beautiful, cruelly self-absorbed, lies moribund in her Sydney mansion (actually a Melbourne location passes for this in the film), and her two children have flown in from Europe to see her but, more important, to ensure their inheritances. Basil Hunter, Sir Basil, has reached a middling eminence as an actor in England, an eminence he is at pains to gloss, while sister Dorothy, now the Princesse de Lascabanes, is miserably separated from her French husband. They are drawn not by affection for their mother, and don’t have much for each other. Elizabeth is tended by three nurses, named for allegory rather than life as Badgery, De Santis and Manhood; by a German Jewish housekeeper, Lotte Lippmann, who has had a past in cabaret which she puts to use in diverting the dying matriarch; and by a lawyer named Arnold Wyburd, whose wife Lal has (White is pleased to tell us, for no very good reason) a “single pockmark on one cheek beside the nose” (1). The son and daughter fly in; the nurses and lawyer hover; money and jewels are at issue; and there are frequent dips into the past and away from the crucial setting of Elizabeth Hunter’s bedroom.
In terms of adaptation, one notes that the film begins and ends with the younger Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling) paddling in the shallows of an island beach, the beach where she had weathered “the eye of the storm” and presumably experienced something approaching a state of enlightenment. In this way, the film gives a shape and a thematic emphasis of its own to its adapted narrative materials. Once Elizabeth has been established on the beach, the film cuts to her much-aged face on the pillow of her Sydney bedroom, and this is followed by two brief sequences in which Basil (Geoffrey Rush) and Dorothy (Judy Davis), in alternating shots, are seen arriving at, respectively, their hotel and club rooms. Elizabeth’s curtains in fact open to our first glimpse of Basil. All three – mother, son and daughter – are repairing the ravages to their ageing bodies prior to their imminent re-meeting.
One curious aspect of the adaptation is that the character of Basil is privileged in the sense of having sole access to voiceover narration. This seems disconcerting, not because it gives him a narrational presence he doesn’t have in the novel, but because it seems to imply his thoughts have greater importance than those of either Dorothy or Elizabeth. Nothing else in the film would support such a distinction, so that, in line with the reference above to Meryl Streep, one can only assume that this is intended to imply the superior star power of Geoffrey Rush. From the outset it feels like a stylistic miscalculation, at odds with the visual parity accorded both Rush and Davis, as they engage in their various affectations and self-delusions.
While on the subject of how the film goes about dealing with its precursor text, it is worth noting a couple of ways in which Schepisi and the screenplay have trimmed this overlong novel. One very simple economy is in the deletion of Sister Badgery, the least carefully detailed character among the three nurses. She exists as a presence in the novel merely by scattered references to her middle-class snobberies and her late tea-planter husband, and the film doesn’t need her. The other departure, again perhaps in the interests of focusing attention during the film’s two hours, is that it retains visual inserts of only Elizabeth’s past, not those of Basil or Dorothy. Film, by virtue of its intense visual mimesis, instructs us about how characters look and dress and conduct themselves, in the process arguably obviating the need for filling in a lot of “background”. In this case, Dorothy’s disappointment is caught in the lineaments of Davis’ taut gaze and over-careful couture, while the second-rate “success” of Basil announces itself in Rush’s too-loud bonhomie, not to speak of yachting jacket and cravat.
And very noticeably, the film avoids that final business of the novel in which the emblematically named nurse, Mary De Santis, commits herself to a new patient, and next morning finds her arms “rounded by increasing light” as she sees to the feeding of birds in the garden (2). This bit of unpersuasive uplift is replaced in the film’s last moments by that image I mentioned before, of Elizabeth Hunter’s one moment of spontaneous joy on the island beach.
What the film has to offer is a compelling study of greed, vanity, self-interest and other assorted moral slipshoddiness. So, it might be said, has the novel, but at least in the film the mere fact of having to embody these characteristics in actual living figures (or their two-dimensional representations) endows them with a humanity that is hardly evident on the page. They may be selfish and egoistic but small moments of other manifestations will keep seeping through, endowing them with vestiges of life that escape their public facades. Mind you, it helps the film to have been so exemplarily cast: if you have Rampling, Rush and Davis at their commanding best, with other roles taken by the likes of Helen Morse (and how good to see her on the big screen again in a vivid sketch as flamboyant Lotte), Colin Friels (as politician Athol Shreve), John Gaden (as Wyburd) and Robyn Nevin (as Lal), the film is off to a good start. These actors, representative of several decades of Australian cinema, and Schepisi, one of the notable pioneers of the 1970s revival, have joined forces to effect a transition from one medium to another that leaves the earlier one trailing in its own ungenerous dust.