Saturday, September 29, 2012

Film & Literature Tutorial

I have a love hate relationship with writing. I love to aspire to it, but I hate how difficult it is for me to do it. I don't know why, but it's always been that way for me. Perhaps it's like my fear of singing solo in front of an audience as opposed to speaking in front of an audience. The former is horrific even after years of classical voice training, yet I am fine singing in a choir, but ask me to speak in front of a large audience, and I have no problem. Anyway, I'm here now getting to my writing for a tutorial, the name of which reads on my transcript as Blog Writing on Film and Literature, and which I developed in consultation with my colleague, friend, and mentor Professor Lenny Cassuto. This study was derived from a list I created of over 30 books and their film adaptations. In deciding on this initial list of works and their film adaptations, while conducting some online research, I found a wonderful resource within the Mid-Continent Public Libary (Kansas-Missouri) called Based on the Book. It enables look-up of over 1000 adaptations since 1980 by movie name or release year, book or story or author name. From that initial list of 30+ films, I was asked to weed it down to 10 and then to 6 and then to find a through-line.

I couldn't help but be interested in continuing my studies from the Victorian Gothic as, also earlier in the summer, I took a course "Monsters and Maidens: The Victorian Gothic" with Dr. Leah Richards. The final book in that course was Dracula by Bram Stoker so I was naturally thinking of beginning the tutorial with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Further research for authors led me to other woman authors (think through-line) and their works that had been adapted for film, many having do with horror or crime. Last, I was asked to put the films in an order resulting in the following six books and their film adaptations,  year, and director in parenthesis:
  1. Frankenstein (1918) by English author Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1931, James Whale; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, 1994, Kenneth Branagh),
  2. Lady Audley's Secret (1862) by English author Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley's Secret, 2000, Betsan Morris Evans),
  3. Don't Look Now from Not After Midnight (1971) a short story collection by English author Daphne du Maurier (Don't Look Now, 1973, Nicolas Roeg). du Maurier is actually much more well known for other works of fiction such as The Birds (1952) which was adapted by Hitchcock in the film of the same name in 1963, as well as for her story Rebecca (1938) which was also adapted by Hitchcock earlier in 1940;
  4. The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by American author Shirley Jackson (The Haunting, 1963, Robert Wise);
  5. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by American author Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999, Anthony Minghella). Highsmith also had one of her works Strangers on a Train (1950) adapted by Director Hitchcock in 1951; and 
  6. Wise Blood (1952) by American author Flannery O'Connor (Wise Blood, 1979, John Huston).
What I would like to address from these works is the theme of creation and the responsibility inherent therein and how that theme is complemented or detracted from in the novels and their adaptations. However, before I begin, I must say that I found that to write about horror or crime was to continue the study of the Gothic, beginning with the Victorian Gothic in Frankenstein through to Flannery O'Connor's American Southern Gothic in Wise Blood. Although we certainly don't have the happy endings in most of these stories, there is an abundance of tropes from the Victorian Gothic from the juxtaposition of the rise of revolutionary scientific information (think Darwin's 1859 Origin of The Species) with Catholicism and other organized religious beliefs to hold fast in the public's mindset starting with Frankenstein; to ineffectual or absent fathers and mothers, or orphaned characters in The Haunting of Hill House and the Talented Mr. Ripley; to class differences and the effect of female beauty and objectification or education to usurp these differences in Lady Audley and Ripley; to places and the architecture of structures that feature a creepiness to them or take on living, breathing qualities, inhuman of the human--wholly represented in The Haunting of Hill House and which focus on the house and its representation of the Gothic could be written on alone, and in Don't Look Now's English country house estate, then in movement to the street maze knitted city of Venice; to including the theme of inheritance or lack of one among these works explored (Audley, The Haunting, and Ripley). In addition, to continue to study the Gothic was to also continue with the theme of death and decay and that makes a great segue into the most obvious of the stories chosen for this study that has to do with creation, Frankenstein.

How does this idea to create another human being from dead body parts and electricity begin in this tale? For Victor Frankenstein, the son of a doctor and man of science, pressures to be a success in his own right are only a seed. This son's enthusiasm for science is introduced in Branagh's adaptation Mary Shelley's Frankenstein when on the mountaintop, he and his cousin/sister/lover and their housemaid's daughter, Justine, experience the affects from Victor's experiment with lightening. Even before this though we are introduced to the obsession and inhumanity created amidst the pursuit of glory in the name of science. The opening of the film begins with a ship tossing and turning in stormy, icy waters at night with screen text that says Arctic Sea 1794, and then the captain of the ship is shown hounding his men to keep chopping the ice to get the ship released from the iceberg. This is a dramatic beginning and evokes the power of water which men can't live without as a symbol of fluidity and cleansing, but here with the power that it holds as nature's freezing temperatures make it destructive and deathly. Victor Frankenstein arrives on his sled with dogs and after he and the Captain hear the Victor's dogs die at the hands of the monster he is chasing, they have words. Frankenstein says "do you share my passion?" This is a beautifully executed start because it immediately sets up the parallel of the Captain's obsession to make it to the North Pole with Frankenstein's to create human life outside of the womb. This film version of Shelley's extraordinary novel is much closer to her story-line and the opening of the film is just one instance. Although there are areas in the film in which Branagh takes creative license, even then he is consistent with the ideas and themes of Shelley's work. James Whale's 1918 version of Frankenstein is a classic work in its own right; it is a first in talking horror feature films just after the silent era, and stands on its own (refer to my post on my philosophy of film adaptation). What it does not do, however, is provide a deeper appreciation and knowledge of the story as written by Shelley. Branagh's version does that and more, by providing a dramatic environment of the visual and sound media to further enhance an already fantastic tale, as well as filling in some of the holes in Shelley's story.

Victor's obsessive nature is expounded upon in the scene with his mother in the attic where he is working and she scolds him for being too serious, but the real depth of his obsession is born with his mother's death which creates within him, a guilt-ridden, selfish desire to deny his loss and his mother's mortality, a desire that is also masked by his endeavor of academic scholarship in the sciences and the pursuit of a cure for human death and decay. This altruistic concern for the welfare of the human race and its fight against disease is the premise for Frankenstein to whole up in a lab for days and hours on end without caring for himself or others in order to create life.

Frankenstein fails to see past the monstrous appearance of his creation and denies his responsibility in having to educate his newborn who has extraordinary strength. He abhors his creation and his reaction is his disgust with himself and what he believes is a monster, creates and sustains a rippling effect of destruction to both of their ends. Victor runs away and uses the creation itself as his excuse for doing so. He turns into a coward and can't see past his creation's appearance to be responsible for what he has made. Even when the creature begs him to make him a companion, Frankenstein fails. This is one of the areas where Branagh takes creative license, but in doing so he also complements the false idea that to be human one must be beautiful and not show any signs of decay.


Lady Audley's Secret opens with a description of the Audley Estate (Name), this detail to an inanimate object is striking, but is left out of the story in the film, in fact, the only object besides Lady Audley herself as the objectified perfect wife and woman that stays in the film from the novel is Lady Audley's portrait. This adaptation is a poor one as it changes some central details from the book, yet tries to replicate the same story. It works on its own as a fluff Victorian novel recreation piece that fails to have anywhere near the depth of the novel. Perhaps because this novel was considered a sensation novel and was part of the serialized writings of Braddon, who though she wrote well, did write for the money, not for the critical acclaim. Human life is created in various ways, not just through birth. The behavior among human beings to each other from family to friends to strangers as an effect on our creation on who we become, to those reactions we humans have in response to societal, economic, and psychological factors. Why does one person's reaction to horrifying circumstances take them on a spiral downhill to their demise while another will resist and then follow an upward path toward personal growth and fulfillment? Circumstances reveal that Lady Audley suffered from a quagmire of monstrous treatment from her own family and that she was immersed in horrid circumstances during her developmental years. She had no loving or caring familial relationships. while Robert Audley her protagonist, on the other hand, is born into wealth and privilege. This man is able to resist his temptations to become a better, more productive man, Lady Audley reactions to her situation and to become a “good” woman, on the other hand grows into a monster herself. Whose responsibility is that? Her father maybe could have provided a better upbringing, but he was a Navy man ill-prepared to be left with the care of a young child by his wife who was mentally ill and who had to be sent to what they called a "mad house." The woman who he had stay with his daughter, who was “disagreeable” and who had no real interest the child, and who vented her rage upon when her father was behind in remitting her pay? Her mother and those who shielded her from the knowledge of her mother's illness with lies. When LA grew old enough to understand the meaning of the word death, she asked if her mother was dead, and she was told – ‘No, she was not dead; she was ill, and she was away.’” The result of one of housekeeper's rages on LA was the revelation made to her that her mother “is in a madhouse and that she is mad.” Lady Audley herself admits that this had a devastating effect upon her, one that lead her to a childhood depression where she “brooded horribly and was haunted day and night with the thought of her mother’s madness.” (Braddon, Mary, 6958-6959).  She had nightmares and overwhelming anxieties that she would be killed by her own “mad mother.”  LA's downfall was the result of severe defects of from her childhood, the desertion of both her mother and father, one from mental illness and from drink, then the desertion of her husband when she had a young infant to care for, and her desire to live a different, better life. Her resulting reactions as monstrous as they are in themselves are only mirrors of the same treatment she experienced from others; secretive and self-centered. Lady Audley chooses to create a new life for herself. She is unable to resist the temptation of Sir Michael’s marriage proposal even though it makes her legally and religiously amoral, turning her into a bigamist, a law-breaker not only breaking the law of the state, but of religion.  It is Robert Audley in what he believes is a responsibility to his good friend, Lucy's first husband, and to his uncle, that effect her destruction in the end. While Robert Auley is able to further develop—leaving behind his former laissez faire qualities and persisting in a cause that in turn transforms into a more fully developed “man” and attorney. If one is to grow into positive, productive, loving, and functioning human being, one must experience being treated in a way that respects that facility, in a way that does not hide the monstrous, but fosters one’s faith in others and the knowledge that we will be protected when we are at our most vulnerable.

The other adaptation of the short story by du Maurier, Don't Look Now, I to be an interesting pretty well made film, but lacking just a bit, though the cinematography by Anthony Richmond, acting by Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania as the two sisters, as well  as original music score are quite good. Perhaps this is why Hitchcock did not choose to adapt this work of du Maurier, yet adapted her two other works The Birds and Rebecca. Had I the time to change the selection here, I might. This is though an example of how sometimes, the simpler the piece, the more difficult it is to adapt. While Hitchcock's work on the short story The Song of the Dragon by John Traitor Foote was elaborate and did result in a smashing hit with the film Notorious, I'm not sure that Don't Look Now would or could have resulted in a similar success. The story's ending is premiere in it's effect of irony and I'm not sure the power of the ending could have been done more effectively in film and as well as in the words on a page. Bringing this back to the conversation focus of creation and responsibility without creating a spoiler for those of you who would like to see the film, where the idea of creation unfolds is in the marriage of this couple and the division of their faith ultimately seals their fate apart. It's the least example of my thesis and The Birds certainly would have fit better, but I'm still glad I chose to read this less well known work of du Maurier and it's film counterpart. I have chosen a clip below that won't spoil the film for you, should you decide to watch the complete film which I would recommend.

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House adaption by Robert Wise into the 1963 film The Haunting is a revelation. The story provides for a perfect protagonist in Eleanor Lance also known as "Nell" as a creation. Her father past away when she was a young girl, and she is a girl that never turns into a woman, denied a life by her mother and then sister. She cared for her sick mother for years and was left with nothing after her death: homeless, living with her sister and her family, and with she must ask permission to use the one possession she has, an automobile, that she and her sister purchased after their mother died. During the time when her mother was alive, she received no relief from her sister or and no kind words or appreciation from her mother. Wise stays close enough to the original story, though there were a couple of pieces missing that I would have liked to see in the film and that I believe had particular meaning. For example, in the novel there is mention of a cup with stars on the bottom that a little girl is without when she is away from home. This is an important prop that is missing from the film, though Julie Harris is superb in her effluence as a disturbed, lonely, forlorn young woman. The time element makes necessity of edits to the story-line and this was one choice that a director or screenwriter would make. Wise though not only does a fine job creating a great adaptation of a wonderful piece of literature as well as a work unto itself within the film horror genre, he also distinguishes himself by using some revolutionary techniques such as his aging of the daughter into an old woman.
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The next selection The Talented Mr. Ripley is a story of an awkward, floundering young man, Tom Ripley, who meets an elite ship builder while subbing for a singer's accompanist and while wearing a Princeton jacket. Unintentionally at first, the shipping magnate, is fooled into thinking that Tom went to Princeton with his son and he wants Tom to bring his son back home to America from Italy where he is living the good life with no responsibility. Tom, who we learn is an orphan and who experienced torment at the hands of his mother's sister during his upbringing with her after his parent's death, becomes excited about the idea and takes on the quest, arriving in Italy and putting himself literally in front of Dickie Greenleaf on the beach in his dayglo green speedo. He develops a relationship with the Dickie, but things turn ugly when he is ulimately rejected by him. This film is also very close to Highsmith's story-line, though like Frankenstein, it does make some interpretive changes. Matt Damon does a wonderful job though of showing the complexity of this young man's character, wanting to be loved, and in trying to hard, is found to be a fraud He, in what could be interpreted as accidentally on purpose, becomes a murderer. The love triangle between Ripley and Greenleaf, and anyone else Dickie is paying attention to at the time, most of time Marge Sherwood, is really interestingly explored and enhanced in the film. While the story-line from Highsmith is leading, suggestive of  homosexual inclination, but really asexual, the late great Anthony Minghella takes a direct line to this sexuality that Highsmith whether intentionally or not implied in her work. So how does the idea of creation and responsibility come into play here? Well, the young handsome heir, Dickie Greenleaf, is a self-absorbed ass, and, as Marge Sherwood puts it, the thing with Dickie... it's like the sun shines on you, and it's glorious. And then he forgets you and it's very, very cold." A true friend doesn't do this to his good friends. He mocks and uses Tom Ripley and then when he's done with him for his own pleasure and entertainment, he gets the creeps from him and wants to get away from him. He forms a false friendship and he takes no responsibility for its creation, its continuation or its ending. This is not to say that it's right and responsible of Tom Ripley to kill Dickie, but that it makes us understand why he loses it and does, and moves us to not feel so bad for Dickie Greenleaf. The other way that Minghella provides for a compassionate understanding of Dickie's demise is his knock up of the local Italian girl and subsequent denial to help her when she comes to him, then drowns herself. I've chosen a clip here that is more fun than anything, but that does show Ripley's admiration and love for Dickie and how Tom might misinterpret Dickie's mutual feelings for him.


Last, and certainly not least, is Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood and its adaptation of the same name by another late great director, John Huston. Huston also appears in flashbacks the protagonist has in the film back to his boyhood and his grandfather's (Huston) preaching. This shows the affect his grandfather had on him. Hazel Motes is played by Brad Dourif who aside from Wise Blood being his largest role as the main character is probably most well known and received most critical acclaim for his role of Billy Bibbit in the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) from the book of the same name by Ken Kesey (1962). Dourif's performance is outstanding and the film is great. Watching it made me recall that Huston has done outstanding work on adaptations from literature. I have seen and love the film adaptations he made of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (B. Traven) and The Dead (James Joyce), and now know that I must put on my watchlist his 1964 The Night of the Iguana (1948, Tennessee Williams) and his 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye (1947, Carson McCullers) among other works of his that I have not seen.



But I digress and I am almost done, so let me get back to Wise Blood and the reasons why this film complements the literature that it was born from. Again, I can't say enough about Dourif's performance. He really makes an unbelievable character real and Huston's supreme touch with his direction make this film breath with life from the pages on which the story was written. In the Author's Notes to the 2nd Edition, O'Connor declares that Wise Blood "is a comic novel...and that as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death." In firm agreement, I urge you to read this book. Then after you have read it, I ask that you to go back and read the rest of the Author's Note to the 2nd Edition. I hope that it will make you sigh as it did I, for the relevance here is to the idea of creation and that it is so grand a thing that it can not be taken for granted. We must take responsibility for it both in its first steps and then in its fostering [toward salvation and improvement] of humanity, for ultimately the responsibility of creation lies in our deepening influence, not in the control of it.

Peace out,
Martine

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary Woolstonecraft. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. 1918. (Annotated) DB Publishing House. Kindle Edition. 2011.

Shelley, Mary Woolstonecraft. Frankenstein. 1918. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, CA. 2008. Book.

 Mary Elizabeth Braddon. 1865. Lady Audley's Secret. Kindle Edition. 2005. Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. 1955. New York: Penguin Classics. Kindle Edition.

Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley. 1955. New York: Norton. Kindle Edition.

O'Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. 1952. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Paperback. 2007.