English Literature

Great Adaptations

Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully.  Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters.  Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.

In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.

Great Expectations

Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.

In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start.  It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.

But that is the film’s only weakness.  It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully.  Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness.  It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used.  The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.

I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012.  Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean.  Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.

It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.

I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film.  You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel.  Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.

It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.

But in the end, I liked it.  It was that good.

Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.

Kilroy Was Here Marker

First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust.  It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).

Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt.  She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.

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Provincial Life and My Difference of Opinion with Virginia Woolf

Middlemarch First Edition

I find Virginia Woolf to be remarkably clear-headed.  Her A Room of One’s Own is one of the few pieces of purely feminist (or purely political, for that matter) writing that I’ve ever read which feels that it was written by someone who was intelligent and thoughtful first and foremost, as opposed to someone defined by their agenda.  It is not only readable, but actually brilliant.

Unfortunately, when it comes to George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, I find myself disagreeing with Woolf violently–which is bad because I’m pretty sure most people will come down on Woolf’s side in any argument, and also because she has been dead for ages, and I can’t actually discuss it with her.

Woolf, as some of you might know, probably gave the most famous review of Middlemarch when she expressed the opinion that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”  Writing from the vantage point of 1902, that is very dismissive of everyone from Austen to Thackarey (and let’s not forget the Bell brothers).

Such a ringing endorsement made Middlemarch a must-read.  So read it I did.  And it fell reasonably flat (which is what all the other critics were saying, but I went and believed Woolf!).

Yes, it is for grown-ups.  Of that, there is little doubt.  But it is not for every grown-up.  It is for those men and women whom earlier generations referred to as “Serious-minded”, which seems to mean earnest people obsessed with important issues and for whom smiling was something of a lost art.  Humor, of course, is for children and the unwashed masses.

A Room Of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf, First edition Cover

In that light, Middlemarch works very well.  It plods along logically and earnestly, eventually becoming a character study of many of the types of people you would have found in the English countryside in the late 19th century.  It’s not bad, but one can’t help feel that it would have benefited from having Jane Austen edit it.  Better still, Thackeray whose character studies as much more biting.  No, wait…  Best of all would have been Oscar Wilde.

What I’m trying to say here is that the book is too lineal and earnest for its own good.  Real grown-ups, no matter what Virginia Woolf said, are people who appreciate humor as well as obligation, people who understand that a good life life contains levity as well as grey porridge.

Perhaps the lucid Woolf of A Room of One’s Own wasn’t the real one.  Perhaps she really was as humorless and agenda driven as so many others before and after her have been when they dedicated their lives to a particular cause.

But I choose to believe not.

So the only thing left to do is to read To The Lighthouse, I guess.  That should settle the matter pretty definitively, and show once again how little provocation is required for me to pick up a random classic book.

Acton Bell was the Best of them

It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Acton Bell.  After all, this was a writer overshadowed by better-known siblings Currer Bell and Ellis Bell.

What?  You haven’t heard of them either?

Ah, you must not be a collector of first editions or a student of literary history.  You see Currer Bell published a novel entitled Jane Eyre, while Ellis was responsible for a tome entitled Wuthering Heights.

first edition tenant of wildfell hall

Yes, they were.  Google the first editions if you don’t believe me.

All right.  In their era, it was difficult to get published, so the Brontë sisters sold their work under male pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer being the sobriquets chosen by Emily, Anne and Charlotte.  But while even the most casual readers are familiar with the work of Emily and Charlotte–either via the written word or the countless TV and film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (or, for absolute bizarreness, the music video of the latter)–very few have been exposed to Anne’s work.

There is a reason for that.  Charlotte, who was the only one who didn’t die terribly young, kept Anne’s novels from being reprinted after her death (she is also rumored to have burned a manuscript of a second novel by Emily).  So while Charlotte’s work was becoming ever more well known, Annes languished, only beginning to get critical recognition much later, with the early feminist movement.

Political use of her work aside, it’s a true pity that Anne seems to be the forgotten sister (brother Branwell, by all accounts, squandered any talent he might have had due to a dissipated lifestyle).  Judging simply by her writing, she seems to have been, by far, the best of the three.

Yes, I know. That’s supposed to be Emily, the firebrand whose prose scars you as you read.

Yes, it’s true that Emily’s writing, and her characters are both more memorable than Charlotte’s.  They are tortured, egoistic souls stymied by their preferences and circumstances and as melodramatic as it is possible to be.  Definitely better than Charlotte’s stultifying boredom (yes, I know there was a madwoman in a tower.  Still boring)…

Anne Brontë by Branwell Brontë

But Anne, as a novelist, took more risks than Charlotte, and wrote a clearer, better-paced story than Emily.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the best of the Brontë novels.  If you don’t believe me, that’s because you haven’t read it.  It contains sympathetic protagonists who defy the conventions of their time enough that they feel almost modern, and the story is about the way they struggle against those conventions and the consequences of rebellion.  Also, it has an antagonist who deserves to be despised.

Though the novel’s re-acceptance into 19th century canon is cause for rejoicing, it’s a bit unfair that it’s been tarred with the “early feminist novel” brush.  That alone will keep many people from approaching this book–anyone familiar with the writing of Kate Chopin will have learned their lesson: writing that only survives because of a political push is always terrible, even if the politics are sound.  It’s a pity that this should be so because Anne’s novel is actually good literature, despite the anger that might or might not have informed some of its more memorable scenes.

Yes, the very act of writing and publishing this book was a feminist act (as was that of Wuthering Heights, which is just about the most un-feminist book I can think of), and yes, when Anne’s protagonist leaves her husband, it was the first time something like that had happened in a major English novel.

But there are more important things going on in this book, and the political significance, whether contemporary or post-mortem, was given to it by others.  It’s really just a book about characters dealing with their world as best they can.  And it excels in that light.

So go to your library and ask them for something by Acton Bell.  Hopefully, a librarian should know what you mean… if not, send them here!

Writing Ideas Come from the Strangest Places

Today’s post is written by writer Gustavo Bondoni, who also happens to be our Editor-in-Chief. He speaks a little to that age-old question about where writers get their ideas.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey Cover

To be brutally honest, I thought that my reading of Thomas De Quincey’s best known work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was going to be another of those things that I would simply have to file away under “I read it because it was supposed to be a classic, but it’s not really all that enthralling.”

This isn’t to say that the book wasn’t memorable. The subject matter, and the first person perspective combined to ensure that it is a deeply visceral work.  The main problem with it is that it manages, somehow, to be dry and overwritten at the same time.  The fact that it became a best seller was due more to the controversial nature of the work than the writing.  Both the subject matter itself and the fact that De Quincey seemed to harp upon the pleasures of laudanum and downplay the pains both contributed to a good number of books sold.

When I finished it, I was happy to have read it and thought about it for a bit, but did not feel that it would be among those books that would influence me when writing my own work.

The above just proves how much I know.

A year after finishing Opium Eater, I found myself writing a noir novel set in Buenos Aires during WWII.   Argentina was neutral in the conflict, and the cabarets of the city were likewise unaffiliated, catering to Axis, Allies, rich and poor alike.  And I found that laudanum and the opium it was made from played a key role not just in the recreational activities of the characters, but also in the political background.

Bottle of Laudanum

Now, I don’t know if the drug would have been there or not if I hadn’t read De Quincey’s book.  After all, there were fewer recreational drugs available back then, and there was a war on, which meant that some products–especially those from Asia–presented more interesting logistical and political ramifications than, say, cocaine, which is from the Americas.  So it’s possible that opium would have been present anyway.  But one thing that I’m certain of is that the image of how addicts behaved, the shape of  that particular situation in my mind, certainly wouldn’t have been the same.

So, of the dozens of books I read in a year, one that I expected to pass unnoticed had contributed significantly to one of my novels.  I certainly didn’t see that coming, but those things happen.  I had Incursion under contract by that time, so I wrote that book, which has no sign of opium in it at all.  Normality, it seemed, had been reestablished.

After incursion, I decided to writer a sort of elegy for the life of pre WWI Italy.  My next novel took place in the late spring and early summer of 1914.  It was a book that I initially intended to be a tale in the vein of Brideshead Revisited, with a sort of misty, soft-focus nostalgia made infinitely more poignant by the fact that we all know what happened after that summer, and we know all about the waste and suffering of the Great War.

But as I began to write, the characters decided that they had their own ideas about how they should act and what the book would be about (other writers will know what I mean), and the edge that was supposed to be delivered by the reader’s own knowledge of events began to make its way onto the pages.  Suddenly this wasn’t a comment on that last glorious summer of the traditional European aristocracies, but became a comment on both the good and the bad of their way of life.  Sex crept in (much more copiously than I’d planned–this one is by far the raunchiest of my books), as did the abuse of power relationships.  And drugs.  You can’t have a good post-fin-de-siécle blowout without a drug or two.

And which drug played the most prominent role?  Why, laudanum, of course.  And De Quincey is back once again.

I’d never list the man as one of my major influences.  I still feel he hasn’t contributed much to my style or my subjects.  But he seems to have delivered my particular drug of choice–at least for my mainstream novels set in the past century…

It just goes to show that you never can tell.