Film of the Book: Black Narcissus

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1947)

 

(This is the first in an occasional feature of reviews of the “Film of the Book”, or occasionally the “Book of the Film”, if I happen to have seen and loved the film first. I will start by saying I am not at all knowledgeable about the technical side of cinema – direction, cinematography, etc – so my reviews will be totally subjective, based on the story-telling. I’ll be looking at two things – firstly, how does it compare to the book, in plot, casting, atmosphere, location, etc; and secondly, did I enjoy it, which is after all the most important thing. The rating reflects my enjoyment rather than a quality assessment.)

The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger
The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger

From the book review:

The palace at Mopu was once known as the House of Women, home to the harem of the General, the local overlord of this remote spot high in the Himalayas. That General is now dead, and his son wants to do something to improve the lives of his people. So he has invited the Sisters of Mary to set up a convent there, to provide a school and clinic. Sister Superior Clodagh and her small group of fellow nuns make the long journey, full of enthusiasm to set up the new Convent of St Faith. But they are not prepared for the isolation they will feel in this place of majestic grandeur, set amidst the mountains, constantly windswept, and with a population who have their own spiritual beliefs and no desire to change. Soon the nuns will find themselves challenged, not only physically, but emotionally, even spiritually, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the emptiness that surrounds them.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

In my review of the book, I mentioned three things that really stood out for me – the depth of the characterisation, the wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and the slow build up of tension leading to a gothic climax. So these were the things I was looking for when watching the film.

First off, the major casting is pretty great. Deborah Kerr, as Sister Clodagh, acts as much with her face and her mannerisms as her words, and gives a fine portrayal of Clodagh’s initial over-confidence giving way to uncertainty, growing nervousness and even panic over the course of the film. She is beautiful, of course, but this is kept toned down during the convent sections. We see some of Clodagh’s back-story in Ireland before she became a nun, and the contrast helps to show the passionate personality she still is beneath the veil.

(Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh before and after becoming a nun…)

David Farrar, an actor I don’t know at all, is excellent as Mr Dean – he has an overt masculinity (not altogether aided, I must say, by some of the shortest shorts in history) without being an overly handsome hunk, which is exactly how I saw him in the book. Sister Ruth is played by Kathleen Byron. She isn’t quite as I imagined Ruth – too glamorous and a little too manic – but she fits the role as depicted in the film very well and gives a fine performance, particularly in the latter stages when all of Ruth’s repressions come shrieking to the surface. The relationships between these characters are at the heart of the film and the three actors work well together, none of them dominating the screen to the detriment of the others.

(The very masculine and frequently underdressed Mr Dean – David Farrar)

The other nuns have lesser roles but Briony (Judith Furse) and Honey (Jenny Laird) are both very true to the book, while the magnificent Dame Flora Robson steals every scene she’s in in her small role as Sister Philippa. Sabu is a little too old and not quite beautiful enough to match my idea of the Young General, but he acts the role well, his costumes are appropriately gorgeous, and at least he’s Indian. Which is more than can be said for the rest of the Indian characters! Typical of the era, of course, but a bit strange to modern eyes. A young Jean Simmons is delightfully slinky and manipulative in her role as Kanchi, the beautiful temptress who tries to seduce the Young General. But I fear that May Hallatt turns the role of the housekeeper Angu Ayah into some kind of Cockney charlady, complete with accent! I kept expecting her to say ‘Cuppa tea, ducks?’ every time she appeared…

may hallatt

(The only Cockney charlady in the Himalayas – May Hallatt as Angu Ayah)

The movie is beautifully filmed in stunningly vibrant Technicolor and, despite being made almost entirely in Pinewood Studios, I believe, brings the haunting atmosphere of the remote Himalayan setting to brilliant life. The ever-present wind plays a big part in creating the unsettling tone in the book, and Powell and Pressburger use this to great effect in the film. One of the things that impressed me about the book was how clearly Godden created visual images in my mind – something that doesn’t often happen with me – and I don’t remember ever seeing another film adaptation that matched my own ideas of a place so exactly, palace and mountains both. A tribute both to Godden’s remarkable descriptive skill and to Powell and Pressburger’s faithful and rather gorgeous interpretation.

(Slinky temptress Kanchi – Jean Simmons, and Sabu as the Young General)

And so to the plot. For the vast majority of the film, the screenplay sticks rigidly to the book – somewhat abridged naturally, but getting all the important plot points over, and largely sticking strictly to the dialogue as written. The necessary shortening means that there’s less time available for nuance and the story has to move quicker, so the film doesn’t have quite the same effect of creeping slowly up on you that the book achieves. The high quality of the acting is crucial here in letting us see the changes in the nuns but, even so, the film doesn’t achieve quite the same depth of characterisation. It makes up for it in added drama, though.

sister ruth

(Kathleen Byron already looking a bit scary as Sister Ruth)

There is one fairly significant change towards the end. I don’t know the reason for it, and can’t discuss the detail since it would be a spoiler, but I suspect it may have been that, at that time, film-makers felt there were some things a nun couldn’t be seen to do in a movie. Odd, since it works fine in the book and I didn’t feel the nun aspect actually made the thing any more shocking. Fundamentally both book and film are about women living a life of isolation in an environment they find challenging, physically, emotionally and spiritually, rather than about religion as such. For my money, the change made the overall tone of the film a little more melodramatic and a little less gothic than the book. However, taken purely in the context of the film, it works brilliantly and the high drama of the ending is superb.

black narcissus bell

I do hope that rather oblique paragraph has intrigued you, because if you loved the book, then I highly recommend the film, and if you loved the film, then I’m pretty sure you’ll love the book too. Mostly a very faithful adaptation and hugely enjoyable as a film in its own right.

.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

.

And, finally… by the tiniest of margins…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

narcissus b.

 

THE BOOK!

 

 

57 thoughts on “Film of the Book: Black Narcissus

  1. Ooo, very wonderful. Love the little pic (or logo) you came up with for it. And the book wins, too, which is neatio. I like when there’s battles.

    I must admit, I am intrigued about the whole thing now. I kinda like DK, but what a last name. Also, that last pic is super cool! Just the angle and everything. I’d might want to go skydiving. Or hand gliding. Or rope gliding.

    • *smiles like a smiley* Thank you! Yeah, I suspect the book will usually win – books are such great warriors!

      See how kind I am? Now you don’t need to read the book, you can just watch the film. What’s wrong with her last name? I have a horrible feeling that one gust of strong wind will make her go skydiving whether she means to or not… #vertigo

      • Oh, maybe not! For instance, I think the John Carter movie beats the first book!!!!!

        Well, it’s…it’s…how it’s pronounced. That’s the problem with it, see. DS would have lots of fun with it. Yes! She’s really not too safe standing there. Better leave.

        • I agree!!! In fact, really, John Carter was the first “film of the book” review, not this one. And don’t let BUS hear me say this, but I think the LOTR movies might win too… though it’s been years since I read the books.

          You never cease to amaze me with your knowledge of weird stuff from decades ago! Yeah, I guess that was just an affectation to show she was a star. Yes, she should – one way or another… *shudders*

          • *nods* The books are sorta week for LOTR. Especially the fight scenes… “And lo,” I mean, who starts a deaths scene with that?! Oh, just saw the Martian, too! The soundtrack is awesome!!!

            Wasn’t she in the King and I? That’s basically how I sorta know her, I think. She should jump! #cool

            • *gasps* I wouldn’t go that far, sir! The books are amazing (except for the Tom Bombadil rubbish) but yes, the battle scenes are much better in the films. And, of course, there’s Viggo… *shoves Eowyn into Mount Doom*

              *laughs* How appalled will you be if I admit I don’t remember the soundtrack? Who won – film or book?

              Was she? Can’t remember! I once understudied for “I” in the school play…

            • *shock* Why’d you shove her? Goodness. To be fair, I haven’t read the books in ages, so.

              Haha, not really surprised! You already admitted you don’t really listen to the music. But it’s good! Hmm…I think…the film!! But the book was awesome. I don’t know, the sudden.

              Umm…what’s that mean?

            • Just getting rid of the competition… *glowers* Me neither. Really should sometime…

              You should do a vid of it – then I’d listen! Oh, I thought the book won by quite a bit. The film was good, but the book was great… so much funnier!

              What? Understudied? Learning the part so you could fill in if the star broke a leg just before the performance – which she didn’t, for which I and the entire audience had much to be thankful…

            • That’s okay. Strider didn’t like her anyway. It’d take me five years to read them all. I tried too once.

              Nah, I’m planning something else at the minute… That’s a good point. Much more funny moments in the book. But the movie was splendid!

              *laughing* Aha, thank you for that. If I was around I would’ve broke her leg for you.

            • True! *shoves Arwen in too* Didn’t you finish them then? I read them several times before the films came out, and haven’t read them since. Just think how short my TBR could be if they would just make films of all the books…

              Oh? *taps foot impatiently* Mark was more swoonily gorgeous in the book. They should have got that guy from the book cover to play him… *dreamy face*

              *laughs* I wish you had been – she wasn’t half stuck up about being the star! But in truth I don’t understand why they even let me understudy – even back then I couldn’t hold a tune for anything. I suspect my Dad must have bribed – or threatened – the music teacher…

            • That’s good. Hides her face now. Nah, my mom read them to me years before the movies. Or a few years, I suppose. *tries to remember and can’t* And if you’d throw out every other book. That might help.

              MD did a fantastic job, but it should’ve been Taylor K from Princess of Mars.

              But you don’t know–for sure! You might’ve stepped into the spot and shined! Too bad she was in the way, haha.

            • *tries really hard not to point out that the films are nearly as ancoent as the Professor* *suddenly feels ancient*

              Nah, it should have been you! You’d be a fab Mark! And you like potatoes…

              *laughs* There was a thing on the news the other day about a woman who has started up a choir for people who can’t sing… if I lived nearer, I could join it. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing though if she turned me down?

            • Oh phooey! The professor is not! At least, I don’t think so. You’re not ancient. I am, remember.

              *laughs* I would’ve liked to do that! I’d make a rotten botanists, tho.

              Well, if she turned you down it’d mean you could sing! So good either way, see.

            • *nods* The first film came out in 2001, when I would have been about 6. Of course, you’d have been about 79…

              You could have snuck into the Thark city then, and stolen their food.

              *laughs* You’re such an optimist…

            • The first film was out when I was 7? Goodness. I am old. Why’d you have to go and do that for?

              Oh. If John Carter was about I would’ve joined Helium, I think. As a soldier or something.

              *nods* All the time!

            • *tries and tries not to laugh* You could have gone to watch it and waved your little wee warrior-babe fists at Sauron… *hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah* Sorry!! So sorry!! But it’s just such a cute & adorable image!! *hahahahahaha* If it’s any consolation, I’ve just choked!

              Huh! You just want to flirt with all those Helium women! *growls*

            • Humph noodles. If I recall, we weren’t allowed to watch it, ’cause we were so young. I think we first watched it on VHS a few months later once it’d been okayed. The Black Riders were scary fellows back then. You’re just laughing me to scorn, dadblameit! But still, no chocking, please.

              I wouldn’t do that. I might have speaks with them, tho.

            • *chuckles* I’d never laugh you to scorn!! It’s the sweetest image, you’ve got to admit! If you ever get the chance to see it in the cinema, you should – the effects are even more brilliant on the big screen – and the Black Riders are still scary!

              Huh! *cynical eyebrow*

  2. Wonderful. Move over Dilys. One specific question, just because your comment intrigued me. How do you define the difference between melodrama and Gothic.

    Answers should include references according to the Harvard system, and have been checked for typos, spelling errors. UK spelling and grammar please.

    • MINI SPOILER ALERT!!!

      Thank you! Hmm… I was kinda hoping nobody would ask that, ‘cos I know what I mean but I’m finding it hard to explain, especially without spoilers. See, ‘cos nuns are kinda gothic themselves, what with the old buildings and the rites, and candles and incense and all that stuff, they strike me as pretty gothic whatever they do. Whereas the same behaviour in a person in contemporary gear with all the religious stuff stripped out makes it seem more melodramatic. It… kinda takes the sin out. Does that make sense? I fear it may give too much away…

  3. What a great feature you’ve started here, FictionFan! I really, really like it, and I’ll be keen to see what other book/film matchups you plan. In this case, both the book and the film sound intriguing (I thought so about the book, anyway, when I read your review). I do love it when films stay as true as they can to the book, and it sounds as though that happened in a lot of places in this film. All the better, sez I.

    • Thanks, Margot! 🙂 It’s really designed to make me watch more films, which I’ve got out of the habit of recently, so we’ll see how it goes! Yes, I was pleased at how closely this one stuck to the plot, and I thought the casting really worked too – for the major roles anyway. I agree – I can’t stand it when a film totally distorts the story, even the meaning of a book sometimes… grrr!

  4. I loved the book and the film. I take your point about the plot change, but I think they both worked well. And next…….?

    • Yes, I think they worked too and might not have been so aware of it if I hadn’t watched the film so soon after the book. Both great, though! Well, next might be Green for Danger… just finished the book and waiting for the film to arrive…

    • Hurrah! I’ll be intrigued to hear whether it changes your opinion of the film. I couldn’t decide how much being aware of all the nuances in the book was adding to the viewing experience…

    • Thanks, Cleo – I’ll have fun doing it – just hope everyone else has fun reading them… 😉 I really think you’d enjoy the book – it seems like your kind of thing, I think…

  5. You know, typically, books win over film for me, FF. There’s something awfully special about using one’s imagination, entering a fictional world, trying to “see” characters and settings without having all that done for you. As for that last photo, she’s a braver woman than I’d be — that’s a LONG drop, you know!

    • Yes, it’ll be a rare film that wins for me too. It’s only really if I’ve seen and loved the film first that then sometimes the book feels ‘wrong’, but if I’ve read the book first, the film hardly ever matches up. The exception might be sci-fi or fantasy where they can do so much with special effects…

      I know! Even looking at the picture gives me vertigo!

  6. So pleased you enjoyed the film, FF, even if the book still trumped it. Having seen the film, I can have a guess at what makes it melodramatic rather than gothic. But I’ll have to read the book to see if I’m right…

    • The book will nearly always win for me, unless I happen to have seen the film first and loved it. But these two were very close – the film’s great and just my kind of thing! If you do get time to read the book, I’d love to know if you agree about the melodrama v gothic thing… I’m really struggling to explain why I thought that – more of a gut reaction than a proper thought-through reason…

  7. Gotta check to see if it’s on Amazon Prime or Netflix……You and LF have convinced me my life will not be complete unless I see/read this. My son has been home sick for three days. Perhaps my immune system is weak….

      • Nothing that a few dozen books won’t fix. I envy him that. Gothic v melodrama. Hmmmm One always need to take into account the period in which something was written or filmed…. runs off to get movie popcorn and a soft drink.

        • Ah, yes, I used to understand the meaning of ‘enjoying’ illness when I was a child…

          Yes! And I think that’s partly it – nuns are timeless and their dress gives no hints as to era, so they seem more gothic than people dressed in fashionable gear of whichever era…

  8. Now I realise Deborah Kerr is in it I realise it is probably the film I have heard of before; although I haven’t seen it. After hearing your thoughts I am very tempted by the book and the film!

    • Thank you! 😀 Haha! I suspect the book will always have an unfair advantage except in the rare case where I’ve seen the film and loved it first. Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where the book was a big disappointment after the film…

  9. I really like the film and have seen it several times throughout my life (my mother and I watched a lot of films when I was small that perhaps weren’t the most obvious choices for a child 😀 ) but strangely have never picked up the book – this is about to change as I am totally intrigued by your reference to the ending change!

    • Ha! I grew up on gangster movies with my dad! I loved both film and book – I’ll be intrigued to hear what you make of the book. I do think the change worked in the context of the film, but I preferred the book. Mind you, I nearly always prefer the book!

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