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.