Film of the Book: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1968)

2001 eye gif

From the book review:

A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Well, it’s easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

This is a film I’ve tried to watch a few times in the past, and on each occasion have given up halfway through in order to prevent death from boredom. So I was intrigued to see whether reading the book would change my opinion of the film.

And, boy! Yes, it does!!

2001 monolith

What I never realised before is that both book and film were written simultaneously as a joint venture between Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. The film screenplay is credited to Kubrick and Clarke, in that order, and apparently the book was originally intended to be credited to Clarke and Kubrick, in that order, to highlight the specific influence of each man on each medium. They developed the basic idea together based on some earlier stories of Clarke’s, although the film does diverge somewhat from the book, especially around that mystical ending. The book, while still leaving much open to interpretation, tells the story much more clearly, while the film concentrates on visuals and effects to create a kind of mystical experience that, in Kubrick’s words, “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

OK, then. That probably works for people who instinctively “understand” music and painting, but I’m strictly a words kind of gal, which is probably why the film didn’t initially work for me. But having read the book, on this viewing I wasn’t trying to work out what it all meant, or sighing with exasperation at the lack of dialogue. Instead, I was able to watch it as intended – as an amazing visual and sound experience that, once I could get into the flow, took me on a trip as acidy as anything that came out of the ’60s.

2001 man-apes

The first section, the dawn of man, works much better in the book in terms of giving a real insight into the society of the man-apes and how the alien monolith influenced their development. In the film, it’s beautifully shot with some truly glorious imagery, climaxing with the fabulous Also sprach Zarathustra music. The man-apes themselves do unfortunately look somewhat like men in ape costumes occasionally, but I suspect that’s because years of CGI have set our expectations too high. But knowing what was happening meant that it didn’t matter that the film perhaps didn’t get the full meaning across – the book was in my head almost like an explanatory (and unobtrusive) voice-over.

The section on the moon is probably the most dialogue-heavy part of the film, which helps to explain a little what’s going on. It also humanises the film a little, being almost the only place where we see people interacting with each other.

The space journey to Jupiter (unlike in the book, where Saturn is the destination) gives Kubrick the chance to play brilliantly with special effects, especially of weightlessness. The fact that these effects still work some half a century later is pretty amazing, and great to see how he interpreted Clarke’s detailed descriptions of how space flight works. Using Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz as the music during the space sequences is inspired – it works so well with the floatiness of everything that happens in and out of the ship. The film cuts a lot of the sciency stuff out, though – no sampling the crust of comets, nor sling-shotting around Mars and so on – but I did feel in the book that this section got a little bogged down in science, so the film worked well for me here in concentrating more on technical stuff and in moving the story along.

In the film, I’m not at all sure if I would have caught the reasons why HAL, the ship’s sentient computer, begins to malfunction but, again, the book explains this much more clearly, while the film makes it a rather more emotional sequence, I think. There’s very little opportunity for the actors to shine, since they don’t do much except turn switches on and off and talk to the computer, but actually I was impressed by Keir Dullea’s performance as Dave Bowman. In some scenes, the camera stares directly into his face for extended periods and, with little dialogue, he manages to get across a range of changing emotions very well.

2001 - Dave

But the star of the show (and in the past I’ve always given up before I got to this bit) is the surreal and truly psychedelic sequence in the fourth and final section. All done to some beautifully dissonant modernist music composed by Georgy Ligety, the effects are wonderful – a kaleidoscope of amazingly imaginative spacescapes, ever-changing but in a flow, creating a real feeling of infinity and the awful grandeur and possibilities of the universe. Then a totally surreal section by which, frankly, I would have been baffled if I hadn’t read the book, and finished with what seems like a fairly major variation from the book, but which, on reflection, is certainly within the same philosophical ballpark. I’m telling you, man, it totally blew my mind! Awesome!

My dear friend wikipedia (to whom thanks for all my newly acquired background knowledge) tells me that Clarke said “I always used to tell people, ‘Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary’”. I heartily concur, and have an urgent desire now to read the book then see the film all over again. And next time I read the book, I’ll have the fabulous images and music from the film running in my head. Two parts that are differently great but which, together, become something uniquely wonderful.

★ ★ ★ ★★

And so, for the first and perhaps only time…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

2001 both1

BOTH TOGETHER!

 

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

Far out, man!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

2001 a space odysseyA tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Well, it’s easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.

The first section about the man-apes is brilliant. Their lives are precarious – foragers living with the constant threat of starvation in a world full of predators. We must surely all have wondered at some time what inspired man to tame fire, create the first tools, decide to do that really strange thing of cooking dead animals for food. Clarke gives us an answer and makes it believable within the context of the book. The aliens don’t directly interfere in the man-apes’ existence, merely give a subtle nudge to the thought processes of the most intelligent, but this is enough to change the future development of the species. We see them develop the first beginnings of tribal society, the team work and innovation that will in time lead mankind to wish to understand the workings of their universe. It’s written incredibly well, with a very clear feel for the man-apes being delicately balanced between extinction or survival.

From the Kubrick film
From the Kubrick film

We then jump to the near future (at the time of writing) – 2001. The first colonists on the moon have discovered an ancient monolith and one of Earth’s greatest scientists has been sent to investigate. Again, Clarke is excellent on the imaginative details of how a lunar colony would work. Obviously some of the future details have turned out to be wrong – not least that mankind still hasn’t managed to colonise the moon, much to my regret. But mostly the scientific aspects feel very sound to my non-scientist mind.

A mission is sent off to Saturn. Like the crew, the reader doesn’t exactly know why, though we’re one step ahead in that we assume it’s something to do with the monolith, about which the crew know nothing. Three of the crew are in stasis for the journey, while the ship is being run by Poole and Bowman with the crucial assistance of their advanced computer HAL – an artificial intelligence, and the only one who knows the true nature of the mission. Unfortunately (and haven’t we all had this problem?) the computer starts to malfunction and the mission begins to go seriously wrong. This section is chock full of the then known science of the planets and space travel, and occasionally begins to read just a little too much like a text book for my liking. However, it’s intriguing to compare Clarke’s projections with what we now know and to see that some of the experiments he had his characters carry out have since happened in real life – sampling the crust of a comet for instance.

2001 moon monolith

The final section is where it all goes a bit woo-woo (I think that’s the technical term). It all gets terribly mystical or even spiritual if you’re that way inclined. Clarke said…

“…because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in “2001”, and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some critics to the contrary.”

He is talking of the movie here, but much the same could probably be said of the book. (I wasn’t aware that the book and the movie were produced as a kind of joint venture, although apparently they ended up with differences in emphasis and interpretation – I’m intrigued now to see the movie and make the comparison for myself.)

Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke

As far as my own interpretation of the ending goes, hmm… well, my first reaction was to find it deeply disappointing and a bit silly. But it’s one of those that left me pondering – on what makes humanity human, on what makes God God, on the creational relationship between man and God – so I guess you can tell I’m going with the spiritual explanation. In fact, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it puts forward a credible scientific explanation of God, I do think it’s philosophically quite intriguing and thought-provoking. Though if I was an eighteen-year-old smoking a spliff in my student digs with a bunch of other students, I’m pretty sure I’d be summing it all up as “Woo! Far out, man!” Assuming this was still the ’60s, of course.

Film of the Book comparison coming soon… should be groovy!

Psychedelic, man!
Psychedelic, man!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the Book: Sunset Song

Directed by Terence Davies (2015)

 

Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie
Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie

From the book review:

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

Apparently the making of the film has been a long-term labour of love for director Terence Davies, his first attempt to bring it to the screen having failed in 2003. It has been one of the films I’ve been most eager to see since I fell in love with the book all over again when I recently re-read it after a gap of many years. The book is a profound and deeply moving portrait of a rural society caught up in the changes brought about through modernisation and war at the beginning of the 20th century, culminating with the characters coming together to face an uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.

I wish I was about to rave about the film, but I’m not – well, not in a good way, at least. It’s the most disappointing adaptation I have seen on either big or small screen for years. The book is widely recognised as one of the most significant Scottish novels of the 20th century, and I hoped the film would faithfully reproduce the themes and culture that give it that deserved status.

Kevin Guthrie and Agyness Dean as Ewan Tavendale and Chris Guthrie
Kevin Guthrie and Agyness Deyn as Ewan Tavendale and Chris Guthrie

Imagine my disappointment then to discover that Davies had decided to cast an English actress in the central role of Chris Guthrie – a 32-year-old English actress at that, to play a character who is a child at the start of the book and no more than mid-20s at its end. Agyness Deyn does her best in the role, and her accent is reasonably authentic sounding at points – enough to fool a non-Scottish audience anyway, I would think – but she is totally miscast. She is a former model – tall, fragile and delicate looking. Hardly what one expects an early 20th century Aberdeenshire farmer’s daughter to look like, I fear. However, there’s no doubt she looks good in her underclothes or naked, which is presumably why that’s how she appears for a goodly proportion of the time. But the young girl’s sexual awakening is handled in the book with a kind of harsh integrity which is lost completely by having a mature actress play the role.

Chris as a child - you can tell by the pigtails. The wig changes style throughout to indicate her increasing age...
Chris as a young teenager – you can tell by the pigtails. The wig changes style throughout to indicate her increasing age…

Many of the other cast members are Scottish and some of the performances are excellent. Peter Mullan as Chris’ harsh and brutal father is entirely credible, and Kevin Guthrie does well with the character of Chris’ lover and husband, Ewan Tavendale – though Davies’ interpretation of Ewan’s character gives him an innocence and charm in the early days of their relationship that he doesn’t really possess in the book, making his later transformation about as realistic as Jekyll and Hyde. Daniela Nardini, one of our finest Scottish actresses, stands out as Chris’ mother – unfortunately, the character’s early death means this is a tiny role. And Ian Pirie works wonders with the severely reduced role that Davies leaves for Chae, one of the central characters in the book, perhaps as much its heart as Chris herself, but here sidelined to the periphery, as Davies converts the ensemble piece of the book to a narrow concentration on Chris’ early life and love for Ewan.

Chris isn't the only one who has aged before her time - this is her teenage brother being beaten by their brutal father. A scene with a great deal of pathos in the book made ludicrous by the fact that the son here could easily beat his father to a pulp if he chose...
Chris isn’t the only one who has aged before her time – this is her “teenage” brother being beaten by their brutal father. A scene with a great deal of pathos in the book made ludicrous by the fact that the son here could easily beat his father to a pulp if he chose…

One of the central themes of the book is the loss of Scottish language and culture due to the anglicisation of the education system, forcing children to speak English rather than their native dialects. What an utterly odd directorial decision then for Davies to anglicise the speech in the film! He uses a rather annoying voiceover to explain all the bits of the book that he fails to portray on the screen, and mentions the question of anglicisation in that, so clearly he didn’t miss the point in the book. He gives as his reason that using authentic dialect would have made the film difficult for viewers unfamiliar with it – I suggest that’s why they invented subtitles. Would he make an Icelandic film in English too? Sadly, perhaps he would.

I won’t even bother to mention my horror at finding that much of the film was shot in New Zealand.

Daniela Nardini as Chris' mother - a stand out performance in a tiny part...
Daniela Nardini as Chris’ mother – a stand out performance in a tiny part…

The real disappointment though is the narrowness of the focus of the film, it’s concentration almost entirely on Chris. The book also has Chris at its centre, but through her lets the reader see the whole community. It’s the discussions between the men that show the beginnings of the rise of socialism, the attitudes towards the war in this community so detached from the seat of power, the social strata and structures that must yield to change. Davies allows us about three minutes of this in one scene of the community getting together, with the result that when some of the men decide either to go or refuse to go to war, the viewer is left baffled by their motivation, unable to differentiate between cowardice and principled pacifism. And he takes the community completely out of the ending, leaving us with Chris standing alone – totally wrong and distorting the entire point of the book.

Peter Mullen gives a good perfomance as the brutal father of the family...
Peter Mullan gives a good perfomance as the brutal father of the family…

Perhaps it works as a standalone war-time love story for non-Scots. There is some lovely scenery and some of it is even Scottish, but it crawls along from one set-piece scene to another with the camera lingering far too long on overly staged tableaux, never flowing nor achieving a true portrayal of the characters or the culture. By all means, see the film, but please don’t think it is anything other than the palest reflection of the excellent book.

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★ ★

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You won’t be surprised to learn that by a huge margin…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

sunset song 2

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THE BOOK!

 

 

Film of the Book: Brooklyn

Directed by John Crowley (2015)

 

brooklyn 1

From the book review:

This book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. Though told in the third person, we see through Eilis’ eyes as we get to know about her life in Ireland with the mother and sister she loves, with friends and roots in a community she has known all her life; then we follow her as she is transplanted to Brooklyn, where she has the support of the Irish community, still strongly under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, but where she is so far away from her family, friendless and emotionally alone.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

 

I’m going to start by saying I think this is a wonderful film that gets Tóibín’s quiet emotionalism and gentle humour perfectly. The acting is brilliant all round and Saoirse Ronan’s central performance as Eilis Lacey thoroughly deserves all the awards nominations it has received. It’s beautifully filmed. Although I understand most of the Brooklyn scenes were actually shot in Canada, they nonetheless feel entirely authentic, but the Ireland scenes are fabulous, showing to full effect the gorgeous scenery and lush greenness of the Emerald Isle. It’s a special treat that some of the scenes are shot in Toibin’s own birthplace of Enniscorthy, the place where so many of his novels are set.

However, this slot is all about comparison and, although the film sticks very closely to the plot of the novel, for me there were some significant differences in emphasis that somewhat changed what I thought of as the central themes.

(There may be some fairly major spoilers ahead – I shall try to be oblique, but if you are proposing to read the book or watch the film in the near future, I suggest you may not want to read the rest of this post.)

Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan and Saoirse Ronan as Rose, Mary and Eilis Lacey
Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan and Saoirse Ronan as Rose, Mary and Eilis Lacey

There are four things in particular that I feel change the interpretation – the speed with which the film gets her to Brooklyn, Eilis’ family, the love affairs and, most of all, Eilis’ personality.

In the book, much more time is spent in Ireland before Eilis boards the ship for America, during which we see her as having very little say in her own future. It is the 1950s, opportunities in Ireland are scarce and many of the young people are forced away from the country to look for employment. Eilis herself, however, doesn’t want to go and isn’t consulted when her sister and mother decide what is best for her. It gives a real and believable picture of a society where young people were still expected to conform to decisions made for them by parents and community, before the rebelliousness and individualism of the sixties had begun. The film, constrained no doubt by time, hints too quickly at this, thus missing some of the deep sorrow of forced migration. It feels as if Eilis is going to America to look for opportunity, rather than going from Ireland because of lack of opportunity – a subtle difference but, I felt, an important one.

The wonderful Julie Walters is in fine form as Eilis' landlady in Brooklyn, Mrs Kehoe.
The wonderful Julie Walters is on fine form as Eilis’ landlady in Brooklyn, Mrs Kehoe.

In the film, Eilis’ family consists of herself, her mother and her sister. In the book, she has brothers, who have also been forced from home and are now living and making a life for themselves in Liverpool, as so many Irish people did. They don’t appear much in the book, but I felt they were important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they provide a much wider picture of the Irish diaspora. Secondly, they are much closer to home and within relatively easy visiting distance. This means Eilis’ mother is not so solitary as the film makes her seem when tragedy strikes. She has family around her – it is, in fact, Eilis, so far away, who is completely isolated and alone. And when Eilis makes her final decision, in the film it seems so harsh because her mother is so alone, but in the book, her mother seems more selfish, and we see how it is daughters rather than sons who are expected to make sacrifices for their parents. (Also, the letter to Eilis from one of her brothers after the tragedy is the single most moving part of the book for me, and obviously it disappeared from the film along with him.)

begorrathon 2016

In the film, the love affairs are central – in the book, I felt they were less so. The focus of the book is on homesickness and the gradual creation of a new life. Obviously, Tony, the American love interest, is part of that, but Eilis is not bowled over by him the way she is in the film. Again the differences are subtle, but Eilis almost clung to Tony because of her loneliness and one was never quite sure of the depth of her feeling towards him. The same could be said about Jim – his plot purpose in the book was not to rend her heart between two lovers, but to provide a way for her to stay in Ireland.

Emory Cohen as Eilis' American love interest, Tony Fiorello
Emory Cohen as Eilis’ American love interest, Tony Fiorello

That may make Eilis sound cool and pragmatic, which would be about right. In the film she is a passionate, confident young woman. In the book, she is a passive heroine, a young girl, trying to please everyone, and constantly swayed by people older or with stronger personalities than her own. In fact, the book is exactly about her growing up, maturing to the point where she finally begins to make her own decisions – and, in both book and film, even her final decision is forced on her rather than being made of her own volition. In the book, that made sense because of the passive nature of her character – what else could she possibly have done? The book Eilis would never have considered withstanding a scandal – the film Eilis, it seems to me, could have found other options had she wanted. In the film, this is a girl torn between two lovers, but in the book, she’s torn between the circumscribed but safe certainties of life in her old country and the risks and opportunities in her new world. In the film, we know that love conquers all. In the book, as Eilis made her last voyage, this reader wasn’t so sure…

The differences are subtle, of tone rather than of story and, as always, come down to a matter of personal interpretation. None of the above should be seen as criticism, however. It is merely a comparison. I repeat – a brilliant film that gets my highest recommendation!

banner-brooklyn-Brooklyn_Film_844x476.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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But for its added depth and subtlety

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

brooklyn cover

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THE BOOK!

 

 

Film of the Book: Green for Danger

Directed by Sidney Gilliat (1946)

 

Green-for-Danger-1
Alastair Sim as a rather wicked Inspector Cockrill

From the book review:

World War 2 is underway and a military hospital has been set up at Heron’s Park in Kent. As the book begins, the local postman is taking a bundle of letters to the hospital from seven people confirming acceptance of positions they’ve been offered there. These seven people will become the chief suspects when a patient at the hospital dies unexpectedly on the operating table. At first, it’s assumed the death was no more than an unusual reaction to the anaesthetic, but when Inspector Cockrill is called in to confirm this, he learns a couple of things that lead him to suspect the death may have been murder. But before he can find out who did it, he first has to work out how it was done…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

In my review of the book, I praised the characterisation, fiendish plotting, multitude of red herrings, and the authentic feel of a military hospital operating during the Blitz. I also criticised it a little for being too drawn out towards the end. So these were the things for which I was particularly looking out when watching the film.

With a fairly short running time of just on an hour and a half, the film necessarily has to do quite a bit of squeezing to get the whole thing in. And with a major talent like Alastair Sim in the role of Inspector Cockrill, it isn’t surprising that he becomes the central focus. First off, the film cuts two characters out completely, moving their actions onto other characters. I must say the writers do this seamlessly so that, if I hadn’t been making a direct comparison, I doubt I’d have noticed that anything was missing. It does have the effect of removing one of my favourite red herrings, though – the one I thought for about half the book was going to be the real motive – but on the upside, it also removes a bit of romantic hoohah that had felt contrived and unrealistic in the book, so the seesaw remains pretty balanced.

They all look so innocent, don't they?
They all look so innocent, don’t they?

In the book, the suspects’ characterisation is very well developed. These seven people have all become friends and, in some cases, lovers, and each person is so well drawn that the reader cares about what happens to them. In the film, the characterisation is much more superficial – in fact, for a good half of it I was continually mixing up two of the women, since they hadn’t properly developed as “people”. In a sense, they feel more like chess-pieces being shoved around to move the plot along. Again, though, without comparison, this works fine – the film pushes on at a fairly frantic pace from event to event, making it more of a fun roller-coaster mystery thriller.

Green for Danger 5

Cockrill becomes a kind of comedy character, as you’d expect with Alastair Sim playing him, but retains the intelligence he shows in the book, and adds a whole layer of rather wicked cruelty to the role, thoroughly enjoying how miserable and scared he’s making all the suspects. I thoroughly enjoyed it, too, I must admit! It’s an excellent performance – he doesn’t overplay it to the extent that it becomes farce, but it certainly changes the tone to being much more humorous than the book, which does take away a little from the depth of it, I felt.

The standard of acting throughout is pretty good, although there was quite a lot of “eye-acting” going on – startled looks, suspicious glances, narrowed eyes etc. Since all the actors were at it, I assume it was a directorial decision. It made me laugh, but it all added to the melodrama. Trevor Howard and Leo Genn, as Dr Barnes and Dr Eden, are both excellent as two men interested in the same nurse, Esther. Poor “Barney” is deeply in love and wildly jealous, while for Dr Eden the whole thing is meaningless – he’s just enjoying winding Barney up. One of the funniest scenes in the film is when they eventually come to blows, and Alastair Sims pulls up a chair to sit and watch.

Nurse Woods, “Woody”, was my favourite character in the book, and while I enjoyed Megs Jenkins’ performance, the writers had removed all the underlying pathos from her character, leaving only a rather sensible school-marm type behind. Judy Campbell plays Sister Bates as a kind of semi-demented, jealousy-ravaged maniac, slightly over the top, but a good deal of fun. The other two women, Sally Gray and Rosamund John, didn’t register highly for me, partly because of the way their parts were written, and partly because I found the performances weren’t as strong as the others.

Oooh, creepy!
Oooh, creepy!

Overall, the book has far more depth of characterisation and gets the war-time atmosphere over much better, both of which add a lot of moral ambiguity to the motivation which the film misses entirely. However, I enjoyed the film loads. It sticks pretty closely to the plot and keeps enough of the red herrings to make it a proper mystery. It’s much faster paced, and Sim’s performance adds greatly to the jollity making the whole thing feel like a real romp! One I will undoubtedly watch again when I need something light and thoroughly entertaining.

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★ ★ ★ ★

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And, finally

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

green for danger.

 

THE BOOK!

 

 

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

green for danger24-carat…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

World War 2 is underway and a military hospital has been set up at Heron’s Park in Kent. As the book begins, the local postman is taking a bundle of letters to the hospital from seven people confirming acceptance of positions they’ve been offered there. There’s Gervase Eden, doctor to the hypochondriacal rich and fatally attractive to women, feeling he must do his bit for the war effort. Jane Woods has always been a bit of a party girl but in a fit of conscience has signed up for nursing duty and is now wondering if she’s done the right thing. Esther Sanson sees nursing as an opportunity to escape from being a permanent companion to her needy mother. Mr Moon, an elderly surgeon, is glad of the chance to get away from his home, empty since the deaths of his wife and young son. Dr Barnes is the subject of local gossip about a patient who died under his care as an anaesthetist, so is also glad to get away. Frederica Linley just wants to avoid her father’s awful new wife. And Sister Bates lives in hope that she might meet some nice officers…

These seven people will become the chief suspects when a patient at the hospital dies unexpectedly on the operating table. At first, it’s assumed the death was no more than an unusual reaction to the anaesthetic, but when Inspector Cockrill is called in to confirm this, he learns a couple of things that lead him to suspect the death may have been murder. But before he can find out who did it, he first has to work out how it was done…

This has everything you would hope for from a true Golden Age mystery, and is exceptionally well written to boot. Brand introduces the characters straight away, and sets up the plot so that only these seven people could have had the opportunity to commit the crime. Her initial sketches of them already suggest possible motives even before we know who the victim will be, and she develops them more deeply as the book progresses so that, in a Christie-esque way, we are led to care more about some of them than others, enabling her to build up a lot of tension as they come under suspicion or even into danger. Because of course there’s going to be a second murder! And when it comes it’s brilliantly written – goose-bump stuff!

Film of the Book - Alastair Sim is Inspector Cockrill in the movie - review coming soon...
Film of the Book – Alastair Sim is Inspector Cockrill in the movie – review coming soon…

The plot is beautifully complex, as is the murder method – both murder methods, in fact. It turns out that almost everyone could have had a motive for doing away with the first victim, Higgins, an air-raid warden who’s been hurt in a bombing. The motive for the second victim is clearer – if one decides to reveal to all and sundry that one knows who the murderer is and intends to tell the police, well, frankly, it’s almost one’s own fault when one is discovered in a deceased condition not long thereafter…

Life in this military hospital during the Blitz feels totally authentic, with that rather stiff upper lip attitude that I believe the Brits genuinely had back then. So despite the war and the constant danger from air-raids, life very much goes on, with people falling in and out of love, making friends and enemies, coping with rationing and shortages and, importantly, keeping a sense of humour, which helps to keep the novel entertaining while not avoiding darker subjects.

Cockrill is also an old-fashioned detective. There’s no overbearing boss, departmental politics or whining about paperwork – he concentrates on solving the crime and does so by skilful questioning and clue-gathering. He’s can be a bit rude and has no hesitation in playing on the nerves of his suspects to try to frighten the murderer into mistakes. He’s also a bit of a sexist piglet, but then that’s another Golden Age tradition. But he’s dedicated to getting at the truth and, though he might take the odd risk, he’s willing to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.

Christianna Brand
Christianna Brand

All the clues are there, meaning the novel is “fair-play”, but for most of it I remained nicely baffled, only getting there towards the end, and even then there were enough red herrings floating around that I still wasn’t sure I’d got it right. If I had a complaint, it’s that there a bit of a hiatus towards the end, when Cockrill decides to do nothing for a bit to try to allow nerves to work on the murderer. While his plan works, it does mean that the story slows down a lot at this point. But it quickly builds up again towards a nicely dramatic and complex climax, with enough moral ambiguity to make it satisfying. And Brand doesn’t forget to clear up all the side plots she has used as distractions along the way, as well as letting us know how things work out for the remaining characters.

Not all Golden Age novels glitter, but this one does – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the Book: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Two versions…

Starring Fredric March and directed by Rouben Mamoulian (1932)
Starring Spencer Tracy and directed by Victor Fleming (1941)

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jekyll2

(I’m linking this post to the Movie Scientists Blogathon being held jointly by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. Follow the link to find your way to lots of great reviews of scientists in films – The Good, The Mad, The Lonely. I’m slotting Dr Jekyll into the Mad category…)

From the book review:

A man and a child accidentally bump into each other at a street corner – a normal everyday incident. But when the child falls down, the man deliberately tramples over her, ignoring her screams of pain. When he is stopped by passers-by, he shows no remorse. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr Hyde, a man who has no obvious deformity but gives off an air so repellent that strangers passing him in the street shudder without knowing why. But this man has some kind of hold over the eminently respectable and well-known scientist, Dr Jekyll, who not only pays compensation for Hyde’s actions, but also gives him the run of his own house, and has made out his will in Hyde’s favour, leaving him everything should Jekyll die… or disappear.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

In my review of the book, I mentioned a few things that made the story work so well, and even as I did, I could see that some of them wouldn’t work at all well on film. So I anticipated that the basic story would be changed, and decided that I would be looking to see how well the films stuck to the spirit rather than the actual plot.

London fog is a major character in the book, beautifully described and working both to give a scary atmosphere and as a metaphor for the darkness hidden within each human soul. I was disappointed to see that neither film made real use of this. Each shows the fog at one point and March makes a mention of it in the 1932 version, but it doesn’t ever get used to obscure acts of wickedness or to show London as a place where viciousness lives side by side with respectability. Interestingly, when I read London Fog recently, Corton mentioned that the fog created for use in films used to make cast and crew feel ill, so I guess directors probably chose to use it sparingly. But I missed it.

Rose Hobart and Fredric March
Rose Hobart and Fredric March

In fact, neither film gave a particularly atmospheric picture of London at all. I suspect they were both made mainly in the studio, and anachronisms abound – in dress, speech, manners. The sets are kept limited, for cost reasons presumably, so there is little prowling around dark alleyways. The Tracy film does better here, showing some contrast between the ultra respectable areas and the seamier side of life. But overall the films both rely more on dialogue and acting than on creating visual atmosphere.

Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner
Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner

The book gives very little indication of what Mr Hyde’s vices actually consist of and this works perfectly in written form, leaving the reader to her/his own imagination. Clearly it would never work in a film though. The 1941 film is obviously based on the 1932 version, so both have gone for the same addition to the story line – the introduction of two beautiful women, one the fiancée of Dr Jekyll, the other a prostitute (1932) or good-time girl (1941) who becomes Hyde’s unwilling mistress and major victim. In both cases this works brilliantly as a way to show the contrast between his good and evil sides and his struggle once evil begins to take him over.

The 1932 film has two lovely actresses who both turn in strong performances – Rose Hobart as Muriel, the fiancée, and Miriam Hopkins as Ivy the prostitute. Ivy’s transition from extremely saucy temptress to terrified victim is excellent, and though the physical violence mostly happens off-screen, the psychological torture Hyde uses on her is chillingly horrific.

Miriam Hopkins in a bit of pre-code naughtiness
Miriam Hopkins in a bit of pre-code naughtiness

The 1942 film has Lana Turner as fiancée Bea, and Ingrid Bergman as Ivy. Now, I shall admit bias here – I have adored Ingrid Bergman my entire life. In fact, as a child I wanted to be her when I grew up. She is stunningly gorgeous and a great actress, especially in these vulnerable, woman as victim roles. Her portrayal of flirty, tempting Ivy at the beginning is charming and her terror once Hyde has her under his brutal control is superb. So… I was prepared to overlook her extremely dodgy attempt at a kind of Cockney accent! At least she made an attempt, which is more than could really be said for either Lana or Spencer, who both sound cheerfully American throughout.

As far as the women go, acting honours come out about even – fine performances all round – with the 1932 edging it in terms of authenticity of accent, but Bergman’s performance just outshining Hopkins’ for me.

Isn't she lovely? Ingrid Bergman...
Isn’t she lovely? Ingrid Bergman…

The men, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy, are just about equally good in my opinion – again I have a huge soft spot for Spencer Tracy, but I could see why many people rate March’s performance as the better of the two. Which brings me neatly to the crux of the matter – it is in the character of Jekyll/Hyde that the two films finally diverge, making one an adaptation faithful to the spirit of the book, and the other a kind of schlock horror – excellent, but wrong.

The book makes it clear that Jekyll has always had vices but now finds it difficult to indulge them due to his increasing fame. So he is never a truly good man – he is a weak man, whose evil side comes to dominate him more and more. The March film gets this so wrong, portraying Jekyll as some kind of angel, caring for the poor and needy out of goodness of heart. Not so the Tracy version, which has Jekyll single-mindedly pursuing his objectives, carrying out experiments on animals, and people if he can get the chance, and not needing much temptation from Bergman to stray from the path of righteousness.

Apeman Fredric March and terrified Miriam Hopkins
Apeman Fredric March and terrified Miriam Hopkins

And again, the book says specifically that Hyde suffers from no obvious physical deformity – his evil is in his nature, not his physical being. The Tracy film is spot on – though his appearance changes, he remains a man – coarsened, perhaps, but not head-turningly grotesque. March turns into the ape-man! He does it brilliantly, but still – it’s ridiculous! By the end he’s leaping about up and down shelves like some kind of manic chimpanzee! His body language is that of an animal – all twitches and sniffs. Tracy is always a fully human man – much more chilling when he turns to evil and, more importantly, true to Stevenson’s creation.

Ah, that's more like it! Spencer Tracy and beautiful Ingrid...
Ah, that’s more like it! Spencer Tracy and beautiful Ingrid…

So, both films are very enjoyable and I had huge fun immersing myself in the story again and again. But in terms of Film of the Book – the 1941 version wins hands down. Take a bow, Mr Fleming and Mr Tracy! Great adaptation!

For Mr March…

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★ ★ ★ ★

.

For Mr Tracy…

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★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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* * * * * * *

And, finally… ooh, this is hard. Very hard!…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

jekyll tracy dvd

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THE FILM!

.

(Well, it cheated by having Ingrid Bergman and Spencer Tracy in it…)

 

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hydeThe eternal battle of Good v Evil…

A man and a child accidentally bump into each other at a street corner – a normal everyday incident. But when the child falls down, the man deliberately tramples over her, ignoring her screams of pain. When he is stopped by passers-by, he shows no remorse. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr Hyde, a man who has no obvious deformity but gives off an air so repellent that strangers passing him in the street shudder without knowing why. But this man has some kind of hold over the eminently respectable and well-known scientist, Dr Jekyll, who not only pays compensation for Hyde’s actions, but also gives him the run of his own house, and has made out his will in Hyde’s favour, leaving him everything should Jekyll die… or disappear. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer is at a loss to understand, but feels it his duty to discover more about the mysterious Mr Hyde…

Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him.

Because the story has become so phenomenally well-known, the reader is way ahead of Mr Utterson, the lawyer. In the novella, it’s not till near the end that it’s revealed that Mr Hyde is the result of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. But it’s so well written that knowing the story doesn’t hamper enjoyment in any way. Stevenson builds up the tension and horror beautifully, with one of the best uses of London fog I’ve come across, both as providing a cloak for wickedness and vice, and as a metaphor for the darkness within each human soul. Darkness features throughout, with fog rolling into houses, and Mr Utterson having to face the terrifying climax with only the feeble flicker of a candle to light his way.

The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm... no obvious deformity?
The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm… no obvious deformity?

A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.

Dr Jekyll refuses to tell Mr Utterson anything about his strange friend, but assures him that he could get rid of Hyde any time he chose. Mr Utterson has to accept that and let the matter rest. But one day, months later, a woman looking out of a window sees a horrifically brutal murder take place. The description she gives of the murderer could only be of Hyde. Mr Utterson races to Hyde’s address in sleazy Soho, but too late! He has vanished! Dr Jekyll seems nervy and upset, but after a while begins to get back into his old routines. Then some weeks later, Mr Utterson receives a visit from Dr Jekyll’s servant – it appears that Mr Hyde is back…

The Spencer Tracy version from 1941
The Spencer Tracy version from 1941. Ah, much better!

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two… If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path… no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

There is more than an element of morality tale about the story. Dr Jekyll has always liked to indulge his vices – mostly left, incidentally, to the reader’s imagination, which works so much better than lengthy graphic descriptions would have done. But now that he has become a well-known figure, he has to think about his reputation. So he decides the solution is to split his personality between good and evil. But the experiment doesn’t work the way he hopes – the Hyde side is indeed purely evil, but the Jekyll side doesn’t change – he still retains all his vices and weaknesses even when in that guise, and gradually the Hyde side begins to take control. The suggestion is that, if one gives in to one’s evil side, it will always become dominant, so we must guard against it at all times. It’s not nearly as preachy as I’ve probably just made it sound, though. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling, chilling tale of horror!

Great stuff! I hereby forgive Stevenson for boring me in Kidnapped! And now to watch the film…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

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.

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★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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And, finally… by the tiniest of margins…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

narcissus b.

 

THE BOOK!

 

 

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

black narcissusTill the rains break…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Rumer Godden writes in a straightforward style, with little in the way of dramatic or poetical flourishes. But this simplicity is deceptive – she draws her characters with a surprisingly few strokes of her pen, and brings a haunting quality to her descriptions of place that allows her readers to understand the profound effect of it on the nuns. Sister Clodagh is young and inexperienced, but sure of her ability to lead – a confidence that isn’t completely shared by the Mother Superior back at the mother convent. Sister Blanche, known to all as Sister Honey, is sweet and kind, wanting to do her best for the children who attend the school and clinic. Sister Philippa and Sister Briony are the more experienced nuns, sensible and hard-working, Philippa in the gardens, and Briony heading up the clinic. And then there’s Sister Ruth, a troubled woman, full of jealousies and suppressed emotions; the kind of person no-one really wants around.

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

As they begin to settle into life at the convent, each of the nuns finds the isolation working on them in different ways. Sister Clodagh looks back to the events that brought her to a religious life, and for the first time finds herself questioning both her calling and her abilities. Sister Philippa becomes obsessed with the garden, creating grandiose plans that the convent could never afford. Sister Honey finds herself becoming emotionally attached to the children to a degree beyond what is either wise or safe. And Sister Ruth struggles with the altitude, constantly complaining of headaches and stomach aches, and feeling that the other nuns don’t value her, especially Sister Clodagh. As time goes by, the Sisters begin to drift, almost dreamlike, away from the routines and religious observances that were once second nature to them, finding that the dramatic beauty and emptiness of the mountains somehow diminishes the things they once held precious.

Into this mix come the catalysts: the General’s heir, a rather beautiful young man, clad in silks and jewels, seeking an education; and Mr Dean, a man with a less than savoury reputation regarding women, but with a blatant masculinity that half-frightens, half-attracts the nuns. Mr Dean is the new General’s man, on whom the nuns must rely to get practical things done around the convent. He is not conventionally religious, constantly challenging Sister Clodagh’s rather glib attempts to create a replica of the mother convent here in a place with a very different culture and spirituality, and pointing out any time he feels she falls short of what she professes to believe. But it is Sister Ruth who reacts most strongly to Mr Dean, years of suppression breaking out into ever wilder longing and jealousy.

rumer_godden
Rumer Godden

The wonderful characterisation and atmospheric descriptions of this starkly unforgiving landscape provide a backdrop to the nuns’ struggle to stay on their religious path in this place they find so hauntingly mystical. For each, the experience will change her forever in ways she never imagined – some will find spiritual growth and a truer kind of faith, some will reach a reconciliation with events in their past, others will find their strength isn’t enough to come through the challenges of the place unscathed. Godden’s prose is flowing and effortless, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story without being distracted by any flamboyancy of style. The story that starts off slowly and rather gently gradually works itself up to the heights of gothic horror, but told with enough restraint to keep it feeling completely authentic and believable. An excellent book – highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of Godden’s work in the future.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the book: As an occasional feature throughout the year, I’ll be watching the “film of the book” with a view to seeing how the movie version works as an interpretation of a novel, or occasionally the reverse, when I’ll be reading the book of a film I love. Black Narcissus will be the first – to see the film review, click here…

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

sunset song 2A Scottish lament…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Sunset Song, written in 1932, is generally considered the strongest book in the trilogy and one of the greatest Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Although it’s written in a form of the dialect of the area, it’s been pretty heavily anglicised so that it keeps the rhythms without being too hard for non-Scots (or modern Scots) to understand. There’s a heavy sprinkling of old Scots words, but also a glossary of them should the meaning not be obvious from the context.

Chris is born the daughter of John Guthrie of Blawearie, a farmer hardened by the lifelong struggle to wrest a living from the land, and Jean, a woman worn down by years of pregnancies and childbirth. John is a harsh father to his sons, demanding hard labour and unquestioning obedience, and exacting cruel physical punishment when angered, while Jean can do nothing but watch passively. But Chris shows signs of academic intelligence, and it is John’s wish, and her own, that she be educated and get away from the land to become a teacher. All this changes when first Jean and then John die, leaving the family broken up and Chris as the inheritor of the farm. Now with the money to leave and make a new life for herself, Chris realises the land is in her blood – she wonders how she could ever have thought to leave it and to take up a career that would deny her the joys of marriage and children.

Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year
Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year

And so she marries young Ewan Tavendale and together they are content to farm their land, Chris’ happiness enhanced when she bears her first son. But the world is changing and over in Europe war clouds are gathering. And during the four years of fighting, life for Chris and for this entire community will be changed forever.

Chae jumped up when she finished, he said Damn’t, folk, we’ll all have the whimsies if we listen to any more woesome songs! Have none of you a cheerful one? And the folk in the barn laughed at him and shook their heads, it came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for beside the sheep-ouchts, remembered at night and in twilight. The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs.

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.

It took me a good third of the book to really find myself involved in the story. It begins with a long introduction to all the characters and a potted history of the area. While there’s some great writing and quite a lot of humour in this section, I found it was trying to cover too much and I didn’t really get a feel for most of the characters – which was a problem that remained throughout the book in fact. The main characters become very well realised, but all the others flit in and out and I never felt fully on top of who they were or how they related to each other. As Chris grows from childhood into young womanhood, there is a major emphasis on her awakening sexuality, with some writing which I feel must have been considered pretty shocking in its time, including allusions to rape and incest.

But suddenly, at the point where Chris finds herself alone and independent, the book turns into something quite wonderful. The story of Chris and Ewan falling in love and marrying is full of emotional truth. This isn’t a great romance – this is two young people setting out to make a life for themselves and their inevitable children, farming the land in continuity with the generations before them and assuming they will hand it on in turn to the next, and making the adjustments that any couple must when the realities of living with another person don’t quite match up to the dream.

Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie
Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie

It lingered at the back of her mind, dark, like a black cat creeping at the back of a hedge, she saw the fluff of its fur or the peek of its eyes, a wild and sinister thing in the sunlight; but you would not look often or see those eyes, how they glared at you. He was going out there, where the sky was a troubled nightmare and the earth shook night and day, into the lands of the coarse French folk, her Ewan, her lad with his dark, dear face and that quick, blithe blush. And suddenly she was filled with a weeping pity in her heart for him, a pity that brought no tears to her eyes, he must never see her shed tears all the time he was with her, he’d go out to the dark, far land with memories of her and Blawearie that were shining and brave and kind.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Lewis Grassic Gibbon

And when war begins, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. As the men begin to either volunteer or, later, be conscripted into the Army, each character reacts differently but truly to the personality Gibbon has so carefully created for them. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. Gibbon touches on questions that must still have been hugely sensitive so soon after one war and with another already looming – conscientious objection and desertion – and asks not for forgiveness for his characters but for understanding and empathy. The ending echoes the beginning, as Gibbon again takes us round the community showing the irrevocable changes wrought by war and modernisation on each family – some winners, some losers, but none unaltered. And as he brings his characters together one last time, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.

A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation. Highly recommended, though I should warn you I sobbed solidly through most of the second half…

Book 9
Book 9

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Transwarp Tuesday! John Carter

When two tribes go to war…

 

kinopoisk.ru

 

Having recently read and loved Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars – I was intrigued to see how Disney had dealt with it.

So in a departure from the norm, it’s a movie review for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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Disney does Edgar Rice Burroughs!

 

in

 

JOHN CARTER

 

Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch as Dejah Thoris and John Carter
Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch as Dejah Thoris and John Carter

Two Martian tribes are at war – the Heliumites and the Zodangans, who for ease we shall think of as the goodies and the baddies. But the baddies are being helped by a mysterious race of superbeings known as the Thern, who have given them the ability to harness the ninth ray of the sun and use it as a super weapon. As the goodies face certain defeat, the leader of the Zodangans offers to spare them from destruction if the Heliumite Princess, Dejah Thoris, agrees to be his bride.

Meantime, back on Earth, ex-Confederate Army Captain John Carter takes refuge from a horde of attacking Apache warriors in a mysterious cave, where he meets a passing Thern and is accidentally transported to Barsoom, which we Earthlings know as the Red Planet – Mars! Once there, he finds the lower gravity gives him superior strength and the ability to jump really high and really far. Captured by Tharks (14-ft tall, six-limbed, green, horned, pretty ugly), he falls in love with the thankfully human-looking Dejah Thoris and is gradually sucked into the ongoing war…

Tharks...
Tharks…

The plot of the film is a simplified version of the plot of the book, which in truth was already fairly simple. The scriptwriters have tried to make sense of some of the gaping plot holes in the book by introducing the Thern, thus providing an explanation for how John Carter got to Mars. They’ve also changed Dejah Thoris a bit to make her more acceptable to modern audiences. She already had a reasonably heroic role in the book but in the film she is kickass! Truly! And intelligent, gorgeous, scantily clad, interestingly tattooed and a bit of a flirt. A description that works equally well for John Carter, minus the tattoos…and possibly the intelligence.

Some people say women can't be warriors...but I bet they don't say it when Dejah's around...
Dejah Thoris in warrior mode…

However the writers (who somewhat amazingly include Michael Chabon) have got rid of most of the stuff about the society of the Tharks, which personally I felt was one of the more interesting features of the book. Oddly, though, they left little bits in but without much explanation, so that I wondered whether I’d have struggled to follow the plot (such as it is) if I hadn’t read the book. For instance, the big reveal about Tars Tarkas being Sola’s father really needed the background filled out to show why it was important – that is, that in Thark society, love between adults is taboo; eggs are laid and children brought up by the community rather than by biological parents.

Thark on a thoat...
Thark on a thoat…

Instead the film concentrates almost entirely on fighting and battles interspersed with the John Carter/Dejah Thoris love story. This works well in terms of the CGI – overall they do a good job of all the different creatures of Burroughs’ imagination* and the very Disney-style battles involve a lot of fun and exciting fighting and killing, while keeping it almost entirely gore-free – with the exception of the blue blood of the great White Ape, and that was really just splattered about for its humorous value. And obviously only the baddies die, and they all deserve it, so the feel-good factor is not disrupted.

(*Special mention must go to Woola – the dog-like creature. I was somewhat disappointed that they didn’t go for the full ten legs, but they got his massive grin and cuddly personality. On the other hand (pun intended), they went for the simplest version possible of giving the Tharks an extra pair of arms, which wasn’t really how Burroughs described them. He said the extra limbs could operate as either arms or legs as circumstances required… I suspect either CGI or the special effects guys’ imaginations must still have limitations.)

Woola...four legs missing, but still smiling...
Woola…four legs missing, but still smiling…

A fun adventure, as silly and inconsistent as the book but in different ways. I’m not sure I’d be nominating it for Oscars for the script or indeed the acting; and I suspect I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much if I hadn’t read the book. But it has lots of heroics, a good deal of humour, a nice little romance (despite my severe disappointment that they cut the bit about Dejah laying an egg) and the special effects looked pretty good to my untutored eye. Overall, the full two hours and a bit passed very entertainingly.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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Transwarp Tuesday! A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

a princess of marsDarcy and Lizzie in space!

 

A dying planet criss-crossed by canals – what an inspiration Mars has been for generations of sci-fi writers to imagine the alien species that must once have lived there…or may still. It’s almost sad that advancements in science have destroyed all hope of finding intelligent life on Mars. However this story dates back to 1911, so Burroughs could allow his imagination to run free, making it an ideal choice for…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

a princess art

He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.

Swoon! It could so easily be a description of my beloved Darcy, couldn’t it, girls? But no…this is John Carter, heroic here on Earth but superheroic once he is mysteriously transported to Mars, in a way that Burroughs leaves entirely unexplained. Which is a good thing, in one way, but sad in another, because the true comic heights of this book are reached when Burroughs tries to explain scientifically what’s going on.

This ray is separated from the other rays of the sun by means of finely adjusted instruments placed upon the roof of the huge building, three-quarters of which is used for reservoirs in which the ninth ray is stored.

Arriving naked on Mars, Carter finds himself captured by huge six-limbed green Martians, also naked, repulsive to look at and vicious by nature. However, endowed with superior strength and agility by the low gravity on Mars, the brave Carter has soon killed enough of these creatures to win their admiration and to be made a chieftain among them. This comes in handy when his Lizzie turns up (naked), in the guise of a red human-like (hence thankfully only four-limbed) Martian, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. She has been captured by the green Tharks and is soon to be tortured to death for their amusement. But Carter is entranced by the beauty and spirit of Dejah Thoris and, pausing only to sigh over her little hands, fine eyes and precious dimples, sets out to save her and return her to her own (naked) people, the Heliumites. But, just like Darcy, Carter says something really incredibly stupid that offends Dejah Thoris, meaning that he has to do amazing deeds of derring-do to prove his love and win her heart and little hand in marriage, so that one day they can hopefully make an egg together…

a princess art2

I’m forced to admit it – I loved this book! It’s silly beyond belief and, even making allowances for the fact that it was written in 1911, the ‘science’ aspects are…unique! But it’s hugely imaginative and a great old-fashioned heroic adventure yarn, from the days when men were men and damsels were perpetually in distress. As each new creature is introduced the burning question becomes – how many limbs will this one have? Why stop at six – lets have eight! And what an old romantic Burroughs turns out to be! It’s up to our Carter to teach the Tharks the meaning of love and so show them how they can be tender and caring while ripping their enemies limb from limb…from limb. The passage where Carter wins the undying loyalty of his (ten-limbed) frog-headed ‘hound’ Woola by showing him kindness and affection is genuinely touching, and the romance between Carter and Dejah Thoris could have come straight from the pages of a Mills and Boon novel (Harlequin, for my American friends).

“Dejah Thoris, I do not know how I have angered you. It was furtherest from my desire to hurt or offend you, whom I had hoped to protect and comfort. Have none of me if it is your will, but that you must aid me in effecting your escape, if such a thing be possible, is not my request but my command. When you are safe once more at your father’s court you may do with me as you please, but from now on until that day I am your master, and you must obey and aid me.”

The action never lets up from beginning to end, from one-to-one fights to the death, attacks by killer white apes, all the way up to full-scale wars complete with flying ships and half-crazed (eight-limbed) thoats. And then, just when it looks like Carter and Dejah Thoris might finally be able to hatch their very own chicky-child…disaster strikes…dramatic cliff-hanger ending!! Oh no!! Does this mean…will I have to read the next one…???

I really think I must…

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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Oops! Nearly forgot…

Darcy - naked! (Gosh! I bet that increases my page views!)
Darcy – naked!
(Gosh! I bet that increases my page views!)

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Absorbing and beautifully written…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. Though told in the third person, we see through Eilis’ eyes as we get to know about her life in Ireland with the mother and sister she loves, with friends and roots in a community she has known all her life; then we follow her as she is transplanted to Brooklyn, where she has the support of the Irish community, still strongly under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, but where she is so far away from her family, friendless and emotionally alone.

‘The letters told Eilis little; there was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice. Nonetheless, as she read them over and over, she forgot for a moment where she was and she could picture her mother in the kitchen taking her Basildon Bond notepad and her envelopes and setting out to write a proper letter with nothing crossed out.’

Tóibín’s prose is wonderful and his characterisation of Eilis is very convincing – a passive heroine from a time and a society when decisions were still made by parents and community, before the rebelliousness and individualism of the sixties had begun. Trying to please everyone, learning to hide her loneliness and homesickness, Eilis’ life is a small one – this is not a book full of dramatic plot twists and events; rather, it is a study of a gradual growing up as Eilis deals with the various changes that happen in her life and slowly starts to form her own opinions and make her own decisions.

brooklyn 2

The descriptions of the voyage to America, Eilis’ feelings of isolation and longing for her family, her gradual settling and her falling in love all ring very true. We see her at first lost amongst but then beginning to understand the various ethnicities that are gathered in Brooklyn, a sharp contrast to the monoculture of home. In particular, the passages relating to a bereavement and grief are beautifully written and enormously moving.

‘Eilis now wondered if there was any way she could return to the shop floor and stop this from having happened, or stop him from having told her. In the silence she almost asked Father Flood to go and not come into the store again like this, but she realized instantly how foolish that was. He was here. She had heard what he said. She could not put back time.’

As the book neared the end I found Eilis’ thoughts and actions became a little less convincing and they felt a little contrived towards paving the way for a neat conclusion. But this is a small criticism of a book that overall I found to be completely absorbing, beautifully written and a pleasure to read.

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