And the film is well acted. None of the boys, with the exception of Stevenson, were professional actors but students at Phillips Exeter Academy at the time, and Stevenson was making his film debut here. These boys convey the characters very well. Heyl is excellent as Finny, and Stevenson is fine as Gene. In particular, Heyl does the scene at the beach very well. Peter Bush conveys the timidity of Leper and Victor Bevine the arrogance of Brinker.
The dialogue is sometimes stiff, but the boys are young and unsure of what to say or whether to express their feelings at all. Conversely, much of the dialogue is more literary than natural, presenting the actors with the problem of having to say expository lines and make that talk seem natural. Even the best professionals have trouble doing this.
This movie was filmed at Phillips Exeter Academy, where author John Knowles went to school. There is a nice sense of the passing of the seasons here, though I would have appreciated even more attention to the colors or autumn and the blossoms of spring; summer and winter are well attended to here.
And the musical score is excellent. The moment when the film goes to flashback and the boys dash out of the dorm unto the playing fields to Benny Goodman's theme, "Let's Dance," is one of the finest openings in all motion picture history. For those with a frame of reference, it instantly transports one back to the 40s.
The clothing recalls a time when schoolboys, especially at private schools, dressed well to go to class. In the 40s, no one wore sneakers, blue jeans, or t-shirts to class.
The film is well composed, which is apparent if one sees it on DVD where it is shown in its proper aspect ratio. And it makes excellent use of color and lighting. The shot of Finny lying at the bottom of the white marble stairs after his second accident is a fine example of this. Another excellent example of the use of color (brown), lighting (shadowing), and composition (Gene is foreground left; Finny in background right) can be seen in the scene where Gene and Finny are in their room and Finny tells Gene he's seen the AWOL Leper on campus.
It's filled with the symbolism that was in the novel but also small bits like this one: during the trial scene, notice that Finny has his arm on the back of Gene's chair, symbolizing a closeness, an embrace of Gene, but as the truth of what Gene did penetrates fully to Finny, he lets his arm drop, symbolizing the break between the two. And what an excellent moment we have when the boys are shoveling snow from the tracks for the troop train to pass. There we have the soldiers in the train, already hostage to war, and the boys outside with their shovels, still free--what is, what will be.
The film isn't the book and to condemn it on that basis is unfair. The book can deal more completely with the interior lives of Gene and the others than the movie can, but the film does as good a job as it can without giving us arty stream-of-consciousness scenes.
About that scene at the beach and why a voice-over by Gene would be a helpful addition to the film. I'm quoting from the book here:
Finny: "I hope you're having a pretty good time here. I know I kind of dragged you away at the point of a gun, but, after all, you can't come to the shore with just anybody, and you can't come by yourself, and at this teen-age period in life, the proper person is your best pal." He hesitated and then added, "Which is what you are," and there was silence on his dune.
It was a courageous thing to say, Gene thinks. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide. I should have told him then that he was my best friend also and rounded off what he had said. I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth."
That level of truth is not that Gene loved Finny. Gene didn't trust Finny, was suspicious of Finny's motives toward him, had his defenses up, and no one can truly love another in that state. Nonetheless, the paragraph following Finny's dialogue should have been in a voice-over. Knowles agrees and made this point in the July/August 1987 issue of "American Film."
It's fashionable to see a homosexual subtext in the novel now. But I read and taught the novel before the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, in a time when a relationship between boys could be "just friendship and intense devotion" without its being sexual.
I had great success teaching this novel for two or three years at Harford Junior College in Bel Air, Maryland. I valued so much the joy of teaching the book and the response of the students there that I never again taught the book because I didn't want to have those memories tarnished by a later generation of lethargic, rebellious, resistant students. The male students of 1964 and 1965 were still subject to the draft, and the Vietnam War was reaching the boiling point. Like the boys of Devon on the rails shoveling the snow, my students (male, at least) could well understand that in the not-too-distant future they would be in the train on the way to war. And among those students I taught, several lost their lives in Vietnam.