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Guy Pringle and his new wife, Harriet, are members of the English community in Bucharest, Rumania on the eve of World War II. The film catalogs and chronicles, after the war begins, the characters [diplomats, literary types, spies, penniless royalty, gays, lesbians] that cross and re-cross their path as they flee before the advancing Germany armies to Athens and then to Cairo. Written by
Noble Bell <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A big novel's length is always a challenge to a film adaptation of the work. When six novels are involved, as is the case here (from Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy), the task of adapting the work means most of it gets left behind. How to produce a script that retains some of the novel's uniqueness and flavor but is still coherent to viewers unfamiliar with the novel? Various solutions come to mind. For example, Volker Schlöndorff wisely bit off only the first third of Günter Grass's masterpiece, The Tin Drum, and created a film that at times exceeds its source material in power and impact. And against all odds, the young Ray Bradbury managed to extract key scenes and language from Moby Dick to come up with a script which, when coupled with a decent director (John Huston) and good casting choices (I'm thinking here of Orson Welles as Father Mapple), made a pretty decent movie.
Sadly, with Fortunes of War, casting works against the film. Where Guy Pringle is a big bear of a man in the novels, Branagh's sensitive Guy just isn't the same character. And where Harriet Pringle is a small and at times frail woman in the novels, Thompson's Harriet is, well, Emma Thompson. This is not a small matter. The novels' point of view is that of Harriet and what we get there is a detailed, personal, even intimate view of the Pringles' marriage. If you read these novels all in a rush, you almost become Harriet Pringle for a time, immersed in the details of her marriage, seeing the world through her eyes. There's a toughness to Harriet, but also vulnerability, something that Guy often misses as he plunges into one project after another. Little of this comes through in the film.
Of course something will get lost in the translation from the literary to the filmic this is a challenge all film adaptations have to face. But in this film, the mismatch of the lead actors and the characters they play is simply too much to overcome.
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