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Educated at Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Author of a historical biography (18C military history), and published articles on subjects ranging from Thomas Hardy to Russian history painting.
South Riding (1974)
Personalising the Political: a still-relevant and splendidly faithful dramatisation
YTV's 1974 adaptation of 'South Riding', scripted by Stan Barstow, is a triumph of literary adaptation faithful and vivid which shows up the atrocious 1938 film and the botched potential of the over-abridged 2011 BBC serialisation. The 13 50-minute episodes develop characters and subplots, building a full portrait of community life in the eastern East Riding (Winifred Holtby's fictional 'South Riding') in the 1930s. She subtitled it 'An English Landscape', and this is what we get: a landscape inhabited by people we get to know and love. It's a familiar landscape: I grew up in 'Kingsport' (Hull) and discovered the book as a teenager there in 1980; the setting was the era of my mother's childhood. The real Holderness locations are lovely: Withernsea lighthouse, Spurn Point, flat fields, huge skies, eroding clay cliffs. Never mind the occasional squire, whole towns have fallen off the edge of the world here.
Politics local, national, international shape the story, which begins, like the novel, in the press gallery of the County Council in Flintonbridge (Beverley) as two rival councillors a feudal, reactionary country squire and a consumptive Clydeside Red compete to be elected alderman. Three years later, one will be dead, and the other sacrificing his health to build a better future. Everything between births and deaths, breakdowns, blackmail, corruption, poverty, school life, love affairs, marriages and their destruction is framed in the context of local government. The personal is political, the political personal.
We see how political decisions affect people's lives: the Public Assistance Committee in Yarrold (Hedon) and the implosion of the Mitchells' marriage because of unemployment are especially chilling, given current (2011) UK politics. Lydia the gifted teenager forced to leave school when her mother dies still strikes a chord in debates about child carers, poverty and educational opportunity. We see, too, how politicians' characters and personal histories influence their actions. Hermione Baddeley is the definitive Emma Beddows: the first female alderman in the county (based on Alice Holtby), who has made herself indispensable to her community in compensation for an embittered marriage, and is infatuated with a man young enough to be her son. John Cater is also superb as Anthony Snaith, whose manipulations just manage to stay within the law, but who has a genuine desire to improve his community. He is a lonely man (in the book, traumatised by childhood rape), whose only emotional outlet is his love for his adorable cats.
The cast includes many familiar faces: Lesley Dunlop and Judi Bowker as Lydia and Midge; Clive Swift as Huggins, the lay preacher who takes 'lay' rather too literally; Ray Mort as the feckless but amiable Barney Holly; June Brown as Lily Sawdon; Joan Hickson as Agnes Sigglesthwaite. I enjoyed Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport as Sarah, the modernising new headmistress, and Robert, the debt-ridden squire, haunted by guilt over his wife's post-partum psychosis. However, both are rather too good-looking: Anna Maxwell-Martin and David Morrissey (2011 version) are more as I imagine, if a little young. I can't *quite* envisage Tutin's Sarah leaving a trail of unsuitable lovers she seems too ladylike, too wise while Davenport's Robert is too genial and does not resemble Mussolini-with-hair. In contrast, Norman Jones is too plain as Joe, the tubercular Scots socialist, who, in the novel, has a "pretty face" and "curling ruddy hair" (Winifred's 'beau idéal' ditto David in 'Anderby Wold'). I suspect he's been cast less handsome to skew viewers' affections towards Robert as 'romantic hero', but Joe's *moral* beauty still wins my heart. His social awkwardness and earnestness are touching: his chat-up line about Sarah's resemblance to Ellen Wilkinson; a painfully clumsy conversation about concert tickets when you *know* he really wants her to say she'd like his company; the harrowing Public Assistance meeting at Yarrold This is the only adaptation to discuss his background, organising Black South African miners (like Winifred's friend William Ballinger) until his health broke. He is a *real hero*. Unfortunately, Sarah takes this courageous, selfless man for granted as her ever-dependable, platonic best friend, as if his physical fragility desexualises him, and means he's not a 'real man'.
This highlights the most infuriating plot-thread: Sarah's sexual passion for Robert, the antithesis of all she values (and, ironically, secretly even more ill than Joe!). It's a self-betrayal fuelled by a dysfunctional childhood: she's a driven over-achiever, an alcoholic's child, needing approval from dominant men with whom she then quarrels *because* of their dominance. She's quite right to call him a "bucolic dictator"! When, at dinner in Manchester, he is flippant about her fears for her German friends, I wanted her to tip her dinner-plate over his head, *not* seduce him! (In her shoes, I'd take the first train home to seduce a delicate Glaswegian in Mrs Corner's garden-shed instead ) I certainly don't mourn Robert's winning the Alexander III Memorial Driving Award (a pity about Black Hussar, though!). Mind, I don't share book-Emma's belief that "it's not politics nor opinions" but the fundamental "things of the spirit" that count: politics and opinions *express* our essential values; one can't truly love someone with inimical values. (But then, Emma, too, is besotted with Robert!) And Sarah herself recognises that a meaningful relationship with him was always impossible.
The ending offers some hope: on the King's Jubilee, after a plane crash and the laying of the foundation stone for her new school, Sarah re-reads Joe's letter, which (uncharacteristically) she has been carrying in her handbag for 3 days. She is smiling surprisingly, given his worrying news, unless she has come to her senses and has plans
The camera then scans the South Riding landscape, and the final shot is of Winifred Holtby's grave in Rudston: a fitting tribute to the inspiring young woman who created this engaging fictional universe and its inhabitants.
South Riding (1938)
Earthquake hits Rudston: author spinning in her grave
This adaptation of Winifred Holtby's Holderness-set novel opens with a dedication to the author, who had died tragically young: "To her memory, this pictorial impression of her book is respectfully and gratefully dedicated". Well, the scriptwriters' idea of respect and gratitude is not mine. Winifred was probably spinning like a peerie in her grave, and in danger of toppling the Rudston monolith!
If the 2011 BBC adaptation was over-condensed at 3 hours, this 85 minute film is a caricature. It's sentimental and politically neutered: the book is neither. This is an alternative-universe 'South Riding', primarily for hard-core Sarah/Robert shippers. *Spoilers ahoy, comparing the novel and TV versions.*
The actors work hard, despite the inadequate script. Edna Best is engaging enough, if too beautiful, as Sarah. Marie Lohr, as Emma Beddows, is middle-aged and glamorous, not elderly and matriarchal. Robert Carne (Ralph Richardson) has lost his moroseness and bulky, Mussolini-esque looks to become a more conventional 'romantic hero'. The displaced Clydeside Red, Joe Astell (John Clements), is now English, fairly posh, and surprisingly extrovert even flirtatious in comparison with his adorably earnest and awkward book incarnation. However, he is canonically both "pretty" (the otherwise faithful 1974 adaptation failed abysmally on this, casting-wise!) and consumptive, with a hacking cough (omitted in the 2011 version). He also has some witty lines. Although his heroic background (organising Black South African miners based on Winifred's friend William Ballinger (1894-1974)) is ignored, he steals the film for any viewer with a hurt/comfort complex.
Sarah's shift of affections appears extremely abrupt. One scene, she and Joe are having a fun day out, with lots of flirting and humour; then, all it takes is the birth of the calf on her way home, and eyes meeting under a hideous chocolate-box portrait of Mrs Carne, for her to fixate on the squire. Tsk! Well, if *she* doesn't want Joe, I can think of worse ways to spend an evening than applying his chest-rub... (Ahem! 'Anderby Wold' joke!)
Nuance is sacrificed to melodrama in Muriel's storyline. The deliberate nods to 'Jane Eyre', handled with irony in the book, are played straight here. Ann Todd (renamed Madge, instead of Muriel) is a high camp cliché: riding a horse upstairs, and dramatically dying (yes, really!) at an opportune moment psychically linked to Robert. In the flashbacks, her costumes and hairstyles are extremely odd, considering they represent styles of the recent past. And I'm sure that even in an expensive psychiatric institution, marabou-trimmed satin nightwear was considered impractical for patients
The Holly family storyline is handled superficially. The cause of Annie's death is puzzling: she does not die in childbirth, as in the book; she appears to have a heart problem (borrowed from Robert, who is healthy in this adaptation?); but she dies just before a surgeon can operate (is this derived from Gertie, or has Annie has replaced Lily Sawdon as a cancer sufferer?). Lydia is underwritten and obsequious, far more attention being paid to Midge (Glynis Johns), whose maliciousness is reduced. Essentially, Lydia's role here is to demonstrate Sarah's benevolence, not as a character in her own right. Incidentally, the Hollys' home has an upstairs in this adaptation, being a double-decker bus or tram, not a railway carriage.
There are no real villains in the novel, but in the film, moralising censorship casts its shadow. Snaith is presented as an out-and-out crook, who has to be punished: in the book, he is a more ambiguous figure, damaged by childhood sexual abuse, working for his own advantage and yet *also* a genuine benefactor. Huggins appears to be a widower, so his liaison with Bessie can be treated more comically (although the blackmail and corruption are serious). Sarah and Robert's Manchester tryst is interrupted, not by an attack of angina, but by news about Muriel/Madge, before they get to the bedroom. Sarah later saves him from suicide by shotgun at the moment his wife keels over in Harrogate, thus removing all shadows of adultery and obstacles to the pairing. Part of the point in the novel is that he embodies the doomed, feudal past, so his survival is a bad plot-change.
The ending is literally flag-waving, saccharine National Government propaganda. Snaith's corrupt land deals are exposed, thanks to Sarah overhearing Bessie and Huggins. Robert steps in to save Joe's planned housing scheme and his career. Never mind 'Tullochgorum''s "Let Whig and Tory a' agree" here Socialists, Liberals, High Tories et al. unite to sing 'Land of Hope and Glory' for the coronation. Midge and Lydia become best friends. Sarah sits between Robert and Joe. Given book-Sarah's racy past, I wouldn't put a ménage-à-trois past her, but it's implied here that she and Robert will pair off, while the far more adorable Joe remains her platonic best friend. He needed rescuing (politically) by Robert, therefore cannot be 'romantic hero' material. This nonsense reflects a popular stereotype of disabled or chronically ill characters as desexualised: men, especially, are portrayed as emasculated by illness, because it makes them fragile, vulnerable and dependent stereotypically 'feminine' or 'childlike' qualities. By contrast, the novel's ending at the Silver Jubilee is bittersweet with mingled loss and triumph, hope and fear, with hints that Sarah may finally have come to her senses romantically, as she cherishes a heartbreaking letter in her handbag (Usually, she methodically organises her mail into baskets, so this is suspicious!)
All told, the film is disappointing and dishonest. The Cinegram magazine claims that "Readers of the book will recall the story, which, although changed in places there is a happy ending, for example still conveys the burning sincerity of its author
This intense realism will come as a refreshing tonic to audiences over the world". No: this is a 'South Riding' with teeth drawn and claws blunted. As a "respectful" memorial to the author, a feminist and socialist, it is insulting.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
For Ham the Bell Tolls
As an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 'Notre Dame de Paris', William Dieterle's 1939 film is itself malformed, a picturesque travesty twisted out of shape by the demands of the Hays Office. It is the chief source of the 1996 Disney animation of the same title, inheriting elements from Wallace Worsley's 1923 silent adaptation. *Some spoilers follow, as I wish to compare the book and the film, and refer to other film versions.*
'Notre Dame de Paris' is a mediæval tragedy, dominated by Claude Frollo, the young Archdeacon unhinged by the conflict between his sexuality and his vows of celibacy. The Hays Code, which superseded the NAMPI 'Thirteen Points', forbade negative, controversial or disrespectful depictions of clergymen. As a result, this adaptation follows Worsley's 1923 film in rearranging the Frollo brothers to placate the Hays Office and the Catholic Legion of Decency. Claude Frollo (Walter Hampden) remains Archdeacon, but is a kindly old fellow, not the tormented young genius of the book. Instead, book-Claude's passion for Esméralda is transferred to his secular brother, Jehan (Cedric Hardwicke) a spoilt teenaged student and party-animal in the novel, but here as a sexually repressed, politically repressive middle-aged judge and adviser to Louis XI. (To anyone who knows the book, the linkage of Jehan with repression of *any* kind is hilarious !) These portrayals directly influenced the 1996 Disney animation: indeed, Disney's 'Minister Claude Frollo' caricatures Hardwicke's chiselled features and chaperon. Hardwicke conveys film-Jehan's not-all-that-suppressed desires in one scene in Notre Dame, he is clearly ogling Esméralda's cleavage while she is speaking to him (a rare trace of book-Jehan!) but, as he is not under vows, there is no powerful plot-reason for him to deny them in the first place. (Amusingly, Hampden and Hardwicke later returned to 15C Paris as Louis XI and Tristan L'Hermite in 'The Vagabond King' (1956).)
Without the psychological conflict between religious vows and human passions, the core plot loses its raison d'être. This adaptation therefore shoehorns in a 'political' conflict, making film-Jehan a persecutor of gypsies and a bitter opponent of intellectual freedom, as symbolised by the printing press, which he destroys. This seems to me a wilful misreading of book-Claude's pronouncement, "Ceci tuera celà". Hugo extrapolates how the printed word will kill the 'stone books' of the cathedrals; literature will supersede architecture as an art; freedom of thought will triumph over ecclesiastical domination. In the novel, Claude seems to accept the inevitability of this, ambivalently but calmly. He is a man on the cusp of the Renaissance: a scientist and polymath, as well as a priest, who can see equally the dangers and the opportunities ahead. To make his screen incarnation (under whatever name) a violent opponent of the new learning, while presenting Louis XI as its champion, is a gross distortion. (This was taken to an even more ridiculous extreme in the 1997 US TV version, with Richard Harris's elderly Dom Claude a reactionary fanatic leading the smashing of printing presses, and Mandy Patinkin's Quasimodo a secret intellectual and author!) Only Delannoy's 1956 film, starring Alain Cuny as Claude, has made much of his alchemy. Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien) is transformed anachronistically from the amiable playwright and goat-fancier of the novel into a romantic young rebel, a radical satirist and political pamphleteer, who incurs film-Jehan's displeasure. He would fit more comfortably among the revolutionary students in 'Les Misérables'.
As in 1923, the use of the inaccurate popular English title again promotes the supporting character of Quasimodo to greater prominence. Charles Laughton's Quasimodo is thick-sliced Yorkshire ham. He is lugubrious and self-pitying, more like an elderly man than the young one the script acknowledges him to be during his trial. His prosthetics are overdone: a boy as severely deformed as this would have been unlikely to survive in 15C, and it is worth noting that, despite his misshapenness, Hugo's Quasimodo is notably agile. Anthony Quinn's 1956 portrayal was far more credible and vital. Laughton was, I think, simply unlucky with his casting in Hugo adaptations: in the Hays Code-pleasing bowdlerisation of 'Les Misérables', he had played Javert, when he would have been better as Jean Valjean (his physical bulk and presence are reminiscent of Harry Baur, the definitive film-Valjean), a role given instead to matinée idol Frederic March.
Maureen O'Hara makes a spirited and beautiful Esméralda, appropriately still in her teens, but nevertheless seems too intelligent and streetwise to have fallen for the duplicitous and caddish Phbus (Alan Marshal). (Book-Esméralda is alarmingly gullible, given that she has been raised among thieves and cut-throats.) In this version, he is really killed, which weakens the story. Part of the horror of Esméralda's plight in the book is that he recovers from his wound, but refuses to clear her name or lift a finger to help her in any way while she remains infatuated, precipitating the final tragedy by calling his name at the least opportune moment possible. Again, the Hays Code interfered in depicting injustice: individual officials could be depicted as wicked or corrupt, but the rule of law and authority itself must be upheld. Hence the film depicts the king as essentially benevolent, but badly advised by the hypocritical Jehan, who persecutes Esméralda for spurning his advances.
There is excellent work from the supporting cast, notably Thomas Mitchell as a wily Clopin Trouillefou, and the production values are good. I wonder whether the set of old Paris was the same one used for the 1923 silent version? The happy ending is a final bowdlerisation, far less powerful than that of the novel: of the cinema versions, only Delannoy's 1956 film has taken us into the charnel-house at Montfaucon. Pierre gets the girl, as well as the goat, and Quasimodo gazes down wistfully as they go off together. Perhaps this time, *he* should have run off with Djali as a consolation prize?
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
A potential epic cruelly deformed by censorship and Chaney's ape-man
Visually, Wallace Worsley's adaptation of 'Notre Dame de Paris' is stunning: the lavish sets are atmospheric; the costumes, while not always historically accurate, are attractive; and the film is lively and well-shot, with (on the whole) an excellent cast. It could have been a superb early Hollywood epic. Unfortunately, the script was maimed by censorship, which set the tone for subsequent US attempts to film Hugo's spectacular novel of 15C Paris. *Some spoilers follow, as I wish to compare the book and the film.*
The title itself reflects part of the problem. Despite Victor Hugo's disapproval, since 1832, many popular English-language translations of 'Notre Dame de Paris' have appeared under the 'Hunchback' title, promoting the supporting character of Quasimodo to the leading role. The NAMPI 'Thirteen Points', which prefigured the Hays Code, further fuelled this change of narrative focus. They prohibited the depiction of the clergy in ways that might provoke hostility or loss of respect: a huge obstacle in adapting this novel, which centres upon Claude Frollo, a brilliant young priest who destroys himself and all he loves because he can no longer cope with his vow of celibacy. Other characters were also problematic for the censors: Esméralda's long-lost mother is a penitent former prostitute; the teenaged student Jehan is a drunkard and frequenter of brothels; Phbus is a rake who takes Esméralda to a sleazy 'house of assignation' and almost succeeds in seducing her indeed, she plasters herself over him more or less begging him to take her! How could the book be sanitised for filming under NAMPI rules?
The script retains Claude Frollo's identity as Archdeacon, but makes him remain the sweet, saintly adoptive father of the deformed foundling Quasimodo. It transfers his passion for Esméralda and his alchemy to his secular brother, Jehan a spoilt and dissolute undergraduate in the book, but here a middle-aged villain, in league with the king of the underworld, Clopin. Without the psychological conflict over religious vows, the 'thwarted desire' plot loses meaning and intensity. It becomes just another story in which a man ruthlessly pursues a girl who loves someone else. It also wastes the talents of the British actor Nigel de Brulier, whose ascetically handsome features make him one of the best film-Claudes in looks. He could have played Hugo's Claude magnificently, judging by his performance as the prophet Jokanaan, tormented by another provocative teenaged dancer in Alla Nazimova's film of Oscar Wilde's 'Salomé'. Instead, all he has to do is look pious in a cassock. Film-Jehan (Brandon Hurst) is merely a moustache-twirling melodrama villain, or would be, if he had a moustache!
The moustache, however, in one of Hugo's more egregious anachronisms, belongs to Phbus de Châteaupers (Norman Kerry), whom the script cleans up to be a conventional romantic lead (a decision copied by Disney in 1996). Yes, he tries to seduce Esméralda (the delightful Patsy Ruth Miller young, carefree and charming), but here she resists, and he is won over by her virtue. The film also invents a Cinderella-type scene where she goes to a ball, dressed up as a lady, and captures his heart from his aristocratic fiancée Fleur-de-Lys. And of course, despite the various trials and tribulations, they will be rewarded with a happy ending. Pierre Gringoire's role is minimised to that of occasional comic relief: a pity, as he is great fun when he is on screen. Pâquette/Sister Gudule, Esméralda's mother, makes her only Hollywood appearance in this adaptation, in sanitised form, played by Gladys Brockwell. In flashback, we see her as a wealthy lady (presumably a widow) in a grand house, not as the impoverished young prostitute of the novel. Her death is placed earlier than in the novel and in somewhat different circumstances. The script bungles the drama of the belated recognition and reconciliation between mother and daughter: here, Pâquette recognises her child, then dies but Esméralda apparently remains none the wiser. Poignant though this is, it seems an odd anti-climax: did this plot-element seem too melodramatic even for 1920s audiences?
These days, the reputation of the film rests chiefly on being a star-vehicle for Lon Chaney as Quasimodo much overrated, I thought. His make-up was certainly elaborate by the standards of the time indeed, too extravagant to be convincing. Quasimodo is a twenty-year-old boy with severe disabilities: he is not a human-ape hybrid, which is what Chaney (wearing an alarming amount of false body-hair during the flogging scene) appears to be playing. In a cinematic reversal of evolution, he is more like an ancestor of King Kong: just swap the Gothic towers of Notre Dame for the Art Deco lines of the Empire State Building. The ending, too, prefigures that of the great ape film: the heroic 'monster' is killed off so that the physically attractive young lovers can be reconciled. It's certainly not Victor Hugo! Indeed, having Quasimodo expire in the arms of his adoptive father, Claude, so far overturns the tragic climax of the novel that it belongs in an entirely alternative universe.
Without the distortions of narrative and character imposed by censorship, the talents assembled here could have made a wonderful film. Sadly, the NAMPI restrictions left it picturesque but stunted and deformed much like Quasimodo himself.
Notre-Dame de Paris (1956)
"So come up to the lab " for some spectacular cinematic alchemy!
The opening of this film relating the finding of the word 'Ananké' (which the English-language narrator irritatingly mispronounces as 'Anankh'!) on the wall of the cathedral signals that Jean Delannoy has given us the best cinema version of 'Notre Dame de Paris' yet. It is the closest in spirit to the book in picaresque colour and in its final tragedies. *Some spoilers follow, comparing the book and the film, and touching upon other film adaptations.*
While international distribution (especially in the US) meant that Delannoy still had to be circumspect about Claude's priesthood (he is addressed as "Maître/Master Frollo"), his sober dress and the fact he works in Notre Dame make it implicit indeed, obvious to anyone familiar with the book, as French audiences are. His younger brother Jehan is thus restored to his (im)proper and impish self as a mischievous student (Maurice Sarfati), who, indeed, first appears dressed as an imp for the Feast of Fools. (In the 1923 and 1939 versions, Jehan became a middle-aged substitute for his brother in his relationship with Esméralda.) There are, nevertheless, differences between the French and English versions. Because of the Hays Code, Quasimodo is made *King* of Fools, *not* Pope, in the English-language version, the scene being shot with two different styles of crown. The French version also gives us an additional scene with Pierre after Esméralda's arrest, and an extended scene of Claude's breakdown, returning to La Falourdel's, and corresponding to the book's chapter 'Fièvre'. Presumably these were cut because the English title overemphasises Quasimodo.
Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida have top billing for international audiences, but it is Alain Cuny who quietly dominates the film as the tragic romantic lead, Claude. This is as it should be: he, not Quasimodo, is the chief focus of the novel (the popular English title is highly misleading). Although about a decade too old for the role, Cuny has the right air of anguished intensity and repressed, self-destructive passion. Even as he brings suffering on others, he himself suffers still more deeply, all haunted eyes and strong cheekbones. (An acquaintance observed that his hairstyle is far too 1950s, but the anachronism is less of an issue than the fact he has so much hair at all: book-Claude is balding and tonsured!) This is the only film version that gives attention to his alchemy, and sets Louis XI's incognito visit, as 'Compère Tourangeau', in his laboratory, rather than in his rooms in the cloisters. This atmospheric scene captivated me when I first saw the film on TV as a child. My chief regret is that (as usual) we do not get the passionate confrontation in prison from 'Lasciate Ogni Speranza': he is certainly handsome enough for some chest-baring cassock-ripping He gives us the film's most memorable moments: his rapt face framed by the broken window of the Grande Salle of the Palais de Justice, while in the adjacent pane we see the reflection of what grips his attention Esméralda dancing; how he intones her name over his experiments (which reminds me of Ezra Pound's marvellous 'The Alchemist: Chant for the Transmutation of Metals': "Midonz, gift of the God, gift of the light,/gift of the amber of the sun,/Give light to the metal"); his torment at La Falourdel's, watching Phbus (Jean Danet, suitably smug and flashy) seduce Esméralda; scratching 'Ananké' on the wall, watched by an uncomprehending Quasimodo; returning to the cathedral by moonlight, and crossing himself (a detail cut from the English-language version) when he sees Esméralda in ghostly white. In his last moments, he stretches out his arms, crucified by his forbidden desires, before falling. It is a superb performance, unshowy, but emotionally wrenching.
Gina Lollobrigida is somewhat mature and overtly sexy to be entirely convincing as a virginal teenager, but she has glamour, vitality, and (with choreography by Massine) dances better than most screen Esméraldas. It is believable that an otherwise ascetic and intellectual priest could be driven to crime and madness for such a beauty. Of course, with such a bright and spirited Esméralda, the question remains as to how she can be so stupid as to fall for Phbus's smarmy charms, but that is part of the tragedy of the book and, indeed, such calamities happen in life. Her comic relationship with Pierre Gringoire (Robert Hirsch) is delightful, with a very cute Djali as the third party in their 'marriage'. It is wonderful to see so much of Pierre, without him being rewritten as a conventional romantic lead (as in 1939 and 1982). Clopin is played somewhat younger than usual by Philippe Clay: Villon-esque, a figure from Bosch or Breughel. Quinn is the best film Quasimodo: alarming and touching by turns, unsentimentalised, and believable. Unlike Chaney or Laughton, whose deformities were far too exaggerated, he looks as if he could have survived childhood in 15C. He is deaf, and apparently brain-damaged, probably by the vibration of the bells. Fleur-de-Lys (Danielle Dumont) and her friends, in their henins and colourful gowns, look as if they could have stepped out of an illuminated manuscript. Phbus's character is given a hint of warmth by being made to express regret that he could not have saved Esméralda himself (in the English dub, at least), but otherwise he retains his shallow obnoxiousness.
The last part of the story is truncated because of the running-time, hence the change in the events at the Bastille, and in the circumstances of Esméralda and Clopin's deaths. However, it is still far more effective than the bowdlerised 'happier' endings imposed by the 1923, 1939, 1982, 1996 and 1997 versions. The conclusion at Montfaucon is retained, and is movingly portrayed. All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, which gives a better impression of the novel than any other cinema adaptation to date, and confirms my belief that French literature usually fares best in the hands of French film-makers.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
If you love the book... this is a penance
Watching this bowdlerisation of one of my favourite novels is probably the nearest I will ever get to a mediæval-style penance such as wearing a hairshirt.
I'm giving the film 4 stars for the quality of the animation: the cityscapes and the cathedral are beautifully realised. There are a few (very few) moments of expressionistic power: the 'Hellfire' sequence in particular reminded me of Musorgskii's 'Night on the Bald Mountain' in 'Fantasia', and suggests the story's real tragic, passionate heart, but... It's *not* my beloved 'Notre Dame de Paris'.
What it is is a sanitised, smugly 'feel-good' fable with a happy ending, trying to hitch a ride on a masterpiece by stealing a few character-names and concepts from the novel. It is heavily indebted to previous film versions which were also far from faithful. It follows the 1923 and 1939 films (which were prevented from depicting the clergy 'disrespectfully' by the NAMPI 'Thirteen Points' and the Hays Code respectively) in turning the Frollo brothers into a 'good' Archdeacon and an 'evil' secular judge, with the latter having Claude's tortured passion for Esmeralda. (Never mind the fact that without a conflict over his priestly vows of celibacy, this plot line is weakened drastically.) 'Judge' Frollo here even looks like Cedric Hardwicke from the 1939 film, down to his chaperon hat, although here he has at least been named Claude. (In the 1923 and 1939 versions, the sexually repressed 'evil' brother was Jehan, which is hilarious if you know the book!) This film also follows Hugo's stage version, 'La Esmeralda' (1835) and the 1923 film in de-sleazing Phbus and making him the romantic lead. (SPOILERS AHEAD) The death of the young mother, hitting her head on the steps, in the prologue seems to me to borrow from Pâquette's death near the end of the novel. In turn, I wonder if the scene of the burning of the miller's cottage influenced Roland Emmerich's 'The Patriot' (2000)?
While these changes are understandable in trying to make a film derived from a very adult novel palatable for children (and I appreciate that I'm *not* the target audience), I wonder *what was the point*? Surely it would have been better to write an *entirely original* story to express the desired themes, than tack it on to a classic? My fear is that it may have 'poisoned the well' for some younger viewers when it comes to approaching the book at a later stage. For one thing, it turns the novel on its head by making a smarmy, shallow playboy into a dashing romantic lead, and the almost Dostoevskian, intellectually brilliant but sexually and emotionally tormented young tragic hero/anti-hero into a sneering villain old enough to be his father! One of the most infuriating scenes is the adoption of Quasimodo. In the book, he is placed in the Cathedral as a foundling, aged about 4. Claude Frollo, already a priest at 19-20, adopts him out of genuine compassion, because he himself has just been orphaned and left with the care of his baby brother. The replacement of this deeply moving scene with a horrific crime is a grotesque distortion of character and tone.
My sole consolation is a personal fantasy of the book's Claude anathematising the entire Disney Corporation in full solemn ritual, with bell, book and candle. (I rather think he'd enjoy doing it, too!) I now have this nightmare of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy starring as 'The Krazy Karamazov Brothers': it no longer seems impossible...
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1976)
'The Philosopher-Playwright of Notre Dame'? Gringoire steals this show
I've just got this 1976 BBC adaptation of 'Notre Dame de Paris' on disc from the Netherlands, (why no UK release?), and I now remember that I saw it on TV when I was about 11. It's a solid, faithful adaptation: studio-bound, so more like a stage production, with elegantly inventive sets reminiscent of the stylised architecture you see in manuscript illuminations. Some of the extras, especially the Truands, are pure Villon or Bosch. It also gets full marks from me for using the glorious 'Kyrie' from Guillaume de Machaut's 'Messe de Notre Dame' at the beginning (I am a mediæval music fan!). It follows the book closely, although Quasimodo's fate is changed, and, as so often (bar the 1923 film and the 1966 BBC version), Pâquette and her story are dropped.
It has the best Pierre Gringoire and Jehan Frollo yet (Christopher Gable and David Rintoul respectively). Indeed, this version could be retitled 'The Philosopher-Playwright of Notre Dame', since Gringoire (my second-favourite character) gets most of his best scenes and dialogue, including the scene where Claude, his former tutor, finds him working as a street entertainer! Warren Clarke is a good Quasimodo: his trial is straight from the book. It must always be remembered that, despite the popular English title, he is *not* the main character: English-language adaptations tend to over-emphasise his role. I don't understand the script's claim that he would be hanged: it's not suggested in the novel, and more probably he would be rewarded for saving the cathedral from the Truands. The spoilt young Fleur-de-Lys (Hetty Baynes) and playboy soldier Phbus (Richard Morant) are also splendidly played, and eminently slappable. As in the book, one becomes infuriated with Esméralda for remaining fixated on the latter, even to death. Weaknesses? Unfortunately, these are in leading roles: Esméralda and Claude.
Michelle Newell's Esméralda is young, pretty and innocent enough, but, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, her dancing would *not* make an Archdeacon kick a hole in a stained-glass window. She wears far too many clothes,(1970s hippie dress), and her dancing would make no-one's pulse race (probably not even her own). Why didn't they use Gable as choreographer, since he was in the cast? (He later oversaw a full-length ballet of 'Notre Dame' as Artistic Director of the Northern Ballet Theatre.) Her goat Djali, however, is an adorable, fluffy, white kid with a pink nose.
Kenneth Haigh is miscast as Claude, although he tries hard in the brothel scene, watching jealously as Phbus seduces Esméralda. However, he lacks the required physical presence and intensity (book-Claude is tall, swarthy, lean and broad-shouldered, with passionate eyes). Like all but the 1966 BBC and 1996 ballet portrayals, he is at least a decade too old to play a young man of 35-36. We only get a truncated version of 'Lasciate Ogni Speranza', without its most harrowing moments: no version I've seen to date has ever included him admitting to stabbing himself, let alone baring his chest to show her the wounds. The chapter 'Fever' is omitted entirely, because in this version, he's actually present during Esméralda's rescue. Nor do we get the emotional build-up to the 'Porte Rouge' scene, so it comes out of the blue, without his feverish delirium and desperate pleading; without the hideous absurdity of this semi-somnambulistic, sexually ignorant virgin attempting rape. (One doubts he knows how.) All in all, it's a curiously passionless portrayal of a passion-racked character: even at the end, he seems far too calm and sane, not physically and mentally ill as in the book. Claude is the novel's tragic hero: Romantic, yet proto-Dostoevskian; a brilliant young intellectual, tortured by desire and tearing the world down around him in crime and madness as he destroys himself and all he loves. For once, I'd like to see an adaptation that really put his psychological struggle centre-stage.
So I recommend this production heartily, with a few reservations. Most adaptations of the novel are dominated by one or other of the main characters: this is definitely Pierre Gringoire's show, and he runs away with it (as well as with the goat)!
The Hireling (1973)
Casualties of War
I was recently given this film on DVD as a gift, and was unsure at first if it would appeal (although one of my favourite actors has a leading role). In fact, it's on its way to becoming a favourite.
First of all: thankfully, it's *not* the same as the book, the ending of which I think is excessively melodramatic. Secondly: it's one of the best films I've seen about the First World War. "What?" you may ask. "It's not a war film!" True: we see no battles or bombardments, no trenches, no gas. But it shows the cost of war, the damage done to the lives of the men who fought in it, and the impact this had on those close to them.
We first see Helen (Sarah Miles), a baronet's widow, awaiting her release from a mental hospital. All the women in the film appear to be widows: some from the war, but Helen's much-older husband, Sir Thomas (we see him later in a photograph) was taken ill and died while she was at a party, hence her guilt-stricken breakdown. She is lost and lonely. The wire around the hospital grounds evokes POW camps and the trenches: like many of the men in the outside world, Helen is suffering from a kind of shell-shock.
Out of hospital, she has to find her feet in the outside world again: a world we experience through her eyes as bleak, desolate and unfriendly. Her mother is unable to provide her with any real support. Herself a widow, she has put up her own emotional defences, behind which she hides to avoid dealing with her daughter's distress. (Like many people, especially in that time, she seems to find mental illness embarrassing.)
Ledbetter, the hired driver, becomes a supportive presence, and helps Helen begin to adjust to life again, but she does not realise that he is becoming dangerously obsessed with her. This is a superb performance by Robert Shaw. Ledbetter is a former regular soldier, an ex-sergeant-major who runs a boxing club and has set up his own car-hire business. Superficially, he seems tough and strong, dependable, but there are cracks beneath the surface: he has not really adjusted to civilian life. He invents (for reasons he later explains) a family and home life he does not have; he has brutal outbursts with colleagues, and affection-less sex. Getting close to Helen a woman whom, even with the greater post-war social freedom, he could not realistically have hoped to marry exposes psychological fault-lines that tear him apart. These days, one might diagnose PTSD.
The same is true of the other man in Helen's life, aspiring politician Captain Hugh Cantrip (Peter Egan). He is ambitious, handsome, but also very young. Tellingly, his girlfriend, Connie (Caroline Mortimer), mothers him, combing his hair and making sure he has a clean handkerchief before he goes out. He is known to both Ledbetter and Helen: the former had served under him during the war, and Helen had met him in political circles and had thought him a "popinjay". However, he and Helen now begin a relationship, with Helen intending to support his political career, financially and emotionally. Peter Egan, fresh from his stage success as Stanhope in R C Sheriff's 'Journey's End', makes Hugh more than an immature cad. There is a revealing, understated scene in the back of the car between Helen and Hugh, in which they quote Brooke's 'The Old Vicarage at Grantchester'. She asks, of his war experience, "Was it very bad?" He cannot answer. She says: "Well, you're back now." But his softly-spoken reply "Am I? Sometimes I wonder " is the key to his character. As light and shadow flicker across his face, we know that there are some horrors that cannot be put into words. The disproportionate casualties suffered by junior officers of his sort straight out of school or university and expected to lead from the front are well-known. In a nervous speech (during which Helen reassures him) to local political folk at a dinner-party, he reveals that he will stand as an Independent, no longer as a Liberal (the party which had taken the country into the war). His emotional life is as damaged as Ledbetter's. He cannot easily extricate himself from Connie, who depends on him emotionally and financially: reading between the lines, she is probably a war-widow (perhaps of a former comrade?) with a child, whose drawings we see on the wall of her home.
The crisis between the trio builds slowly, with a frightening scene between Helen and Ledbetter in the car, and Ledbetter listening in to Hugh and Connie when he is driving them, as Hugh tries to persuade Connie that, even as his relationship with Helen develops, they can continue theirs; that he will, at least, continue to support her. Jealousy, obsession and his belief that he must protect Helen from a duplicitous gold-digger lead Ledbetter to confront her and Hugh violently in her home.
The ending is entirely different from that of the novel, and is better for it: it is dramatic, but less melodramatic, and maintains an unsentimental tone. We began with one character recovering from a mental breakdown; we end with another suffering one. Helen, one senses, is now wiser and stronger than both the men, who have been unable fully to adapt to the so-called 'land fit for heroes' to which they returned from the nightmare of total war. The new ending is open: one feels that she, at least, will cope with whatever lies ahead, without illusions. In this, it reflects well the reality of the time, in which women (Helen, Connie, and so many others) had to pick up the pieces of a world in which too many men had died or had come home with varying degrees of mental and physical damage.
"Well, you're back now." "Am I? Sometimes I wonder
Leap in the Dark: To Kill a King (1980)
Alan Garner conjures the spirit of the creative process
This evocative and revealing play has haunted me for nearly 27 years. Seeing it again, at long last, it is every bit as lovely and lyrical as I recall.
Harry (Anthony Bate) is a writer who is suffering from depression, migraines, and writer's block. He lives in what appears to be Alan Garner's own house, the timber-framed Toad Hall (T'owd Hall - "The Old Hall"), near the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope in Cheshire. The spectre of a beautiful woman, dressed in blue in mediæval style, appears. Her voice dictates to him a new poem mysterious and mystical, with Arthurian echoes. However, when he reads it to David, his secretary/agent, it is nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness bawdry not at all what he believed he had written. He goes for a walk to clear his head, reciting repeatedly verses from the traditional ballad, 'Child Waters'. He finds an ancient stone head in a pool (interestingly, his sister later refers to his migraines as "his heads".) The lady appears again, this time in green, and he hears a voice singing 'Child Waters'. Clare, his sister, arrives unexpectedly. Harry realises he is being stifled by her and David alike. The typewriter begins to type by itself, asking for 'HELP'. Alone, after an emotional outburst, Harry tidies his appearance and returns to work, now able to write down the poem that the lady had dictated. She reappears, dressed in red, seated by his fireside.
Harry clearly contains elements of Garner himself: the author has a bipolar condition, and has been quoted on a Radio 4 website as saying that "he finds his creativity in the house (Toad Hall), tapping into an energy that he is only now beginning to understand". Is the mysterious woman a ghost, a Jungian anima figure Harry/Garner's personal poetic muse (perhaps embodying the house's energy?) or a pre-Christian goddess, such as have figured in some of Garner's earlier novels? Garner has also said: "A work of art is a product of the unconscious mind". It seems to me, then, that rather than being a supernatural 'ghost story' 'To Kill a King' is a depiction of the creative process, as Harry's anima/muse helps him break out of the depression that has halted his writing. It is beautifully filmed and acted, and conveys much that I recognise about writing.
The Dark Side of the Sun (1983)
A picturesque, if patchy, Templar (K)nightmare on Rhodes
I recently saw 'Dark Side of the Sun' again, and found it as entertaining, if unsettling (for historical reasons), as ever. One of several Ægean adventures by Michael J Bird, it makes good use of scenic locations and local colour on Rhodes, including the castle at Lindos and the Hospitallers' headquarters. Plot-wise, it is fantasy-thriller hokum: it inspired fanfic and fun among my fellow mediæval history student friends when it was first screened at the beginning of our very first term. But it had the potential to be more than that. The Michael J Bird Tribute Site says it "ran out of steam at the end, almost as if Bird had planned eight episodes but partway through had been told it had to stop at six". I know what the writer means: interesting aspects of character and story emerge, but are not explored, and ends are tied up rapidly. Of course, this makes it an ideal inspiration for fanfic!
'Dark Side' was made about the same time that 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' was published, when a-historical, occult notions about the Knights Templar and Masonic conspiracies were becoming fashionable, pre-Dan Brown. The Templars (the far-from-mysterious armed wing of the Cistercians) have been ill-used in fiction from Walter Scott onward, as a result of the dubious charges made against them when the Pope and the King of France decided to seize their money and lands. It was a frame-up: the Grand Master and others died at the stake, proclaiming their innocence, that they had been tortured into confessing. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable, then, when fiction assumes "there's no smoke without fire" (doubtless from the burned knights), even for fantasy purposes. Ironically, the historical back-story owes more to the misdemeanours of the *Hospitaller* Grand Master, Foulques de Villaret, and his deposition.
The plot is pure Gothic: an exotic setting, a mysterious castle, a damsel-in-distress, an outwardly attractive and charming villain, murder, a secret society, and incubus-type supernatural sexual intrigues. There are strong overtones of 'Dracula'. The Jonathan Harker role is split between Don Tierney (Patrick Mower) and David Bascombe (Christopher Scoular). Don's widow, Anne, is both Lucy and Mina, but without Mina's basic strength. She is traumatised, yes; but she was already on the insipid side before her breakdown, and I found her too wet to engage with, although Emily Richard has a likable screen presence elsewhere. Ismini Christoyannis (Betty Arvaniti) makes a far more appealing heroine. She is 'Dark Side''s considerably more glamorous answer to Professor van Helsing: intelligent, interesting, brave. She realises before the others the nature of the powers they are fighting, and is a match for them. I was sorry that we do not get a major verbal confrontation between Ismini and Raoul. The sparks (and more) would have flown. (In fic, they'd make a great pairing!)
Raoul Lavallière (Peter Egan) is an intriguing villain/anti-hero, handsome and with an air of melancholy. However, because we chiefly perceive him through the eyes of the other characters, much about him remain elusive. The seduction plot, reminiscent of Uther and Igraine in Arthurian legend, is ambiguous: a cruel deception, yes yet with both parties getting something they wanted. And what of his past? What has he been doing for nearly 700 years? All we know is that, until 5 years ago, he had been living in Lebanon unless that is a cover-story. Did he really kill Agnès? What does it mean to have lived so long, without ageing, in a changing world? Maturin's 'Melmoth the Wanderer', 'The Flying Dutchman', and vampire literature have explored similar characters. It could have been interesting to see more from his point of view. Also, what happens to him between the last scenes in the castle, and his arrival in Scotland?
Despite his record of murder and seduction, Raoul frightens me far less than David, the drippy young historian. As a fellow historian, his method, attitude and manners alarm me, and I would have grave doubts about letting him loose in an archive. The military orders are not his subject, but he is soon making over-confident assertions about them. He believes, without question, Brother Philibert's account of Thibaut's murderous past and what happened at Saint-Theodore/Hagios Theodoros. Yet he knows that the Hospitallers had an agenda to regain the castle and oust the embarrassing Templar refugees, and he has not had time to check the information against records elsewhere. He shows not even a glimmer of scepticism. Tsk! Unprofessional! I could rap his knuckles with a copy of Barber's 'The Trial of the Templars'! I also wondered at the wisdom of Ismini letting him take the role he did in the séance: surely there was a risk that his own feelings for Anne might interfere? His description of Raoul's 'Brotherhood' as "a neo-Nazi Freemasonry modelled on the Knights Templar" is also questionable: "neo-Nazi", when a Sir Joseph Marcus (surely Jewish) is a member? Indeed, conspiracy theories about Masonic and/or Jewish "cabals" taking over international positions of power tend to find favour with the far-Right. I suspect David isn't a lecturer from Durham (a reputable university!) on sabbatical, just a failed postgrad who has exaggerated his qualifications...
'The Dark Side of the Sun' is spooky fun that does not entirely fulfil its promise. Greater moral and narrative ambiguity could have made it stronger: few things in life are as black-and-white as the Templars' Bauçant banner, and the order's demonisation (literal, in this case) leaves a nasty taste. Anne and David are, at times, too stupid to survive. Possible non-supernatural explanations, which could have given more 'texture' to the plot, were not raised. Could setting up a 'Brotherhood' for prominent businessmen and politicians to network in privacy, while pretending to be knights, be merely a money-spinner to fund the restoration and running of the castle? Even a near-immortal Templar needs to keep his roof repaired!