The Walking Stick first shots (Samantha Eggar as Deborah)
Dear friends and readers,
Last night I watched a re-digitalized (rescued, brought back) film from the 1970s made from an early book of Winston Graham’s, The Walking Stick, very powerful book (inward) — perceptive psychological study of two troubled minds, troubled from different sources. The woman because she’s disabled (crippled, had polio) and because of how her society (family, men, the demands made upon her as polio victim) have treated her. Especially difficult has been the area of sex. She has become an expert in art objects partly because she has the time to devote herself to this and likes things of beauty. The man because he was brought up in lower middle to working class English circumstances where the injuries of class in the UK were once and still are particularly searing.
My observation comes partly from a query I saw on the Sharp-l list-serv this morning but partly something I’ve been thinking about as I study Jane Austen and other classic authors turned into films who themselves never saw a movie. It’s about how novels are written. Over on Trollope19thCStudies we read an early 20th century novel by Galsworthy, The Country House and readers said they were disappointed in it. Among other things it didn’t have enough “scenes.” Also not enough inward psychology as a POV. It’s clearly not written to be screened, to be visualized on a big screen, to be enacted by an actor. Nor were his Forsyte Saga novels. My speculation is he would have written them very differently today. Ditto Jane Austen. Even if said to, her novels do not lend themselves easily to film adaptation at all; that why so many differ or imitate one another. They are short, have simple stories and often a specific POV; these things do help but beyond that … One has to invent filmic epistolarity; they call out for female narrators, not what’s wanted in popular US film at all.
In studying Trollope’s novels which have been adapted for films, the only one which did not undergo transformations continually was his story, “Malachi’s Cove,” set in Cornwall where he did mean to describe the landscape and high dramatic visualized scenes centrally.
I’ve noticed that there is a fault-line in some author’s novels between those written before the novelist got a film contract and film made out of his or her book and those written afterward. A famous case in point for me is John LeCarre. His earlier novels do not seem to me written with movies in mind. I’ll instance the gem, A Small Town in Germany. After the tremendous successes of The Spy who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, the novels’ texture, the kinds of incidents dramatized are much more the kinds we see in movies. Read The Constant Gardener and it seems written with a screenplay in mind; it just lends itself to it, even the parts that are subjective email narrative. The switches from one set of characters to another are done with juxtapositions in mind.
It’s perhaps easier to see in less well-known novelists. Last night I could see that the director of The Walking Stick to as it were work at the book to find the cinematic pictures (like of the Thames) that in later books by Graham would have been there. There is a big different between the first four Poldark novels written before the well-known first mini-series for TV and the three written I had almost said for (and it was for) the second mini-series. The second quartet written in the 1980s had the kinds of incidents favored by mini-series, which lend themselves to serial drama. I’m thinking of simple as well as complex things. In the later novels he is sure to have large gatherings, characters walking in a landscape, a POV from a character for a scene. I don’t think his novels are worse for this at all; you can see the influence of Hitchcock in his mysteries after the first one was filmed and a success.
But the earlier ones are different. The novel The Walking Stick opens with an inward monologue of the young women giving us her class background and hinting at a devastating relationship with one Leigh Hartley to come; Graham also alludes to important books for this novel, Bettelheim’s The Informed Heart is one. The film opens with our heroine stumbling along amid a huge crowd in the Tube, enduring a long ride standing among others close-packed, no one not a soul speaking to any one else, they could each be all alone. And she gets no help understanding Leigh Hartley from anyone until near the end of the novel when she has literally to interrogate people to get them to tell her information they could have told her much earlier. The film-makers thought of visibilia which captures the underside of fierce rage, thwarted ambition and asocial behavior in the young man by giving him an old car made up of parts which he madly tears through old streets in:
Like Lost Horizon, this is a film which was not available for a long time and though not a big commercial success, a success d’estime (it began David Hemmings’s career as he plays Hartley subtly and effectively with taste just right). I now realize the only shots one could find on the Net were of the young pair at a happy moment on the seashore (a favorite place for Graham to set his scenes) where they walk and he takes her stick from her — generously, tactfully done — but it’s not so set in the novel at all. 5 shots:
The partly ruined industrial landscape, the back quiet music all added.
I can’t prove this but I suggest a later novel would have opened far more visually and such visibilia scenes been in the novel or equivalents. Ditto Marnie (which did become a famous movie).
It makes sense to me that a writer might really learn a lot about how to write a novel with a film in mind by watching his or her novel adapted. Downton Abbey is much weaker in its content and meaning because there is no great book behind it, but it is continually written with TV film in mind, serial drama and this gives it freedom and power. HD operas are making a smash hit in the movies: operas are written with the stage in mind.