Screen adaptations of novels you’ve really enjoyed can cause an ambivalent reaction. The idea of beloved characters brought to life before your very eyes in high definition has its appeal. But what if they get it wrong and your cherished mental pictures are sullied forever by some director’s cock-eyed interpretation? It’s taken twenty years to get my original, dignified Darcy back from Colin Firth’s wet t-shirt version, and who knows when my robust, vigorous, commanding Cromwell will return after Mark Rylance’s self-effacing study in understatement in the BBC’s Wolf Hall.
In literary works, narrative voice and tone make the reading experience unique: think of Holden Caulfield’s 1950s slang and his disdain for almost everyone he knows. If narrative voice relates to the storyteller’s choice of vocabulary, and tone to their emotional attitude to the story’s events, how can these be translated into cinematic language? Voiceovers are clunky; camera positioning and shot framing can only tell you so much about point of view, opinion and attitude. A director must rely on exposition, setting, performance, to render these literary qualities: it just isn’t possible for the language of screen to do everything that a novel does.
I have therefore hesitated to go and see Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise. The subject matter of what are in fact two novellas (which were to be five, forming the “Suite” of the title) has been given a great deal of screen exposure over the last 60 years. Nemirovsky describes the flight of Parisians into the French provinces when the Nazis invaded, and the subsequent love affair between an occupying soldier and a young, married French woman whose husband is missing at the front. The stories’ impact depends on the author’s detached, sanguine narration, and her preoccupation with the female experience. Most of the French characters are depicted as bourgeois, narrow-minded, greedy and materialistic.
Consider these two contrasting responses to an air raid:
“Panic-stricken, some of the women threw down their babies as if they were cumbersome packages and ran. Others grabbed their children and held them so tightly they seemed to want to force them back into the womb, as if that were the only truly safe place.”
The first reaction may be too disturbing to include in a screenplay. The second action can be filmed, but the “seemed to” observation and the “as if” detail cannot. Without them, the scene will be disturbing and violent, but not unique.
I’ve therefore decided to stick with the literary by reading more of this most accomplished writer’s works. Le Bal is published in tandem with The Snows of Autumn and depends strongly, as does Suite Francaise, on Nemirovsky’s own experiences as a Russian Jewish émigré, who fled the brutality of the Russian Revolution, only to be arrested and killed by the Nazis in 1942. Le Bal describes how a daughter’s animosity scuppers the aspirations of her materialistic, society-obsessed parents. In The Snows of Autumn the losses and passions of a White Russian family are related from the viewpoint of Tatiana Ivanovna, their loyal and devoted nanny. The quality of the writing only serves to underline the cruel waste of Nemirovsky’s death.
So I continue to resist the allure of Kristin Scott-Thomas and Michelle Williams. Sadly, I did hear a radio critic utter the dire phrase ‘voiceover’ and even – I shudder – make comparisons with TV sit-com ’Allo, ‘Allo. Instead of making inferior films of superior novels, somebody should write an original screenplay about Nemirovsky’s life and that of her daughters, who kept their mother’s manuscript in an attaché case while nuns hid them from the Nazis. Somebody? I feel a treatment coming on …
P.S Very occasionally, the screen can bring qualities to a novel that were lacking in the original text. Here’s a list of films that, in my opinion, were better than the books.
- Bridget Jones’s Diary
- Gone Girl
- Whistle Down the Wind
- A Kestrel for a Knave – (Kes)
- Lord of the Rings Part 1