Sons and Lovers
A few weeks ago we were grateful because the film of Elmer Gantry was so remote from Lewis’ novel, which is anyway of little importance, that the question of fidelity to the original was irrelevant. But with the film of Sons and Lovers the question does arise, and in more urgent form: for whom are the films of fine novels made?
Obviously, adaptation must occur in an almost biological sense. The book must be anatomized and re-assembled so as to produce the same effect in a different medium; to the degree that this second life is achieved, the adaptation is successful. But for whom is it done? Those who care for the novel can rarely be fully satisfied. The primary matter of time prevents it; other considerations aside, it would take many hours to get on the screen the full range of even an average-length novel. And to those who don’t know or care about the book, the film is frequently unsatisfactory in a different way; for the screenwriters are to some degree hobbled by the book and cannot follow their best cinematic instincts.
The Lawrence film is an example of the latter dilemma. Gavin Lambert and T.E.B. Clarke have tried to bring cinematic order out of the life-like novelistic sprawling growth of the book, re-arranging, condensing, expanding with a minimum of prettifying. (Mrs. Morel’s cancer does, however, become heart trouble.) But throughout you seem to hear the screenwriters saying:
“If only we could let go. If only we weren’t bound by this book or by reasonable extrapolations from it. What a film we could make of these materials, instead of a series of illustrated scenes from a novel.”
A rule of thumb can be induced. If we exclude trash, then the farther down the scale from greatness towards competence that our original novel lies, the more likely it is to be successfully adapted for the screen; for it is less likely to be dependent on its original form for its effect. (Margaret Kennedy says: “In a great work of art the medium is so wedded to the subject that it becomes impossible to think of them apart. To take the writing out of a great novel is to run the risk of emptying out the baby with the bath.”)
What then can be said about the present film? The best one can promise those who like the book is that they will probably not be greatly disturbed by the adaptation and will see some elements capably dramatized. Other viewers will find it an intelligently written, seriously ambitious film in which the hero seems in the middle to forget the things that bothered him at the beginning only to remember them again at the end: in which the matters he claims to have learned are not quite clear and don’t seem to arise entirely out of what has happened to him.
By far the most fully realized theme in the film — a measure of both its success and failure — is the relationship between Paul’s father and mother. We get a piercing sense of a life in which two people can quarrel savagely, yet still return to each other accepting the quarrels as part of their marriage — and all to the incomprehension of their son who thinks a blow taken means a blow given and that his mother ought to leave: who, for all his love of his mother, is shut out of her sexual life and cannot understand her as a woman.
Trevor Howard plays Walter Morel excellently: rock-voiced, brusque, clumsily well-meaning, a rooster gone middle-aged and drunk. Wendy Hiller, winning actress though she is, simply seems too young to be the mother of all those grown sons in that rough and trying home. And her tenderness and beauty emphasize the Oedipal relationship with Paul in the wrong way.
Mary Ure is appealing as Clara Dawes although she never really burns. Heather Sears loses her virginity again, as Miriam, in a scene handled very much like the one in Room at theTop where it happened the first time. Miss Sears has a certain eupeptic charm, but she is not convincing as a farmer’s daughter or a religiously inhibited girl.
Dean Stockwell (the Paul) is the only American in the cast. He works hard on his accent, and plays straightforward and, one might say, studiously. But his voice tends to the monotonous, and he is not quite capable of conveying the wellspring of everything questing and baffled and impatient that Lawrence means this youth to be. Stockwell says somewhat more than he contrives to make us believe.
Possibly because Lawrence is John Braine’s literary grandfather. Jack Cardiff has directed this film in a manner generally reminiscent of Room at the Top. There is the same subtly stark black-and-white photography, the same swift juxtaposition of Midlands grime with physical intimacy — as if to suggest the struggle to keep the individual cleanly passionate amidst the soot and greyness.
Sons and Lovers might also be the title of Hitchcock’s new film Psycho, which is a suspense story dealing with a son (Anthony Perkins) and some lovers (Janet Leigh, John Gavin). This time Hitchcock has put his usual close-up face-nibbling sex scene at the very beginning, (as usual, it is quite dispensable) and then goes on to pad the first half of the picture for a reason that can’t b e revealed without giving away the twist. The whole thing is, in fact, much too long, and the plot is full of holes. (Why, in ten years, hasn’t someone from the town seen the old woman walking past the window of the house? Why does the girl’s sister insist, on such brief acquaintance that the private detective has not merely run off?) Two murders and a third attempt are among the most vicious I have ever seen in films, with Hitchcock employing his considerable skill in direction and cutting and in the use of sound and music to shock us past horror-entertainment into resentment.