Inside Story

Two novels, two films

Cinema | Translating short works to the screen has its special challenges

Brian McFarlane 16 July 2018 2032 words

Emotional weight: Saoirse Ronan in Dominic Cooke’s version of On Chesil Beach.

As someone much interested in how novels are turned into films, I’ve been wondering about the contrasting challenges of adapting vast tomes like Gone with the Wind or Dr Zhivago and slim fictions like Robin Maugham’s The Servant. All three were made into commercially and/or critically successful films — though, of course, a novel as popular as GWTW was always going to find its way to the box office secured.

What has prompted these (not particularly profound) reflections is the release of two films derived from short, almost minimalist novels, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. These adaptations were first sighted in Australia at last year’s British Film Festival, where both enjoyed full houses, and both have gone on to commercial release — in art-house cinemas, not surprisingly, their subject matter and its treatment more or less precluding multiplex exhibition.

One of the challenges for a film-maker adapting novels like these is that so much of their tensile strength and attraction lies in the narrative voice. Behind the events that comprise their plots is that voice, subtly fixing events in time and place, gradually unfolding the protagonists’ dealings within the complexities of their lives. Re-reading both books, I kept recalling the opening line spoken by the narrator of the film of The Bookshop: “When we read a book we inhabit it.” And while we are inhabiting it, we can take time if we wish to reflect on how the lives of the characters are presented in interaction with their ambient cultures.

A longer novel might seem to confront the film-maker with the more serious challenge of dispensing with hunks of narrative or deciding which characters will have to go. I’m not proselytising here for the “faithful” adaptation, but I want to suggest that terser fictions throw down their own gauntlets to directors aiming for a fluent transfer into the medium. The two directors in question — Isabel Coixet (The Bookshop) and Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach) — seem to me to have pulled off the task of making something that honours the texts while making something new.

By the sea

Product of a curious background, partly intellectually (and socially) superior, partly deprived, even at times poverty-stricken, Penelope Fitzgerald was well versed in the daunting aspects of life, on which she several times drew after making her debut as a novelist in 1977, at age fifty-eight. In recent decades, and in the wake of several major awards, she has come to be seen as one of the most impressive novelists of the twentieth century. In The Bookshop (1978), as in all her novels, she writes with an unaffected precision, setting before the reader the lives of her protagonists, outsiders of one kind or other in worlds she seems to know from the inside.

Capturing the narrative voice of this novel on the screen is a complex matter. Director Isabel Coixet has revealed — at least in her English-speaking films, including Elegy and Learning to Drive — a distinct, low-key, quietly tenacious “voice” that knows what to make of idiosyncratic relationships. As she wrote the screenplay for The Bookshop, we should expect that voice to make itself felt. And it does, in the lucid, unemphatic way she goes about positioning her characters in relation to each other and to those aspects of the setting that reveal them. Coixet has also chosen to employ another narratorial presence — a voice that tells us, at the film’s outset, how we “inhabit” books and, at the end, how “the story keeps playing in your head” — though its identity will not be revealed until the film’s last moments. In this way, Coixet has departed radically from the novel’s procedures, and the final moments are moving in a way quite different from Fitzgerald’s poignant last sentence.

The Bookshop’s protagonist, Florence Green, is described in the novel as having “a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation,” and her film incarnation in Emily Mortimer’s subtly shaded performance bears this out. Following the death of her husband, she ventures to open a bookshop in the seaside town of Hardborough, in an empty building called The Old House. This is a daring enterprise, as banker Keble (Hunter Tremayne) points out when its financing is under discussion. Among the obstacles she will have to face, and will ultimately be defeated by, is the conniving of local “patroness” Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson, by now a Coixet regular), who wants the premises for an arts centre.

Along the way, Florence engages ten-year-old Christine (Honor Kneafsey) to help in the store after school hours, and business goes reasonably well until she decides to risk selling Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita. In this she has the backing of eccentric recluse Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who confronts the controlling Mrs Gamart.

This account of the film (or novel, for that matter) tends to suggest more conventional narrative procedures than we see (or read). What is crucial is the evolution of Florence as a woman with a passionate determination to carry on what she sees as a worthwhile enterprise, and an integrity that is not undermined by the devious motives of others. The film deals intelligently with these life-shaping influences, and reaches a poignant conclusion as Christine runs to farewell Florence as she leaves the town. The novel’s last sentence reads, “As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop,” and the film ends no less touchingly with the narrator’s voice valuing the “courage and passion for books she bequeathed to me.”

Coixet has chosen not merely to reflect on the failure of the bookshop as a business venture but also to suggest that it has not been wholly a matter of loss if even one person has benefited from the shop and its owner. Adaptors are necessarily selective, and the most rewarding adaptations are less likely to be reverential in their dealings with the original and more likely to have something new to say about their source.

Also by the sea

In Dominic Cooke’s version of On Chesil Beach, the change in tone — while the film as a whole adheres closely to the novel’s narrative line, and in some ways to its structure — is as much the work of the novelist as of the film’s director. Ian McEwan has the sole credit for the screenplay, so it is reasonable to assume that he has had further thoughts about the outcome of the often-painful events the novel describes. Or perhaps he was motivated by what was felt to be a more commercially acceptable endnote than the novel’s austere wrapping-up.

On Chesil Beach is constructed around the wedding-night failure of a virginal couple, Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, who love each other but fail to find sexual consummation. This failure is attributable partly to the prevailing rigours of the era in which the marriage has taken place (the early 1960s), partly to the kind of upbringing each has had, and partly to the inherent dispositions of the pair involved. Sex before marriage was still widely regarded as morally lax, which in this case has meant frustration for Edward and lack of sexual readiness in Florence’s love for him. Following his loss of sexual control, she is appalled and runs from their hotel room to the beach where, in the novel, they last see each other, after an anguished, quarrelsome exchange in which each hurls abuse at the other.

In terms of narrative structure, the book is divided into five major sections. The opening sentence of part one sets the impetus for what follows: “They were both young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual differences was plainly impossible.” This section is largely set in the hotel, with waiters bringing a room-service dinner, as the couple moves apprehensively towards the bedroom, with authorial inserts about aspects of their respective backgrounds. Part two takes us into the past, revealing their education and ambitions and how they first met at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally in Oxford. Part three returns to the present and to the crisis of sexual failure and Florence’s fleeing to the beach; part four brings another return to the past, situating their courtship (and such a dated term is exactly right here) in the context of their very different family backgrounds; and the final section places them on the eponymous Chesil Beach.

Past and present are for the two of them intimately interwoven, as the novel’s structure enacts. The future is dealt with in a few final pages that record her musical success and his “inattentive, unambitious, unserious, childless, comfortable” life. It reads almost like a PS from an author who has realised, rightly, that the reader would like a few glimpses of what followed the honeymoon disaster.

So, how does the film deal with a small masterpiece so much dependent on the author’s tone, on his capacity to make minor details resonate more widely? The atmosphere of the period in which the couple (played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle) have grown to early adulthood is potently evoked in the precision with which the mise en scène recreates the somewhat stiff, upper-middle-class formalities of Florence’s home and the squalor of Edward’s messy domestic scene. Her mother, Violet Ponting (Emily Watson), is a chilly academic and her father, Geoffrey (Samuel West), an undemonstrative business tycoon. Edward’s mother (Anne-Marie Duff) has suffered brain damage after being knocked down on a railway platform and his father (Adrian Scarborough) is a quietly spoken primary school headmaster, who is allowed a moment of touching sensitivity with his son.

The film’s production design (led by Suzie Davies) and cinematography (Sean Bobbitt) render these contrasts in ways that further our understanding of the protagonists, doing some of the work of McEwan’s descriptive and reflective prose. Florence’s musical ambition, which will culminate in her leading a quartet at Wigmore Hall, has had to accommodate itself to her mother’s request that she stop her “screeching” so that Violet can get on with her academic duties in their more than ample house. Edward, on the other hand, has to share with his younger sisters a bare minimum of the domestic duties his mother can no longer cope with, picking his way through rooms of chaotic disorder. Place — whether the impersonality of the hotel, Oxford’s grand edifices and its idyllic surrounding landscape, or the two contrasting homes — is clearly important in creating our understanding of the lives at the film’s centre.

Whereas the novel leads to Chesil Beach and the parting of the two, never to meet again, Cooke and McEwan draw on its suggestions about their futures, and venture to locate the elderly Edward at Florence’s Wigmore Hall triumph. Some may see this as the screen’s softening of the novel’s austerity, but there is no denying the poignancy of the moment, and it stops short of what could have been a cloying reunion. It may have been more rigorous to end on the wonderful panoramic shot of the beach, with Edward at one end of the image and Florence vanishing from the other, but the film’s invention has its own emotional weight.

The film’s major strength is in the two performers — Ronan and Howle — who incarnate so much of McEwan’s thematic patterning, endowing their characters with aspects of their own physical and emotional selves, and vivifying in another medium what McEwan so unforgettably created in his.

As in the adaptation of The Bookshop, not a word is wasted. The cinema’s resources are marshalled to take us into the lives and times and places first created in the written word and give it a new lease of life. Each film may well send viewers back to the novels, and that would be a bonus reward. ●