Book-to-Film Comparison: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, and Terence Davies’ 2000 Film Adaptation

This post contains details about the plot and ending of The House of Mirth. Do not keep reading if you don’t want spoilers.

I recently re-read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth for the first time since high school (so… for the first time in a long time, is all I’m sayin’), and though I remember liking it very much, I don’t remember closing the book and being about as angry as I’ve been in a long time, as I was the other day when I finished my re-read.

mirthIt is a bitter, bitter book. If you’re familiar with Wharton, you know that she was raised amongst the privileged classes of turn-of-the-century New York, and was also a vocal critic of what she clearly saw as petty and pointless discrimination and cruelty practiced by her socioeconomic peers. Her more famous work, The Age of Innocence, was written fifteen years after The House of Mirth, and its more mature and nuanced approach won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. But it is not nearly as punishing as her earlier book, in which heroine Lily Bart follows a downward spiral to poverty and despair because she is too conflicted to navigate the intricacies of the social sphere to which she was born.

Keeping the Plot, Missing the Point (Sort of)

Terence Davies’ 2000 adaptation of the book is very faithful to the plot, mostly taking only minor liberties for economy’s sake. For example, he combines the characters of Gerty Farish, Lily’s kind-hearted but unfashionable friend, and Grace Stepney, Lily’s cousin who inherits their aunt’s fortune. Where he missteps, I think, is in making at least two changes that conflict with the intent of Wharton’s novel. First, Selden never suspects Lily of sleeping with Gus Trenor, as he does in the book.  Second, in the book, Selden never finds out that Lily was formerly in possession of love letters written to him by Bertha Dorset. These omissions in the film unburden Selden of his complicity in Lily’s eventual demise, and shift the focus of the story ever so slightly, making it more about star-crossed lovers in a cruel world and less about how absolutely arbitrary and man-made the rules of that world were. It makes Lily’s choice more about her hesitance to expose Selden’s transgressions than about how blackmail utterly violates her sense of moral uprightness.

For Lily to go to the grave as she does in the book, without Selden ever having fully understood her, before he understands her liaison with Gus, and never knowing that she had the power all along to save herself by blackmailing Bertha, is of a piece with her whole sad unfair life. Because the book is largely about Lily’s refusal to be someone she isn’t in order to avoid starvation. She can marry someone she doesn’t love and pretend to be happy about it. She can blackmail Bertha despite the fact that the very idea of stooping so low disgusts her. She can marry Selden even though he can’t afford the only lifestyle she has been brought up to appreciate. She can, in her own eyes as well as those of society, degrade herself by taking money from married men in exchange for sexual favors. Or she can die. So Selden is really only one of her options. And Wharton takes care to show us that despite Lily’s love for him, he is one of the main contributors to her downfall, because the truth is that he sees complete self-denial as the only honorable option for Lily. Wharton’s Selden is a man completely of his time, who loves nothing more than to fancy himself ahead of his time.

Meanwhile, the one-line synopsis on the DVD cover reads, “How far would you go to protect the one you love when faced with total ruin and disgrace?” It’s a gross oversimplification.

Acting

Eric Stoltz, who plays Selden, I think has a better idea of who Selden is than the plot of the movie would make it seem. He plays him well as a detached, self-involved intellectual who takes great pride in throwing barbs at society while shamelessly enjoying whatever perks he can glean from it.

Laura Linney is wickedly wonderful as Bertha Dorset. She reminded me of Orson Welles in The Third Man, who despite his moral repugnance is a breath of fresh air simply because he seems to be the only person who’s having any fun.

Gillian Anderson gives an excellent performance, though her Lily is not quite the Lily of the book. She plays her with a gravity not innate to Wharton’s Lily Bart. Anxiety and dread are imposed on Lily, who otherwise has a natural light and hedonistic bent. It’s not that Lily is stupid– in fact, she’d be a great deal happier and less conflicted if she were– it’s that she is näive.  She can’t see when she’s being entrapped, she thinks her beauty and charm are enough to protect her and purchase her security, and she often expects life to be fair when it is not. Lily’s fatal flaw is that she is has a rock-solid, albeit idiosyncratic, set of morals, but is not mature enough to see that moral flexibility is sometimes justified. Anderson gives Lily an almost intellectual flavor that makes her eventual death seem more like self-inflicted punishment than moral conflict.

But All in All…

It’s a very good adaptation. It looks beautiful, it keeps the main plot points of Wharton’s novel but paces them well for film, and it gleans the best dialogue almost word-for-word from Wharton’s skillful hand. The movie has a force to it. It respects the patient unfurling of Wharton’s novel. Though it either did not understand or did not choose to fully articulate all the subtleties of Wharton’s novel, it understands the power of subtlety itself, and that that is where the powers of social expectations lie.

Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux

strange bodiesMarcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, by necessity, opens with a frame narrative: Nicholas Slopen, narrator of the main story, is dead. But before he dies, he pays a visit to his college girlfriend, Susanna. Mere hours later, Nicholas drops dead in Susanna’s house, and two months after that, she finds a flash drive he hid under one of her seat cushions. The rest of the book, we are told, is the exact manuscript from that drive. And so we are sent gliding along the edge of a Möbius strip that will bring us round to the beginning again, only this time with a greater understanding of what it means for Susanna to be in possession of that tiny flash drive. She may be certain that the man who died in her home was Nicholas Slopen, but the reader will have a more difficult time deciding what to believe.

Through the manuscript from the drive, Nicholas tells us that he has already died, and also that he does not have much time to write to us. He is being held in a mental hospital for storming into his ex-wife’s house and insisting on his identity despite the very public and violent nature of his death some time before. Now he is trapped in a body that originally belonged to someone else. How he came to be so encumbered is a mystery for now, one he cryptically refers to as “the Procedure”.

We learn that Nicholas, as a renowned literary scholar, was called upon to give his opinion on whether some letters belonging to an acquaintance were written by the author Samuel Johnson. He finds that they have actually been written by a man called Jack Telauga, who is introduced to him as a savant of sorts. Nicholas’s curiosity about Jack leads him to become involved not only in Jack’s care, but in a conspiracy of so broad a scope it threatens human existence as it is currently understood: what if experiences and consciousness could be contained only in the words we’ve written? Enough so to re-construct our personalities independently of the bodies they were born into?

Strange Bodies could technically be categorized as science fiction, but it doesn’t read that way, in part because the book favors character over plot and pacing to a degree not common in the genre. It is not only important for us to know what happens, it is vital that we get to know and empathize with Nicholas, since by now the volume in our hands represents the sum total of his personality in more ways than one. On this point, literature geeks will have an advantage in their ability to recognize the lines of poetry and prose that populate Nicholas’s mind, and which frequently serve to articulate his own feelings more accurately than his own words ever could. When Nicholas is quoting Johnson, or Auden, or Yeats, he and the reader wonder: if we are made up of words, how many of those words belong to other people?

Theroux’s book, then, becomes more of a philosophical interrogation with elements of the thriller, and though, like good sci-fi, it poses some moral dilemmas, Strange Bodies refuses to take a firm stance on all but the most clear-cut of its issues. It also establishes itself outside the genre by re-purposing the old as opposed to imagining the new. For one, it takes place in the recent past. And in addition to featuring a plotline on 18th century author Samuel Johnson, the book bears an affinity to the work of Johnson’s contemporary, Laurence Sterne. As in Tristram Shandy, the narrator’s consciousness transcends the boundaries of his physicality, and his seeming digressions prove to be as important as any forward motion of the plot.

It is a minor drawback of this academic approach that the questions raised by the premise of the book may have more resonance than the book itself. The “Procedure” and other hypothetical events of the story are not quite close enough to reality to arouse any sense of recognition or urgency. What keeps us in touch with the novel is Nicholas himself, or at least, whatever version of him we’re getting, who tells us, “In the end, only two facts stand out to me with absolute clarity: I love my children and I’m going to die. And then again, of whom has that not been true?” He tells us, rightly, that it is not our differences, but our similarities that make up the strongest components of our identities. So it is with books that are pleasurable to read, as Strange Bodies most certainly is: amidst different combinations of plot, character, language, and so forth, we find the same core element of connection, however fleeting.

On Truth in Fiction

I once met a woman who smugly declared that she never read fiction. “I figure, if I’m reading, I may as well be reading something real, something true, and learning something. I mean, I realized that reading fiction was basically wasting my time.”

Edith Wharton would BEG TO DISAGREE.

Edith Wharton would BEG TO DISAGREE. (From her library at The Mount.)

I think she expected me to be impressed. I was in a particularly… accommodating mood, so I didn’t just stare blankly at her. Instead, I tried explaining how the point of so much fiction was to tell the truth.

Non-fiction can be just as powerful, but it doesn’t give us the psychological safeguard of “It’s only a story.” We sometimes go into non-fiction with our defenses up. We judge real people as we do not judge characters. Fiction, we tend to make ourselves more vulnerable to, and in doing so allow it to slip past our prejudices and re-arrange our principles. Ask Jane Austen about the once-rare companionate marriage (or about the importance of the novel itself, for that matter). Ask George Gissing or Henrik Ibsen about the merits of divorce. Or Harriet Beecher Stowe about slavery. Or William Gibson about cyberspace.

In the coming years, LGBT YA literature will play an increasingly essential role in teaching young people that the LGBT community deserves every bit and more of the equal rights and respect they are only beginning to receive from the population at large. I hope to soon see Women’s Fiction abandon the qualifier and just become “fiction,” so that works written by and for women aren’t considered niche. When women are allowed to imagine new narratives for themselves and have those narratives taken seriously, they will live out those narratives more frequently. A recent op-ed in the NY Times lamented the paucity of children’s books featuring children of color. When children start seeing people who look like them in the media they are exposed to, they will learn that they have the potential to play out the fictions of that media in their lives. You can’t work towards something you have not somehow been taught to visualize.

Non-fiction can describe the truth, and decry injustices, and it can compellingly advocate for and give examples of change. But fiction can describe our ideals as if they were already realized, and in doing so, help us be firm in our beliefs that those ideals can and should be realized.

I gave a shorter version of this speech to my acquaintance, expecting that she might perhaps be moved by my passion to consider things in a different light.

She was not. I abandoned the more complex tools of history and psychology. Driven to extremity, I leveled the cudgel of hard logic at her: “Do you also only watch movies and television shows that are based on true stories?”

She replied that that had never occurred to her. “But you’re right!” She said, wonderingly, “It’s the same thing!”

Who knows if she ever thought about our conversation after that. But I obviously have. And now I’m going to read another novel.

March Round-Up: Yea or Nay?

Here are the books I read in March and my one-shot recommendations on whether they’re worth reading.

The Office of Mercy Ariel Djanikian YEA. Not rip-roaringly exciting, but thoughtful and well-written.
The Headmaster’s Wife Thomas Christopher Greene MAYBE. It was flawed, but intelligent, and I’d be interested to see what else the author has done.
Strange Bodies Marcel Theroux YEA. It was good-weird and interesting, especially in light of the fact that I read Neuromancer for the first time ever just a few weeks later.
Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles Ron Currie Jr. NAY. This book goes for something it just never reaches.
Darkness Take My Hand
Gone Baby Gone
Dennis Lehane YEA. If you like Tana French, you will probably also like Dennis Lehane, who is a similarly adept writer who pays attention to character and atmosphere/setting, though he is grittier than French.
Neuromancer William Gibson YEA. I’m embarrassed that, as a sci-fi fan, I’ve only now read this for the first time. Absolutely seminal.
The Fault in Our Stars John Green YEA. Hilarious and honest. But be prepared for a big snotty cry.

The Headmaster’s Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene

headmasterIn the fewer than three hundred pages of The Headmaster’s Wife, Thomas Christopher Greene gives us at least three different books: one a thriller, one a romance, and one a domestic drama. I wondered whether, by doing so, Greene was deliberately tipping his hat to the great Russian writers, particularly Dostoevsky, who combined similar elements on a much larger scale– which would make sense in a book where one of the main characters teaches Russian literature.

This teacher, Arthur Winthrop, is the titular headmaster at Lancaster, a fictional private prep school in Vermont. His father was headmaster before him, and because of this Arthur has lived his life in calm anticipation of all that would be passed down to him: college at Yale, a teaching position, and appointment to headmaster. Now, in his late fifties, his wife has become strangely distant, and his son has disappointed him by joining the military. He explains all this to the police, who at the start of the novel find him wandering naked through Central Park in the middle of winter. By way of further explanation, Arthur tells the police of his recent involvement and obsession with one of his 18-year-old students, and in doing so confesses to more than just a lapse of propriety.

In case I’m not being clear, this is not the romance to which I referred earlier. It’s creepy and disturbing and everything that goes along with an adult taking advantage of a young person to whom he is obliged to act in loco parentis. As a character, Arthur inspires loathing for his selfishness, entitlement, and weak will.

As a narrator, however, he is fascinatingly unreliable. The Executive Committee of the school calls him to a meeting to discuss “the challenges” he has had recently and rumors they have heard about his “lack of focus.” He knows they are not talking about his affair, but he is not sure what they are talking about, except that he is obliquely accused of drinking too much. His wife, Elizabeth, begs him to “wake up” and talk to her about what is happening in their lives. His father wants to talk to him about the “hard time” he’s been having lately. Again, Arthur has no idea what they mean. Meanwhile, Arthur’s student-mistress begins to pull away from him, and he refuses to let her go gracefully, becoming manipulative and vindictive. We begin to wonder how much of what Arthur says is true. It turns out that much of it is true, but not in the way Arthur thinks, or in any way the reader is likely to guess.

The second half of the novel is told from Elizabeth’s perspective, as she looks back on the beginnings of her relationship with Arthur and their life at Lancaster. It is the story of a marriage in which Elizabeth’s longings and flaws dovetail Arthur’s, a revelation that results in a slightly– very slightly– more equitable distribution of responsibility for the marriage’s ultimate decline. Reading this half of the book makes it clear what a careful writer Greene is. The elements correspond so neatly to each part of the first half while simultaneously giving those parts an entirely different context.

But, like Elizabeth and Arthur as a couple, the two halves of the book fit together only as a collection of parts; as a whole, they feel disappointing. If the revelations of Elizabeth’s story bring to light the mysteries of Arthur’s confession, they also do as much to sweep his narrative under the rug. They lessen the impact of the book’s first part by relegating it to nothing more than a plot hook (albeit a very effective one). It diminishes, rather than expands, the excellent work set forth in the first section.

This is not to say the second half isn’t any good. In terms of quality it even surpasses the first half, forgoing mystery and suspense for authenticity and complexity. Through his explanation of Arthur and Elizabeth’s very different upbringings, Greene sustains an intelligent commentary on how the class into which we are born can influence our sense of entitlement and the way we react to adversity. Greene’s insight is also apparent in a short description of Elizabeth’s ambivalence about whether to have a child.

Having given us both a thriller and a domestic drama, then, Greene concludes with a romance, which has the by-now familiar effect of tying things up neatly at the expense of the darkness and complexity that came before. It doesn’t negate that complexity, exactly– Greene is too good a writer for that– but it does have the effect of stifling any sustained emotional or intellectual response a reader could have had upon finishing the novel. “They lived happily ever after,” is not an ending worthy of any of the stories Greene tells here.

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, by Ron Currie, Jr.

PlasticThe narrator of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles begins by promising that everything he’s about to tell us is the absolute truth, and ends by insisting there is no such thing as absolute truth. The narrator shares a name with Ron Currie Jr., the author of the book, and it is deliberately unclear how much the two Ron Curries have in common. The one thing they share for certain is a sense of having been ruined by obsessive, all-consuming love for a woman, who is named Emma in the story.

The narrator tells us that he wrote a book about Emma, which became his most famous novel after he faked his own death. The public indignation at the discovery that his death was a hoax has instilled in him, he claims, a near-phobia of speaking untruths. But the bulk of the story takes place before the publication of the Emma-novel, on an unnamed Caribbean island where the narrator considers himself to be in exile. He fights with the locals, works on his writing, thinks about his father (who recently died of cancer) and uses women and alcohol as sedatives. He blames his ruination entirely on his longing for Emma, and neglects to apportion blame to his alcoholism and depression, which he sees as purely transitory, a result of his heartbrokenness. His obsession is pitiable only insofar as it is pathetic. His description of Emma, which he intends to be powerful and poetic, is so nauseatingly cliché that it jumps out from the otherwise witty prose like an off-step dancer in a kick-line:

Her loveliness, witnessed, exposes language for the woefully limited mode of communication that it is. Nevertheless, I am always compelled to try and explain: she’s objectively and undeniably beautiful. She’s self-possessed, successful, whip-smart, often an enigma… I think we all intuited that she was impossible to have, and paradoxically that’s why every man who happened into her orbit kept trying… We all tried, and tried again, steering ship after ship into the rocks…

His ruminations on Emma and women in general reveal an archaic naïveté: “[M]en’s appetites and preoccupations tend to be simple, obvious; whereas women, at least from the simple perspective of a man, are complex and mysterious creatures. When a man sees a beautiful woman and thinks he wants to fuck her, what he’s actually after is that mystery.” At the point in the novel when these words are written, there is as yet no distance between the author and the narrator, a fact that robs these descriptions of their potential irony. The narrator offers these assertions as wisdom; does the author offer them as evidence of that narrator’s immaturity?

The impossibly-beautiful-but-damaged-and-unattainable Mythic Woman is a character most of us are deeply familiar with and deeply tired of reading about. Fortunately, Currie-the-author shows some awareness that Currie-the-narrator does not possess.  Unfortunately, this awareness is revealed too late in the book to pay off. The fall-out from exposure of the narrator’s faked death, to which the book should have been building up, is anticlimactic and comprises only the last forty pages of the book. It’s one thing for a character to fail to surmount his obstacles, but by linking author to narrator in a work of fiction, Ron Currie Jr. creates a meta-narrative, the value of which should consist in its friction with and deviation from the main narrative. But there is no such friction, and the meta-narrative fails, along with the protagonist, and is thereby rendered superfluous.

The writing itself is expressive and intelligent, and there are moments of true insight, as  the narrator’s depressive musings are wry and recognizable to those familiar with depression, grief, or both. He looks forward to what he calls “The Singularity”, when all machines will become self-aware. After that point, he surmises that human consciousness as it exists in nature will become obsolete. What if you could program yourself to be happy, to love perfectly, every day? One could argue that humans are made to seek out and solve problems, and would therefore inevitably be discontented by a perfect life… but even this regret could be simply edited out of a computer-written consciousness. The need for bodies would disappear and with them, the inevitability of death.

Through these pontifications on the integration of non-organic materials into the human mind, the reader is shown how the novel itself can become a kind of external hard drive for the writer, storing memories and feelings he no longer has room for inside his own head.  The trouble is that no book is a perfect transcription of an author’s thoughts– and perhaps that’s why Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles goes wrong. It pretends to be one thing for so long that it never really stops, although that’s presumably not what Ron-Currie-the-author had in mind.

The Office of Mercy, by Ariel Djanikian

Mercy.jpgIn the currently glutted dystopian science fiction market, an author who wants to stand out is going to have to bring something a little different from, or better than what sci-fi fans can find listed in the “Related to Items You’ve Viewed” section of their Amazon accounts. Ariel Djanikian offers a story that’s bigger on ideas than on action or teen love triangles, and it makes for a refreshing change.  Then, too, The Office of Mercy  is strong enough to stand as one self-contained work, rather than as the first in a franchise destined to be a lucrative but forgettable trend.  Even if Djanikian does write a sequel, she won’t have to depend on it to legitimize the thoughtful work she sets forward in her first novel.

The book makes use of some standard dystopian plot elements: several hundred years ago, a cataclysmic storm wiped out much of Earth’s population and covered its low-lying lands in sea water. Having foreseen the need to create a new way of surviving, one group of people  gathered themselves in several enormous, sealed environments shaped like flowers with their stems stretching miles below ground. Natasha Wiley, 24 years old, lives in the structure known as America-Five.  In America-Five, people of all different genetic backgrounds live peacefully and in comfort. There is equality between the sexes. People are raised from childhood to understand and internalize the ethical code handed down to them from the Alphas– the creators of the Americas. Their ethics system is based on an utter rationality that ascribes all chaos and violence to unrestrained human appetites. As a result, food is rationed in filling but limited portions. Lustful relationships are discouraged, though not outlawed.  Moderation in all things is the rule, but the Alphas’ most central tenet is that a life lived in suffering is not worth living at all.

Despite her youth and relative inexperience, Natasha was approved for a job in the prestigious Office of Mercy, where she assists in tracking down the remnant Tribes that still live Outside and ending their suffering, permanently. However, she is growing more and more aware of an ambivalence in herself, especially after she is selected for an Outside mission, when she has her first in-person contact with Tribe members.

As a character, Natasha is less feisty and more introspective than recent heroines of dystopian fiction. A great deal of her struggle occurs internally: she is not so much trying to decide to whom she owes loyalty as she is trying to decide what she believes in. She is too well-cared-for to be angry and too naïve to be fearful, so she approaches her discoveries about the Outside and the Alphas with a wonder that draws the reader in. The book is certainly interesting from start to finish, but readers looking for thrill-a-minute suspense will not find it here.  Veterans of the genre will even see a lot of the denouement coming a mile away. Djanikian doesn’t blindside readers with anything they haven’t seen in George Orwell or Hugh Howey.  In this respect, the book disappoints certain expectations readers have of this genre.

What Djanikian does do is create a futuristic world that is, in its implications if not its trappings, just about exactly like our world. Often in dystopian fiction, our present time is looked back on as a turning point, the time when we still might have been able to stop the world from slipping into… well, into a dystopia. Djanikian goes one better and suggests we are already there.  More disturbingly, through the twists of her plot, Djanikian implies that the system is so broken that individuals no longer have any truly good choices left, and that we will have to make those choices alone and with no support structure. Djanikian lucidly demonstrates how an ethics based on self-preservation alone renders genocide an entirely rational means of peacemaking. The characters in her book are not villains. They are good people with capacity for caring, which makes their lifestyle all the more recognizable and horrifying.

The Office of  Mercy, again, doesn’t strike one as the start of a flashy trilogy, but there’s definitely a lead-in for a sequel if Djanikian decides to go that route.  If that happens, I hope Djanikian takes care to expand her implications as well as her plot. You can only read to find out what happens in a book once– after that, it’s only the ideas that have any room for growth.