The End of the Affair: Book and Movie

It’s a bit ironic to post this on Valentine’s Day. It’s a story of an extramarital affair, and it doesn’t end well. But then again, maybe this is the best time to talk about it.

This is my second instalment to meet the Graham Greene Challenge hosted by Carrie of Books and Movies. Spoiler Alert here. But since it’s a classic, I’m sure many of you have read it or seen the movie.

The End of the Affair

The book opens with a meeting between novelist Maurice Bendrix and civil servant Henry Miles on a cold, rainy night in 1946 London. Miles’ wife Sarah had ended an affair with Bendrix 18 months earlier. Bendrix has not seen them since. In this chance meeting on the street, Bendrix observes that Miles is heavy-laden, suspecting Sarah has ‘secrets’. Volunteering to hire a detective to tail the wife for the husband, Bendrix is in fact acting out of jealousy, for he too wants to find out who Sarah is seeing now. “Anyone who loves is jealous.”

Again, in just 160 pages, Greene has intricately explored the depth and complexity of the human psyche, love and hate, trust and insecurity, faith and lameness. Yes, the lameness in Bendrix’s leg can well be a metaphor for his numbness of unbelief. Isn’t there such an argument: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted?”

Love with all its smothering, blinding passion, its persistent, burning desire, its all-consuming emotions that distill into pure jealousy and hate… Graham Greene is a master of such incisive descriptions. But here’s the rub, they’re all found in an adulterous affair.

Isn’t that a pity that such intensity of love is often depicted outside of a marriage. Why, we see them all the time in literature and movies. And, don’t we tend to cheer for the romantic heroes and heroines? Guinevere and Lancelot, for example, to whom Bendrix in the book alludes when he talks to the detective Parkis, who has named his son Lance. Readily come to mind are some others: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and in the epic cinematic versions like The English Patient, in a more restrained way Out of Africa, and the near success in The Bridges of Madison County…  didn’t you wish Meryl Streep would have gone with Clint Eastwood? I’m just thinking, if Ralph Fiennes were the one beckoning her, she’d probably had jumped out of her husband’s truck.

O the fantasy of romance vs. the mundane reality of a marriage. The forbidden fruit seems sweeter, for it arouses excitement, it entices with adventure. Bendrix accuses the oblivious and dull husband Henry Miles as an accomplice in Sarah’s affairs, calling him ‘an eternal pimp’:

“You pimped with your ignorance. You pimped by never learning how to make love with her, so she had to look elsewhere. You pimped by giving opportunities… You pimped by being a bore and a fool…”

There might be some truths in his rants. But then again, are these reasons enough to drive one to discard the marriage vow and seek other allurements? Alas, it seems like boredom is the major impediment to fulfilling that commitment… “If I could love a leper’s sores, couldn’t I love the boringness of Henry?” Sarah tries to reason with herself.

But of course, here, the key is the End of the affair between Bendrix and Sarah. What causes the end is none other than God Himself according to Sarah. A bomb drops near Bendrix’s home while they are both there, striking him dead. Sarah, in her horror and desperation, prays to a God she doesn’t believe to exist, but pleads for the life of her lover just the same. She makes the promise that if God gives Bendrix back his life, she would stop seeing him. As she’s still kneeling by her bed praying, Bendrix walks into the room, injured but very much alive. Thus begins the agony of keeping a promise to a God whose existence now has become an inconvenient truth.

We learn at the end, Sarah has attempted to shift her love from Bendrix to God, albeit with much searing pain. She has gone to a priest and converted to Catholicism. In the crucifix she knows that God Himself is a suffering God too. If only she can see the scale of the pain in the nail-pierced hands in a greater cosmic proportion compared to her own…

***

The marvellous cinematography, the diffused lighting of many scenes, all work to cast a romantic veil over an adulterous affair. Two Oscar noms in 2000 included one in cinematography and one for Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles. Ralph Fiennes plays Bendrix, a suitable choice. He is in his element. Since The English Patient (1996), Fiennes seems to have mastered the persona of the romantic tragic hero and obsessed lover.

While the screenwriter is understandably free to invent more scenes for the visual storytelling and change some plot points, one alteration I feel  is definitely unacceptable and that’s the character Richard Smythe. In the book, Smythe is an atheist whom Sarah visits several times to discuss views about atheism. Ironically it is Smythe’s atheistic stance that drives Sarah into believing God. She then confides in Father Crompton her wish to convert to Catholicism. But in the film, Smythe is the priest, and what more, he is implied to be another of Sarah’s lovers. I think here is where integrity to the source material should have given priority over dramatic effects.

***

And what does Colin Firth have to do with The End of the Affair? Well, for all you Colin fans, he is among some A-list stars to have signed with the UK audiobook provider Audible to record their reading of their favorite classic novel.

Audible’s founder, Donald Katz, told the Observer: “Colin Firth could read me the back of a Marmite jar and I would listen.” Well, Colin has chosen, not Marmite or Cornflakes, but for more flavour, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. CLICK HERE to read the announcement and see what other stars are reading for Audible’s recordings.

Now we have another portal to appreciate Colin, and, another channel to enjoy a Graham Greene book.

Update May 7, 2012: The Audiobook The End of the Affair narrated by Colin Firth is released today.

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

27 thoughts on “The End of the Affair: Book and Movie”

  1. I also noticed that while reading GG I stop at 150-pages and have the feeling much has happened, much food for thought. How does he do it? Most authors would have difficulty in doing as much in 300 pages.

    .
    Alex,

    Yes, isn’t that amazing… the economy of words. I’ve only read 2 so far, The Quiet American is 180 pages, but this one is even denser.

    Arti

    Like

  2. I saw the movie years ago, but somehow the promise to God rather escaped me. (How can <that be?!) I really appreciate your review because now I’d like to read the book, Greene is such an incredible writer, and I think this is the perfect time to review it. Not all love stories are happy, of course, and many deeply felt ones do end. Sadly. XO

    .
    Bellezza,

    Well, the sadness applies to Sarah and Henry Miles too. There’s always bound to be someone hurting when there are three, or more. I’d say, read the book first before you see the movie again.

    Arti

    Like

  3. You keep this up Arti and I am going to have to read a Graham Greene book! maybe I’ll wait until Firth is done recording this one 🙂

    .
    Stefanie,

    That sounds good! But in case you can’t wait so long… Do check on the link to see what other stars have chosen to record. You might want to listen to those titles too.

    Arti

    Like

  4. Arti,
    Your write-up on “End of the Affair” was spot on. I love your voice, your take on things, your photography, your high intelligence. You seem to have a similar soul to me, like a kindred spirit, which is a rare find in my life. l Thank you.

    .
    Hedda,

    Thank you for your very kind words! It’s wonderful, isn’t it, how blogging can connect like-minds… and serendipity at work too. Your visits and sharing are most appreciated.

    Arti

    Like

  5. What a treat to see Colin Firth here, too. He seems to get better with age! The End of the Affair was a book club selection many years ago, so a reread is definitely in order. This time I’ll be listening 😉

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    JoAnn,

    He sure does. And have you seen the BAFTA Cinderella moment when Meryl Streep loses her shoe and…? If not, here it is, a must-see.

    Arti

    Like

  6. What a lovely post, even with its heartache. I feel that the best thing about Valentine’s Day is when couples understand and appreciate the longevity and the love tucked in the daily mundane.

    As for Colin Firth, you don’t ever have to have an excuse to include him in a post as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

    Like

    1. Ruth,

      Yes, you’re so right: “Valentine’s Day is when couples understand and appreciate the longevity and the love tucked in the daily mundane.” And yes, there’s boredom, sure, and the absence of romance and excitement, but we need to cultivate our own garden just the same for joy and fulfilment… and, read novels and watch movies for our entertainment. 😉

      As for CF, the perpetual excitement, don’t miss the video I’ve linked in my above comment to JoAnn.

      Arti

      Like

  7. This is really a wonderfully written review of this book. I so enjoyed reading it. I think you brought up some really important points. I remember a while back hearing an older couple talking on the radio, and the woman said something about there were ten hard years at some point in their marriage. Ten years! I don’t think people now would give ten weeks to a marriage that was going through a tough time.
    Again, thanks for this. I loved the movie, and the book. Kind of like Chocolat- they were different but equal to me.

    .
    Nan,

    Thanks for bringing out a very good point. That there are socially acceptable alternatives means people can be let off the hook much easier. Working through tough times is passé, ‘so yesterday’ in modern terms. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your view!

    Arti

    Like

  8. it’s one of my all time favorite books, mainly because I re-read it after seeing the movie. Oh, there is also an older version of the movie made in 1955, if you are interested 🙂

    .
    Ally,

    Yes, thanks for mentioning it. I’m aware of that older version but it’s hard to get hold of. How is it compared to the modern one?

    Arti

    Like

  9. Colin Firth reading The End of the Affair? Oh be still my beating heart!! 🙂 What a wonderful combination. Arti, I must ask you one thing about the movie version, as we have a DVD of this that I hesitate to watch. I am a real wimp about people being sick in films. I absolutely hate having to see it as I am terribly squeamish. I’m pretty sure someone is sick in the book (the young boy, I think) and wondered whether it gets portrayed in the film? Because it’s such a visible way of showing distress or illness or whatever, it turns up more in films than I would wish!

    .
    litlove,

    For this 1999 version with Ralph Fiennes & Julianne Moore, the boy has a birthmark covering one side of his whole face… no illness. But you’ll see a few of Julianne Moore’s coughing fits, and later lying ill in bed, nothing horrifying. But I don’t know your threshold, and since it’s a DVD, you can always walk away and have Mr. Litlove as the ‘watchman’. 🙂

    Arti

    Like

  10. Such a good review, Arti. Your line about the fantasy of romance vs. the mundane reality of marriage caught me. I think another way to talk about it is by comparing risk and security. There’s something just so compelling about crossing lines, whether we’re a child told not to cross the street or an accountant cooking the books.

    Risk gets the adrenaline flowing, and there’s no question we can get addicted to that high. A glance across a room at a party can lead to a conversation behind the potted palm to a kiss in the shadows to…the plot of another Graham Greene novel!

    That is quite a change in the screenplay, re: the character of Smythe. Given that, I think your recommendation to read the book first is a good one.

    Like

    1. Linda,

      Yes, that’s exactly what’s being explored in the novel, Sarah could well be complacent with Henry because he can offer her security and a steadily rising social status… but boredom.

      I usually read the book first if it’s worth reading before watching the movie, but always keeping in mind the two being different art forms. However, knowing the source material can certainly help me evaluate how well the adapted screenplay is written or altered. I know to some, even that point is irrelevant… but, not to me though.

      Arti

      Like

  11. Thanks for the review. I think I will watch the movie now… and here I was wondering why there’s a picture of Colin Firth… LOL!

    .
    D,

    Watch movie, read book, listen to CF… GG would never have thought his work would still be so popular.

    A.

    Like

  12. Jolly good about Colin and the audio book! Yes, to celebrate that voice (not to mention the rest of the package!) is fine by me!

    As you know, I’m not well versed in Graham Greene’s works, so these posts really interest me. I definitely think I’ll get this one on video — Love both Moore and Fiennes. And this will give much to think about. Your point on all these interesting stories being extra-marital affairs is spot on. Is it the tension, the action that brings that? Not sure, but an excellent observation!

    .
    Jeanie,

    I’m not ‘well versed in GG’s works’ either… this is only my 2nd book. But, I’m just impressed by his writing, the economy of words, tight and dense. Only 160 pages here but get you thinking about lots of stuff. 😉

    Arti

    Like

  13. I’m having my typical reaction to one of your reviews, and that is to want to run out and rent the film asap. I’ve been catching up on your latest posts, and never fail to be impressed by your knowledge, your excellent writing, and your capacity for thoughtful analysis. You’re such a good read.

    .
    Deborah,

    Thank you for your very kind words, again. As for this title, while the movie is effective, the book, or, Graham Greene’s writing, need to be experienced first-hand.

    Arti

    Like

  14. Arti,
    Were it not for your excellent review, I might not have done what I did tonight, which was to fall upon the film while browsing my son’s Netflix account. I settled into it with pleasureable anticipation and was not disappointed in the least. On a number of occasions I thought I could see what was coming, and was wrong. I always like that, being wrong about plot, because it’s usually so easy- and boring – to be right. Thank you for your part in a very satisfying evening!

    .
    Deborah,

    Thank you for coming back and sharing your response! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the movie. But I highly recommend that you read the book. You’ll probably find it even more satisfying. 😉

    Arti

    Like

  15. Just finished the Audible recording with Firth and have to say it was really good. His inflection and changes for each speaker were amazing. Not sure why audible.com’s summary lists that Firth chose to read the novel based on personal connection- any ideas? Did he struggle with finding God or have an extramaritial affair? And yes, you can really hear how God becomes the leading man in Sarah’s life.To be published in 1951 and still hold weight is outstanding. 5-stars!

    Like

    1. I’m glad to hear it’s ‘really good’… I listened to the sample and knew right away I must get that. I’m waiting… it could be a gift I’ll be receiving. 😉 To answer your question, no, I don’t know what that refers to. It would be good to have CF address to that. A classic can stand the test of time and still be relevant. GG sure knows how to produce one. He has a few of them. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your view.

      Like

  16. I agree with the last part about Mr. Smythe. The big “Aha” moment in the book for me is when Bendrix discovers through Sarahs diary that Smythe is just an atheist council to Sarah. He has feelings for her but she does not for him, and they aren’t in fact lovers.

    Like

  17. It might not have been the whole eight years ago that I “liked” this post, but it’s probably been eight or ten years or more that I’ve had this book on my shelf, waiting to read it. Just now I came back to your review, which refreshes my interest. And the book is so short! To pack in all of that drama, and not waste words… that’s the kind of writing I crave to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gretchen,

      You’ve made my day. You don’t know how encouraging it is to, first, have people stop by to comment, and second, that the comment is uplifting. It’s uplifting to find what I’ve written 8 years ago still has an effect on someone today, and that my old posts are still being read! Once again, thank you so much for your two pebbles! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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