‘The Quiet Girl’ Movie Review: From the literary to the visual

The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin) is the first Irish-language film to be nominated for an Oscar, representing Ireland in the Best International Feature category in this year’s 95th Academy Awards held on March 12th.

In this his debut feature, Irish director Colm Bairéad adapts Claire Keegan’s short story “Foster” in a style that’s akin to the literary source. Together with director of photography Kate McCullough (Normal People, 2020), Bairéad has created on screen a sparse and sensitive rendering of Keegan’s story, camera shots that are calm storytelling and restraints that convey emotional depth. The choice of the 4:3 Academy aspect ratio gives the feeling of a time past, like an old home video preserving a young girl’s memorable experience.

Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is sent away to spend the summer with her mother’s relatives, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán Cinnsealach (Andrew Bennett). Having lived in an impoverished household full of siblings and one more expecting, with a father who takes ‘liquid supper’ before coming home and an overburdened mother, Cáit experiences for the first time in her short stay at the Cinnsealach’s quiet and childless farm home what it means to be cared for, and towards the end, learns that keeping silent can be an act of love.

Just like Keegan’s style of using the minimal to convey much, The Quiet Girl is sparse and sensitive in its visual storytelling. Eibhlín is shown to be kind right from the beginning, Seán less so, hardly acknowledges Cáit. His reticence is nuanced though, a slight turn of his head even when he’s facing the TV and with his back to the child betrays a moment of thought, of self-reflection. Seán’s coming around is endearing, like the moment he leaves a single cookie on the table as he walks by Cáit in the kitchen. Actions speak louder than words.

In the bedroom she’s in, Cáit observes the wallpaper with train images and the boy’s clothing she now wears, as her own suitcase is still in her Da’s car trunk as he has forgotten to leave it with her in his rush to leave. She observes her new environment and the people she’s with, and gets some shocking information when a nosy neighbor spills out the Cinnsealachs’ tragic past to her.

As one who has just read Keegan’s short story and been deeply moved by her writing, I come to this review not to compare how ‘faithful’ the film adaptation is, which it is, but that how some of the ‘cinematic moments’ in the book are transposed on screen.

Writer director Bairéad has added some scenes of Cáit in school and at home at the beginning of the film, enhancing the characterization of the girl, quiet and alone, even at home. While the ponderous visual storytelling deserves praise, I do find in certain moments, Bairéad could have added just a bit more dramatic effects, not for gratuitous purpose, but to elicit a more powerful punch towards the cathartic end.

[The following contains spoiler]

Two examples I have in mind. First is when Seán decides they should stop letting the girl wear the boy’s clothes and that he’ll drive them to town to buy Cáit new clothes for herself. That’s a defining moment bringing up a painful, unspoken past, and stopping their substituting Cáit for the one they had lost. Eibhlín is picking gooseberry at the kitchen table with Cáit. Here’s the excerpt from Keegan’s story about the very moment her husband tells them to go change and get ready to go into town to buy clothes for Cáit:

The woman keeps on picking the gooseberries from the colander, stretching her hand out, but a little more slowly each time, for the next. At one point I think she will stop but she keeps on until she is finished and then she gets up and places the colander on the sink and lets out a sound I’ve never heard anyone make, and slowly goes upstairs.

That sound that the girl has ‘never heard anyone make’ is bone chilling even when I was just reading the words, and would have been a most effective cinematic moment to convey pain and grief. Unfortunately what could have been a stirring moment for viewers did not materialize in that scene.

The second is more crucial, a scene that I take as the climax of the story, the girl’s accident at the well. More intensity in visual storytelling, or even just sound instead of the subtle handling of the incident––not for the sake of mere dramatic effects but to show the gravity of the mishap and its implications–– is needed to elicit more potently the poignant act of silence later when Cáit is determined not to mention the accident to her mother who has sensed something must have happened when the girl comes home sneezing.

The cathartic ending of the film is to be applauded for it has brought out Keegan’s powerful writing most vividly. What’s more heartrending than just reading is that we can see the face of the girl running and hear the final word she utters to Seán as she flies into his embrace. That is the power of film.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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This is my third post participating in the Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy 746 Books.

Previous posts:

“Foster” by Claire Keegan: Short story review

The Banshees of Inisherin: Movie review

‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan

Reading Ireland Month 2023 has led me to the short stories by Claire Keegan. I’m excited for this ‘new discovery’. Keegan’s is the kind of writing I admire, sparse but telling, simple prose revealing deep emotional undercurrents. 

“Foster” the short story written by Keegan first appeared in The New Yorker. It was later published as a standalone work in book form in 2010. Keegan in an interview had stressed that it was not a novella but a long short story. The book cover in the photo is a new edition that came out in 2022.

The story is written from the point of view of a young girl from an impoverished family, both materially and emotionally. She is sent far away to stay with her mother’s sister Edna and her husband John Kinsella for the summer to lift the burden off her busy mother who has a house full of children and one more expecting. The Kinsellas are childless and live in a farm house in rural Wexford county.

The age of the girl isn’t mentioned, most probably around eight or nine. Interesting too that her name isn’t mentioned except just a few times, Petal, maybe giving a sense of the neglect she has been having all her young life. The title is ironic, I find, for the word foster often comes in contradiction in a lesser sense, or secondary, to natural birth parents. But here during her short stay at the Kinsellas, the girl has made new discoveries she has not experienced before, what it means to be loved and cared for, and begins to learn kindness and self-worth. Moreover, she is also exposed to the complexity and the dark range in the adult world, the loss and pain that come with life.

Foster has been adapted into film with the new title The Quiet Girl. It is Ireland’s official entry to the 95thAcademy Awards held this past Sunday, a nominee in the Best International Feature category, with its language being Irish (Gaelic). I still haven’t the chance to watch it, now a must-see movie for me. Hopefully I can watch it soon before the Reading Ireland event ends.

When I read “Foster”, I noticed that Keegan’s style is an exemplar of that writing advice we hear often: show, not tell. In some passages, Keegan instills in my mind visuals like watching a scene in a good film, actions and nuanced expressions speak clearly in depicting the characters with no need for dialogues. A couple of examples:

Here’s when the girl and his father whom she calls Da have a meal with the Kinsellas after he has dropped her off before heading right back home:

When we sit in at the table, Da reaches for the beetroot. He doesn’t use the little serving fork but pitches it onto the plate with his own. It stains the pink ham, bleeds.

Here’s another example, when Edna brings into her house some fresh rhubarb stalks from her garden for the girl’s father to bring home:

My father takes the rhubarb from her, but it is awkward as a baby in his arms. A stalk falls to the floor and then another. He waits for her to pick it up, to hand it to him. She waits for him to do it. Neither one of them will budge. In the end, it’s Kinsella who stoops to lift it.

‘There now,’ he says.

Just this short description has revealed the character and the relational dynamics among the three adults. Furthermore, these two passages also tell much about the girl, deep within her reticence, she is observant, precocious, and the reader can assume too that she must be eager to experience what’s waiting for her in the days ahead living with these two ‘foster parents’ for the summer.

The Kinsellas hold a family secret, one that’s heavy in their heart and mind, albeit unspoken. Again, Keegan’s writing comes through with subtle yet powerful revealing. The girl learns of their past from a nosy neighbour, and that is a moment of awakening for her. What happens later in the climax I will not spoil anyone’s reading pleasure. However, John Kinsella’s kind words to her observing her quiet demeanour earlier in the story, we know the girl will keep close to her heart for a long time:

‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says. ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.

As she mulls over the Kinsella’s hidden past, and her own experience while staying with them, she is now empowered by love and loyalty to keep silent that which needs to be kept in confidence. The girl might be reticent, but the single word she utters ending the story is most poignant and heart-wrenching. Again, Keegan has used the minimal to bring her readers to the depths of pathos and meaning.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

This is my second post in participation in the Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy 746 Books.

Previous post: The Banshees of Inisherin Movie Review

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Books to Screen Adaptations 2023 and Beyond

Like to read the book first before watching the movie adaptation in the theatre or streaming? Here’s a new list.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner is being developed into a Netflix mini-series. To seek authentic representation, the filmmakers embarked on a global search for a blind actor to play Marie-Laure, one of the two main characters in the historical novel set in WWII. Penn State doctoral student Aria Mia Loberti won the casting call. An outstanding academic achiever, this will be Loberti’s acting debut.

A Man Called Otto (Ove) by Fredrik Backman

The English version of the heartwarming Swedish novel-turned-movie A Man Called Ove, about a grumpy old man’s suicide attempt being disrupted by his boisterous new neighbours. The title character’s name is changed to a relatively more common name and will be played by an even more familiar name, Tom, Tom Hanks.

A Haunting in Venice (Hallowe’en Party) by Agatha Christie

The adaptation of Hercule Poirot’s 32nd mystery will be directed by once again, Kenneth Branagh, his third Poirot role, after Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. Set in post WWII Venice where the renowned detective finds himself again as an accidental sleuth in a murder mystery. An eclectic cast with Kelly Reilly (abrasive Yellowstone schemer), James Dornan (no shade), Tina Fey (no kidding), and Michelle Yeoh (for kicks?)

A Time for Mercy by John Grisham

A sequel to Grisham’s debut novel A Time to Kill (1989). Matthew McConaughey will reprise his role as lawyer Jake Brigance, from the 1996 movie adaptation. A Time for Mercy (2020) is Grisham’s third Brigance novel after Sycamore Row (2013). It will be adapted into an HBO series.

The Ambassadors by Henry James

In pre-production and to be directed by Mike Newell whose filmography include Four Weddings and a FuneralGreat Expectations, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, among 78 titles, which means, he can do rom coms and literary adaptations. The heavy and serious Henry James just might get a makeover under the helm of Newell. I have this book on my shelf, now’s a good time to dust it off.

The Critic (Curtain Call) by Anthony Quinn

A crime thriller in a theatre setting. According to IMDb, it’s a story of ambition, blackmail and desire… a whodunnit wrapped in a Faustian pact. And the cast just makes it hard to resist: Leslie Manville, Gemma Arterton, Romola Garai, Mark Strong, Ian McKellen, Ben Barnes. Directed by Anand Tucker (Girl with a Pearl Earring

The Maid by Nita Prose 

The popular novel would make one entertaining movie. Molly Gray, a maid in a luxury hotel, is caught in a web of a murder mystery, her innocence and pure heart is no defence from the accusations and schemes of the real world. Many readers and reviewers place her in an autistic spectrum but I just see her as the female version of Sheldon Cooper (of The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon). Florence Pugh (Oscar nom for her role as Amy in Little Women, 2019) is on board to play Molly, a good choice. 

Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai’s own production company, Extracurricular, is in talks to adapt Chou’s debut novel for an Apple TV+ series. That’s a most interesting combination of talents. Book is a satire, yes, LOL humour at times, about a Taiwanese American doctoral student playing literary sleuth and trying to stay afloat in the turbulent academic sea. Reminds me of Sandra Oh in The Chair.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah’s worldwide bestseller about two estranged sisters during the German occupation of France in WWII will be played by real life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning, each a star in their own right. Its release had been delayed, but might not need to wait till 2023. The latest info is late December, 2022.

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Upcoming Remakes:

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carr´é

One Day by David Nicholls

Proust and the Multiverse

A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.  

This could be taken as dialogues from Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or, Everything Everywhere All At Once, both 2022 movies flying high on the trending theme of multiple universes. But of course, the excerpt is Proust’s, and the universes he refers to are internal ones.

The above quote is taken from In Search of Lost Time Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive (343), as the narrator Marcel acknowledges the infinite views that can arise from personal experiences of different individuals filtered through their own subjective lens. There are as many viewpoints as there are people, therefore, every object or event can evoke a variety of perspectives and responses. Subjectivity is Proust’s master stroke. Take this other excerpt from the same volume. As Marcel awakens in the morning:

… from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another! Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, but millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning. (V:250)

Today, November 18th, is the centenary of Proust’s death at the age of 51 (1871-1922). A look at his contemporaries could help us place him in a historical context and probably source the influence of his introspective sensitivity and his ultra-reflexive writing. Again, the disclaimer here is that, I’m no Proust scholar… mere ripples out of my own tiny universe. I can think of the following iconic figures as I consider the historical context of Proust’s writing.

It was the era of psychoanalysis. I’m sure Freud (1856-1939) would have been eager to apply his own theory to explain the case of Marcel’s longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss as he lies in bed waiting for her to come up to his room every night. And then there was Carl Jung, (1875 – 1961), whose theory on personality and the unconscious could have sparked some light into Marcel’s epiphany of the involuntary memories: ephemeral flashbacks that fuel his imaginative mind with creative thoughts. It’s such kind of subliminal emergence of Time past that fills him with joy and meaning.

And of course, there are the other writers whom Marcel has mentioned in the book, Henry James (1843-1916) whose brother is also a prominent psychologist of the time, William James (1842-1910), across the Atlantic. Another notable, Marcel’s enthusiasm is heightened when talking about Dostoevsky (1821-1881), the master of characterizing the human psyche.  

And what’s with all the space travel idea, flying from star to star, while the Wright brothers had just successfully flown the very first aeroplane only in 1903? Huge imagination and insight for one to think of multiverses at that time. I’m not sure what the original French word is. Those who read In Search of Lost Time in French, is the word the same as its English translation, ‘universe’? (V: 250, 343)

Reading this sparked a personal flashback as I remember my experience of visiting “The Infinity Mirrored Room” created by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto a few years ago. Infinite reflections from these tiny silver balls:

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Having said all the above about Proust’s sensitivity to subjective universes, here’s the rub. It is utterly ironic that these insights are taken from Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive. Why, here in this volume, Marcel has taken Albertine captive in his parents’ home where he stays while in Paris. He first met Albertine in Balbec; she has now become his lover/mistress. No, she isn’t in chains, but the restraints Marcel puts on her is psychological rather than physical. He tracks her every move, “whenever the door opened I gave a start.” (494) In reality, there just might be two captives in that house, Albertine and Marcel himself, both caught in a psychological tug of war, maintaining a fragile relationship based on lies and evasiveness.

As much as he knows about his own thoughts and feelings, or even that of his housekeeper Francoise’s, Marcel’s empathy does not extend to Albertine’s universe. He might think his keeping her in his house is for her own good, “to save her from her orgiastic life which Albertine had led before she met me.” (474). Yet his ‘love’ for her is built upon his own possessiveness and jealousy; his displeasure with her intensifies when he learns it’s with other women that she seeks intimacy. Eventually, fleeing a stifling life, gasping for the air of freedom, Albertine leaves the house abruptly one morning. The captive now becomes the fugitive.

The events that follow are like a test of Marcel’s love for Albertine, showing if it is genuine or merely self-indulgence, egotism, or even just lust. Spoiler Alert from here on.

Marcel has never gone out to look for the fugitive. Until one day, he gets the news that Albertine has died in a horse-riding accident. Surely there is grief and pain in the immediate aftermath, but what does he miss most? “I needed her presence, her kisses.” (642) While he goes on to reminisce the good and the bad sides of Albertine, not long after that he has given her up for another:

The memory of Albertine had become so fragmentary that it no longer caused me any sadness and was no more now than a transition to fresh desires, like a chord which announces a change of key. And indeed, any idea of a passing sensual whim being ruled out, in so far as I was still faithful to Albertine’s memory, I was happier at having Andrée in my company than I would have been at having an Albertine miraculously restored… my tenderness for her, both physically and emotionally, had already vanished. (809-810)

“like a chord which announces a change of key…” O the fickleness of desire! The deceits of hidden motives and the capricious emotion one calls love. Marcel might be insightful in acknowledging multiple universes within individuals, pure love remains elusive. Dr. Strange crushes his enemies from the multiverse spectacularly, but the beast that lurks within oneself might be more formidable a foe to conquer.

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In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust: A Movie Reviewer’s Long Take

“Life is too short, and Proust is too long.” ­­– Anatole France, French writer and poet

Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Nobel laureate Anatole France died in 1924, three years short of seeing the publication of the complete seven volumes of Proust’s autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time.

My reading journey began in 2013 when I read the first two volumes, Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove, as a Read Along on Ripple Effects. For reasons I can’t recall, it took me a few years to get through the third volume The Guermantes Way, finishing at the beginning of 2018. After that, I thought, that would be all for me.

I’m glad I came across Emma’s Book Around the Corner in January of this year to learn that 2022 is the Centenary of Proust’s death (July 10, 1871 – Nov. 18, 1922). That prodded me to finish up the remaining three volumes. Also, since I own the Modern Library six-volume box set, I hate to see it as just a decorative item, however smart it does look.

So glad I finally finish the last three volumes this year in nine months, just in time for the centenary of Proust’s death in November: Vol. IV Sodom and Gomorrah, Vol. V The Captive and The Fugitive (originally in two volumes), and Vol. VI Time Regained. For me, a hobby Proust reader, not until I come to the last volume Time Regained do I realize the significance of the first three volumes and why Proust writes in such minute details about the narrator’s childhood and youthful experiences.

There are many websites and scholastic discussions on this 4,300 page autobiographical novel. Instead of summarizing––an impossible task for me––I’ll pick out those passages or ideas that have stirred up some ripples within me filtered through the lens of a movie reviewer, hopefully offering something that’s different and easy to chew.

At the end of Volume VI there are over 200 pages listing characters, places, and themes. Some of the subjects in the 44 pages of Index to Themes include beauty, brothels, dreams, literature, language, music, painting, politics, the Dreyfus Affair, anti-semitism, war, love, sexuality, old age, death… just to name a few. Imagine you’re standing by a smorgasbord of a huge array of culinary offerings, yes including those that are hard to digest or don’t agree with your system, and you can only eat so much, of course you would pick and choose your favourite foods. So, here’s what’s on my plate at this buffet.

In the last part of Vol. VI: Time Regained, the narrator discovers the crucial dimension of Time. Surely, Time over the years has rendered many people he has had crossed path with in his life frail and infirmed, or lost their good looks due to ageing, and some have died, like Swann. But the subliminal power of memories allows him to relive his childhood experiences once again and see these people reappear in his mind as he had known them in his youth. His memories have preserved them like they have not grown old.

So the end of this long book brings readers back to the beginning. It’s not so much about going back, but rather, bringing the past to the present as the two form a continuation of life. Yes, a virtual back to the future.

A reader bearing with him from the beginning and now reaching this eureka moment can feel the narrator’s joy in discovering this secret chamber deep in his psyche where he, unknowingly, has stored up treasured moments of his past. The length of the book could well be a virtual reality as we see his life unfold at a slow pace, then vicariously feel the joy of the discovery of this hidden, mental treasure trove years later. Sharing such ecstasy with readers has now become the purpose of his writing:

The happiness which I was feeling was a product not of a purely subjective tension of the nerves which isolated me from the past, but on the contrary of an enlargement of my mind, within which the past was re-forming and actualizing itself , giving me –– but alas! only momentarily––something whose value was eternal. This I should have liked to bequeath to those who might have been enriched by my treasure. (VI: 513)

The above quote found towards the end of the long book brings readers back to the beginning. Many movies are just like this, a bookend finish: The last scenes bring viewers back to the beginning scenes, revealing their significance and then move on to wrap up the whole work. That’s the feeling I got when reading the last volume, Time Regained. Proust brings us back to the pleasure of enjoying the madeleine soaked in tea, the ringing of the bell on the garden gate when he was a child waiting impatiently for his mother to see Swann off so she could come up to kiss him goodnight, Combray memories, the Swann and the Guermantes way––precious scenes to go one full circle back to the beginning–––to regain Time, to cherish a life in continuity. Call it the Circle of Life if you will, but to the narrator, the present has never been separated from the past.

Another ripple from my mental pond is how mindful the narrator is in his everyday living. BTW, he is also called Marcel, so I take it as Proust’s own view of things. His exceptional sensitivity and the minute details in his observation and introspection form the signature of his book.

As I read how he’d stop and see things and people with incisive perception, a movie quote comes to mind. Nope, not from any old sage but spoken time and again by a high school wise guy who wants to play hooky for a day. In a very Proustian posture, Ferris Beuller (Matthew Broderick) lies in bed one morning as he considers a good reason for skipping school that day:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you can miss it.” –– from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986, directed by John Hughes.

Ferris Bueller might not have read Proust, but just shows how relevant Proust can be in contemporary life.

Click here to the next Proust Post:
Proust and the Multiverse

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Past Proust posts on Ripple Effects:

Proust Read Along: Swann’s Way Part I, Combray

Proust Read Along: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

Proust Read Along: Within a Budding Grove

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

Paris in July: Isabelle Huppert & Pascal Greggory superb in ‘Gabrielle’

Paris in July is a good opportunity to explore French films. I’ve watched a few in the past weeks. Here’s one that I’d like to write about, Gabrielle (2005). I found it on Kanopy, free streaming if you have a library card.

Language here makes an interesting transference. The film Gabrielle is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella entitled The Return. Polish-born Conrad wrote it in English (available online here.) The end credits of the film note that the script is based on the French version Le Retour, translated by Georges Jean-Aubry. Screenplay co=written by director Patrice Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic. The title is changed to Gabrielle. Lastly, the literary is transposed into the visual form.

Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, 2016)) and Pascal Greggory (La Vie en Rose, 2007) bring to the screen expert performance of a marriage in dissolution. Knotted ten years in a loveless marital relationship, the high society couple Gabrielle (Huppert) and Jean (Greggory) Hervey, a self-assured businessman and newspaper financier, keep up appearances by throwing lavish dinner parties in 1912 Paris.

They entertain no less than fifty of their friends and acquaintances every week in their mansion served by numerous maids. Interestingly, no butler or footmen. The film won Best Production Design and Best Costume Design César Awards in 2006. A visually gorgeous setting, especially at the dinner table with guests.

In ironic contrast to the aesthetic beauty and richness of interior design, Jean and Gabrielle are impoverished in their passion for each other. Ten years ago, Jean claimed a trophy wife. In his voiceover narrative, Gabrielle is “well bred and intelligent… no ordinary woman. I love her as a collector does his most prized item.”

Camera work is captivating. Director Patrice Chéreau uses mirrors around the house to capture his characters in psychological reflections. Stylistically, he adopts two visual modes on screen, interchanging colour with black and white to juxtapose present reality with memory or imaginary scenario. Interesting is that in a film with the title of the female character, the wife, the voiceover narrator and point of view is the husband’s, conveying subliminally who holds the control of the relationship. Throughout, a film exudes with realism and at times, a touch of Hitchcockian suspense. Occasionally, large written words are flashed on screen like silent movies, a whimsical stroke that well serves as comic relief.

The tipping point crashes down when Jean comes home one day to find a note left by Gabrielle saying she has left him with another man. The short note is like a bombshell to Jean, for he hasn’t noticed any issue with their marriage. His immediate concern is how this will look in front of his servants and in society? And there’s a Thursday dinner party coming up.

His devastation is short however, for in just a few hours, Gabrielle returns. On the surface, her return seems to bring back the status quo, but it only rings in the death knell of a dissipating marriage. Huppert and Greggory bring out their characters’ boiling psychological turmoil and relational conflicts to the surface expertly; the intense emotional transactions in their dialogues are rare in today’s movies. These lines follow Jean’s questioning of his wife:

Gabrielle: When I decided to go to him, I wrote the note.

Jean: So you saw a lot of him? Then this letter is not the worst of it?

Gabrielle: The worst is my coming back.

Jean, the smug and successful businessman assures himself that ‘the law is on my side.’ It’s only Gabrielle who suffers the more damage if she chooses to leave. But of course, Gabrielle cares more for finding true love than fame or fortune. Anna Karenina comes to mind. As well, the power imbalance in their relationship reminds me of the tragic heroine Isabel Archer in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

The very literary rendition of the film makes quotable quotes out of many verbal exchanges and the voiceover narrative throughout the film. Why is appearance the main concern for Jean to start with? Because the society people coming to their home every week are “men and women who fear emotion and failure more than fire, war, or fatal disease.”  

The twist at the final scene see a change come to Jean when Gabrielle, with a passive-aggressive undercurrent, offers her physical body unreservedly to Jean only to let him see intimacy doesn’t mean love, and without which, all is meaningless. He breaks away from her suddenly, staggers down the stairs and stumbles out of the house like a man gone mad. At the risk of leaving any spoilers, for this is after all a classic written in the late 19th century, I’m sure this can be excused: the last words flashed on the screen are the exact three words that end Conrad’s story.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Paris in July 2022 is co-hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea and Deb of Readerbuzz

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Other French films reviewed on Ripple Effects:

Faces Places dir. by Agnes Varda

Coco Before Chanel dir. by Anne Fontaine

Things to Come dir. by Mia Hansen-Løve

Cleo from 5 to 7 dir. by Agnes Varda

Diary of a Country Priest dir. by Robert Bresson

Clouds of Sils Maria dir. by Olivier Assayas

Hamaguchi takes ‘Drive My Car’ to the highway of life

Among the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees this year, one is Japan’s official entry for Best International Feature Film. That Drive My Car is nominated also in the Best Picture category as well as in Directing and Adapted Screenplay is a major boost for director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. The most recent precedent would be the South Korean feature Parasite in 2020.

The following is my review of Drive My Car, a screen adaptation based on Haruki Murakami’s short story. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to repost it in full here on Ripple Effects.

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Ever since his five-hour epic Happy Hour garnered accolades in 2015, Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has continued to fascinate juries in the festival circuit. During a pandemic year, he made two features, both screened to high acclaims. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy won the 2021 Silver Berlin Bear Jury Prize and Drive My Car swept Cannes, winning Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in “Drive My Car”

Drive My Car is Hamaguchi’s creative and imaginative extension of Haruki Murakami’s minimal short story included in his collection Men Without Women. Two individuals unlikely to meet in ordinary circumstances, bare their soul to each other, one a stage actor and director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the other, a young female driver Misaki (Tôko Miura). The conversations that take place in the car prompt them to confront their own past.

The film opens with a long backstory. Kafuku has a loving and intimate relationship with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV writer. Her story ideas come while the couple is making love. Both being in the arts, they support each other in an intimate way until one day Kafuku comes home unexpectedly and finds Oto in bed with another man. Kafuku walks back out quietly. The next day, Oto suggests they talk that night when he returns from work. Deeply hurt but fear for the collapse of their marriage, he delays coming home. When he finally gets home late that night he finds Oto has collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage. She dies later without regaining consciousness. 

This prologue takes 40 minutes and that’s when the introductory credits appear on screen. Hamaguchi will take another two hours and more to tell the rest of his story which begins two years after Oto’s death. Despite the three-hour duration, the film captivates with thought provoking parallels between art and life and reveals the characters’ existential anguish with a quiet poignancy. 

Kafuku loves to drive his fire red Saab 900. He practices his lines while driving by interacting with dialogues recorded by his late wife Oto. As this main section of the movie begins, Kafuku is driving to Hiroshima to direct Anthon Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival. However, upon arrival, he is disappointed to learn that due to insurance stipulations, he is not allowed to drive but the festival has provided him with a driver to drive his car. She is twenty-three year old Misaki (Toko Miura). 

The audition soon takes place. Kafuku has chosen actors from various Asian countries who deliver their lines in their native language including Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog, and Korean sign language used in a most poignant way by a deaf actress. With such a cast, this performance of Uncle Vanya will be a powerful display of shared humanity.

Coming to the audition is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku recognizes him right away as the man he had seen making love to his wife in his home. To Takatsuki’s surprise, Kafuku casts him in the lead role. The two start to have talks with each other outside of the rehearsal, the subject they share: Oto.  

The parallel between the lines in Uncle Vanya Kafuku practices in the car and his real-life predicament is startling, and poignantly so. If he had returned home earlier that fateful night he might have been able to save Oto. Seized with guilt and grief, he recites the lines, ‘I am forty-seven years old. I may live to sixty; I still have thirteen years before me; an eternity! How shall I be able to endure life for thirteen years? What shall I do? How can I fill them? … If only I could live the rest of my life in some new way!’

A play within a film and lines corresponding to the real-life situation of the character is an intriguing way to tell a story. The mirroring effect can be emotionally gripping. Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) comes to mind. As Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) practices the lines of the play she’s going to perform with the help of her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), she is actually describing her own predicament. 

Reticent and appearing nonchalant, driver Misaki has a scarred childhood. Hearing the lines spoken in the car and as Kafuku talks about his guilt and loss, she too opens up. Two characters with a shattered past is thrown into each other’s internal turmoil, thus begins the healing of wounds and a step towards recovery. The aerial shot of the red Saab smoothly moving on the highway could well be a metaphor for the tranquility and freedom both occupants are seeking desperately.

A twist in the plot makes Takatsuki unable to perform in the play. Kafuku takes up the role as Vanya, a miserable man despondent with life. In a cathartic, final scene of the play, the lines are delivered in silence as the deaf actress playing Sonya encourages Vanya with her expressive sign language. The audience in the theatre, close up on Misaki, read the subtitles above the stage: ‘We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll patiently endure the trials that fate sends our way…’ As she finishes her speech pointing to eternal rest when they see God, the stage lights dim, with an oil lamp offering a tiny flicker of flame.

The last few minutes of the epilogue wraps the feature with a gratifying end.

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~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’: from Novella to Screen

Truman Capote’s novella was published in 1958. The setting is 1940’s New York City. Social currents have flowed by, and reading the book now in 2021 makes it interesting to compare back to the era when Capote wrote. Some might feel the currents fast changing, some would lament at the slow pace when women and people from a different cultural background still strive for equal standing in our society today.

WWII is the background and Capote’s handling of a Japanese character is relatively gracious, for he never uses negative descriptions about his appearance; Mr. Yunioshi only shouts when irritated.

While the novella reflects the social culture and values of the time, what’s seemingly timeless is the iconic character, Holly Golightly, a café society gal of just around nineteen who has left indelible marks in the hearts of many men. Holly is a tough gal in a man’s world, and shows she has the iron will of doing things on her own terms; although sadly, she depends on men for her livelihood.

The unnamed narrator of the novella probably knows Holly best among all her numerous society acquaintances. He is a writer and her upstairs neighbour in the NYC East Seventies brownstone. The gal is a walking contradiction. He’s intrigued at first, in love––albeit unrequitedly––towards the end. Here’s how Capote describes his enigmatic yet mesmerizing protagonist Holly Golightly:

She was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty, if only because it contains paradox… the trick had been worked by exaggerating defects; she’d made them ornamental by admitting them boldly. Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face. Even the stutter, certainly genuine but still a bit laid on, had been turned to advantage. It was the master stroke, that stutter; for it contrived to make her banalities sound somehow original, and secondly, despite her tallness, her assurance, it served to inspire in male listeners a protective feeling. (44)

But it’s not merely her appearance that pulls at the heartstrings of the narrator’s, it’s what’s hidden. She’d clam up just the moment when you think she’s ready for ‘volunteering intimate information’. She doesn’t know what she wants, “when I find out you’ll be the first to know.” She avoids the zoo, ‘couldn’t bear to see anything in a cage,’ yet she’s always looking for a place she can call home. Once she finds it, she’ll give her cat a name. Her card says it all: Miss Holly Golightly, Traveling.

Tolkien had famously said, ‘not all those who wander are lost.’ Here’s a case of one who wanders and is lost yet enjoys it immensely.

Is she for real, or a phony? To be exact, she’s been called a real phony… that is, she believes in her own makeover of herself. Capote reveals Holly’s past history in a poignant way. Best to savour his storytelling first hand. But Holly, whoever she is now, will remain so and go on her diverting life path. The past is exactly where she has left it. At the story’s end, the narrator reminisces with bar owner Joe Bell whom he and Holly used to patronize. Both men know Holly will continue with her ‘travelling’––this time all the way to Brazil––and lament her leaving them behind with mere elusive memories.

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Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) looking into the window at Tiffany’s

Directed by Blake Edwards and screenplay by George Axelrod, Capote’s novella is transposed on screen in 1961 as a romantic comedy, a launching pad for a career takeoff for Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. Capote’s intended female for the role was Marilyn Monroe. Apparently the filmmakers had an eye for the right one. In the movie, Hepburn is an almost exact fit corresponding to Capote’s descriptions, better yet, more mature and alluring, and the stutter replaced by witty eloquence. What more, Hepburn shows the confidence and independence Holly exudes which many thought Monroe could not have matched.

However, a casting that’s a discredit to an otherwise delightful movie is Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, the neighbour on the top floor of the brownstone and whose bell Holly rings whenever she loses her front door key, often in the deep of night. In the book, Capote only mentions him shouting down from his top floor, but never describes his appearances. The movie makes a caricature out of Mr. Yunioshi, an offensive portrayal thick with demeaning stereotyped features and mannerism.

Film historian David Thomson refers Rooney’s performance as ‘toxically racist’, and further writes that ‘some people on that picture––the screenwriter George Axelrod, notably––fought with Blake Edwards, the director, about the characterization, but Edwards paid no heed.’ (Thomson, 402)

Notwithstanding, the movie has left audiences with some memorable moments and Hepburn had become an icon. The narrator is given a name and personality; George Peppard plays Paul with matching charm. His quiet and sensible demeanor is a sturdy support to Holly and a needed check to her unbridled exuberance. The pair save each other from their own foibles and failings, bringing the film to a happy romcom ending unlike the book.

The most memorable moment from the film is probably the tune that lingers after all these years. Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ is sung longingly by Holly as she sits on the sill of the open window by the fire escape strumming a guitar. Incidentally, that was a scene at first intended to be cut out if not for Hepburn’s vigorous insistence to keep it in the movie. And we’re all glad that the strong-willed Holly Golightly had her way.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, first published by Random House, NY, 1958.

David Thomson’s quote is taken from his book The Big Screen, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NY, 2012.

This wraps up Novellas in November at Ripple Effects. Once again, I thank Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy of 746 Books for hosting. Do check out others’ reviews.

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Novellas in November on Ripple Effects, from book to screen:

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Passing by Nella Larsen

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen, from Novella to Screen

Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929), a novella about a Black woman passing as white in an acutely discriminatory society, setting up the stage for some suspenseful and intense storytelling.

Irene Redfield is a wife and mother of two sons, maintaining an orderly home in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor, herself well connected and tightly engaged in the social life of her community. While visiting Chicago one time, she encounters an old school friend, Clare Kendry, whom she doesn’t recognize at first. It’s Clare who has spotted Irene in the rooftop restaurant and comes over to identify herself. That fateful reunion changes Irene’s life.

Twelve years have passed since Irene last saw Clare from school. Now standing in front of her is “an attractive-looking woman… with dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.” (16)

That these two Black women can pass for whites and enter the Drayton Hotel’s rooftop restaurant is due to their light skin colour. This fact in itself implies the fluidity of racial definitions. Clare and Irene are biracial, and that term doesn’t even necessarily refer to half and half. Clare’s father is himself the son of a white father and a black mother. Her fair skin doesn’t betray her racial composition.

The character foil between Irene and Clare forms the crux and conflict in the story. Clare is bold and adventurous, a risk taker who is bound by no loyalty save for her own gratification. By marrying a white husband who is a banker, Jack Bellew, she has been living a privileged, white woman’s life. Curiously, she asks Irene “haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?”

Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?” And so disdainful was her voice and manner that Clare’s face flushed and her eyes glinted. Irene hastened to add: “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.” (29)

To Irene, what Clare has done is dangerous and disloyal to her race. Well, she passes too sometimes but only when it’s necessary, like getting into Drayton’s rooftop restaurant to escape from the fainting spell due to the sweltering heat. But to Clare, it’s her life. She tells Irene, “all things considered… it’s even worth the price.” That is, despite the fact that she is living with a man who hates Blacks but is unaware of her racial heritage.

The search for identity is not so much the issue Clare is struggling with but loneliness. She has not been discovered for twelve years and now reuniting with Irene, she wants to re-connect with the people in her past life. Alluring and assertive, Clare gradually moves into Irene’s familial and social life.

Larsen’s 111 page novella is more than just about race. It is an intricately layered story that touches on multiple issues. While race is the most obvious one, more for Irene, but for Clare passing is for personal gain and socio-economic benefits, and the breakout of social boundaries. The book is also about female friendship, and the ambivalence that involves. Further, unexpected for all of them, as Clare enters Irene’s home, she begins to unhinge the equilibrium in relationships. She charms everyone, from the help to the two boys, and the most abhorrent suspicion Irene harbours, her husband Brian as well. Herein lies the turning point in the story.

Larsen tells her story with spare and concise narratives, her revealing of her character’s thoughts is precise and clear, that is, until we reach the ending. Like a suspense writer, Larsen has dropped hints as to where she’s leading the reader towards the end. And yet, it is as open-ended as how a reader is prepared to see. Herein lies Larsen’s ingenuity.

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Tessa Thompson as Irene (L) and Ruth Negga as Clare in Passing, film adaptation written and directed by Rebecca Hall

The film adaptation (2021) is the directorial debut of British actor Rebecca Hall who also wrote the screenplay. It is a project that she had attempted to launch for some years. The book aligns with a family history as her maternal grandfather was a Black man who had passed as white for most of his life in Detroit, Michigan.

What Larsen has written, Hall has materialized on screen with parallel, meticulous mastery. That the film is shot in black and white is a brilliant idea, for viewers can see quite readily, in between the black and the white is a spectrum of greys, clearly showing Larsen’s concept of the fluidity of socially-constructed racial definitions. The 4:3 Academy ratio works to lead us into a glimpse of a specific past where Clare could well fit the image of a flapper in 1920’s NYC.

Hall has simplified the locations and mainly focused on Harlem. She has effectively selected the essential passages and lines and transposed them on screen. Out of Larsen’s spare novella the writer-director has created a thought provoking visual narrative with stylish aesthetics and implications that still resonate in our times.

I’ve always been intrigued by the image on the Penguin edition of the book cover. At the beginning of the film, Hall shows us the significance of it. Irene wears a translucent hat that’s half covering her face, an aid to shield her features as she goes shopping in Manhattan, just in case, and in the hotel room where she meets Clare’s racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), a necessary means of defence.

The interplay between Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare is immaculate and well-directed, nuances revealed in the slightest changes in facial expressions and gestures. The reunion of old friends is not all celebratory, an ambivalence is clearly conveyed by Irene. Andr´é Holland (Moonlight, 2016; Selma, 2014) plays Brian, loving husband and father who is acutely aware of the racial atrocities in the country. Like Clare, he wants to breakout and be free.

Another major asset is cinematography. Edu Grau (Suffragette, 2015; A Single Man, 2009) has crafted a stylish work with depth. His camera is spot-on when it’s needed to capture the expressions of the characters, especially between the two women as often their faces are the visual dialogues when none is spoken. And throughout the film, the jazz motif sets the mood that weaves through scenes.

What’s explicitly written in a book can only be shown with images on screen. Hall is effective in adding sequences that are illustrative in revealing Irene’s fears as she sees Brian and Clare becoming closer. And with the visual comes the sound. In the tea party at their home to honor the writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), Irene’s heavy breathing we hear as the camera follows her around the house lets us feel her restrained anger and unsettling spirit. The breaking of the tea pot and the conversations she has with Hugh who helps her pick up the pieces is most telling. These are apt additions as a gradual revealing leading to the end.

Like Larsen’s novella, the ending is open to interpretation. However, what Hall implies seems to be different from the author’s. Read the novella, watch the film. This is an intriguing pairing of two exceptional storytelling in both art forms.

Passing is a nominee of the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. It has been screening in the festival circuit and is a new release on Netflix starting November 10.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Passing by Nella Larsen, Penguin Books, NY., 2018, With an insightful Introduction and Suggestions for Further Reading by Emily Bernard, 128 pages. (Story from p. 10-120)

Novellas in November, click here and here to see what others are reading.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald: from Novella to Movie

Florence Green is a middle-aged widow living in the coastal town of Hardborough, in Suffolk, England, 1959. She has been a resident there for some years but stays close to herself. While not being an outsider per se, her life in Hardborough has been unnoticeable, that is, until her plan of opening a bookshop begins to materialize.

Florence acquires and moves into a dilapidated building called The Old House. The front operates as a bookshop while she lives in the back. Innocuous enough, until she is confronted by the rich and powerful Mrs. Violet Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough.” Mrs. Gamart makes it clear that she’d always wanted to turn the Old House into an arts centre. For seven years it has remained empty and now that Florence has purchased it to open her bookshop does Mrs. Gamart want to replace it with her own plan.

Mrs. Gamart’s wilful obstruction of Florence’s bookshop draws out the infirm recluse Mr. Brundish, a book lover and whose family has roots in Hardborough for generations. In nothing short of an heroic act, he ventures out to confront the powerful socialite.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978, only one year after Fitzgerald’s debut novel, and in 1979, she won the prize with Offshore. Hermione Lee in her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald writes in the intro:

She was first published at sixty and became famous at eighty. This is a story of lateness, patience and persistence: a private form of heroism.

In just 118 pages, Fitzgerald tells a story that’s as calm as the surface of this inert fishing town, while underneath the quiet facade are bubbling currents of emotions and wilful malice. Not that Mrs. Gamart doesn’t like books, she wants an arts centre with speakers giving talks and live music playing. What’s brewing inside her could well be the urge for power play, to control, or just plain malice.

Fitzgerald is an astute observer of human foibles. Take Milo, a writer (or merely aspiring?) who seems to be helpful to Florence, Fitzgerald has these words for him:

Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.

Even in such a small community, there’s acute disparity, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the grammar school and the Technical, and consequently, success and failure. Take Christine, the eleven year-old who helps Florence in her shop. As her mother says, failing to enter grammar school and heading to the Technical would mean the difference between rising above her lot or ‘pegging laundry all her life’.

But this is also a comedy of manners. Fitzgerald reveals her characters with refreshing and amusing ways. At the beginning of the book, Florence encounters Mr. Raven, who needs help with his horse’s teeth. Here’s the excerpt:

‘Now, Mrs. Green, if you’d catch hold of the tongue. I wouldn’t ask everybody, but I know you don’t frighten.’

‘How do you know?’ she asked.

‘They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.’

So, how does a relatively uneventful story about a small-town widow opening a bookshop transpose onto the screen? Spanish director Isabel Coixet wrote the screenplay and took the liberty to create some dramatic moments for the visual medium.

First off, she lets a narrator tell the story in the form of voiceover. The immediate effect is a more intimate storytelling, but the most crucial effect comes at the end. I’m withholding any revealing, for I don’t want to spill out spoilers; I can say that is quite effective.

Coixet has an experienced cast on her hands. Emily Mortimer plays Florences Green with a respectful loyalty to the book protagonist. And the added scene by the sea with old Mr. Brundish offers a moving moment. Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Brundish is poignant. Unfortunately, he’s not given much screen time. Neither is Patricia Clarkson, who aptly delivers Mrs. Gamart’s snobbery with chilling resolves.

The single plot line focuses more on Florence and her young helper Christine (Honor Kneafsey) rather than having Florence establish deeper relational interplay with the adult characters. While the aesthetics are appealing, the overall story needs some spicing up. The twist at the end is effective but the spark comes just a little too late. However, if you’re a fan of period dramas, or anyone in the cast, check this out as it can offer two calm and relaxing hours.

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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, first edition published in the UK by Gerald Duckworth, 1978, 118 pages. I read the ebook via OverDrive.

Check out what others are reading in this Novellas in November 2021 event at Rebecca’s and Cathy’s blogs.

NOVNOV posts on Ripple Effects:

My List of Novellas in November and their Screen Adaptations

Novellas in November… and their Screen Adaptations

Thanks to Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy of 746 Books for hosting this event for a few years now, albeit this is the first time I join in. Looking at the stacks of book suggestions and reading their lists prompted me to jump on the bandwagon.

Keeping with Ripple Effects’ focus, I’ve selected four novellas for each week of November, books that have a movie adaptation or one in development. I’ll discuss both versions when I post. Here’s my list.

WEEK 1

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Emily Mortimer in The Bookshop

English writer Penelope Fitzgerald started her literary career as a biographer. Then in 1977, at the age of 60, she published her first novel. Over the next five years, she published four more. The Bookshop (1978) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and in the following year, she won the prize with Offshore (1979).

The Bookshop is adapted into a movie in 2017 by Spanish director Isabel Coixet. Cast includes Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson. Filming location is Northern Ireland. Now streaming on Kanopy.com

WEEK 2

Passing by Nella Larsen

Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929) about blacks passed as white in an acutely discriminatory society.

The movie adaptation is the directorial debut of English actress Rebecca Hall. Now, why would she be interested, or ‘qualified’ to appropriate this topic, write the screenplay and direct the film?

During interviews, Hall had revealed her own mixed race ancestry: her maternal grandfather was a light-skinned black man who had ‘passed’ as white. Learning about this hidden past of her family has realigned her own identity and prompted her to appreciate her ancestral roots.

Passing is currently released in select theatres for a limited time, and will be on Netflix beginning November 10, 2021.

WEEK 3

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton

A lesser known novella by Wharton. Two sisters run a milliner shop decorating bonnets in a rundown neighbourhood of NYC. Leave them in Pulitzer winning Wharton’s hands, their story must be worth telling. I’m always intrigued by what sparks a filmmaker to take up the adaptation of a particular literary work. This will be another opportunity to find out.

Wharton’s most well-known film adaptation is perhaps The Age of Innocent. Bunner Sisters is a much smaller project and hopefully not less poignant. The TV movie is currently filming.

WEEK 4

Breakfast at Tiffany by Truman Capote

Capote’s 1958 novella has long become a contemporary classic with an equally renown adaptation that ignited the stardom of Audrey Hepburn. She has turned Holly Golightly from just a character to a symbol, just like Cat, the stray she finds in the alley.

The movie won two Oscars, both for the score and the song. The song? ‘Moon River’ by Henry Mancini of course. I still remember clearly the scene where Holly sits on the open window sill strumming a guitar and singing the song longingly. Thanks to Novella in November, I’ll take this time to reread and rewatch.

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Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write by Claire Messud

Intrigued by the title? I was, and that prompted me to investigate further. The subtitle pushed me out of indecision: an autobiography in essays. I’ve read two of Messud’s novels, The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, both I couldn’t embrace wholeheartedly. However, the title of this non-fiction jumped out at me.

I’ve appreciated Claire Messud the memoirist and critic much more than Messud the fiction writer, albeit I admit I’ve read only two of her seven novels. The first part of this autobiography in essays reveals her multicultural roots and the various geographical locales that had made up who she is as a writer. A French father born in colonial Algeria and a Canadian mother, what an interesting fusion of culture.

Messud has left footprints and therefore collected memories in many parts of the world. She writes about her growing up years moving from Connecticut to Australia then to Canada and back to the United States, and later her travel to Beirut, an emotionally torn, love trip both for her dying father who had spent his childhood there with fond memories, and for herself.

In the eponymous essay, ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, she writes:

“I can echo Walt Whitman in asserting that ‘I contain multitudes.’ I am who I am because I was where I was, when I was; and almost all of it is invisible to the world. This is true, of course, for each of us” (80).

Messud is generous in sharing the intimacies of her family relationships, especially those of her parents’ and grandparents’. I’ve found too that certain parts of her novels are based on real life experiences and encounters, e.g. the character Cassie in The Burning Girl.

The second part is both taxing and satisfying as she critiques on various international writers and artists, making up a good list for me to explore. Even though I haven’t read some of them or seen their artwork, I find the essays informative, insightful, and exemplary in critique writing. Her prose is elegant and inspiring, and at times, exhilarating.

The Camus essays are captivating for me in terms of the historical backdrop and political situations of Algiers and the tough handling by the then French government. Camus the pacifist had to confront issues of violence, colonization and post-colonial dilemmas.

Her essay on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go elicits more poignancy from the already devastating fate of the characters Kathy and Tommy. In particular, she sheds new light into the moving scene where Kathy embraces the pop song Never Let Me Go longingly.

The essay on the photographer Sally Mann is mesmerizing. In an interview, Mann had said, “unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art… it’s always been my philosophy to make art out of the everyday, the ordinary” (290).

Herein lies the dilemma of privacy and art making as Mann had candidly photographed her children growing up and her husband who is afflicted by muscular dystrophy, thus making her a highly controversial artist. Anyway, herein lies the dilemma of a memoirist, I suppose, like Messud’s book, there has to be the revealing of relational intimacy and private lives in order to imbue authenticity and truths in an autobiography.

Back to the essay ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, Messud has, in her ingenious way, explains to her readers how she gets the title from. I’ll leave it with you to explore instead of me clumsily paraphrase. However, I’d like to conclude by quoting this moving episode of Messud and her mother who was afflicted with dementia:

“In the last two years of her life, she was often quiet––she who had been so vitally social––and once, as she sat in silence, I asked her what she was thinking. With a wry and wistful smile, she answered, “Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered”(82).

To store up and share fragments gleaned from the ruins of the past is just one of the reasons for Messud to write, as well, for her readers to collect and keep in our own trove containing our own shards of memory, as we all share the magic of these lived experiences through the literary and the arts.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write: an autobiography in essays by Claire Messud, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 2020. 306 pages.

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