Thursday, May 14, 2009

Of mothers and race

Speaking of movies (as I did in my previous post), a few nights ago I saw the 1958 version of Imitation of Life, Douglas Sirk's magnificent final film, a classic tearjerker with a potent political message. They just don't do melodrama like that anymore, do they? The only contemporary director who might get away with such a sweeping and sentimental story about mothers and daughters, such strong actresses and such extravagant use of colour, is maybe Spain's Pedro Almadovar. After all, he already gave us Volver and All About My Mother.

I can't remember when last I cried so copiously during the last scene of a movie - maybe Love Story which I watched at the age of twelve with a gaggle of pre-adolescent girls all sobbing on each other's shoulder - but I defy anyone not to shed at least a single silent tear when Mahalia Jackson's powerful gospel voice rises up during the funeral service of the long-suffering black 'maid', Annie. What distinguishes the film, though, is how topical the central themes of motherhood and race - and power politics in personal relationships - still seem, more than half a century after it was made.

Just hours before I watched Imitation of Life, I'd finished reading Toni Morrison's latest novel, A Mercy, which deals with - yes, of course - motherhood and race. And power politics in personal relationships. As all Morrison's readers know, these themes are threaded through all her books, especially the beloved Beloved. It's nearly impossible not to draw a comparison between A Mercy and Beloved, since both novels tell a story of slavery, and more specifically of a black slave mother sacrificing a much-loved daughter. And although A Mercy is not as illuminatingly brilliant as Beloved, it is still a very, very good book. Remember, three years ago Beloved was declared the best American work of fiction of the past quarter century by an impressive panel of critics, writers, editors and literary figures - so most other novels would probably pale into insignificance when placed beside it.

By the way, my personal favourite for the above-mentioned title was not Beloved (1987), even though I dearly love it, but the runner-up: Don DeLillo's breathtaking Underworld (1997). The other runners-up on the list published by The New York Times, were Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997), Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985), and the four Rabbit novels by John Updike, published between 1960 and 1995. (For more on Updike, see From Updike to Queneau, which I wrote shortly after his death a while ago.)

Anyway, the day after I'd finished A Mercy and watched Imitation of Life, synchronicity struck again. I was woken by Toni Morrison's rich and dark voice on the radio next to my bed, speaking on the current affairs programme that I listen to every morning. She was in France to promote the French translation of A Mercy - and what a treat it was to hear such fierce intelligence and eloquence so early in the morning!

Wouldn't it be lovely, I thought dreamily while brushing my teeth, if one could start every day like this, listening to a thought-provoking Nobel Prize-winning author's views on love and life, rather than the usual bland statements by Nicolas Sarkozy's band of sycophantic politicians? Wouldn't it be lovely, indeed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Don't judge a book...

I don't know who coined the phrase 'Don't judge a book by its movie', but I think it's brilliant. Like most literature lovers, I'm often disappointed by screen adaptations of good books. Sometimes I'm even outraged. But every once in a while I can be surprised.

It happened again last week with The Reader, the Oscar-winning film of Bernhard Schlink's epynomous novel about post-war Germany. I watched it on a BA flight between Cape Town and London, and although an aeroplane is never the perfect place to watch any kind of movie, I thought this one at least as good, if not actually better, than the book. I shouldn't have been so surprised. I realised afterwards that the director was Stephen Daldry, responsible for the wonderful screen adaptation of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, one of the rare literary movies of the last couple of years which managed to please the original fans of the book nearly as much as the new fans of the movie.

The Reader, like The Hours, is a book about reading and the power of literature to change lives. Few directors, in this age of action-packed thrillers, have the courage to tackle such a 'static' subject - or the talent to turn it into a commercially successful and critically acclaimed movie. What's more, Stephen Daldry seems to have a way with actresses, like the great George Cukor of The Women fame. He led Nicole Kidman to an Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and then he did it again with Kate Winslet as the former concentration camp guard Hanna in The Reader. Part of the achievement of The Reader (the film), is that the script stays so true to the book. This is not always possible or even advisable in screen adaptations - but here it works just fine. In fact, the only bit of the film that seems irritatingly sentimental is the ending - which was not in the book, as I verified as soon as my flight landed, in a bookshop at Heathrow Airport.

I really liked both films, but if I have to choose between the two books, I won't hesitate a moment. I adored The Hours - the style, the story, the language, everything - whereas I appreciated The Reader as a marvellous story with a strong moral message, but I wasn't knocked over by the literary style or the language. Perhaps this is because I read the English translation, not the original German text. After all, we never know how much gets lost in translation if we don't have access to the primary language, do we? The Reader, I thought, was a novel written by a clever jurist with a philosophical bent. Whereas The Hours was a novel written by a born and bred novelist for born and bred novel fanatics like myself.

If you don't agree with me, do let me know. I'd also love to hear what your own all-time favourite screen adaptation of a beloved book is. My shortlist includes two magnificent movies of the Italian director Visconti: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Giuseppe de Lampedusa's The Leopard. As well as two by Stanley Kubrick: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. Some directors are apparently born to turn great books into great films. Most, however, should rather leave well alone.