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The Ox-Bow Incident – Movie and Book

Ox-BowI shouldn’t have read the book before watching the movie! Although I know that William Wellman’s searing The Ox-Bow Incident is a classic (and impressed me deeply the first time I saw it), this time around I was slightly underwhelmed. It still devastates, but felt like an opportunity missed.

The Ox-Bow Incident is the story of a lynching. It is set in the 1880s in Nevada and occurs over 24 hours. The book, published in 1940, was written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark and was adapted as a film in 1943. Director William Wellman had to fight to make The Ox-Bow Incident. Studio heads thought it wouldn’t make money. They were proved right, but the film has nevertheless become one of the great classics of movie westerns.

The film is a remarkably accurate adaption of the book, even employing much of the dialogue. One difference is the pacing. William Wellman is one of the most economical directors I’ve seen and The Ox-Bow Incident comes in at a mere 75 minutes. He gives a wonderful sense of the speed at which men can hear (mistakenly, as it turns out) of a death, how quickly a lynch mob is set in motion (without checking up on facts) and how that quick decision will carry them along whether they have doubts or not.

The novel actually builds more slowly. Clark is interested in exploring the facets of how a lynch mob is formed and the various motivations of people. The book is nearly half over before they even set out in search of the murderers. In the novel, the crime isn’t haste, so much as passivity. Men are angry, and furious speeches are made to rile them up, but most men don’t really want to kill anyone. There is a lot of milling around in town while storekeeper Davies tries to talk them out of going. But men are afraid of appearing weak, unmanly, not part of the group. And Clark is interested in the phenomenon where, once people set out to do something, they continue doing it simply because they don’t want to look foolish by stopping.

film-page-feature-image-front-main-stage-2Another change is in the lead characters. The novel is narrated by Art Croft (played by Harry Morgan in the movie), who isn’t a particularly heroic man. He’s good at observing people and understanding people – the kind of guy people talk to – but ultimately he has no more moral conviction than anyone else and simply sits by while three men are lynched. His friend, Gil Carter (played by Henry Fonda) is described as a bull of a man, not someone who thinks a lot, but enjoys a fight. He, too, sits passively during the lynching, though he doesn’t quite like it.

In the film, a lot of Art’s characteristics, dialogue and even actions are given to Gil (because he’s Henry Fonda). And because he’s Henry Fonda, he’s a lot more heroic. In the movie, Henry Fonda tries to pull a gun to stop the lynching and everyone gets in a tussle. I guess they just couldn’t bear to have Henry Fonda be a complete moral coward? Though I suppose if he wasn’t heroic there would be little for him to do. Even as the movie is, Henry Fonda still plays a less heroic role than usual. Initially, he and Art go along with the lynch mob because they are afraid of being seen as outsiders who don’t stand with the group. But still, I can’t help but think it was a slight missed opportunity. It really would have been something to see Henry Fonda stand by passively, even if his conscience was bothered.

46212I was really impressed with Dana Andrews as Donald Martin, one of the men wrongly accused of murder and cattle rustling: his alternating fear, despair, the sense of unreality, the futility of talking to men who have already decided he’s guilty. He tries to take it like a man, but is scared, grieving and concerned about his wife and children. His very human reaction embarrasses people (in the novel, men are repeatedly embarrassed by the frank revelation of emotion). It’s a wonderful performance that really communicates what it must feel like to be powerless in the face of a group of people determined to kill you.

One change that puzzled me related to Major Tetley, who wants the lynching to happen because of his son, Gerald. Gerald and Major Tetley loath and despise each other. Gerald is sensitive and feels like a coward, but Tetley wants him to participate in the lynching and believes it will make a man of him. In the book, Tetley is a soldier who fought on the Confederate side. In the movie, he is an impostor in uniform. I can’t think why they changed that, unless it was because they didn’t want to show a former soldier in a negative light during WWII.

Inevitably, the issue of blame is softened in the movie. When the sheriff asks Davies who was responsible for the lynching, in the movie Davies says, “all but seven.” These are the seven who vote against the hanging (there are only five in the book). But in the book, no one gets away from blame quite so easily. The people who you would think have the least to blame themselves for take it the worst. Davies is in torment by the end of the novel, convinced that he could have done more. He admits to Art that at the moment of the hanging he was glad he didn’t have a gun, because it meant he didn’t have the option of pulling a gun on Tetley to try and stop him.

176481-004-F5221D4AIn the book (as is mostly true in the movie), there are no heroes, no would-be heroes. But the situation doesn’t call for heroes, someone to come in with guns blazing to save the day at the last moment. It calls for the majority of men involved to check themselves, stop what they were doing and be willing to look weak or silly to do the right thing. It requires the majority of the people to even know what the right thing is.

But despite being somewhat underwhelmed, it remains a superb movie. I just shouldn’t watch it the day after finishing the book – it’s distracting! But Wellman directs a spare film and keeps the focus inexorably on the story. He doesn’t go overboard making Fonda a hero, he doesn’t add any unnecessary romance, conversation, scenery. The entire film is focused on one thing alone: the lynching. It’s a film impossible to ignore or to forget.

This post is part of the “Beyond the Cover Blogathon,” hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy, who I would like to thank for hosting this wonderful event! For the rest of the contributions, click here for Day 1 and Day 2.

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Posted by on April 10, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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Villette (1853) – Charlotte Brontë

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artVillette is an odd book, though it is a fascinating one. It reads like a dream, like living inside someone’s head and looking out. What I call living in your head is when you are so self-aware and thoughtful that you are referencing the outside world from your own sensations, as if your internal life were more real than the external one. The protagonist of Villette, Lucy Snow, though she maintains that she is not particularly imaginative, lives in a constantly imaginative world of her own senses that feels to the reader (at least this one) as if it were as real as the physical alone.

Since Villette is generally considered to be the chronicle of a woman both lonely and set apart from her surroundings, this is very well shown by Brontë. The novel is told in first person by Lucy Snowe, whose background she does not explain. There is some family tragedy and she seems to be left without family or fortune. She leaves England and travels to the fictional city of Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour, where she becomes a teacher at a girl’s boarding school.

The school is run by the imperviously immovable, calm and cold Madame Beck, who has a distinct flair for espionage on her pupils and staff. She knows everything there is to know about everyone and will even snoop in their private possessions, always neatly putting everything away, of course. Another teacher is M. Paul Emanuel, who is Madame Beck’s cousin and teaches literature and is a temperamental, imperious, but also utterly sweet man. Lucy also reconnects with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her godmother’s very handsome son, Dr. Bretton. There is also Paulina Home and her father, friends of the Brettons who Lucy knew in England.

The book could almost be called a psychological novel and is less about what Lucy does and more about her isolation in Villette (religiously, since Labassecour is Catholic, culturally and physically – people view her as insignificant and she has a habit of withdrawing for people) and her attempts to reconcile herself to what she considers to be her destiny. As a woman without money or beauty, she believes she must forge her own independence and suppress all strong feeling and love, first for Dr. Bretton and then for M. Emanuel. She feels that the most she can hope for is a degree of independence, as achieved by Madame Beck, who owns and runs the school.

The most fascinating aspect of the book to me is how Lucy perceives herself. She is not a reliable narrator. There are things she doesn’t say, such as the unnamed tragedy in her background. Even the ending is ambiguous: does Paul Emanuel die or doesn’t he? She makes incorrect statements about herself. She says she does not suffer from an extreme imagination, which is palpably not true. She considers herself timid and retiring yet travels to Europe alone, with very little money and no prospects. She quells defiant students. She gets pushed into a play and finds that she likes it very well and does well at it.

But not only does she not see herself correctly (or is she deliberately misrepresenting herself, or is she being ironic or is it a blend of all three?), but no one else understand her, either.

The light in which M. de Bassompierre evidently regarded “Miss Snowe” used to occasion me much inward edification. What contradictory attributes of character we sometimes find ascribed to us, according to the eye with which we are viewed! Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home [de Bassompierre], a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet: somewhat conventional perhaps, too strict, limited and scrupulous, but still the pink and pattern of governess-correctness; whilst another person, Professor Paul Emanuel, to wit, never lost an opportunity of intimating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature – adventurous, indocile, and audacious. I smiled at them all. If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary.

Ironically, it is not at all clear that Paulina knows her any better than anyone else. And in truth, Lucy’s character contains aspects of all these traits. Even Paul Emanuel, the only person to see the fire underneath, does not see all.

Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte

One other fascinating thing about Lucy is how much Madame Beck and she have in common, though Lucy has more heart than Madame Beck. Madame Beck’s extreme phlegm is something Lucy admires and Madame’s habit of espionage is something that Lucy engages in, too. This is partly because she often seems to be a looker on of life, rather than a participant, which lends her an air of voyeurism. She watches people, she sees them when they are not aware of her, she listens when people don’t know she’s near. Like Lucy, Madame Beck wants to marry Paul Emanuel, though she never says so, and is aligned with Emanuel’s priest to keep them apart. She’s like a mirror image of Lucy, grown cold and calculating, a frightening possible fate for Lucy. Dr. Bretton calls Lucy a shadow and Madame Beck certainly acts like one, stealthily shadowing people, spying on them, a cipher to everyone except Lucy.

The prose in Villette is quite unique, but thoroughly enjoyable. At times, she engages in incredible flights of imagination, describing her emotions in pictorial terms that are almost florid, which is ironic considering how much she despises the pomp, ceremony and excess complexity of Catholicism, Italian arias and the Dutch masters. She values simplicity and realism in art, is a relatively plain Protestant, yet her expressions are by no means temperate or plain. For her, emotions almost become animate objects or living things. Here is her description of how she felt, waiting for a letter from Dr. Bretton, whom she loves.

“I suppose animals kept in a cage, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter. Oh! – to speak truth, and drop that tone of a false calm which long to sustain, outwears nature’s endurance – I underwent in those seven weeks bitter fears and pains, strange inward trials, miserable defections of hope, intolerable encroachments of despair. This last came so near to me sometimes that her breath went right through me. I used to feel it, like a baleful air or sigh, penetrate deep, and make motion pause at my heart, or proceed only under unspeakable oppression. The letter – the well-beloved letter – would not come; and it was all of sweetness in life I had to look for.

But she is also ironically funny. Her description of the governess of Madame Beck’s children is fresh and unexpected: she describes a “coarse” and drunk woman as a “sleeping beauty” and “heroine of the bottle.” There is a bit of French in Villette, which is frustrating if you don’t know French (which I don’t, alas). There are exchanges of several sentences in French, though Lucy’s reactions and thoughts can sometimes give a vague idea of what is said.

Ultimately, Villette is a less satisfying book than Jane Eyre, but perhaps more interesting to think about. It’s a book of several moods. Sometimes she makes the reader privy to intimate feelings and at others it seems she holds them at a distance. I alternated between pity, mild exasperation, admiration, and humor. She never explains her ultimate fate, but the reader is left with the impression that she did not find happiness in life. She seems to have found independence, but never mastered the art of suppressing those powerful emotions and longings. But perhaps it is a good thing, otherwise she would have become Madame Beck.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2015 in Fiction

 

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Movie Adaptations of Books

"Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned 
into bouillon cubes" - John Le Carre
"Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy"

“Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy”

Ever since reading about Mary Poppins the movie and Mary Poppins the book and how there are a certain group of people who considers what Disney did to P.L. Travers’ book to be nothing short of artistic rape – that is the very phrase used – I have been curious. Being a person who likes both the book and the movie and who came to the book through the movie, it got me thinking. I used to be quite a snob about how movies absolutely had to follow the book exactly or else you would hear about it, but then I realized that I was only applying that standard to books I liked. Books I didn’t like or hadn’t read didn’t matter. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it and here are some of by observations that I’d like to offer up and see what people think.

Observation OneA movie is not a book. Complaining that a movie does not stay true to the book is like complaining that a painting does not stay true to a character in a book. It can’t. A movie needs to make sense by itself and not assume that the audience has read the book. A movie is a different medium and often what reads well does not look good on screen. At the end of the book Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, they are going to commit a double suicide by leaping into the water with sharks. This would have looked silly on screen and the ending they came up with for the movie was simply amazing. Even the author liked it.

Observation Two – When people say that they don’t like a movie because it is not like the book, this is mere dissimulation. When we like the movie, we forgive. Not staying true to a book does not mean the movie is bad. I recently watched two versions of Anna Karenina. The first version was with Greta Garbo from 1935 and the second is with Vivien Leigh in 1948. The one with Vivien Leigh is quite a bit more accurate, but somehow the direction is uninspired; it’s dull. The one with Greta Garbo takes quite a different interpretation of the book, but it is a more internally consistent movie and is more interesting to watch.

And I’ve finally had to come to grips with the fact that it is not because Peter Jackson is unfaithful to The Hobbit that I dislike his movies so much. It is because I really dislike how he directs. To me, his movies are bloated. That is not an issue of inaccuracy, it is an issue of editing.

Observation Three – A bad movie or inaccurate movie cannot really hurt a book. The book remains, no matter what, especially if it is a good book. If it’s a bad book or just a popular book, it will fade away no matter how good or bad the movie. But a movie can keep a book alive long after it has ceased to be popular. This has always been the case. How many people have heard of Olive Higgins Prouty or Edna Ferber, both very popular in their day. But I have discovered these authors through the movies. I’ve discovered many good authors like Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler.

Besides, a book should be able to stand on its own and I don’t think it’s fair to blame a movie for the memory or lack of memory of a book. Nor do I feel that it is fair to say that because of a movie, no one is reading the book. People who watch the movie might not watch it if it were more accurate, so you haven’t necessarily lost anything, anyway.

Observation FourThe best books, the classics, the books that endure, can handle multiple movie remakes. In fact, the best books do have multiple movie remakes: Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick. Even classic comic books have multiple remakes. Some books, like Jane Eyre, have over ten remakes. The Maltese Falcon was made three times in ten years. Spider Man has been made into two series and five movies in the last twelve years. The books and characters are so vast and so vital that no movie can encompass them. There are two television series about Sherlock Holmes running right now: Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller. Some versions are more accurate than others, but that’s okay. There’s so much richness in books, they can handle multiple interpretations.

Observation Five – Unless a book is a great classic, the further away the movie is made from its publication date, the less the movie has to try and follow the book. If a book is turned into a movie in order to capitalize on a book’s popularity, generally the filmmakers try to follow the book to a certain degree in order to please the fans. This was true even during the silent era. Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk, both adaptations of popular books written by Rafael Sabatini, were turned into movies only a few years after the books were published. They are also quite faithful. However, the remakes of The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche, made in 1940 and 1952 are not nearly as close. In fact, The Sea Hawk retains only the title and the time period. 

Sometimes, I’ve even watched old movies that were based on contemporary, popular novels and wished they had departed more from the books than they did. Examples of this are two Bette Davis movies, The Great Lie and Now, Voyager. I could so see the possibilities that these movies had, but they were oddly hampered by having to stay faithful to the story. This is what happens when a popular but flawed book is turned into a movie with excellent actors. The book is forgotten and the movie is remembered, but the movie could have been even better if they had departed more. Ironic.

None of this is to say that I think directors and producers shouldn’t try to follow the book. It is a wonderful thing when somebody who truly values the book makes an effort to capture what it is about the book that is so good and transfer it to the screen. I love those kinds of movies and they can enrich my appreciation of the book. I guess I’m really just saying that a movie isn’t bad just because it isn’t faithful.

Books and stories have always provided the inspiration of movies, operas, plays, musicals, poetry, paintings, songs. This is partially how stories are transmitted down the ages. I think the real question is not whether it is accurate, but whether it is well done.

 
 

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