Sunday, November 25, 2007

Text to Film - "Away from Her"

I managed to see the movie "Away from Her" yesterday, and it was interesting, if painfully slow in pace, and characterized by some awfully restrained acting, almost comatose on the part of Gordon Pinsent. I suppose this is sensitive and artsy, but it took a lot of my enjoyment away from the film. For me, Kristen Thomson and Wendy Crewson stole what there was to steal in the movie.

Now I knew I had read the original Alice Munro short story on which Sarah Polley's screenplay was based - "The Bear Came over the Mountain", fortunately available at the New Yorker site; it originally appeared in The New Yorker. But I had no memory of it at all and certainly not of its details, so I thought it would be interesting to read, just to compare with the film.

The first major difference is pace; Munro's short story can be read easily in under an hour, so I understood why the film seemed so appallingly slow at times.

The next problem is that the short story is a sketch. One could more or less try to present it directly but then it would not be an hour and a half movie. So things elided in the story must be invented and presented in the film; these clearly stand to change the meaning of what is going on. There are numerous characters in the film not even in the story, and parts of the film's version are overdetermined. A key element in establishing the film's narrative is the notion that Fiona insists on checking herself into the nursing home; another is the scene making love on the first day there. Neither of these seems to me to be implied by the short story, and both strip away Munro's bite.

The most cloying addition is a young girl at the nursing home who gushes over Grant's devotion.

The short story also creates a large problem for anyone adapting it for a screenplay. It is written in the third person, with occasional excursions into the thoughts of the main character, Grant, but of no other character. The least intrusive solution to this problem would be voice-over, but it would require too much of that. As a result, the movie cannot portray some of the best parts in the short story. Grant's long reminiscence of his affairs and their consequences is very funny writing, and absent from the film, and this deadens the tone of the film. The affairs get mentioned in the film, but by Fiona, and in a context that makes it look oddly as if she has forgiven them, not an assertion supported in the story.

Grant's later thoughts about Marian, crucial to getting the feel of the story, are lost as well in the film.

There are numerous differences. The result is that the film tells a substantially different story from that in the original, and, to my mind, a somewhat cliched and uninteresting one, however uplifting (husband supports wife in her dementia by bringing her the man she has fallen for in her nursing home).

Munro's story has a deep bite, and the title is an aid in reading the story - the bear that went over the mountain saw the other side of the mountain in the ditty. Grant's philandering gets turned on him in an interesting way, whether by way of Fiona's intentions or mere fortune.

The extra bite is hinted at in odd places in the film, but those moments cannot replace Grant's self-justification (which we get to see in the text), nor particularly his attention to Marian near the end:

The walnut-stain tan—he believed now that it was a tan—of her face and neck would most likely continue into her cleavage, which would be deep, crêpey-skinned, odorous and hot. He had that to think of as he dialled the number that he had already written down. That and the practical sensuality of her cat’s tongue. Her gemstone eyes.

There are a couple of other web sites with much dscussion comparing the movie and short story. I enjoyed Ellen's post and the ensuing comments, though she seems to see things in the text I certainly do not see, and also in the film, often confuses what Munro presents as Grant's version of events with the narrator's assertion of the same events, and I think she reads the short story very harshly; Munro is not writing a screed.

Juliet Walters has a nice short essay that hits the point about what Polley has done:

The story that Polley reads as a testament to a husband and his love for his wife is more likely to be read by another generation as a story about an ageing, desperate philanderer who is the victim of such divine retribution, it almost makes you believe in God.

For a longer discussion of this short story, there is also a New York Times essay by Jonathan Franzen that is well worth reading.



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