By Max Saunders
One definition of a classic book is a work which inspires repeated metamorphoses. Romeo and Juliet, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Great Gatsby don’t just wait in their original forms to be watched or read, but continually migrate from one medium to another: painting, opera, melodrama, dramatization, film, comic-strip. New technologies inspire further reincarnations. Sometimes it’s a matter of transferring a version from one medium to another — audio recordings to digital files, say. More often, different technologies and different markets encourage new realisations: Hitchcock’s Psycho re-shot in colour; French or German films remade for American audiences; widescreen or 3D remakes of classic movies or stories.
Cinema is notoriously hungry for adaptations of literary works. The adaptation that’s been preoccupying me lately is the BBC/HBO version of Parade’s End, the series of four novels about the Edwardian era and the First World War, written by Ford Madox Ford. Ford was British, but an unusually cosmopolitan and bohemian kind of Brit. His father was a German émigré, a musicologist who ended up as music critic for the London Times. His mother was an artist, the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. Ford was educated trilingually, in French and German as well as English. When he was introduced to Joseph Conrad at the turn of the century, they decided to collaborate on a novel, and went on over a decade to produce three collaborative books. He also got to know Henry James and Stephen Crane at this time — the two Americans were also living nearby, on the Southeast coast of England. Americans were to prove increasingly important in Ford’s life. He moved to London in 1907, and soon set up the literary magazine that helped define pre-war modernism: the English Review. He had a gift for discovering new talent, and was soon publishing D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis alongside James and Conrad. But it was Ezra Pound, who he also met and published at this time, who was to become his most important literary friend after Conrad.
Ford served in the First World War, getting injured and suffering from shell shock in the Battle of the Somme. He moved to France after the war, where he soon joined forces with Pound again, to form another influential modernist magazine, the transatlantic review, which published Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Rhys. Ford took on another young American, Ernest Hemingway, as his sub-editor. Ford held regular soirees, either in a working class dance-hall with a bar that he’d commandeered, or in the studio he lived in with his partner, the Australian painter Stella Bowen. He found himself at the centre of the (largely American) expatriate artist community in the Paris of the 20s. And it was there, and in Provence in the winters, and partly in New York, that he wrote the four novels of Parade’s End, that made him a celebrity in the US. He spent an increasing amount of time in the US through the 20s and 30s, based on Fifth Avenue in New York, becoming a writer in residence in the small liberal arts Olivet College in Michigan, spending time with writer-friends like Theodore Dreiser and William Carlos Williams, and among the younger generation, Robert Lowell and e. e. cummings.
Parade’s End (1924-28) has been dramatized for TV by Sir Tom Stoppard. It has to be one of the most challenging books to film; but Stoppard has the theatrical ingenuity, and experience, to bring it off. It’s a classic work of Modernism: with a non-linear time-scheme that can jump around in disconcerting ways; dense experimental writing that plays with styles and techniques. Though it includes some of the most brilliant conversations in the British novel, and its characters have a strong dramatic presence, much of it is inherently un-dramatic and, you might have thought, unfilmable: long interior monologues, descriptions of what characters see and feel; and — perhaps hardest of all to convey in drama — moments when they don’t say what they feel, or do what we might expect of them. Imagine T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, populated by Chekhovian characters, but set on the Western Front.
I’ve worked on Ford for some years, yet still find him engaging, tantalising, often incomprehensibly rewarding, so I was watching Parade’s End with fascination. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
Click here to view the embedded video.
Stoppard and the director, Susanna White, have done an extraordinary job in transforming this rich and complex text into a dramatic line that is at once lucid and moving. Sometimes where Ford just mentions an event in passing, the adaptation dramatizes the scene for us. The protagonist is Christopher Tietjens, a man of high-Tory principle — a paradoxical mix of extreme formality and unconventional intelligence – is played outstandingly by Benedict Cumberbatch, with a rare gift to convey thought behind Tietjens’ taciturn exterior. In the novel’s backstory, Christopher has been seduced in a railway carriage by Sylvia, who thinks she’s pregnant by another man. The TV version adds a conversation as they meet in the train; then cuts rapidly to a sex scene. It’s more than just a hook for viewers unconcerned about textual fidelity, though. What it establishes is what Ford only hints at through the novel, and what would be missed without Tietjen’s brooding thoughts about Sylvia: that her outrageousness turns him on as much as it torments him. In another example, where the novelist can describe the gossip circulating like wildfire in this select upper-class social world, the dramatist needs to give it a location; so Stoppard invents a scene at an Eton cricket match for several of the characters to meet, and insult Valentine Wannop, while she and Tietjens are trying not to have the affair that everyone assumes they are already having. Valentine is an ardent suffragette. In the novel, she and Tietjens argue about women and politics and education. Stoppard introduces a real historical event from the period — a Suffragette slashing Velasquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’ in the National Gallery — as a way of saying it visually; and then complicating it beautifully with another intensely visual interpolated moment. In the book Ford has Valentine unconcsciously rearranging the cushions on her sofa as she waits to see Tietjens the evening before he’s posted back to the war. When she becomes aware that she’s fiddling with the cushions because she’s anticipating a love-scene with him, the adaptation disconcertingly places Valentine nude on her sofa in the same position as the ‘Rokeby Venus’ — in a flash both sexualizing her politics and politicizing her sexuality.
Such changes cause a double-take in viewers who know the novels. But they’re never gratuitous, and always respond to something genuine in the writing.
Perhaps the most striking transformation comes during one of the most amazing moments in the second volume, No More Parades. Tietjens is back in France, stationed at a Base Camp in Rouen, struggling against the military bureaucracy to get drafts of troops ready to be sent to the Front Line. Sylvia, who can’t help loving Tietjens though he drives her mad, has somehow managed to get across the Channel and pursue him to his Regiment. She has been unfaithful, and he is determined not to sleep with her; but because his principles won’t let a man divorce a woman, he feels obliged to share her hotel room so as not to humiliate her publicly. She is determined to seduce him once more; but has been flirting with other officers in the hotel, two of whom also end up in their bedroom in a drunken brawl. It’s an extraordinary moment of frustration, hysteria, terror (there has been a bombardment that evening), confusion, and farce. In the book we sense Sylvia’s seductive power, and that Tietjens isn’t immune to it, even though by then in love with Valentine. He resists. But in the film version, they kiss passionately before being interrupted.
Valentine and Christopher. Adelaide Clemens and Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade’s End. (c) BBC/HBO.
The scene may have been changed to emphasize the power she still has over Tietjens: as if, paradoxically, he needs to be seen to succumb for a moment to make his resistance to her the more heroic. The change that’s going to exercise enthusiasts of the novels, though, is the way three of the five episodes were devoted to the first novel, Some Do Not…; and roughly one each to the second and third; with very little of the fourth volume, Last Post, being included at all. The third volume, A Man Could Stand Up — ends where the adaptation does, with Christopher and Valentine finally being united on Armistice night, a suitably dramatic and symbolic as well as romantic climax. Last Post is set in the 1920s and deals with post-war reconstruction. One can see why it would have been the hardest to film: much of it is interior monologue, and though Tietjens is often the subject of it he is absent for most of the book. Some crucial scenes from the action of the earlier books is only supplied as characters remember them in Last Post, such as when Syliva turns up after the Armistice night party lying to Christopher and Valentine that she has cancer in an attempt to frustrate their union. Stoppard incorporates this into the last episode, but he writes new dialogue for it to give it a kind of closure the novels studiedly resist. Valentine challenges her as a liar, and from Tietjens’ reaction, Sylvia appears to recognize the reality of his love for her and gives her their blessing.
Rebecca Hall, playing Sylvia, has been so brilliantly and scathingly sarcastic all the way through that this change of heart — moving though it is — might seem out of character: even the character the film gives her, which is arguably more sympathetic than the one most readers find in the novel. Yet her reversal is in Last Post. But what triggers it there, much later on, is when she confronts Valentine but finds her pregnant. Even the genius of Tom Stoppard couldn’t make that happen before Valentine and Christopher have been able to make love. But there are two other factors, which he was able to shift from the post-war time of Last Post into the war’s endgame of the last episode. One is that Sylvia has focused her plotting on a new object. Refusing the role of the abandoned wife of Tietjens, she has now set her sights on General Campion, and begun scheming to get him made Viceroy of India. The other is that she feels she has already dealt Tietjens a devastating blow, in getting the ‘Great Tree’ at his ancestral stately home of Groby cut down. In the book she does this after the war by encouraging the American who’s leasing it to get it felled. In the film she’s done it before the Armistice; she’s at Groby; Tietjens visits there; has a Stoppard scene with Sylvia arranged in her bed like a Pre-Raphaelite vision in a last attempt to re-seduce him, which fails partly because of his anger over the tree. In the books the Great Tree represents the Tietjens family, continuity, even history itself. Ford writes a sentence about how the villagers “would ask permission to hang rags and things from the boughs,” but Stoppard and White make that image of the tree, all decorated with trinkets and charms, a much more prominent motif, returning to it throughout the series, and turning it into a symbol of superstition and magic. But then Stoppard characteristically plays on the motif, and has Christopher take a couple of blocks of wood from the felled tree back to London. One he gives to his brother, in a wonderfully tangible and taciturn gesture of renouncing the whole estate and the history it stands for. The other he uses in his flat, throwing whisky over it in the fireplace to light a fire to keep himself and Valentine warm. That gesture shows how it isn’t just Sylvia who is saying ‘Goodbye to All That’, but all the major characters are anticipating the life that, though the series doesn’t show it, Ford presents in the beautifully elegiac Last Post.
Max Saunders is author of Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life (OUP, 1996/2012), and editor of Some Do Not . . ., the first volume of Ford’s Parade’s End (Manchester: Carcanet, 2010) and Ford’s The Good Soldier (Oxford: OUP, 2012). He was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the Culture Show’s ‘Who on Earth was Ford Madox Ford’ (BBC 2; 1 September 2012), and his blog on Ford’s life and work can be read on the OUPblog and New Statesman.
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Image credits: (1) Portrait of Ford Madox Ford (Source: Wikimedia Commons); (2) Still from BBC2 adaption of Parade’s End. (Source: bbc.co.uk).
The post Ford Madox Ford and unfilmable Modernism appeared first on OUPblog.
Yesterday at Villa Maria Academy I worked with 42 beautiful eighth graders—building writing exercises out of picture books, collectively pooling words for poems that would have made William Carlos Williams proud, studying some of the many ways that a story can begin.
Schools are supposed to teach many things. In this classroom love is clearly a curriculum component. There were future special education teachers in the mix, young women deeply concerned about world peace, students magnanimously enthused about a classmate's striking literary gifts, at least one dancer, and readers who did not need to be introduced to Ruta Sepetys or Kathryn Erskine. They had found these authors on their own.
At the end of the session one student shared with me her winter project—a report of sorts on THE HEART IS NOT A SIZE, my Juarez novel. She had told my story in her own words and created beautiful accompanying illustrations, and when she got to the page that introduced the little girl whom I had based on the child photographed here, I stopped. The likeness—the dark hair, the orange sleeveless shirt with the little bow—was so absolute that it seemed as if the Villa Maria student had traveled those dusty roads with us.
I rather wish she had. I would have enjoyed her company.
Jen Bryant's biography of poet William Carlos Williams for the grade-school reader is just the type of biography any poet would want. In A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, the poetry and its writing remain more important to the tale than the events of the poet's life.
So, while we learn William Carlos Williams loved to spend time outdoors, wandering, as a child, we also discover what was most important about these childish excursions: "...as he walked through the high grasses and along the soft dirt paths, Willie watched everything" and "the river's music both excited and soothed Willie. Sometimes, as he listened to its perfect tune, he fell asleep."
Bryant tells us of William Carlos Williams as a student, but most importantly about his study of poetry:
Poetry suited Willie. Every night,
he looked forward to sitting at his desk
and writing a few lines.
But after a while, he grew frustrated.
He had pictures in his mind that didn't fit exactly
into steady rhythms or rhymes.
'I have never seen a swan or an archer,' Willie thought.
'I want to write about ordinary things--
A River of Words is a biography of a poet--of how a young person becomes, lives, and works as a poet. Indeed, William Carlos William's career as a doctor plays second fiddle to practical, yet lyrical, descriptions of how he managed to write poetry in the evenings after work.
Melissa Sweet's illustrations are warm and make much use of Williams's poems and other textual elements (notepads, drafts, textbooks). A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams is a first-class biography, and one to use in the classroom to learn not only about Williams, or more about poetry, but also to learn more about biography and how different biographical approaches can approach a life in radically different ways.
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams
by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2008
Other Blog Reviews:
One Minute Book Reviews
Fairrosa's Reading Journal
A Fuse #8
Don't miss Jama Rattigan's interview will illustrator Melissa Sweet at Alphabet Soup.
Susan Taylor Brown has the roundup at Susan Writes.
Yesterday, I tried to start a #mathbattle on Twitter, but it proved too geeky to take. (Go figure.) I was having a nostalgic moment, remembering back in middle school when we had to write date equations. Everyday. Because each day, my friends, is different. A new day, full of new possibilities, opportunities, and numbers. Today is 7/30/2010. That means two things:
1) It will be August very, very soon.
2) We have the numbers 7, 3, 0, 2, 0, 1, 0 to work with. (Or, you can leave out a 2 and a 0. That is the cheater’s way.)
LET’S DO IT! —> 7 – ((3+0)(2 + 0)) = (1 + 0)
Yessssss. Math is awesome. Got a better equation? Prove it. Until then, here are some interesting things.
William Carlos Williams is not a very considerate roommate.
The Bookavore has created an “E-books article drinking game.” (Finally.) (Thank you.)
Ben Zimmer refudiates fake words.
And the best goat calendar of 2011 goes to…
I am sooooo over air quotes.
This baby must be a deep sleeper.
Get your vocab fix here.
This is an awesome new Twitter tool.
These should keep you busy for a while.
And to clarify, I am not a whiner. NASA agrees with me. So there.
My son is 8 and although he knows a lot about the world, I'm sometimes surprised at what I assume he knows and doesn't. We had another 2" of snow overnight on Tuesday and therefore (somewhat absurdly) a 2-hour delay on Wednesday, so we had time to gear up and head out to the bus stop half-an-hour early. It wasn't great snowball snow--fine and flaky and extra-sparkly in the sun--so we found other ways to amuse ourselves, like shaking snow off branches (and is there anything more beautiful than dark branches frosted in sparkling snow against a blue, blue sky?) .
"Look at all the buds," I said. "They know spring will come again even though it doesn't feel like it now." I bothered to say it out loud because this knowledge added to my hopeful, sunny, fresh-air feeling. Duncan looked up and said, "What buds?" You know, like he'd never heard of buds. I pointed out the little textured teardrops at the end of each twig on the--actually I don't even know what kind of tree we were standing under. "Each of those is a tiny beginning of a leaf, just waiting for the weather to warm up." "Really? Cool," he replied, and went to jump daringly into the snow from a wall which is rumored to contain a snakehole.
There was time when I eschewed exclamation marks as a sign of weak writing in need of bolstering by flashy punctuation. Frank O'Hara changed my mind about that (and has inspired many others), and see how WCW uses one surprisingly! in this otherwise softspoken poem. I think it renders perfectly the feeling we have when we can cross something big off our to-do list, relax and store up wisdom. Hm. I miss that feeling...
by William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
Enjoy Poetry Friday today with Laura Purdie Salas at Writing the World for Kids--and congratulations indeed to Joyce Sidman for her Newbery Honor medal--it'll look great on the cover of Dark Emperor. Go Poetry!
Sleep did not befriend me last night (come on, I thought, what did I do to you
?), but I made good use of time of the dark and restless time. First, I prepared a series of reading/writing exercises for my visit to Villa Maria Academy today in honor of World Read Aloud Day. We'll read Helme Heine's magical THE MARVELOUS JOURNEY THROUGH THE NIGHT as adults, for example, and then define our idea of paradise. We'll dwell with the simple words of William Carlos Williams. We'll write from different points of view and ask ourselves what makes for a first-chapter cliffhanger.
It will be fun, I think. I'm just hoping that I can locate my speaking voice between now and 9:15 AM.
When I was all finished that, I decided to download one of the Kindle Singles I had read about yesterday in Dwight Garner's New York Times story
. My choice, but of course, was Ann Patchett's Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
, though in about five minutes I'll also be downloading Jane Hirshfield's Heart of Haiku
In any case, there I was, four A.M., as wide-eyed as my puffy eyes would allow, reading Patchett's primer on writing. My verdict: Spend the $2.99. Please. It's memoir, it's advice, it's fantastic stuff on Grace Paley and Elizabeth McCracken. Patchett is realistic. She's not ashamed of the facts. Writing is hard work, she reminds us. And it doesn't get done until you show up to do it.
If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, pull away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sentiment: The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath.
Boy, I needed that.
And on another, final note: That is not my dining-room table (though it is a restaurant where I tend to take my clients). But if I did
own that table and if I did
have that much light, I'd work right there, writing the bad stories down so that I could finally (it's taking long enough) get to the good ones (they must be somewhere).