Remaking the "Classics"

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Then came "highbrow" culture?Masterpiece Theater, Merchant-Ivory, Miramax. Here the idea was to invent new ways of milking literature, either for profit or from a misplaced yearning after cultivation. Lately, the amount of time between remakes appears to be dwindling. Video catalogs currently list six different versions of Jane Eyre (1934, 1944, 1970, 1983, 1996 and 1997) and four of Turn of the Screw (1961, 1974, 1989 and 1992, and not counting a 1972 "prequel" with Marlon Brando called The Nightcomers). The most recent pass at the Henry James aired on PBS toward the end of February, an almost-perfect version written by playwright and screenwriter Nick Dear, while one of two adaptations of the Bronte novel currently on the boards played briefly at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month as well. (A musical version making the rounds in the regionals also looms on the horizon.)

    The version of Jane Eyre that played at BAM?a London import staged by the distinguished women's theater collective Shared Experience?used the figure of Rochester's mad, attic-dwelling wife as an ever-present figurative manifestation of those qualities in the heroine's personality?aggression, sexuality, thirst for independence, sense of justice, vehemence?that the novel purports to view with Victorian ambivalence or suspicion. The actress representing Mrs. Rochester wasn't onstage for every moment of the play, but she was there most of the time?present if not always voting. She began as alter ego, a concrete version of Jane's passionate child-self, locked up with her in the red room and, interestingly, pushed physically back into that (upstairs) space on Jane's release, where she remained for most of the rest of the play, clearly legible as both the heroine's suppressed self and the hero's later-to-be-discovered dark past. Sometimes she lay in literal darkness, still and silent, half-forgotten or barely noticeable, stirring only when some problematic aspect of Jane's character threatened to assert itself. Sometimes she came downstairs and hung about the center of the action. Once or twice she actually hung about Jane's neck.

    The device was more interesting than it sounds, though ultimately disappointing. The notion of Bertha Rochester as a kind of heroine?at any rate, an embodiment of proto-feminist values?is hardly new; all the same, seeing it put to use dynamically in this way was novel and at times intriguing. (Polly Teale, the artistic director of Shared Experience, who adapted the piece, reportedly came up with the central concept independently of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's 1975 study of Victorian fiction, The Madwoman in the Attic?surprising, since that book became the bible for a generation of literary feminists. I don't know if Teale was aware of Wide Sargasso Sea, the lethal Jean Rhys' reimagining of Jane Eyre from the first wife's point of view.)

    Where Teale's adaptation fell short was at the juncture where it aspired to be more than merely balletic. Though intermittently fascinating to watch, this version wasn't really interested in words or ideas. It wasn't even, to be perfectly frank, very interested in the story, a point that came across in the broad parody of the acting. (As heterosexual lovers?this staging seemed to imply?Jane and Rochester only merited our contempt.) That was too bad, because there's enough wrong with that relationship to have made a more honest style of acting?one favoring truth over burlesque and melodrama?play eloquently off that central theatrical device.

    As it was, no shadow of Bertha Rochester ever really occupied the same acting space as the story. It felt strange on the bus back from Brooklyn not to have more to say?about Bronte, about Bertha, about feminism and literary adaptation. But though I talked a lot about these things with the friend I'd brought in the following weeks, and made each other sit through yet another version of Jane Eyre, on the bus home from BAM we were mostly silent, listening to the couple in the seat behind us talk about the view.

    What got us looking at other "dramatizations" was this snippet of Hemingway I caught turning on the television a few days later. It was a version I hadn't been aware of, knowing only one from the 30s with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. This Farewell to Arms was with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, and the scene I caught took place on a wooden seaside raft on the Italian Riviera?the kind you swim out to to sun yourself on or to dive off. Rock Hudson was sitting on the raft in his swimming trunks and Jennifer Jones was treading water beside him. Every once in a while she'd kick off and swim a few strokes and head back. Between dips, they'd chat.

    I didn't remember a scene in A Farewell to Arms that takes place on a raft on the Riviera, so I turned up the sound. What I heard was some of the most dangerous and potent dialogue in American letters made trivial and tame. Those moonlit conversations that, in the novel, we are to understand take place in bed, during Catherine and Frederick's illicit hospital trysts?in one she quizzes him about the emotional mechanics of relations with prostitutes; in the other they talk of marriage and she says famously, "I haven't any religion... You're my religion"?had been transplanted to this more gregarious setting. What was remarkable was the sexlessness of the scene: here, after all, were these two beautiful people cavorting with hardly any clothes and repeating those lines (how troubling, how packed with gunpowder?emotional, philosophical, sexual, sociopolitical?these conversations are!) and the scene was morally dead. It wasn't simply the banality of the actors mouthing the words?in that context the greatest actors in the world couldn't have made that scene reverberate, which was what the filmmakers had intended, of course, to emasculate the dialogue. In 1957 such dialogue was only playable with all four feet on the floor.

    Oddly, this brush with trash-literature made me want to grow up about literary adaptations, wean myself from a kind of snobbery that probably springs from years of seeing people carrying around Channel 13 tote bags, and acknowledge that some "dramatizations" probably come into being because it's fun to see how close to the edge you can push something. More than anything else, what those few moments on Rock and Jennifer's raft engendered was a yearning to see a really fine version of A Farewell to Arms, one that would make me understand how that dialogue could ever possibly be about more than mere submission, self-loathing and self-abnegation?not that those aren't faithful details of the human portrait, but because to experience those words on that level alone isn't as interesting as the possibility they might also be about something else.

    Viewed in this light, adapting a work of fiction seemed more like figuring out how to stage an antique or "classic" play than our Masterpiece Theater-bred sensibility would lead us to believe. Converting books into movies always seemed silly to me, I think. I never understood what they were for other than to rid people of the pleasure or necessity of reading. I think, though, that the point is not to see a plot enacted or certain characters embodied by actors, but to explore the question of how something will play. How it will play, how it must play, how it could be played differently. Does Richard's wooing of Anne or Angelo's of Isabella have to be played so that one woman is a fool and the other naif, or is there another possibility? One wants to know because that other possibility is more intriguing.

    I think there are also certain stories that we need to represent over and over because there are things in literature that are too troubling to be left alone. We need to see certain scenes and reckonings played out?not reinterpreted or rewritten but played with the same words and a different nuance or affect or import. If The Turn of the Screw is a story we keep coming back to, I think it's for different reasons than would have obtained 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, Hollywood had that adolescent approach to adaptation, a desire to remake a story in the image of its own idols. The 1961 Deborah Kerr version, The Innocents, was concerned with the question of childhood evil, and that was really a casting issue: What does morally ambiguous childhood look like? What kinds of children could seem both evil and naive? More recent versions, like the one broadcast on PBS in February, are interested in the question of which possibility is more frightening?the idea that the ghosts are there or the idea that they're not.

    In the case of Jane Eyre, we may come back to the story for the very reason that the relationship between Rochester and Jane is so troubling, and because Rochester himself is its central flaw. Because he isn't really a romantic figure?he's so girlish and overwritten, he talks too much and too emphatically?there's very little real danger in his presence, scoundrel though he is. He's a Victorian spinster's wet dream of a romantic hero?essentially another woman?and his subsequent emasculation is as phony as his masculinity. And since what's dangerous in Jane Eyre is how close the central relationship comes to sexual harassment (a point that two of the most recent adaptations seem to discover, while a third challenges itself to avoid it), the central questions in the book are never realistically engaged. In forcing each other to sit through different versions of Jane Eyre my friend and I were looking to see or show what actors and directors had to teach us about behavior.

    My friend's version, I long to point out, wasn't able to make the relationship between Jane and Rochester acceptable without changing the dialogue. That, ultimately, is a kind of test. Anyone can change the terms of a story and make it play; the trick is keeping to the challenge that the work presents, which is what it's probably about and why the author wanted to write it in the first place. But that, too, is an oversimplification, since it's possible to enjoy the version of Mansfield Park playing at the Greenwich Art without thinking that it really engages the problem of the book, which is Fanny Price. There's nothing wrong with messing around with Austen, bunging in a lot of material from her letters and juvenilia, or updating her characters politically or sartorially. But if you're going to make Fanny and Edmund into a witty hoyden and a charmer, rather than the monsters of rectitude and decorum they are, well, where's the fun in that? Where's the risk? What's unsettling about Mansfield Park is the resemblance that Mary Crawford?the wicked, vulgar and ultimately vicious antiheroine, who is also funny, also sharp-witted, and also satirical?bears to Austen herself.