Monday, November 9, 2020

Two Literary Adaptations: Martin Eden and Rebecca

Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden (2019).

Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden is the story of a Bay Area sailor who falls in love with an aristocrat and, simultaneously, with the life of the mind that she and her family prize. Initially out of love, he sets out to educate himself and in the course of doing so he discovers a bent for political philosophy and a passion for writing – and he dedicates himself to the latter, though he nearly starves himself to keep at it. Though in the early stages Martin’s plunge into intellectual waters impresses Ruth, her family’s conservatism – both social and political – weighs on their romance. They’re appalled at his background, his lack of pragmatism (a poor wordsmith who gets published here and there isn’t their ideal of a match for Ruth) and his refusal to censor himself at social gatherings, starting arguments that brands him in their eyes as a dangerous radical. And though Ruth professes undying love for him, the same qualities that alienate her parents unsettle her. In fact, Martin doesn’t fit in anywhere. His sister’s working-class husband, a supercilious bully, thinks he’s worthless. (When he returns from sea, he boards with them and has to put up with his brother-in-law’s insults.) He forms a profound friendship with Russ Brissenden, an alcoholic, tubercular poet whose writing he reveres, but Martin is ill at ease in the world of bohemian socialists Brissenden introduces him to; his own individualistic vision rejects the contradictions and what appear to him to be the easy solutions of socialism. 

I don’t know another book quite like Martin Eden, where an uncompromising intellectual individualism is presented romantically. It’s about the tragedy of a man who starts out loving the world and yearning to be a part of it and then learns that being true to yourself exiles you from it – and that finding a place in it (Martin ends up as a famous writer) means losing your authenticity. Ibsen flirts with these ideas in An Enemy of the People and The Master Builder and Rosmersholm, but he takes them in different directions, and God knows he’s no romantic.

Martin Eden certainly isn’t among the Jack London books that still make it onto many book lovers’ bucket lists, but I was crazy about it when I essayed it in my twenties, and rereading it before seeing the new movie version by the Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello reanimated my old affection for it. Marcello and his co-writer Maurizio Braucci have moved the setting to Italy in the 1930s (it ends as the Second World War is beginning) but the plot is straight out of the novel. The movie is a serious attempt to get London’s unconventional narrative – and his one-of-a-kind protagonist, played by Luca Marinelli – onto the screen by a director who is also searching for unusual ways to tell the story visually. Marcello sometimes cuts away to uncontextualized images that he seems to want to serve as metaphors or Brechtian commentary, though it isn’t clear exactly what he wants us to do with them. And sometimes he inserts shots from earlier time periods that feel archetypal. Generally I don’t have patience for this kind of thing, but the shots are sometimes so beautiful to look at (the lyrical cinematography is by Francesco Di Giacomo and Alessandro Abate) and so evocative that they seep into your brain. The film is a decidedly mixed bag, but it contains wonderful sequences, and the ones that don’t work – mostly the big setpiece scenes, like Martin’s first visit to the moneyed Orsini household and his initial encounter with the socialists – suffer not from flatness or silliness but from over-ambitiousness, which is hardly a fault of most movies.

Marcello has done a fine job with his cast, which includes Jessica Cressy as the object of Martin’s adoration, here called Elena Orsini, Carlo Cecchi as Brissenden, and Autilia Ranieri and Marco Leonardi as his sister and brother-in-law, Giulia and Bernardo. Carmen Pommella gives a superbly understated performance as Maria, the widow Martin meets on a train with her two children after Bernardo has thrown him out and whose boarder he becomes; the scenes involving this family, whom he becomes close to, are lovely. Denise Sardisco, who plays Margherita, the waitress Martin turns to after his relationship with Elena dissolves, is in only a few scenes, but she has a luminous presence. (She might have stepped out of one of Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist masterpieces.) And Marinelli, who gave a witty, playful performance as Nicky in The Old Guard earlier in the year, is marvelous as Martin. It’s not just that he balances the character’s ruggedness with his sensitivity – a classic sort of tension for both young Italian actors and young American ones – but also that he immediately gets at the character’s open-heartedness, the quality that makes him both simpatico and vulnerable. The scenes he struggles with are in the last section, when Martin has become a literary celebrity and his dislike of the life he finds himself living makes him acerbic. Marinelli can’t resist playing him as a brat, and we’re in danger of losing interest in him. The last few minutes redeem him, however. They’re splendid in filmmaking terms too, and extremely affecting.

Armie Hammer and Lily James in Rebecca (2020).
From my students I gather that adolescent girls still fall in love with Daphne duMaurier’s Gothic novel Rebecca. Boys didn’t when I was in high school (and they still don’t), so I didn’t sample it until I was in my forties; my introduction to the material was through Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 movie, the one that marked his emigration from London to Hollywood. (David Selznick brought him over for the express purpose of shooting Rebecca, the only film of Hitchcock’s to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.) The movie is exquisitely made and thoroughly enjoyable; the book, it must be said, is better, but it turns out that the screenwriters, Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison, were right to trim it: when it was turned into a three-hour TV miniseries in 1997, it felt interminable.

Lily James’s portrayal of the heroine – a poor English orphan girl who meets an aristocratic widower in Monte Carlo, marries him and finds that his country estate, Manderley, is figuratively haunted by her predecessor, Rebecca – is the only real reason to check out the new remake of Rebecca, except for Laurie Rose’s cinematography. Inhabiting the role that Joan Fontaine played so well in 1940, James is effortlessly charming, unaffected and emotionally transparent, all the qualities that viewers like me found endearing on Downton Abbey and in Cinderella, Darkest Hour, Yesterday and Little Woods. And in the early sequences Armie Hammer brings a warmth to the role of Maxim de Winter that you don’t expect to find in the character. The scenes where he courts James (who’s referred to, in all dramatizations of the story, as “Mrs. de Winter” and in the published screenplay of the 1940 film as “I” because she tells it in voice-over) are romantic and sexy. When Laurence Olivier played Max for Hitchcock, he brought an upper-class hauteur to the part that kept audiences at an emotional remove from him. When he suggests to Fontaine – whose insufferable employer, a pretentious American socialite named Mrs. Van Hopper, has decided they’re going back home – that she return to Manderley with him instead, shy and confused, she asks him if needs a secretary and he answers, “I want to marry you, you little fool.” Olivier’s line reading is impatient, even disdainful, as if he can’t believe she could be so silly. Hammer makes it sound like pillow talk.

Unfortunately, Hammer’s performance goes all wrong, but I think the role is booby-trapped. Olivier isn’t great in it (Fontaine steals the movie from him), but it turns out that he knew what he was doing when he played Max as a cold fish. Once the story shifts to Manderley and the mystery of Rebecca’s death his behavior is meant to be off-putting and misleading until we get all the facts. The problem with Hammer’s making de Winter so emotionally engaging at the front end of the remake is that when he starts losing his temper at his new bride and closing her out, you think he’s switched characters.

Then there’s Kristin Scott Thomas as the proprietary housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, whose obsession with Rebecca works against the protagonist’s efforts to settle in to her unaccustomed role as mistress of the manor. Judith Anderson was unforgettably creepy as Mrs. Danvers in the 1940 version; Thomas tries for something different at first – efficiency masked as elegance, gentility passing as warmth, and a hint of sensuality in her references to her cherished late employer – but all you get in the second half is melodramatic posturing. That’s not entirely her fault: the director, Ben Wheatley, pipes pseudo-Gothic frosting onto scene after scene in the second hour, and some of it is pretty ridiculous. Most of the cast gets swallowed up in the movie’s bad choices, though Jane Lapotaire has a nasty little scene as Maxim’s dotty grandmother and the estimable Bill Paterson brings his usual combination of realism and style to his cameo as Rebecca’s doctor. Except for his roué looks, Sam Riley isn’t convincing as Rebecca’s malevolent cousin Jack Favell. The costume designer, Julian Day, has swathed Ann Dowd, as Mrs. Van Hopper, in clothes that make her look like a blind peacock, yet Dowd manages to inject her final scene with James with genuine worldly experience. The screenplay is by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. I don’t think it’s necessary for adaptors to be slavishly faithful to the source material, even if it’s as beloved as Rebecca, but virtually every change they make feels ill-advised.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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