Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Literary Remakes: Pinocchio, All Quiet on the Western Front and Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Federico Ielapi as Pinocchio and Marine Vacth as The Blue Fairy in Matteo Garrone's Pinocchio (2019).

Those with fond memories of the 1940 Walt Disney Pinocchio are likely to respond to last year’s two screen incarnations of Carlo Collodi’s story – published in serial form in 1881 and 1882, and as a novel in 1883 – with some combination of bafflement and irritation. The Disney crew softened the original and bled out the folk-fable elements, but it’s gorgeous to behold, and the writers (seven credited, two uncredited) and supervising and sequence directors (seven, including one who signs himself “T. Hee”) and animators (too many to count) modeled the humor on a combination of vaudeville and silent-film comedy. (I chuckle whenever I think about the scene in the ocean where a school of fish swarm Jiminy Cricket and try to eat his umbrella.) And the Pleasure Island sequence, where Pinocchio, led astray by a cadre of schoolboys lured by the promise of an endless holiday, turn into donkeys fated to be put on the market is one of those genuinely terrifying set piece sequences that dot the early full-length animated Disney features. I tend to be wary of Disney cartoons, but this is one of the few I genuinely like.

The recent Robert Zemeckis version, scripted by Chris Weitz, was also released by Disney, and it recycles the well-known songs by Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul Smith, like “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” and “I’ve Got No Strings” and the perennial Oscar winner “When You Wish Upon a Star.” (The new tunes are blander.) It even has Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jiminy executing a fair imitation of Cliff Edwards’s homey lilt. But the mix of actors and animation isn’t very pleasing, partly because the live actors are either uninspired or uncomfortable, especially Cynthia Erivo as the Blue Fairy. Tom Hanks is touching in the early scenes as Geppetto but I don’t think that Hanks dancing around merrily in his nightclothes was necessary to fill some void in the actor’s dense career. Collodi drew the puppet who comes to life as a typical little-boy narcissist whose uncivilized impulses have to be tamed out of him; Disney’s Pinocchio means well but he’s easily distracted and forgets his good intentions whenever temptation rambles along. Weitz’s protagonist is mostly the victim of rotten luck; he keeps landing in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the other boys on Pleasure Island have a blast vandalizing the surroundings, Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) hangs back; he doesn’t think breaking stuff apart is very nice. The movie doesn’t seem to have a point. For one thing, it’s the only Pinocchio I’ve ever seen that doesn’t end with the puppet turning into a real boy.

What the Zemeckis film shares with Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, a fully animated rendition that came out in theatres and on Netflix around Christmas, is the plot addendum that Geppetto is mourning the death of his little boy and that’s what moves him to fashion one out of wood. But in del Toro’s far more aggressive revision, which he wrote with Patrick McHale, Geppetto’s son is a casualty of the bombing of a church during the First World War, and most of the characters who make life difficult for Pinocchio are Fascist warmongers. Even Il Duce himself makes an appearance, as an idiot in a limousine. Surely I can’t be the only one who’s sick to death of del Toro’s Fascists. Some of the visuals in his movie please the eye, but I can’t imagine what audience he intended it for. You’d have to be a sadist to show it to children: there’s actually a scene where the evil puppeteer (Christoph Waltz) starts to burn Pinocchio at the stake. It’s an abomination.

On the other hand, fans of the material would be advised to check out the 2019 Italian version, written by Matteo Garrone and Massimo Ceccherini and wonderfully directed by Garrone, with Roberto Benigni in a sweet, not saccharine, performance as Geppetto and an uncanny little boy named Federico Ielapi in the title role. (Benigni played the puppet in another Italian adaptation two decades earlier.) The only print available for streaming (on Prime) is dubbed in English, but after a while you get used to the disjunction, and because the movie itself has such odd rhythms I actually grew fond of it. Garrone and Ceccherini have stuck close to the book, which is quirky and sometimes rude and decidedly lacking in treacle, though they’ve made it more serene. Unlike Zemeckis, Garrone isn’t interested in removing the sting from the fable; unlike del Toro, he doesn’t want to make it a metaphor for something else. He strives to preserve its strangeness, though his own outré sense of humor adds another layer to Collodi’s when he casts live actors, swathed in wildly imaginative costumes by Massimo Cantini Parrini, as the talking animals Pinocchio encounters. (A long list of technicians is credited with assembling their make-up.) This is the kind of elaborate cinematic fairy tale that almost never works because the actors tend to look trapped in their get-ups and the results are hopeless (Paramount’s 1933 Alice in Wonderland) and even unpleasant (Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin). The ones who especially caught my eye and my funny bone were Massimo Cecchorino as the Fox (he has huge, peeled eyes), Gianfranco Gallo as the Barn Owl, Maria Pia Timo as the Snail and Maurizio Lombardi as the Tuna, whom Pinocchio saves, along with Geppetto, from the belly of the Terrible Dogfish and who, in a moment that’s difficult to describe, allows the puppet to hug him.

I think that’s true of many scenes in the picture, which often feels – the Tuna’s farewell to Pinocchio is the best example – like Lewis Carroll with unexpected notes of melancholy. Gigi Proietti, as the puppet master Mangiafuoco, does something special with the scene where he’s about to throw his Arlecchino marionette onto the fire until Pinocchio steps up and offers to take his place: he locates a beating heart in the old reprobate. Alida Balderi Calabria, as the little Blue Fairy, has grown up by the time Pinocchio meets her again – into Marine Vacth, who looks as if she’d stepped out of an eighteenth-century portrait and whose face suggests that, like the Daughter of Indra in Strindberg’s A Dream Play, she’s taken on the sadness of the world. When Pinocchio has been transformed into a donkey, torn from his friend Lucignolo (Alessio Di Domenicantonio) in one of the movie’s most emotional scenes, and sold to the circus, she watches with silent pity from the stands as he’s made to leap through a fiery hoop and falls to the sawdust, badly hurt. The movie, lushly shot by Nicolai Brüel, is dotted with magical storybook images, like the wagon loaded with doomed boys on their way to the island and Geppetto and Pinocchio floating on the Tuna’s fins in the misty ocean under a foggy moon. I’m not sure exactly how Garrone pulled off this miracle of a movie, which almost no one appears to have noticed – I’m grateful to the critic Michael Sragow for bringing it to my attention – but which deserves to be a classic.

A scene from All Quiet on the Western Front (2022).

Only a handful of war novels (The Red Badge of Courage, A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22) is as esteemed as Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I fiction from the point of view of a young German soldier who, with his school friends, rushes to join up to fight for the glory of the fatherland and undergoes a brutal rite of passage. I read it in a sort of fever as a young man and hadn’t returned it to it for half a century; when I did a few months ago, before seeing the new movie version by the German director, Edward Berger, it was at least as great as I’d originally thought, perhaps greater. Remarque doesn’t seem to have missed a single element of the wartime nightmare, and the episodes still have the vividness of fresh invention, as if no one had ever written about war before. They’re simultaneously present, experiential, and reflective, as if Remarque, through the observations of his hero, Paul Bäumer, had managed to get down what he saw and heard and felt while also possessed of a poet’s gift for assimilating it. “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial,” Paul tells us. “I believe we are lost.” Lewis Milestone made a magnificent film of it in 1930 – it was the third movie to win the Academy Award – opens with the following preface: “This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.” Milestone and the three writers, George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews, included almost every one of the indelible set pieces from the novel, from the schoolroom scene where the boys’ professor revs them up to enlist, to the scene where Kat (Louis Wolheim), Paul’s earthy, pragmatic best friend, is shot from a low-lying French bomber while they’re crossing a field and Paul (Lew Ayres), convinced the wound is superficial, carries him back to the medical tent, only to learn that his comrade has died in his arms. And the filmmakers were wise enough to dramatize Paul’s own demise, which ends the book in a two-paragraph report that is the only passage not in the character’s voice. In the movie, he’s shot down as he reaches out toward a butterfly. It’s one of the two most famous scenes in the picture; the other is the one in the trench where Paul shoots a French soldier of roughly the same age and has what feels like an eternity to regret his actions while the boy dies slowly next to him.

The best of the World War I films of the silent and early talkie eras – D.W. Griffith’s uneven but overpowering Hearts of the World, which went into production while the war was still being fought, King Vidor’s The Big Parade from 1925, and All Quiet - have an almost unbearable poignancy, possibly because the war hadn’t come to audiences through newsreels and documentaries the way World War II did, and it had no accompanying mythos. Milestone’s movie isn’t especially well acted outside the performance of big, square-faced, simian Wolheim as warm, loyal Kat Katczinsky, expert forager and fatherly adviser. But emotionally it’s a complete achievement, and the staging and compositions are remarkable. In one early scene Milestone, a decade too early for deep focus, uses a moving train to cut horizontally across the screen and renders everything in the top section in blurred tiers to create the impression of depth. It’s a cliché that some filmmakers use the screen as a canvas, but Milestone does it literally here.

Anyone who remakes All Quiet on the Western Front has to contend with Milestone’s version, so I tried to be patient with Berger’s, which leans strongly toward expressionism, invented in movies by the German directors who came up after the Great War. Berger has a fine eye, and he and his cinematographer, James Friend, sculpt some superb images. In the early scenes they seem to be trying for the frontal, elemental power of a silent movie; Berger is less interested in getting complex, nuanced work out of his actors than he is in coaxing them to telescope big emotions and big ideas. And his stage-trained leading man, Felix Kammerer, who hasn’t appeared on camera before, comes through for him, at least for a while. But except for Daniel Brühl, who plays Mathias Erzberger, the German official who tries, in the third and fourth year of the war, to get the German High Command together with the French to discuss the possibility of armistice, no one else in the movie makes much of an impression. And somewhere in the middle of the two-and-a-half-hour movie I wearied of Kammerer’s somber intensity. The film doesn’t have much tonal variety. It opens in 1917, so we don’t get the contrast between the patriotic fever that catapults Paul and his friends into war and its disenchanting realities. The darkly humorous scenes from the book and the Milestone movie have been excised or minimized, like the one where Paul’s unit, tragically thinned out in battle, arrives in camp for dinner and argues with the disgruntled cook, who has prepared a meal for twice as many men, that they deserve to eat their dead comrades’ portions. And the violence is so gruesome that instead of laying you out, it numbs you out.

Berger and his two co-writers, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, do a solid job with the men’s sexual desperation. But I missed classic sequences like Paul’s restless leave, where he visits his family and finds that he’s been living such an alien life from theirs that he has nothing to say to them. Some remain: of course we get the trench scene between Paul and the French soldier, undoubtedly the key anti-war passage in modern literature. So much has been taken out, though, that the shape of the narrative is altered, distended. Berger and his collaborators are determined to make the point – repeatedly – that the High Command is more concerned with protecting Germany from humiliation than with saving the lives of soldiers; you can see the movie setting up the next phase of German history, the disgrace and desolation of defeat and the consequent anger that will lead to Hitler. But nothing that this version of All Quiet substitutes for Remarque’s treatment of the war and Milestone’s transfer comes close to the potency of either.

Emma Corrin and Jack O'Connell in Lady Chatterley's Lover (2022).

It's amazing to me that after all these years so many of the modernist classics have retained their punch. The ideas in A Doll’s House or Miss Julie or Uncle Vanya continue to reach through the page or float to the surface of a strong production, and the struggles of the characters to find their feet in the new world haven’t lost any of their bruising immediacy. When, around the release of the latest movie version, I returned to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, first published (privately) in 1928 and the subject of a celebrated obscenity case in England in 1960, I hadn’t picked it up since I was in my twenties. Lawrence used this novel, with its descriptions of the sexual union of a titled English lady and her husband’s gamekeeper and its free and precise use of profanity as clubs to batter down the doors that still enclosed Victorian notions of sex and class, and when you read it now you can still hear the timbers splinter. What makes it such an overwhelming reading experience, though, I think, is not just the ideas. It’s also Lawrence’s focus on the way the characters – Constance, Lady Chatterley, married to a man whose war injuries, probably coupled with post-traumatic stress, have made lovemaking with his wife impossible; and Oliver Mellors, who is recovering from the agony of a wretched marriage – personalize their interaction with an English society that is still scarred and bleeding from the worst war in history yet is determined to cling to the status quo of a world that no longer exists. Lady Chatterley may not be Lawrence’s greatest novel – I’d put both Sons and Lovers and Women in Love ahead of it – but it’s great enough.

There have been about a dozen movie and television adaptations of the book, but until the new one, with Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell, the only one I’d seen was the woefully misbegotten 1955 French film, directed by Marc Allegret, with a miscast Danielle Darrieux as Constance, the English actor Leo Genn, reciting his lines in a public-school French accent, as her husband Clifford, and an Italian hunk named Erno Crisa as Mellors. Crisa is about as expressive as Steve Reeves as Hercules, and he and Darrieux have zero chemistry. The new film is directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, whose debut feature, The Mustang (2019), displayed a real gift for filmmaking and for working with actors. Lady Chatterley is her second, and it’s pretty good. This time both the leads are cast right, and Corrin (who played the younger Princess Diana on The Crown) is particularly strong as Connie. Outfitted by Emma Fryer in loose dresses that suggest a taste for understated elegance as well as a longing for physical freedom, she has an appealing straightforwardness and level-headedness; it’s easy to see her as a type of Shaw’s New Woman, though it takes her a while to break out of the trap of serving as her husband’s caregiver rather than as his lover. Until she enters a relationship with Mellors Corrin’s Constance has a tentative, quizzical look; when she rushes into his embrace, following a lovely moment when she’s moved to tears by a brood of newly hatched chicks, there’s a desperation to it. “That’s how it’s been, has it?” he comments calmly before undressing her. The performance grows, as it should, when the affair commences; the scene in the forest where she insists that he stop calling her milady opens up a fresh range of feeling for the actress.

In the book, Mellors introduces her to the word cunt; she has already heard her husband’s literary friends, one of whom she sleeps with casually, say fuck – and in the movie she’s the one who uses it first with Mellors, not the other way around. The conversation between them that gives rise to these expressions is the most famous passage in the novel, but it was smart of the screenwriter, David Magee, not to reproduce it. Lawrence’s dialogue is stylized to accommodate the unprecedented ways in which he explores his characters, and it doesn’t tend to work on the screen. It does in Jack Cardiff’s film of Sons and Lovers, with Dean Stockwell as Paul Morel and Wendy Hiller and Trevor Howard as his parents, but in Ken Russell’s 1969 Women in Love, the screenwriter Larry Kramer pours language from the book onto the movie – generally the worst of it – and it congeals like melted brown sugar. Lady Chatterley provides literary links: Connie reads Virginia Woolf and observes James Joyce on a shelf in Mellors’s cottage, and a scene where, after rumors have circulated about their romance, she’s snubbed by other English aristocrats in Venice is out of Anna Karenina. Yet Magee doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that he’s starting from a famous literary work. On the page, Mellors rants about the deadness of English society; the implication of the happy ending, where Connie, having walked out on Clifford with Oliver’s child in her belly, comes together with her lover is that they just might be able to start a new one. Magee leaves all of this out, but he and Clermont-Tonnerre get at it through the way they underline Clifford’s deterioration from a would-be member of the post-war literari into a mine owner who shows no compassion for the men who work in his mine. And Connie’s sister Hilda (Faye Marsay), in her way, falls into the same class trap: she’s all in favor of Connie’s taking a lover until she learns that he isn’t their kind.

Perhaps the toughest nut to crack in any dramatization of Lady Chatterley is Clifford: the story literally emasculates him, and he’s almost bound to look foolish. Matthew Duckett plays him here, and scene to scene he gives a creditable performance. (He’s best in the scene where his wheelchair gets stuck in a field and, humiliated and angry, he’s obliged to ask Mellors to push it out of its rut.) But the material doesn’t give him a chance to rouse any sympathy in the viewer, and his treatment of the miners makes him look worse in the film than he looks in the novel. That’s not the only problem. In filmmaking terms the sex scenes are skillful, but Clermont-Tonnerre hesitates to go too far with the passion, presumably lest she provoke the reductive dismissal of Lawrence as a misogynist (which he is not) with the temerity to think he can get a woman’s sexual feelings on the page. I don’t think it’s worth worrying about; after all, Clermont-Tonnerre is a sensitive female director. But in any case she winds up softening the sex, taking the danger out of it. A montage of the lovers together in the woods may show the two stars unclothed, but it still isn’t much different from the trite romantic montages in glossy Hollywood pictures of the fifties and sixties. And I wish she’d resisted the temptation to shoot them dancing naked in the rain like a pair of hippies circa 1969.

Lawrence hasn’t fared well on the screen: 1949’s The Rocking Horse Winner and Sons and Lovers about a decade later are the only first-rank movies of his work that I’ve run across. Women in Love is bad aside from Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates; Kangaroo is bad except for Judy Davis; The Fox and The Rainbow are both bad. So a lover of Lawrence like me is less likely to cavil with this Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Despite its flaws, it’s decent. Joely Richardson (who played Connie on television thirty years ago) humanizes Mrs. Bolton, the miner’s widow whom Clifford hires to take care of him; she has a quiet intensity in the part that’s quite affecting. Ella Hunt shines in the small role of Mrs. Flint, a neighbor Connie befriends who pulls away when she finds out about the affair and feels Connie has compromised her. And though he’s barely on screen, Anthony Brophy makes Connie’s father life-sized. Benoît Delhomme’s lighting helps to bring the rural setting to life. And with Corrin and O’Connell as the lovers, you feel that Clermont-Tonnerre’s movie captures something of the most arresting romantic story of the modern age.

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.  


1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve, Donald here....I greatly enjoyed this piece, a great overview of the remakes, along with a great underview of the contexts of the originals out of which they emerged.