Archive for the ‘Books into Films’ Category

Published in 2000, my book club’s most recent choice has achieved a wide audience – well, a wider audience – through its recreation as a film of the same name (2015). It stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth, and the cast and film won five awards at the 2015 AACTAs: Best Lead Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Hugo Weaving), Best Costumes (Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson) and the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. But the book began life as a project for a creative writing class, and it shows. You can just imagine them workshopping the blurb: ‘an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture’. It’s true, though, that I saw the film before I read the book; this inevitably changed the way I read it.

Tilly Dunnage arrives back in her small home town of Dungatar with a suitcase and a sewing machine, and incredible skills as a dressmaker (and yes, I think I mean incredible, but that’s maybe because I don’t have any skills at all in the area myself). She has returned to care for her mother who lives in squalid seclusion in a house at the top of the only hill in town. We learn that Tilly was banished from Dungatar after being involved, in some initially unspecified way, in the death of another child; she has in the meantime learnt dressmaking in the leading European design houses. The residents of the town are initially almost uniformly hostile. The two main exceptions are the town’s only policeman, Sergeant Farrat, who himself loves making outrageous outfits to wear in the privacy of his house, and Teddy McSwiney, who comes from a family of outcasts himself, but has won popularity as the local football team’s star full forward. He finds Tilly the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Gradually the women of the town warm to Tilly when they find she can make clothes that make them look attractive and stylish, and gradually Tilly warms to Teddy. But then tragedy strikes. Can anything be saved from the ruins? Quick answer: no.

I bet that when they were workshopping that blurb, they thought about including ‘revenge’ and ‘magic realism’ in the list. And I’m not sure why ‘gothic’ made the cut, because it’s not a horror story, though of course horrible things happen. But it is a tale of revenge, initially satisfying, but then rather over the top. I’m not sure if revenge was always what Tilly intended; I didn’t get that impression, though others have suggested it. And perhaps the magic realism is rather more cinematic than inherent in the story, though Sergeant Farrat certainly defies ordinary credibility. The town’s entry into the eisteddfod is pretty surreal too.

Tilly’s story is the main one, but there are a number of sub plots involving the town residents. This is one of the areas that sounds to me a bit like a creative writing class exercise. Have lots of characters and tell us something interesting about them all. There were so many I had to keep going back to work out which was which, whose story belonged to whom. Most of these sub plots show people in a poor light that is sometimes funny, but often just rather nasty and rather two dimensional. One of the sub plots is actually part of Tilly’s story; it’s just a bit hard to pick it out from amongst all the others – though maybe this is intentional to add an element of mystery. The way the relationship between Tilly and her mother Molly develops doesn’t ring true to me either; I thought it was handled better in the film. (The overall plot was sharpened up a bit in the film. The beginning of the book drags a bit.)

So what of the other tag words in the blurb? Australian the book certainly is; the landscape is beautifully evoked, and the dialogue has an Aussie ring to it. The small town pettiness could probably be found anywhere, but seems to take on a particularly Australian character. And the haute couture is interesting for those with an interest in such things – whether, for example, Tilly used ‘Paris stitch for the lace trim … when she knew she should have used whip stitch.’ I’m assured by those who are interested that the haute couture is the highlight of the book. But is it enough to hang the story on? It’s perfectly legitimate to have an exotic or highly specialised craft that is central to the story, but too often it is clearly a device that doesn’t sit quite comfortably – think The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato, reviewed here, or A Cup of Light, by Nicole Mones, reviewed here. There is only one point at which the author poses the question of the human value of Tilly’s dressmaking. Teddy asks Tilly why she makes clothes for the nasty women of the town; she replied it’s what she does. ‘They’ve grown airs, they think they’re classy,’ says her mother. ‘You’re not doing them any good.’ But Molly is painted as contrary by nature (or illness and neglect), and so this can’t really be taken as the author’s view. Indeed Tilly replies ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ I was left completely unsure whether Tilly is from the beginning using her dressmaking skills to build the women up only to tear them down, whether she uses them to get the town to accept her, or whether at least initially she just likes dressmaking. Certainly her revenge is ultimately complete.  But is the haute couture part of it? Or does it lead the town to destroy itself?

You can read more about Rosalie Ham here, and more about the film version here. It’s described as ‘a revenge comedy-drama’. Unusually, most of my book group preferred it to the book.

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I read the late P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley when it came out in 2011. I enjoyed it – how could I not, being both a fan of P.D. James and Jane Austen? (Does this make me a Janeite? Probably. Too bad.) But I nevertheless felt that the problems of marrying a murder mystery to a story about early nineteenth century social relationships were too great even for P.D. James, and that in order to be true to Elizabeth and Darcy, the crime story had to suffer. You can read what I said here. But of course I was interested to see how the TV series deals with it.

The problem I find with adaptations of books for film or TV is how far the adaptation should be viewed as a stand-alone product. I can’t stop myself comparing them. Here there is the additional complication that the book is an adaptation of sorts of the original Austen characters and some of the original situations. A double level of comparison! So not only do I compulsively compare the TV series with the book, I also compare it with the world of the original. This is unfortunate, as I would probably enjoy the TV series more if I didn’t constantly find myself muttering ‘Yes, but …’

The facts of the murder are essentially the same as in the book. Elizabeth and Darcy’s brother-in-law, George Wickham, is accused of killing his friend Captain Denny in the Pemberley woods on the eve of the annual Pemberley ball. What were they doing there? Why would he kill his friend? Will he be found guilty and bring dishonour on Pemberley? As the story progresses, some of what is only hinted at in the book is made much clearer on the screen, and I think this actually strengthens the plot. And in the TV version, Elizabeth is given a major role in the resolution, which takes away some of the deus ex machina element in the ending of the book. Naturally it is played for all the tension that can be screwed out of it, and quite successfully, too. But is this clarity is achieved at the expense of a violation of the social conventions operating in Austen’s world?

The relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy differs markedly from that in the book. In the book, Darcy has no doubts about his love for Elizabeth. In the TV version, they fight, and begin to question each other’s commitment. This version chooses to stress Darcy’s pride in the traditions of Pemberley, which is something present in the book, but not a matter of contention between Elizabeth and Darcy. On screen, the unpleasant side of Elizabeth’s family is played up, so we are reminded of how much he has married below himself. In both the book and the TV series we are shown Lydia Wickham as a hysterical and foolish woman – but her shallowness is more marked on screen (though I have to admit she has a moment of redemption). The TV series also gives us Mrs Bennett as a much more unpleasantly insidious character than in the original. She doesn’t actually appear at Pemberley at all in the book, where only Mr Bennett is present, as a source of calm and support. In the book, Jane, the presentable sister, and Bingley are present from the first; on screen, Jane comes in only briefly later. And the element of family pride is added to the relationships between Darcy’s sister Georgiana, her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam who wants to marry her and Henry Alveston, the man she loves. Having Darcy and Elizabeth quarrelling, Georgiana torn between her suitors and contemplating putting duty to Pemberley before love, makes for high drama and good visuals. But it’s not in the book, and doesn’t add to the murder side of things – well not much, anyway. And having Elizabeth and Darcy at each other’s throats has more in common with one of the weaker romantic sequels to Pride and Prejudice than it does with the spirit of generous accord reached between them in that book.

The production is visually attractive, and the acting perfectly acceptable. Elizabeth seems to have risen to the occasion as mistress of Pemberley, but there is almost no place for her wit and playfulness – though there wasn’t in the book, either. We get a touch of it in her meeting with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which is nice, as we only get a letter from her in the book. We can probably agree that Elizabeth would never be showy in her dress, but would she really wear more or less the same thing every day? A few bits of modern dialogue creep in, as when Darcy says ‘He’ll be fine’, but overall, the surface conventions have mostly been respected.

The deeper problem for me concerns Elizabeth’s role. P.D. James clearly felt that as Darcy’s wife and mistress of Pemberley Elizabeth couldn’t take an active part in the murder mystery. By limiting what Elizabeth can do, James has also limited the crime story. By expanding her role, the TV version has strengthened the crime story, but at the expense of the conventions of the time.  As for Darcy’s role in the TV version, it’s not hard to imagine that all that pride from the original book was still lurking around somewhere …

You can read more about P.D. James here, and see some of the tributes to her after her death in November 2014 here.

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When I was at the movies to see Gone Girl – which I recently reviewed – I saw the shorts of a film that looked dark and violent; I later found it described as an example of the neo noir. A New York detective who had quit the force after a child died as ‘collateral damage’ in a shootout with criminals – an accident, but one the detective believed had come about partly because he had been drinking…  A detective that now worked as an unlicensed private eye just inside, or sometimes outside the law. It was the title that brought it all back to me. A Walk Among the Tombstones, published in 1992, is one of a series of books by Lawrence Block featuring Matthew Scudder, private detective and recovering alcoholic. So I thought I’d write about the book before seeing the film – or maybe not seeing the film, if the story turned out to be more violent than I remembered from reading it twenty years ago.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is the tenth in the Matthew Scudder series, so the death of the child is not part of the story (as it appears to be in the film). But it continues to haunt Scudder, and he goes to a lot of AA meetings to help stay sober. Then Pete Khoury, who he has met at AA, asks him to undertake some work for his brother Kenan. Kenan’s wife has been kidnapped. (This is where the film starts.) He pays a ransom, but his wife is brutally murdered anyway. He can’t go to the police because his money comes from drug trafficking, and they would ask awkward questions. So he wants Scudder to find the men who did it. And then he wants to kill them.

After this fairly dramatic start, the book moves into a much calmer phase with Scudder looking for the killers. Though he doesn’t have much to go on, he patiently puts together evidence and clever guess work. ‘When I start something I have a hell of a time letting go of it,’ he says. ‘I don’t do it by being brilliant. I just hang on like a bulldog until something shakes loose.’ He calls in favours from old police colleagues, and gets some help from computer hackers. The story is set in the early 1990s, so there are no mobile phones, little by way of police data bases, and fairly basic computers. The New York phone system still works by people putting quarters into public phones. Goodness knows what the film will make of that. He finds out some very nasty things, but initially these are in the past and written down or verbally reported. Violence is described, but not with the immediacy that it might gain by being shown in a film. Things do, however, move to a violent climax.

Yet I don’t feel that this is a particularly violent book. This is partly because of Block’s understated prose style, and his ability to undercut the horror with a sort of wry humour. For example, someone is garrotted. ‘I had seen a garrotte before so I knew right away what I was looking at, but nothing really prepares you for it. It was as awful a sight as I had ever seen in my life,’ says Scudder. But then he goes on ‘But it did lower the odds.’ If the film shows such things, it will indeed be noir, and I won’t want to see it. If it can retain Block’s lightness of touch, with the violence implied rather than revelled in, then I might find it worth seeing.

Part of the tone of the story – and presumably the film – is set by Scudder himself, played in the film by Liam Neeson. He is clearly a damaged man; after seeing a play with ‘a lot of brooding intensity’ he comments that ‘It took me through dark passages in the self without troubling to turn the lights on.’ He is self-contained and tries to remain unemotional; he follows the AA principle of taking one day at a time. His drinking destroyed his family life, but in this story he is in an ongoing relationship with a character from a previous book. He lives simply, but in a way that is willingly self-imposed, rather than forced on him. He is an honourable man, in the tradition of Philip Marlowe; he will do dodgy things for good ends. The story is made less confronting by the fact that the drug trafficker, Kenan Khoury, isn’t shown as evil, despite the way he makes his money. In fact he is quite a sympathetic character.

I am assuming, of course, that the plot of the film follows that of the book. This is probably an unwise assumption, as I know from this review that the end of the film is different from the end of the book, though I don’t know how. Somehow I fear the softer edges of the book will have been knocked off in the film.

Given that this book was published in 1992, I wonder why it is only now that it has attracted the attention of the movie moguls. Perhaps it is the title; Block does a good line in titles, with, for example, the two before this one being A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990) and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991). He is an amazingly prolific writer; there are 17 Matthew Scudder novels stretching from 1976 to 2011. In addition he has a series about a bookseller and part-time burglar, which is fun, if a little formulaic, one about a man who never needs to sleep and a whole lot of others, most written under other names. But from what I’ve read, the Matthew Scudder series is the best of them. And no, I probably won’t go and see the film.

You can read more about Lawrence Block and his books here. And here’s another review of the film.

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I liked Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (2012) so much that I included it in my ‘best of’ 2013 list. You can read my review here. So naturally I had to see the movie. One of things I particularly like about the book is the clever way misdirection is used to create suspense, and I was interested to see how this would be translated on film. I think it worked pretty well – though some other things I thought were strengths of the book were missing from the movie.

The film follows the story of the book pretty faithfully, with only slight abbreviations – not surprising, since Gillian Flynn wrote the screen play. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick arrives home to find his wife Amy has disappeared. It looks like there has been some kind of struggle. Has she been kidnapped? Or, is it, as the police conclude as the evidence piles up against him, that Nick has killed her, and tried to make it look like a kidnapping? In the book, both Nick and Amy admit to being unreliable narrators; this is less clear in the movie. Amy’s diary comes into the book much sooner than it does in the film, removing one source of misdirection, but I think viewers who haven’t read the book will still get the same reaction to the major misdirection that drives the plot that you get reading the book. I knew what was coming and I still enjoyed it. There isn’t much physical violence in the book, but what there is, is presented very graphically in the film; a bit of a look-away-now moment for me. But overall, a clever film, well acted, darkly funny in parts, and exciting in others.

One of the friends I saw the movie with, who hadn’t read the book, felt that the ending was not really credible. She wondered whether the actor who played Nick, Ben Affleck, was too pleasant and sympathetic – even given his behaviour in the story. In the book, the reader learns a lot more about his talent for misdirection, and his psychology, his inner thoughts and the influence of his father, all of which present him as flawed and accentuate his sense of being ‘hollow’, even while they explain it. I also wondered if she might have found the ending a little unsatisfactory if it was assumed that the story could be taken as a realistic portrayal of a marriage – after all, the blurb for the film says it ‘unearths the secrets at the heart of a modern marriage’. I thought the story of Nick and Amy in the book was satire, not an accurate representation. On those grounds, the ending of the book is quite appropriate. But the film wasn’t played as satire, (at least I don’t think so, and maybe I’m wrong about the book anyway), so the alternative of a resolution that is supposed to be realistic and takes ‘modern marriage’ at its face value perhaps didn’t work perfectly.

The other major difference I found between the book and the movie was in the setting. In both the book and the film, Nick and Amy have lost their jobs in New York because of the Global Financial Crisis, and moved to Nick’s decaying home town in Missouri. In the movie, they live in a big, well-appointed house in a pleasant-looking neighbourhood and Nick drives an expensive-looking SUV. It’s true that the shopping mall in the town is shown as derelict, as it is in the book, but I thought the film completely lacked the sense of economic decline that characterised the town in the book – ‘suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity’ and its surroundings – ‘a series of shuttered businesses – ruined community banks and defunct movie houses’. This is a pity, because for me, Nick and Amy’s relationship can also be described as ‘post-humanity’ – rather than a ‘normal’ breakdown of modern marriage. The movie is about what individual husbands and wives can do to each other; the book puts this behaviour into a much more problematic social and economic context. Yes, I said above that the author wrote the screen play …

Even given these reservations, I still enjoyed the movie. There will always be a debate about whether a book is better than the movie made of it, or whether reading the book spoils the movie. In most cases I find I like the book best, though there are notable exceptions to this rule (see Lord of the Rings, where I loved both, and thought the film even added something, and the Harry Potter movies which improved on the books by removing some things). You can read a discussion of this film v this book here. And you can see a trailer for the film here.

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The Broken Shore (2005) is a highly acclaimed crime story by probably the best crime writer in Australia: Temple has won a number of ‘best crime story’ awards for his work. But he is more than a crime writer. The Broken Shore was long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in 2006, and his next book, Truth (2009), won it in 2010.  This award is given to the book which in that year shows ‘the highest literary merit’ as well as presenting ‘Australian Life in any of its phases’. He has also won other awards for literary merit. He uses some of the conventions of crime writing, but at a level that takes his work outside the narrowing confines of genre. And now they’ve made a TV movie of The Broken Shore.

Homicide detective Joe Cashin is back in his home town on the Victorian coast, recuperating after being badly injured in the line of duty. ‘I’m the cripple running Port Monro,’ he says. A loner, in constant pain and reliving in dreams the operation gone wrong, he is ‘broken’ like the rugged limestone cliffs he lives near. ‘Life was weakness,’ he thinks, ‘strength was the exception.’ When a local landowner is bashed and robbed, Cashin is given charge of the investigation by the Homicide branch in Melbourne. But is the case as open and shut as it first looks? Why are the police in Cromarty, the nearest large town, so uniformly hostile? Could there be other motives for the crime?

At one level this is a clever crime story based on careful misdirection. It is up to Cashin to arrive at the answer no one else has seen, ‘delivered to him by some process in the brain that endlessly sifted, sorted and shuffled things heard and read, seen and felt, bits and pieces with no obvious use, just clutter, litter, until the moment when two of them touched, spun and found each other, fitted like hands locking.’ (And what a great statement of the way great detectives operate – in books, at least.) As Cashin finds his way towards the truth, the tension mounts to a dramatic climax; is Cashin’s worst nightmare about to be repeated?  This is a good but fairly standard plot structure. What makes the book rise above the constraints of the crime story?

There are two things. One is the writing. Temple has a wonderful ear for dialogue; it has been rightly described as ‘brutal and spare’. Some readers find it unnecessarily coarse, but that’s how people speak. Homicide detectives see the worst of things, but cover their feelings with banter. ‘How is it that wogs have taken over this force?’ asks one detective. ‘Natural selection,’ says Cashin. ‘Survival of the best dressed.’ Cashin feels deeply, but hides his feelings. You ‘turn it into a joke,’ says his mother. ‘Even a tragedy’s only a tragedy for five minutes, then it’s a joke.’ Has he made an error of judgement? ‘With hindsight,’ he says, ‘I see most of my life as an error of judgement.’ ‘There was no firm ground in life. Just crusts of different thickness over the ooze.’ Cashin’s bleak view is reflected in the urban landscapes he visits – ‘a street of rotting weatherboards, dumped cars and thin front yards silting up with junk mail’.

The second strength is Temple’s ability to write about tragedy in a way that is neither dismissive nor melodramatic. His work reveals the underbelly of life in Australia – in this case in small country towns. Too many lives, too many relationships, both personal and social, are broken. Prejudice and racism are rife; whatever goes wrong is blamed on the Aborigines who live there. ‘You’d think the white trash were all at choir practice of a Saturday night.’ There is other theme that is equally disturbing and perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 2005, but to say what it is would be to give away the plot. However just as the bleak landscape can also be beautiful, Cashin finds friendship and purpose where least looked for.

So what do they make of this in a film? Despite a previously stated preference for the written over the visual, I found the film very satisfying. Don Hany makes a great Joe Cashin, clearly in pain but taking no bullshit; he is now my mental image of Joe Cashin. All the other casting works well, though Erik Thomson as Joe’s boss, Inspector Villani, wasn’t what I expected. He’s fine in this, but if they make a film of Truth, I hope they choose another actor because I can’t see him as the main character (which he is in Truth). There is plenty of the black humour that characterises the dialogue in the book.  The film has a strong visual impact with suitably bleak and beautiful scenery as a backdrop. The story has been simplified by the removal of one possible motive and a sub plot, and the shortening of the chain of evidence that leads to the climax. I think something is lost in doing this, but I can see that it works well enough in this context. You would have needed a mini-series to get it all in. There is a strong hint at the beginning about the motive for the crime; so much for me saying the plot is based on misdirection. But I recommend the film – even if you don’t read the book first, though naturally I also recommend you do that too.

You can read more about Peter Temple here, and some rather sketchy details about the film here. You can catch up with it on ABC ivew for the next couple of weeks.

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This is the most recent – 2012 – in a long series of British police procedurals featuring Detective Chief Inspector Banks and set in the fictional town of Eastvale in Yorkshire. I’ve read a number of others in the series over the years, and have found them competent and readable. But what drew me back to this one was seeing the first two 90 minute episodes of the TV series DCI Banks, which were based on two of the earlier books. I wanted to refresh my view of Banks and see if it fitted with the TV version.

Inspector Bill Quinn is on sick leave when he is killed in what looks like a professional hit. Could it be related to the case he was working on, which involved surveillance of a shady money lender who might have had links to people trafficking? Or could it be connected to the case of a missing girl which had haunted him for years? And Professional Standards would like to know why compromising pictures of Quinn and a young girl were found in his room, though everyone knew that he was devoted to his recently dead wife. Then there’s the personal side of things. Inspector Annie Cabbot, Bank’s long term off-sider, is just back from sick leave herself, after getting over injuries sustained in the previous book. Is she up to the hard grind of a murder inquiry? And how will the attractive but cold Inspector Joanna Passero from Professional Standards fit into the investigation?

This is all fairly standard stuff. Banks is a likeable enough character, in something of the same mould as Ian Rankin’s Rebus: divorced, a loner, but without the aggression. He doesn’t always go by the book, and thinks most detectives ‘didn’t know the right questions to ask’. Like Rebus, he sees connections that others miss. Robinson humanises him partly through his musical tastes; here he finds himself starting to like Mahler’s symphonies. ‘Was this something that happened when you got older? Failing eyesight, mysterious aches and pains, enjoying Mahler? Would Wagner be next?’ Coming in at the end of the series, a reader might miss the depth of the rapport between Banks and Cabbot, who have had an on-again off-again relationship in earlier books. The investigation itself relies rather too much on what people are conveniently prepared to tell the detectives, and I think some of the earlier stories were stronger. But there is some good social realism in the people trafficking element of the story. It’s no surprise that the endorsements on the covers of most of Robinson’s books are from Ian Rankin and Michael Connolly.

So how does this sort of character, and this sort of book, come out on TV? Banks is played by Stephen Tompkinson, a fairly common face on British TV, who has played both comedy and drama (and was a police constable in Minder, for those who remember). He plays Banks as rather tougher and more conflicted than I had pictured him. I sometimes find the TV characterisation adds to the one in the book, as with Alec Guinness and George Smiley, or George Baker and Reg Wexford. I don’t feel that here; the kind and compassionate side of Banks isn’t really developed in what I’ve seen of this series.  Annie Cabbot, however, is a pleasure; she is played by Andrea Lowe with rather more cheekiness and verve than I remember from the books. Not surprisingly, the stories themselves are made more dramatic than they seem in the books, where the careful accumulation of evidence is important in building tension. On TV, the spectacle is more important, so there the more vivid events like fires or car chases get a lot of air time. The violence is also emphasised more than in the books, simply by being visual. Reading about a burnt body is quite different from seeing one close up. I also find that with TV, any ambiguities or weaknesses in the plot can be glossed over by concentration on the action. It’s only afterwards that you wonder, for example, just how Banks knew where he had to go in order to save Annie from her headstrong pursuit of the baddie in Playing With Fire.

Overall, I certainly enjoyed the two programs I’ve seen, and went to bed after them feeling more disturbed than I had reading the books. I’ll certainly watch any further episodes. But if I had to choose between TV and book, I’d choose the book every time.

You can read more about Peter Robinson and DCI Banks here.

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When I wrote about The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, I noted that one of his characters has the same ‘comfort book’ as I do – I Capture the Castle (1948). A friend asked me what a comfort book was, and I explained that it is a book you re-read when you feel in need of cheering up. I have several, and suspect I share some of them, such as Pride and Prejudice and Lord of the Rings, with others. But most people I know haven’t ever heard of this book (though I gather that it was voted eighty-second out of the 100 best-loved novels in the BBC’s ‘The Big Read’  in 2003 – the year the film came out – see below).

The story is set in the 1930s and is in the form of a journal written by seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain. ‘I write this,’ she beings, ‘sitting in the kitchen sink.’ She lives in a semi-ruined castle with her eccentric family. Her father is a writer suffering from chronic writer’s block, so they have almost no income; they have had progressively to sell off all their ‘good’ furniture and books. Her stepmother Topaz is a former artist’s model who plays the lute and communes with nature. Her older sister Rose is beautiful, ‘hates most things she has and envies most things she hasn’t’, and is desperate to escape their poverty. Her younger brother Thomas is all ‘appetite and homework’. And then there is Stephen, the son of their former maid who simply stayed on when she died. It is these characters Cassandra intends to ‘capture’. Enter the Cottons, two American brothers, the elder of whom has inherited the nearby Scoatney estate. ‘Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened?’ Cassandra asks Rose. ‘I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice – where Mrs Bennet says Netherfield Park is let at last.’ But things don’t turn out quite like an Austen story.

This is a quintessential coming of age novel in which Cassandra learns to think differently about herself and all her family. This is reflected in her attitude to her writing. ’How arrogant I used to be,’ she says. ‘I remember writing in this journal that I would capture father later – I meant to do a brilliant character sketch. Capture father! Why, I don’t know anything about anyone.’ At the end: ‘I don’t intend to go on with this journal; I have grown out of wanting to write about myself.’ And she comes to understand how difficult it is to explain ‘how the image and the reality merge, and how they somehow extend and beatify each other’. And as events play out, Cassandra learns a stern lesson about love and life, and ‘the game of second best we have all been playing.’

Why do I enjoy the book so much? I think it’s mainly because I really like the way Cassandra looks at the world. Smith has captured the enthusiasm and buoyancy of youth, even if Cassandra is, as one character suggests, a bit ‘consciously naive’. She is observant; she notices, for example, how when her father is asked what he is working on, he ‘somehow deflated’: ‘the carriage of his head changed, and his shoulders sagged.’ Her judgements aren’t always correct though. She has a good sense of humour, and can laugh at the family’s misfortunes. She and Topaz are trying to work out how to return the Cotton’s hospitality when they don’t have any dining room furniture. Lacking chairs, Topaz wonders if they could sit on cushions on the floor. “‘We certainly don’t have enough chairs.” “We haven’t enough cushions, either,” Cassandra replies. “All we really have enough of is floor.” We laughed until the candle wax ran down onto our hands. After that we felt better.’  She takes an infectious pleasure in the simple things around her –drinking cocoa, hearing school children singing, looking at the light on the castle walls. Despite periods of misery, she ultimately has a refreshingly optimistic outlook on life.

If I’m honest I also have to admit that there is a degree of nostalgia in my pleasure. Smith wrote the story when she was living in America and feeling homesick for England; this has no doubt produced a romanticised view. But more important, this closed little domain, with its unquestioned attitudes to class and sex, untouched by the realities of the Great Depression, or the rise of Fascism in Europe, is amazingly restful. Cassandra and her problems exist in a more comfortable world.

While relatively few people seem to know this novel, most will have heard of another of Dodie Smith’s books – The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956).  This became even better known after the 1961 Disney film. Disney also bought the rights to I Capture the Castle, but nothing came of this until Smith’s literary executor – none other than Julian Barnes – bought them back, and the story was filmed in 2003. I enjoyed it, but it couldn’t match the magic I find in the novel.

I came across another of Smith’s books – It Ends with Revelations (1967). I thought it was awful. That’s the way it goes.

You can read more about Dodie Smith here, and about her status as a ‘forgotten author’ here

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