Saturday, September 01, 2007



The last great filmic venture to emerge from Columbia’s contribution to literary adaptations harkened all the way back to 1984 and Milos Forman Amadeus. Under director Bernard Rose, Immortal Beloved (1994) became an intense and engaged detailing of the flawed and tragic life of composer Ludwig von Beethoven. Once again, more speculation than fact proved the order of the day in this relatively faithful bio-pic.

The crux of the film’s narrative derives from a mysterious letter found after Beethoven’s death bequeathing all of his worldly possessions to an ‘immortal beloved.’ Although scholars and musicologists have yet to agree on the origins of this mystery woman, director/writer Rose chose to conduct my own research from original sources, letters, court transcripts, conversation books and most of all, Beethoven’s music. “I soon realized,” Rose would later write, “…that there is no imaginable way of conclusively proving such a thing as the recipient of an unaddressed letter a hundred and ninety years ago.”
Not that that stopped Rose from trying. Buttressed by a formidable performance from chameleon character actor, Gary Oldman, and a stellar screenplay which kept one guessing until the very end, Immortal Beloved emerged as a probable fiction – fairly accurate, but wholly satisfying as epic entertainment, perhaps most efficiently summarized by film critic Roger Ebert as “…clearly…made by people who feel Beethoven directly in their hearts.”
In April of 1995, awash in professional success, Emma Thompson embarked on her own literary adaptation; this time on Jane Austen’s timeless novel, Sense and Sensibility. By then, she had toiled on the script for nearly a year, a tenure made more problematic by tensions in her already crumbling marriage to Kenneth Branagh. Investing herself in her work, Thompson and director Ang Lee (who had never read Austen until Columbia Pictures passed him a copy of Thompson’s script), began the arduous task of whittling down her screenplay to a manageable size, making many continuity changes along the way.

The story concerns two sisters, Margaret (Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet). The latter is predisposed to believing in the ethereal platitudes of love, while the former has a temperament that is greatly reserved. Margaret is drawn to Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), the son of a wealthy family who will be disinherited by his scheming sister, Fanny (Harriet Walter) – married to Marrianne and Margaret’s brother, John (James Fleet), and, who now occupies the estate that should have rightfully been divided between the sisters.
Frequent inclement weather during the May shoot, and the rather turgid conditions while living abroad and obscurely in the countryside of Devon England, did much to dampen the clothing though not the spirits of both cast and crew. In fact, a quiet infatuation had begun to develop on set between Emma Thompson and costar Greg Wise (cast as Marianne’s suitor, John Willoughby). The ‘soon-to-be’ romance made for a more pleasant atmosphere – along with several ‘wild’ after hours parties that had everyone in stitches. By the time the film wrapped principle photography in July, Wise and Thompson had become lovers. The two would eventually marry in 2003. Upon its release, Sense and Sensibility was declared a masterpiece with Thompson winning the Golden Globe for her script.
A minor lull in the cycle of literary melodrama followed, with Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning historical/fiction epic, Braveheart (1995) nicely filling in the gap. Based loosely on the myth and legends of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), the screenplay by Randall Wallace follows the bloody carnage between the English armies amassed by King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) and the growing army of dissidents under Wallace’s command. In the film, Wallace’s supremacy on the battlefield infuriates Edward, but in point of fact, Wallace’s great conflict was with the British crown and not necessarily its peoples who were divided amongst Scots, Welsh and British descent.
Screenwriter Randall Wallace had never even heard of William Wallace until a 1983 trip to Edinburgh, after which he became fascinated and bewitched by not only the legend of ‘Scotland’s greatest hero’ but moreover by an almost complete lack of documented texts written on the man and his accomplishments. Instead, Randall relied heavily on a little known 15th century poem by Henry the Minstrel as the basis for his enveloping action yarn.
At best then, Braveheart is a liberal approximation of Wallace’s life and times – a flowing, vibrant exercise in filmic fabrication from start to finish, touched off with the most superficial of concrete information to go on. Nevertheless, upon its premiere Braveheart was embraced by the public and critics as an instant hit – riding the crest of public fascination for ‘period pictures’ all the way to, arguably, its well deserved Best Picture Oscar.


Amidst the overwhelming critical and financial success of Braveheart, director Oliver Parker’s rather turgid remake of Othello (1995) passed almost quietly unnoticed during the summer season. By all accounts the steam in Shakespeare’s staying power at the box office had run its course – an assumption ignored by Kenneth Branagh and the front offices over at Castlerock Entertainment.
On January 3, 1996 rehearsals began inside mammoth sets built at England’s Shepperton Studios on arguably Shakespeare’s most celebrated drama in the English language – Hamlet. To date, none of the many other screen incarnations of this celebrated play – not even Laurence Olivier’s Oscar winning 1948 version - had dared to venture into a full textual adaptation. To many in the Hollywood community, the excursion seemed badly timed, due to the fact that Warner Bros. had resurrected this great Dane not five years before in a truncated (and badly maligned) film starring Mel Gibson in the title role. Were audiences ready for another Hamlet so soon?
Branagh believed that they were and evidently was backed by Castlerock’s committed $18 million investment on the project. Updating the timeline to an undisclosed early 20th century afforded Branagh the opportunity to reenact the play’s most celebrated soliloquy ‘To be or not to be…’ in front of a full length, double-sided mirror, thereby magnifying the distinct ennui already inherent in Hamlet’s emotional malaise.
Shot almost entirely at Shepperton, the production also took advantage of breathtaking Blenheim Palace for exteriors under less than perfect weather conditions. Near the end of principle photography, executive logic at Castlerock nervously encouraged Branagh to prune his film down and release two competing versions – the complete 4 hr. play/film in a limited roadshow engagement and an abridged general release print running just under 2 hrs. Branagh balked at this suggestion, and, after some minor wrangling, had his way. Only the full length version was released to limited engagements but overwhelmingly positive reviews. In the intervening decade, the film’s reputation as the definitive Hamlet has only continued to grow.

During most of the first five years of the decade, Hollywood and British filmic interests had been hard at work establishing a resurrection of the literary film sub-genre. This overwhelming attention to detail inherent in each production had by 1996 become standardized benchmarks that more often than not exceeded audience expectations. However, there seems to have been a definite shift in consistency immediately following Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet. Whether or not Castlerock’s impending financial disaster and liquidation had anything to do with Hollywood’s sudden disinterest in making and remaking more great novels into films is debatable.

Certainly, the marketing campaign put forth on Douglas McGrath’s Emma (1996) – ‘If you loved ‘Clueless (1995) you’ll love Emma!’ seemed more intent on providing a sufficient distance between the film and its Jane Austen roots, despite the fact that little likeness between Clueless and Emma existed. McGrath’s screenplay for Emma is perhaps the least bound to Austen’s own evocative language, relying heavily on a more broad interpretation of the story, characters and dialogue. Set in 1800s England, the story concerns a meddlesome matchmaker, Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her dedication to finding a suitable husband for wallflower, Harriet Smith (Toni Collette). The plan however goes predictably and comically awry.
Miramax Films, who only a year later would be aggressively marketing The English Patient (1996) as a time-honored book to film adaptation, were rather laissez faire in their marketing campaign on Emma. Despite enthusiastic reviews and respectable box office, the film quietly came and went from circulation, with Gwyneth Paltrow’s glowing performance as the heroine ironically overlooked at Oscar time.
Increasingly, the general tone in Hollywood after Emma’s release began to shift its focus to faux incarnations of history and/or historical events; a trend begun with yet another recanting of the mythological Camelot – this time as First Knight (1995), and continuing on through to films like Elizabeth (1998) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). Rather than tread over established literary lineage, particular preference was now being given to weighty history-fiction properties – films in which historic events and/or characters were borrowed (or in some cases, pilfered), greatly revised and inserted into plots concocted by screenwriters that had little – if anything – to do with actual event. James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) is perhaps the most obvious of this latter trend and ilk, eschewing real life stories about passengers on the ill-fated luxury liner to instead graft a fictional account of tragic love between two characters who, in reality, were not even on board the ship when it sank.

For the rest, literary adaptations fell out of favor almost at an instant, with final exceptions to the rule coming in just under the wire to round out the decade on glorious high notes.

The first of these was Randall Wallace’s inspired revision of Alexander Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), a film of immense scope and visual flare, made slightly awkward by the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in the dual role of Louis XIV and his twin brother Phillippe. Despite toiling on various film and television projects for nearly two decades, DiCaprio’s most satisfying achievements to date had come in two films with a cult following; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and The Basketball Diaries (1995). Yet, his star had retained only a modest luster immediately following these films, a stalemate lifted upon the release of Cameron’s epic soap opera Titanic (1997) – the most expensive and successful movie ever made.
Perhaps wary of DiCaprio’s limitations in costume drama (in Titanic, for example he is never anything but utterly and fatally contemporary amidst the rest of the vintage trappings), director Wallace chose to surround his star with stellar support provided by Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gabriel Byrne and Gerard Depardieu – all ably assimilated into this costume epic as the musketeers. Wallace further masked DiCaprio’s shortcomings with a nimble screenplay that moved more methodically through the back story involving the musketeers and their involvement in palace intrigues. Indeed, the tragic romance between Louis XIV and Christine (Judith Godreche) is the most undermined of the film’s narrative threads.
The second to last offering to round out the decade was Oliver Parker’s remake of An Ideal Husband (1999) based on the scathingly sexual comedy by Oscar Wilde. A social satire with most of its obvious titillation relatively tame by today’s standards, the story concerns successful politico, Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) whose marital fidelity to wife Gertrude (Cate Blanchett) is put into question with the arrival of the scandalous Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore). More an exercise of manners, the filmic incarnation remained faithful to Wilde, though a somewhat awkward contribution to the sub-genre of literary filmic masterpieces.
Possibly the error is in the film’s brisk plotting, running a scant 98 minutes. Wilde’s words are far more appreciated when contemplated in their written form, primarily because his wit takes time to properly digest, something the constant bantering of the film’s protagonists and ever changing tableau behind their sordid characters leaves much to admire. Nevertheless, the film remains a quiet, unassuming diversion worthy of a second glance on home video.
The last of the lush and lavish Shakespearean adaptations to emerge from the decade was Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999); arguably the most sophisticated incarnation of this celebrated play and starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania and muscled Rupert Everett as her King - Oberon. Populated with an all star assemblage that included Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, Kevin Kline and Stanley Tucci as Puck, the film moved along nimbly enough through time-honored and hallowed ground, treading lightly over the bard’s most complex speeches and more often than not, proving satisfactory entertainment.
However, by far the most impressive and entertaining of these final flowerings in literary costume melodramas remains director Andy Tennant’s Anna and the King (1999), a lavishly produced spectacle photographed in Malaysia. The Thai government had originally agreed to at least consider 20th Century-Fox’s request to film in the country where the original story takes place (present day Thailand was, at the time of the story, the province of Siam).
The Thai have never embraced the stories put forth and published by Mrs. Anna Leonowens – school teacher to the King of Siam’s many children, or those featured in the Margaret Landon’s novel that lionized Leonowens as a figure exuding great authority and dictates over Siam’s cultural/political change and its king.

In America however, the book had enjoyed an almost perennial success, chiefly from the continuous stage revivals of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical version: The King and I. The film version of The King and I (1956) had made Yul Brynner an international star. But its roots were firmly grounded in Fox’s own Anna and the King of Siam (1946), starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. It was renown British star, Gertrude Lawrence who had been responsible for bringing the ‘46 film and Landon’s novel to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s attention; a contribution for which stage and screen lovers of the story since owe an eternal debt.
Director Tennant’s version is perhaps the most authentically accurate of all filmic incarnations. The narrative closely adheres to the ’46 film, while applying a subtext of political unrest and racism exuded by the British against the Siamese. Unlike the previous films, Tennant’s employs legitimate Orientals where necessary, most notably in his casting of action star Chow Yun Fat as King Mongkut.

As portrayed by Jodie Foster, Anna Leonowens is not the divining force or even a catalyst for social change, as she remains merely a window into the British mindset that is held close and in high regard by the king – allowing him the opportunity to formulate his own intensions and actions toward the political factions that would usurp his authority and render Siam a protectorate province.

In the final analysis, Anna and the King is superior film making, marking a valiant conclusion to the ‘90s fascination with costume dramas. In a decade rife with more quality filmic product in almost all genres than most in the last 40 years, the end of the 1990s documented a decided downturn in both Hollywood and the public’s fascination with this sort of grand costumed entertainment.

Though the trend carried over in various transmutations during the early 2000’s with films like Baz Luhrmann’s psychedelic reincarnation of Bohemian France in Moulin Rouge (2001) and Robert Altman’s tongue-in-cheek revisitation on the old Sherlock Holmes-styled murder mysteries for Gosford Park (2001) the overwhelming quantity and underwhelming quality in our contemporary cinema has once again reverted to quickly made and slickly marketed disposable entertainments.

Such was the case of most films at the start of the 1980s – big on promotion but decidedly small on production value – keenly aimed at the wallet, but less effectively focused on the heart. Is this merely the start of another cycle that will eventually return to the literary drama on screen in years to come – or has vintage literature at last run its course at the movies. Only time will tell.

@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).