Saturday, September 01, 2007

READ THE MOVIE/SEE THE BOOK: PART I

ART BY ARTISTS


‘90s chic good taste in all things literary

by Nick Zegarac

Cinematic adaptations of literary masterworks are nothing new. Transcribing literature for the movies has become a time honored tradition, almost as ancient as the art of making movies itself. However, the delicacy required in transmutation from book to celluloid has often made for much consternation amongst the Hollywood elite and many an empty coffer and sleepless night in the executive bedroom after the film’s failed debut.

Consider this: how could the movies, with all their infinite wellsprings of talent and production values, make any Shakespearean tragedy appear to be dull, placid and stultified?


Yet, time and again, Shakespeare on screen has proven all too fallible to pitfalls – the bard’s lyrical language becoming as clotted, unclear and overly theatrical as any of the B-westerns produced by Monogram Pictures in the mid-1930s. Even today, some 100 years after the birth of movies, audiences continue to wait for definitive screen versions of The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and As You Like It among others.

Yet, Shakespeare is but one of many sacred authors that the movies have tried – mostly in vane – to resurrect for the ‘new’ medium. Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are two others. Occasionally, through perseverance, a gentle director’s touch, and the skilled appreciation from a gifted screenwriter, the trick and magic of delivering a relatively faithful adaptation to the big screen has been achieved, though purists would argue against such nonsense as finite movie visuals substituting for either the written word or imagination of any reader.

During Hollywood’s golden age, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer became the most prolific purveyors of literary adaptations. There are few critics even today who do not regard the studio’s incarnations of David Copperfield (1935), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Anna Karenina (1935), Pride and Prejudice (1940), Madame Bovary (1949) and Julius Caesar (1953) - among others - to be among the definitive screen adaptations of their respective literary masterworks, each introducing the masses to time-honored literature they might otherwise not have had either the time nor the inclination to invest in for themselves. With MGM’s formidable decline in the late 1960s, and its complete demise by 1979, Hollywood seemed content to let the great sacred cows of literature molder with its own celluloid past.

In retrospect, the decision seems obvious – fueled by the Government Consent Decrees (that fragmented the film establishment and effectively brought an end to their ‘monopolies’), the studios (or what was left of them after the ruthless deluge in economizing) focused their efforts on cheaply made independent productions: gritty street dramas (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore 1974, Taxi Driver 1976); escapist horror films (Carrie 1976, Halloween 1978) and occasionally, the gamble on a moderate budgeted sci-fi blockbuster (Close Encounters of a Third Kind 1977, Star Wars 1977). These latter examples, with their potential for enormous box office returns on a limited investment were perceived as safe bets, particularly in the late 1970s and early ‘80s – as much of a guarantee as clever (if shortsighted) market research could predict.

To be certain, there were large scale entertainments in development during this same period, such as Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno 1974, but these were rare exceptions to the norm and most certainly geared to take advantage of the contemporary cynical public fascination with destruction on a grand scale.

By 1983, the movie going landscape was awash in quick and cheaply made disposable entertainments. Some caught the public fascination and became relatively successful. Others were easily relegated to the $1.99 bin at their local video retailer after the proliferation of the home video market mid-decade made even the greatest films of their generation little more than collectable VHS and/or Beta cassettes. Ironically, the resurrection of great literary masterworks on the big screen was owed largely to a blind-faith gamble made by the Ladd Company in 1984 on a costume epic that had little to do with great literature or indeed, cold hard fact.


Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) is a gargantuan period recreation of composer Wolfgang Mozart’s Austria – brilliantly woven from, and held together by, the entirely fictional play by Peter Schaffer. The film might have owned more to that briefly reinvigorated popularity for biographical stories (bio-pics), jumpstarted in earnest with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) and carried over into Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), except that Amadeus is the tale of two men (Mozart by Tom Hulce and court composer, Salieri – nee F. Murray Abraham) who never actually met in real life – hence, any biographical interest in the film remained a moot point. Amadeus is not Mozart’s life, but rather a sort of gripping bedroom melodrama that incorporates only the most superficial tidbits of truth to thread together its absurdly made-up plot.

Nevertheless, immediately following the film’s triumphant debut and litany of Oscar nominations and wins, the costume drama – long thought of by the Hollywood establishment as archaic and most certainly dead – suddenly came full circle, back into vogue. Any doubts that hardened critics may have had about this rebirth and cannibalization of ‘the classics’ was further laid to rest when Columbia Pictures premiered director David Lean’s opus magnum, A Passage to India (1984) later that same year.

In retrospect, Lean’s final epic (based on, and remaining faithful to E.M Forster’s brilliantly structured novel) is a much more worthy contender for demarcating the resurrection of literary/film adaptations. Yet, upon its debut, A Passage to India was generally maligned by several prominent film critics as a thinly veiled attempt by Lean to recapture the glorious successes of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Judged inferior to both, and, in the shadow of Forman’s overwhelming success with Amadeus, A Passage to India remained a quiet, slightly discarded masterpiece for several years to follow, though its reputation has since steadily grown.

In point of fact and in retrospect, A Passage to India does tend to run on a bit ‘long in the tooth’, as it were – much more the grand celebrated relic and holdover from Lean’s best period in films (1955-65) than a much needed update to the sub-genre of literary melodrama in contemporary films. Its performances are solid and textured, the best probably being Alec Guinness’ Godbole. Lean was heavily criticized at the time for not using a real East Indian actor in the role, though Guinness’ assimilation into the part of Arab Prince Feisel in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) failed to generate similar critical outrage.
Interest - both in E. M. Forster’s literary works and period costume melodramas in general – had not been lost on a pair of filmmakers working in Britain. With the release of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant’s A Room With A View (1985), made in partnership with the BBC and released theatrically in the U.S. for Warner Bros., Hollywood once more began to realize the box office potential of literary adaptations.

In terms of box office gross, A Room With A View was hardly a blockbuster, but it garnered respectable returns and critical accolades – both hallmarks as prelude for the saturation of book to film adaptations that was to follow. Moreover, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with their own long standing appreciation for this type of movie making, and the public – who had virtually abandoned costume drama in the mid-60s and 70s - were beginning to warm to the exercise once again.
Ironically, looking back at the 1980s in film history – a cinematic landscape overly populated by R-rated slasher films (Friday the 13th 1980, Sleep Away Camp 1983, Nightmare on Elm Street 1984), campy and crude sex-comedies (Bachelor Party 1984, Splash 1984, Weird Science 1985, My Chauffeur 1986, Mannequin 1987) and teen driven angst-ridden diversions; (Sixteen Candles 1984, The Breakfast Club 1985, St. Elmo’s Fire 1985, Pretty in Pink 1986) – not to mention the proliferation of mindless sci-fi adventures that followed the debut of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) – arguably still the most intelligently produced and stimulating of this latest cycle in intergalactic nonsense – serious projects like A Passage to India and A Room With A View must have seemed fool-hardy folly at best; expensive and dangerous to the overall fiscal prosperity of the ‘new’ Hollywood that had been built on astute market research and ever increasingly clever press promotions.


All the more impressive then to reconsider that with a change from one decade to the next, the ‘new’ Hollywood steadily increased its stakes in producing some of the finest yet literary-to-film adaptations. Not surprisingly, the most recent investment in this sub-genre required one more nudge from abroad; another film made by Merchant Ivory: Howards End (1992).



“HERE TO REPRESENT THE FAMILY…”
RESSURECTION with Howards End

Based on E.M. Forster novelized critique of Edwardian England’s rigid class distinction, the filmic adaptation of Howards End made several key changes to Forster’s text, including a softening in the character of philistine businessman Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) to create a minor, yet pleasing romantic love interest for Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) – the emotional and grounding center of the story.

Shooting in and around London, the production utilized the rustic Peppard Cottage (itself an almost exact replica of Forster’s own Rooksnest in Henley) as the fabled house from whence all subsequent narrative and class struggles between the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels and a third couple – the Basts - derive.
Actress Emma Thompson, who had auditioned for the part of Margaret with her husband/actor Kenneth Branagh (then, enjoying a minor renaissance of his own with the visceral filmic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V 1989) was pitted against one of England’s most celebrated – yet internationally underrated – actors of his generation, Anthony Hopkins. The teaming of Hopkins and Thompson proved enough of an interest to break the ceiling in Thompson’s own career. She had already appeared opposite Branagh in Henry V and Dead Again (1991), but it was Howards End that effectively introduced her to American audiences as England’s “most brilliant, talented actress…since Vanessa Redgrave.”
As they say in the business, timing is everything. Howards End’s premiere was ably abetted by Anthony Hopkins formidable mark on American movies via The Silence of the Lambs (1991), coupled with his justly deserved Oscar win for the role of Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins win generated a virtual overnight groundswell of American celebrity for the actor. His instant fame became the catalyst for launching Howards End – a debut nearly sabotaged when Orion Pictures filed for bankruptcy and threatened to delay the film’s premiere. Instead, Sony Picture Classics assumed the responsibility of marketing and releasing the film.

Heralded by Newsweek as “a crowning achievement…a film of dazzling splendor… powered by a dream cast” Howards End’s miniscule budget of $8 million was virtually eclipsed by its world wide $70 million profit and a litany of international accolades and awards.

At roughly the same interval as Howards End was wrapping its principle photography, Branagh’s version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) was preparing to go before the cameras. Branagh’s knack for avoiding the misperceived pitfalls when translating that most celebrated of English playwright’s masterworks into engaging films had already been established on Henry V. Moreover, Branagh’s acclaim on both continents was then in modest competition with his wife’s – a minor conflict that would prove the couple’s undoing later in the decade.

For Much Ado About Nothing, Branagh infused a bawdy – yet slightly whimsical - liberation into the comedic underpinnings of the play; reinvigorating without contemporizing the conflict between Hero and Claudio. “I want this to be a fairytale…” said Branagh, “Beautifully dressed and lovingly photographed…that can be very frightening at times. Like all good fairytales, there’s a strong undercurrent to the story. It’s also very very fiery.”
The chief problem for Branagh, however, proved to be in his central casting choices which, apart from Emma Thompson as Beatrice, left much to be desired. Though undeniably good looking, the film remains populated with rather frozen performances, the worst among them Michael Keaton’s Dogberry and Keanu Reeves’ Don John. Nevertheless, the film proved popular with audiences, though it was overlooked for even a single nomination at Oscar time.
This slight on both the film and Branagh’s reputation as the premiere purveyor of filmed Shakespearean entertainments did little to sway the momentum in his wife’s career. Riding the crest of her Oscar win (Best Actress for Howards End), Thompson was reunited with Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory for The Remains of the Day (1993), based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize-winning novel and transcribed for the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had also written the screenplay for Howards End. Once again, Thompson’s costar was Anthony Hopkins, causing some critics to glibly nickname the project the ‘Em and Tony show.’
Initially, The Remains of the Day had been brought to the attention of director James Ivory by actor Remak Ramsay. However, the novel had already been optioned by director Mike Nichols and Columbia Pictures by the time Ivory decided he would like to become involved. For reasons unclear and undisclosed, Nichols eventually opted not to direct the film, assuming a co-producers credit instead.
In transcribing the book into screenplay, author Ishiguro openly admitted to Jhabvala that he had ‘made up’ the duties of an English butler entirely from imagination for his novel. To refine these duties and reflect an air of authenticity for the film, Jhabvala suggested the crew hire a real life butler as consultant – a move seconded by Anthony Hopkins who felt particularly ill at ease in the part of Stevens. Enter retired Buckingham Palace steward, Cyril Dykman – a man whose fifty year career ‘in service’ to the Royal family was beyond reproach.


Meanwhile, Columbia Pictures was also embarking on a home grown literary film adaptation a continent away, with director Martin Scorsese and The Age of Innocence (1993). Based on Edith Wharton’s scathing indictment of social hypocrisy, and published to acclaim in 1920, the novel had been made into a movie no less than three times before, the most celebrated version in 1934, starring Irene Dunne as the Countess Olenska.


In resurrecting Wharton’s particular brand of affectation and keen glibness for social critique and commentary (a contemporary slant on Jane Austen), director Scorsese imbued his film with a rigid discipline that was quite uncharacteristic of his own directorial style.
Shooting in and around Troy New York, and even going so far as to redecorate a Pi Kapp Phi fraternity house to replicate the opulence of the Mingott home, no expense was spared on this opulent recreation of New York’s turn of the last century aristocracy. The top heavy cast was capped off by star turns from Michelle Pfeiffer as Olenska, Daniel Day Lewis - her tortured would-be lover, Newland Archer and Winona Ryder as his seemingly innocent wife, May. Though Oscar nominated (and winning for Best Costume Design), in retrospect the film is a rather costly and dull excursion for which box office response remained tepid.

Undaunted Columbia Pictures pushed onward with director Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994) – an all together more poignant and satisfying adaptation that became a modest, though well deserved box office triumph.


Filmed twice before, first as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn in 1933 and later, as a glossy MGM Technicolor remake in 1949, Armstrong’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s celebrated tale tread a more balanced repartee between the March sisters; Jo (Winona Ryder in this version), Amy (Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis) Beth (Claire Danes) and Meg (Trini Alvarado). It also made the most of its male counterparts, most notably, Christian Bale as Laurie. “It was the theme of family, support and love – sisterly love in particular – that drew me to this project,” said Armstrong. Released for the Christmas season, Little Women was embraced by both the critics and the public. By all accounts, the decade was gearing up for another round of literary costume melodramas.

READ THE MOVIE/SEE THE BOOK: PART II

“MY ANGEL, MY SOUL, MY OTHER SELF”
PAST GLORIES/FUTURE REFLECTIONS

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.

…AND ONE CLEAR CALL FOR THEE


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).