Great films from great literature?
The End of the Affair
charlesmcgrathCharles McGrath
Who would have thought Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” would make a terrific film? There is no accounting for why some books make great movies and others do not. How can it be that the novels of Elmore Leonard, so vivid and streamlined, so full of quotable dialogue that they seem practically camera-ready, have, with a few exceptions, been turned into one big-screen dud after another? On the other hand, who would have thought that Graham Greene’s dark and vexing 1951 novel “The End of the Affair” would make a terrific film? I don’t mean the 1955 version, which starred an almost comically miscast Van Johnson and a surprisingly wooden Deborah Kerr. Greene, who was a lifelong movie addict and even wrote film criticism for a while, had problems with that one. But it’s hard to imagine him not admiring the 1999 remake, written and directed by Neil Jordan, who occasionally seems to grasp Greene’s intentions better than Greene did. That “The End of the Affair” is written in the first person, has a chronology that flashes forward and back, and partly consists of excerpts from a character’s journal is only the start of the obstacles it poses. Greene wrote the book during his most intensely Roman Catholic period, and it’s a story of a wartime love triangle with a theological dimension. During the Blitz, Maurice Bendrix, a novelist, falls in love with the married Sarah Miles, and when she breaks off their affair, he’s so consumed with jealousy he hires a private detective to discover who has replaced him in her affection. His rival turns out to be God himself, with whom Sarah has made a secret pact. Not only does she embrace him but she turns into a kind of saint, and the novel ends with a series of miracles accomplished through her intercession. Imagine pitching that at a studio meeting. Oddly, in a book otherwise remarkable for particulars of characterization, Sarah is in the beginning a sort of cipher. She’s barely described, and Bendrix falls for her at a glance, without explanation. In the movie, we understand right away. Sarah is Julianne Moore, in one of her subtlest and most luminous performances: Red-haired, porcelain-skinned, she’s dreamily sensual, but also a little hidden, just out of reach. She gives the part a carnality missing in the book, and leaves us in no doubt why Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes, tight-lipped, eyes burning) misses her so and becomes enraged with a God he doesn’t even believe in. Sarah’s physical presence in the movie also makes the spirituality easier to understand. Jordan’s script cleverly allows her to backslide a bit, something the book doesn’t permit, and so we feel her struggling to give up fleshly, earthly love in favor of something less tangible. This Sarah may be a saint, but she’s a warm-blooded one. Read the full response here.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
alicegregoryAlice Gregory
Children’s books typically make for better movies than anything written for adults. There’s a moment in Mel Stuart’s ­“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate ­Factory” when a puff of white dust explodes in Mike Teavee’s face. “Boy, that’s great stuff,” he says, eyes closed, massaging his jaw. Though only an adult would think “drugs,” it’s the sort of cynical detail that, when compounded with others, gives a child an icky sense of unplaceable apprehension. It’s the anxiety of perceiving without understanding — of witnessing a parent drunk, of hearing a lewd joke. However unpleasant, half-knowing is one of the most visceral experiences of prepubescent life. Historically speaking, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which came out in 1971, is the earliest example of this Feeling in film that I can think of. Though the clamminess would come to permeate entire children’s movies a decade later, here it exists only in isolated, unventilated set pieces: the recurring appearance of the ghoulish Mr. Slugworth; the psychedelic tunnel flashing with images of a centipede crawling over a grown man’s face; Gene Wilder’s antic and intermittently sadistic Willy Wonka. (Children probably don’t realize he drinks during the factory tour. “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,” he says with a smirk.) The mouthwatering baroqueness of the imaginary confections in Roald Dahl’s original 1964 novel — “marshmallows that taste of violets, and rich caramels that change color every 10 seconds as you suck them” — is expressed best in the film’s trippy wax props and mesmerizing opening credits of chocolate sliding down conveyor belts in slabs, ripples and dollops. Dahl is a master of the derogatory adjective, and his vile children (Augustus Gloop is “a monstrous ball of dough with two small greedy curranty eyes”) are perfectly cast in the film, with the young actors eager to grimace with moral rot. Read the full response here.