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Monday, April 07, 2008

Adaptation, A Case Study: Notes On A Scandal


I'm somewhat behind the times when it comes to novels: reading is a bit of a busman's holiday when I'm done for the day after reading everybody's scripts. Relatives and friends imagine however that I am obsessed and I get given plenty of novels - I have a box at home with nothing but, still unread, not to mention a drawer full of Waterstone vouchers. Regardless of my aching brain however, I do love reading - I just do it at snail's pace these days.

The one exception that gets me reading at my old pace however are train journeys. During my marathon sesh to Edinburgh recently for Adrian's adaptation class, I managed to read Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal in just seven hours on the way back (in fact, I think it was less). It's by no means a perfect novel; I was irritated by the constant Americanisms in the copy I read for example, where British middle classes said things like "real estate" and had "baked hams" for sunday dinner, (but perhaps the one I was reading had been destined for over the pond or the copy editor had had a bad day?). It's not a particularly huge book - 200 odd pages if I recall correctly - but the main reason I finished it so fast was its characters enthralled me, particularly its antiheroine, the obsessively jealous Barbara Covett (whose name I thought was pure genius, ironic in a non-obvious way).

Notes On A Scandal [the novel] tells the story from Barbara's point of view when she becomes entangled with Sheba, a middle class housewife teaching for the first time in Barbara's inner city school. Sheba has an affair with a fifteen year old boy which proves her downfall: not because she ends up eventually in prison, but because of Barbara: jealous of her friend's previous family life (Barbara is a spinster), she manages to unpick Sheba from her family and ensure that this fragile and foolish woman depends on her. Barbara is essentially a type of emotional vampire, wanting Sheba to herself at the expense of everyone and very chilling she is too.

Interestingly however, this diary Barbara keeps starts off innocently enough; though Barbara is clearly somewhat childish from the off and malignantly spiteful, we don't understand the depth of her distasteful personality or the lengths she will ultimately go to. Instead, in the novel, it is more of a "slow burn": she is an opportunist, capitalising on events as they unfold - waiting, very deliberately, for her time to come. When it does - and Barbara betrays Sheba's confidence, ensuring she is sacked from the school so the scandal comes pouring out, we get the feeling that this was more of a case of all the ducks lining up as if Barbara is some kind of sniper. She might be a predator, but she would have waited even longer if she had to. Just like people do in life.

I had a vague memory that this was a book that had been adapted for the screen, so made a note to watch the film version sometime the following week. I was particularly interested to see how Barbara would be represented: surely an opportunist sniper would be unsuitable for the screen? Someone "waiting" would prove dull, unsatisfying drama I thought. Yet the screenplay by Patrick Marber had been nominated for a Bafta and whilst I do not always like winning or nominated scripts, it's not usually because they are not crafted well. As a case study went, this was a perfect opportunity to illuminate those points Adrian made at the class.

Somewhat inevitably, the adaptation was a reconstruction. Heller's book had been so celebrated, I don't think moviegoers would have found a reimagining of the text so soon after publication palatable. Barbara is played by Judi Dench, an obvious choice I thought whereas the part of Sheba went to Cate Blanchett: I hadn't seen anyone remotely like her in my head when I had been reading, yet she fit the part well. As set ups went, it is very true to the book: it establishes Barbara's spiteful nature and her disillusionment with the education as a metaphor for her own failings in life. I spotted only one chunk of dialogue lifted from the book - Barbara's disgust at what someone in her staff room mistakenly believes about Sheba's father shows us what a petty, precise individual she is.

However Marber's version of Barbara is subtly different to Heller's: whilst Heller tells us that Barbara is a kind of sadistic desperado, someone who needs someone no matter age, gender, sexual preference or intelligence as long as they are malleable, Marber paints Barbara as more of a sexual predator: Barbara is in love with Sheba. The word "lesbian" is never mentioned once, yet references to a previous girlfriend, Jennifer are made when talking with Barbara's sister ("There's a man now", Barbara laments; "Oh I am sorry," the sister says) and even the headmaster of Barbara's school when he talks of a restraining order made against Barbara by Jennifer. Whilst Jennifer is also present in the source material, I never took from it that she had been an actual lover too. The camera too becomes Barbara's eyes at times: lingering shots of Sheba's body, especially when she is dancing in the living room with her family, betray Barbara's lust for her, as does a moment when Barbara touches Sheba's wrists and forearm, making her feel uncomfortable - which I don't recall from the book. I was interested by this characterisation, since though it is dramatic and has oodles of conflict, I felt sure the gay community would not like it. I was surprised to hear then a friend of mine really liked this film. Though one person is hardly representative of everyone, when I asked her what she thought of the representation of Barbara she shrugged and said, "Just 'cos you're a [lesbian] doesn't mean you're a nioe person. I wish!"

So in the film, Barbara is much more active: we get this impression she is "after" Sheba almost from the start once her spite is established. Events too come much more chronologically: in the book, Sheba tells Barbara of her involvement with the fifteen year old some months after starting the affair, but in the film Barbara accidentally witnesses them having sex in the deserted pottery room at school. She calls Sheba and when Sheba feigns ignorance, Barbara's "Let's not, shall we?" proves chilling. From there Barbara actually orchestrates events, insisting first that Sheba breaks it off with the boy, but when she discovers Sheba has been unable to, Barbara decides to use it to her advantage. Marber does an excellent job of making the film SEEM like the book, when in actual fact it couldn't be more different: around the end of the second act, as Barbara's cat lies dying and she wants Sheba to come to the vet with her, Barbara makes Sheba choose between going to her Down Syndrome Child's school play or with her. Like any mother, Sheba chooses her child's play, making Barbara actually decide to go to another teacher, Brian, and tell him about her "suspicions" regarding Sheba's affair. In the book, this only happens because said teacher asks Barbara out on what she thinks is a date; she abandons Sheba momentarily, deciding instead to go for him. When he confesses he wanted to talk to Barbara because he is interested in Sheba, Barbara tells him about Sheba's affair in a fit of pique.

Where the film suffers then is in understanding Sheba's motivation for having the affair in the first place. In the book, Sheba's husband is a self satisfied godawful prig; her child who has Downs is a lot of work and Polly, her daughter is a total brat who gets herself expelled from a posh private school. She does not have a good relationship with her own mother and clearly looks to Barbara for guidance when she gets in over her head. There's a particularly impressive moment when Polly flees to Sheba's mother's home and Sheba hits her daughter across the face; Barbara attends the scene and reports it in minute detail. In the film, there is no room for this level of characterisation: Bill Nighy plays the husband as an affable, much older spouse who has lost touch with Sheba who feels dowdy and unappreciated, making it harder to know why she should choose a fifteen year old kid and not say, another teacher for her affair.

It also lacks that underhand ending - the notion that Barbara wins. We join the book with a foreword that describes the two women's wait for Sheba's trial, with Sheba outcast from her family completely. This is bookended by Sheba's discovery of Barbara's betrayal via the notes and her acceptance (for want of a better word) that she has been swen up good and proper; there is nowhere else to run. By film logic, this is unacceptable and when Sheba there discovers the notes, she returns to her husband who graciously accepts her back and tries to work through her own betrayal. We see them pictured together on the front of a newspaper with news of Sheba's sentence. But of course films like to pose the idea a leopard never changes its spots and has Barbara approach another woman, reading that newspaper...

All things considered however, I think this was an excellent adaptation and a great illustration of how a screenwriter needs to change certain elements for novels and films are different media. As an exercise, I learnt a lot and I hope my thoughts prove useful. As always though, it's all a matter of interpretation.

Have you watched/read Notes On A Scandal? What's your favourite adaptation and why?


Zoe Heller [novelist] biography

Patrick Marber [screenwriter] on IMDB

Reviews of the novel here

Reviews of the film here

My entire notes for Adrian Mead's "The Art And Business of Adaptation"


Anya said...

Now you see my friend loved the book but hated the film; I was pretty ambivalent about the book - liked it, didn't love it - and thought the film was much better. Something in that, you think: you love a book, you CAN'T love the film?

As far as favourite adaptations go, I think Shawshank Redemption can't be beaten.

Oli said...

The Princess Bride and Fight Club are both very shiny films, possibly because the novels are so cinematic in the first place.

The Princess Bride loses some of the satire and intelligence of the book but fills it up with a whole lot of heart and wit, and Fight Club takes the kernel of the idea and runs with it, through a brick wall.

evil twinz said...

Didn't like Fight Club. The whole "I'm going to hold you up with a gun and you'll thank me for it later" really peeved me. But then I had just seen a gunshot wound that day too in REAL life in Casualty which may account somewhat for my apparent "touchiness" as my then-girlfriend accused me of. Bitch!

Dunno bowt whether it was a good adaptation of course, this writing lark is all greek to me... Like anya I liked Shawshank Redemption. And Stand By Me. And Carrie. But I think those are the only novels I've ever read and they're all by Stephen king, weird.

Charlatans Woes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlatans Woes said...

"Something in that, you think: you love a book, you CAN'T love the film?"

I agree, from personal experience it's all in the order you take them in.

I loved the Lord of the Rings books (which I read before the films came out)but didnt really like the films.

I loved both the book and film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I had viewed the film first.

Fear and Loathing is my favourite adaptation by a country mile.

With regards to the of Stephen King adaptations, I always find them a bit hit and miss really.

Lucy said...

Anya and CW: think there's definitely something in that notion. One of my favourite books is "Imajica" by Clive Barker and it's so sprawling that I don't think I could ever be satisfied by a rendering on film. I absolutely hated "American Psycho" as a book but I think it is a fabulous, underrated adaptation. I was bored by "Beautiful Mind" as a novel, but the film was great.

I always try and read the book BEFORE watching the film as I like to imagine the characters as I would, rather than as the actors cast in the film.

What about you?

Charlatans Woes said...

I almost always watch a film before reading the book now.
Sometimes I can detach the on screen character from that of the book and sometimes I can't.

I must confess that is a bit of a dissapointment, but thankfully it doesn't seem to stop me from enjoying the book.

I say I don't really like lord of the rings as films because I read the book first but they actually did a really good job with the characters I think. I have to hold my hand up there.

I'm with you on American Psycho though, I loved the film.

Have you seen the Assasination of Jesse James? Absolutely beautiful true life adaptation.

Lucy said...

I find doing it that way round can mean bits get lost in translation, whereas I find it more illuminating book-then-film and there are sort of "in" moments you appreciate more, if that makes sense.

I haven't seen Jesse James yet but can't wait. Don't tell me ANYTHING about it, anyone!

MJ said...

Interesting - I loved the film THEN read the book which I liked but not as much as the film hmmm. It was great seeing Blanchett and Dench out-act each other though - great stuff.

'Last of the Mohicans' is one of my favourite adaptations (the Day-Lewis one) even though it differs significantly from the book - I'm starting to think that's necessary to avoid a stodgy adaptation.

S. P. Miskowski said...

I apologize for commenting so long after your original post. I only stumbled across it today, after watching Notes on a Scandal on cable for the second time. This viewing--and your excellent, precise examination of the adaptation--confirmed what I suspected but couldn't recall clearly: The relationship between Barbara and Sheba was much more interesting in the book because it was not merely a sexual romantic longing. I think Marber did a good job with the plot, over all, but he really missed the point with the women and simplified what was a more universal experience. Emotional vampires like Barbara cannot be summed up so easily. What made the book so fascinating was that Barbara's need could not be specified. She seemed to want to BE Sheba, and if she couldn't be her, then she would absorb her as completely as possible. In the film the character is written off as a sexual predator, making her less interesting and her motives less disturbing. The ending to the film did not ring true, and seemed to me to undermine the chilling nature of Barbara's all-encompassing desire.

One of my favorite recent adaptations is Spider, which David Cronenberg directed from the novel by Patrick McGrath. This is a particularly difficult project, because the book takes the point of view of a mentally disturbed man. I admire Cronenberg's willingness to stick with that point of view instead of objectifying the central character, which would have made it easier to tell the story.

I think Marber adapted another McGrath book (Asylum) for film, and ended up skewing the point of view toward the character played by the film's producer Natasha Richardson. It was a handsomely produced and well acted film, but I missed the shocking machinations of the character who conveyed the story in the book--the doctor played by Ian McKellan.

Thanks for your post!