Film

Review of the Film “The Happy Prince”

IMG_0683 Finally, “The Happy Prince” has come to Michigan.

First, I must congratulate Rupert Everett for taking this project on in the first place. Oscar Wilde has inspired an entire industry of books, journals, scholarly works, and films. That means there are a lot of people out there who are experts on the subject and who have a sense of ownership in one way or another in the story and how it is told. When you tackle such a well-known figure you open yourself up to criticism in a way you don’t when you are telling a fictional tale.

If the film has a motif is is the line that appears in the trailer: “Why does one run towards ruin?” Everett’s Wilde is a man who seems to revel in his own self-destruction to the dismay of the loyal friends who are at a loss of how to help him and who all seem to be pulled down into his wake.

I was especially impressed by the amount of nuance was brought to the characters of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas played by Colin Morgan and Robert “Robbie” Ross played by Edwin Thomas even though neither relationship had a huge amount of screen time. It was refreshing to see Wilde and Douglas depicted as a real couple, not just figures in an operatic drama. They clearly have a history, love for each other, and a level of comfort with one another. They enjoy one another’s company.

It was refreshing as well to see a Robert Ross who was loyal and helpful to his friend, but who also got fed up with him at times. In the 1997 film “Wilde” Robbie Ross is entirely selfless. He doesn’t seem to have a jealous bone in his body. He is depicted comforting the poet John Gray after he’s been pushed aside in Oscar’s affections by Bosie. (In life, Ross disliked Gray.) Edwin Thomas’s Ross is a caregiver, but he does not possess infinite patience. There is a subtle moment in the film where Robbie has been in Paris, where the exiled Oscar lives, and it is clear that he has been avoiding him. Who could blame him?

That leads to one of the greatest strengths of the film. Oscar is the central focus of the drama, but he is by no means a hero. He is often unfair to his friends and careless of their feelings, and yet it is also clear that there is something in him that made so many people love him.

In many ways, Stephen Fry, from the 1997 biopic is a more ideal Wilde. He has a physical resemblance and his background as a comedian makes him a natural as a wit. It is hard to imagine better casting. I enjoyed that performance very much,but Rupert Everett’s late period Wilde gives a haunting performance. He is a complex, suffering, frustrating character. It is like comparing apples and oranges.

If there is one flaw in the 1997 film’s version of Oscar it is that Oscar has no flaws, except, perhaps a weakness for beautiful, spoiled Bosie. He is dragged to a brothel to please Bosie, but he is uncomfortable and passive. Bosie screams and rails at him, and he is patient and calls him “darling boy.”

I always prefer stories where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, where there are messes and people are trying to deal with them as best they can; where people’s own personalities and shortcomings are part of the challenge.

In “The Happy Prince,” Oscar’s flaws are front and center. He is hurt, but he also wounds. He revels in the underworld and he finds humanity there. Both films use Wilde’s children’s story “The Happy Prince” as a narrative device. In the 1997 film it is used to show the tragedy of Wilde’s estrangement from his sons. In Everett’s film it takes on additional poignancy showing what a human place “the gutter” is.

The film is dizzying– quite literally at times– it uses a spinning camera effect a bit too much, but it does give the disoriented feel of a man in failing health, drinking too much, and looking back on his life, which is what Everett was going for. That choice means that some of the subtle moments of the supporting cast go by in a blur.

There was a lovely scene between Emily Watson, as Oscar’s wife Constance, and Edwin Thomas as Robbie Ross. Robbie has scolded Oscar for how he is treating his wife, expecting her to support him financially while he lives with the lover who brought ruin on his family. He says something like “you write her one beautiful letter and you think everything will be ok.” It is clear that he is talking as much about his relationship with Oscar, who treated him badly and then tried to win him back with beautifully-written letters. This is followed by a scene with Constance and Robbie in which Constance asks why Robbie is trying to help her. In that moment Constance realizes Robbie, too, understands what it means to love Oscar and what a terrible price comes with it. It would have been interesting to see the relationship between those characters play out more, but it would have been a different film. “The Happy Prince” is a story about Oscar, and Oscar’s isolation.

The film works well for someone like me, who knows a lot about the Wilde story already.  I was not thrown by the constant moving backwards and forwards in time. The same could not be said for the person who came to the film with me. She knew a bit more than some audience members would, because she read my book, but was still disoriented by some of the brief flashbacks that for her lacked context. There are quick references to Wilde’s prison manuscript “De Profundis,” but if you didn’t already know, the significance of this would be lost. Does it matter? I’m far too seeped in the story to be able to view it that way at this point.

It is also, given the constraints of the medium, quite good history. There are people out there who can say exactly what happened here or there and what color socks Oscar was wearing at the moment. I, myself, could tell you Oscar’s standing breakfast order at the Paris hotel where he died, but I won’t. That would just be annoying. There was little that I bumped on factually.

There were places where Everett filled things in and made choices where the truth can’t be known. For example, Oscar and Bosie lived together for a time in Naples, Italy. They parted because people on both sides cut off their allowances. In order to get the tap back on, they had to agree not to live together any more. They probably had an argument about this. No one else was in the room, so we can only guess what was said. I found Everett’s idea of how this went to be compelling, although I fill it in differently in my own imagination.

There is another scene that I would probably not bring up at all, except that I have been asked about it. I am not sure what counts as a spoiler in a film where the history is known and it jumps about in time, but this is towards the end of the film so: spoiler alert: Oscar Wilde dies.

At Oscar’s funeral, Bosie and Robbie get into an argument. This didn’t happen. In fact, Bosie and Robbie were at something like a high point in their friendship at this time. Even though they had clashed a bit when Robbie was negotiating between Oscar and his wife over the allowance, that argument had blown over quickly. (Both Robbie and Bosie often argued with friends.) Between that time and Oscar’s death, Bosie had stayed in London where he “practically lived” at Robbie’s house. At the time Bosie was grateful for Robbie’s help with logistics and Robbie said nothing negative about Bosie regarding the funeral. The friends wrote each other intimate letters about boys before and after. There were little fault lines in their friendship that would eventually crack into chasms, but that had not yet happened. Even so, I was not bothered by this in the movie. Given the dreamlike nature of the film, I think it can be interpreted as addressing the subtext of the relationship, and some of that, like the break up at Naples, falls into the category of what can’t really be entirely known.

 

 

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How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.

 

Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

Rupert Everett’s Depiction of Wilde’s Last Years in “The Happy Prince”

I am looking forward to Rupert Everett’s new film “The Happy Prince,” which tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s last years. It has a distributor and is “coming soon” but so far I’ve only had the opportunity to see trailers and clips.

Having spent quite a few years researching that period, and the years that followed, I was especially interested to see this clip of a famous episode in the lives of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. After Douglas inherited his portion of the family fortune upon his father’s death, Wilde had dinner with him and asked him to set him up with a regular endowment. The conversation went badly and both Wilde and Douglas gave an earful about the other to the journalist Frank Harris. Wilde also wrote about the episode in a letter to Robert Ross who was not present. Harris wrote about the fight in his biography of Wilde. It was the one thing in Harris’s book that Douglas hated the most and he spent years trying to suppress it.  The chapter bolstered Robbie Ross’s view that Douglas was only interested in Wilde for his money. That view has been enduring, as you will recall from my review of The Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Happy Prince.” 

Obviously, as I have not seen the film, I don’t know how this scene appears in context. What I like about it, however, is how it depicts Bosie not as hopelessly selfish and callous but rather as disgusted with how Wilde is squandering his talent. This is also how I saw the episode, and so I thought I would share an excerpt on the subject from Oscar’s Ghost.

Many years later, Frank Harris would publish a biography of Wilde, with Ross’s help. It has been widely criticised for its literary style, which bolsters his own importance and invents direct quotes as a narrative device. Douglas hated Harris’s biography. He fought to keep it from being published in England, and he worked with Harris and later George Bernard Shaw as the writers tried to come up with a version Douglas would find satisfactory.

There was one incident in the Harris book that offended Bosie the most. After Queensberry’s death, Oscar invited Bosie to the Café de la Paix. Robbie had suggested to Oscar that now that Bosie had his inheritance, he should ask him to set up an annuity of £2,000 from his estate. (About £22,000 today) This would give Oscar a regular income and would make him no longer dependent on his wife’s estate if he did anything to upset the administrators of the fund.

Something went wrong, however, in the way Oscar presented the idea to Bosie. It sparked one of Bosie’s rages. What struck a nerve seems to have been a suggestion that Bosie owed him for the ruin his family had brought on him. This was probably not the first time he had heard this complaint. As Oscar recounted the argument to Robbie, Bosie ‘went into paroxysms of rage, followed by satirical laughter’ and said Oscar had no claim of any kind on him.

Harris happened to be staying in Paris along with Bosie and Oscar and he saw each of them shortly after the blow up. Harris quotes Bosie, two days latter saying to him, ‘I do not see that there is any claim at all,’ and spitting the word ‘claim’ ‘as if the very word maddened him.’ The word ‘claim’ might have come from Wilde and was at the heart of his anger.

Although Harris does not record Oscar saying anything negative about Bosie in the conversation he reportedly had with him, two pages later Harris tells Bosie that Oscar seems to blame him for egging him on in the libel trial. (Given how the Harris book was written, Wilde may have said something like this to Harris or Harris may have gotten the idea that Oscar felt that way from a conversation with Robbie or one of Oscar’s letters to Robbie…)

‘How did I know how the case would go?’ Bosie snaps. ‘Why did he take my advice, if he didn’t want to? He was surely old enough to know his own interest… he is simply disgusting now…’

In his letter to Robbie, Oscar describes Bosie as ‘revolting’ and ‘mean, and narrow, and greedy.’ He says he is ‘disgusted’ and considers Bosie’s refusal to be an ‘ugly thing’ that ‘taints life.’ He also threw in a few negative comments Bosie had reportedly said about Robbie’s attitude towards money for good measure, contrasting Robbie’s goodness with Bosie’s badness. Bosie’s memory of the argument differed from Wilde’s. He said he had just given Oscar £40 (in another source it was £80) and that he ‘whined and wheedled and wept’ to get more.

In the letter to Robbie, Oscar quotes Harris as saying ‘One should never ask for anything: it is always a mistake.’ He suggested that Oscar should have had Robbie make the suggestion. This is quite different in tone to the conversation as it appears in Harris’s biography. There is no way Harris could have appreciated all of the subtext in that quarrel between lovers. (Harris admits as much himself.) Bosie clearly was enraged by the personal associations in something Oscar said.

‘He could earn all the money he wants if he would only write; but he won’t do anything,’ Harris quotes Bosie as saying. ‘He is lazy, and getting lazier and lazier every day; and he drinks far too much. He is intolerable.’ Bosie admitted in his ‘setting the record straight’ preface to the 1930 edition of the Harris biography that he might well have called Oscar ‘an old prostitute.’

As usual, however, the mood soon passed and had no lasting effect on his relations with Oscar. If Harris had not been around to witness it, the whole thing would probably have been forgotten. The sad fact is that at this time, Oscar was sinking deeper and deeper into addiction. He drank to excess and spent every penny that fell into his hands on liquor and rent boys. His friends were at a loss on how best to help him.

…[Oscar’s] brother Willie died at age forty-six from the effects of chronic alcoholism. After Willie’s death in 1899, Robbie got Oscar to sober up for a few months. ‘Had circumstances permitted me to be with him more than I was,’ Robbie said, ‘I might have done something with him as he liked being ordered about by people whom he knew were fond of him.’

This goes a long way to explaining Bosie’s furious pronouncements that Oscar could support himself if he were not so lazy. He and Robbie had different styles, but it seems that Robbie in his gentle, thoughtful way, and Bosie in his direct and brutal way, were both ordering Oscar around out of love.

Robbie, Bosie and Harris each tried to support Wilde without giving him the means to drink himself into a stupor. Wilde griped to each of his friends about the stinginess of the others.

Yet Bosie believed Robbie did the right thing in doling out funds to Oscar. Years later, when he had little love left for Robbie, he wrote, ‘…I do not blame Ross at all for his cautiousness about the money and for his, unfortunately fruitless, efforts to make it last a little longer than it did. In this respect he certainly acted entirely in Oscar’s interests and with the best motives.’

T.H. Bell who knew Wilde in his last year found him to be someone who had ‘nothing left in him of responsibility, truthfulness or common honesty.’ Robbie complained to him of Wilde’s ingratitude. Bell was impressed by Robbie’s loyalty to him, given how he had been treated. ‘It is evident that there must have been something at one time, if there was not much of it left in his last period, that drew to the man those good friends who stood by him.’

 

The Three Plots of Romantic Comedies

The home page of You Tube suggested this video to me, and who am I to argue with an algorithm?  I watched it. I’m sharing it here basically for the first few seconds in which Bill Maher describes the three plots of romantic comedies, “she marries her boss, stalking is romantic, and I hate you then I love you.” He forgot one: deceiving someone is a great way to get to know them. (Maid in Manhattan, Never Been Kissed, Roxanne) More on this category later.

Every writer has her particular obsessions, themes and questions she keeps coming back to. One of mine is the effect of story telling on our every day lives. It is what drew me to the story of the feud between two of Oscar Wilde’s lovers over his legacy.

Oscar’s Ghost begins:

This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.

My novel Identity Theft focuses on love stories. In Identity Theft, a rock star, Ollie, who had his greatest period of fame in the 1980s, is going through a divorce and hands social network duties over to the new kid in the office, a directionless stoner named Ethan. Ethan uses his access to flirt with a fan using his boss’s identity. The woman, Candi, has an uninspiring job in a company that is going through restructuring and threatening layoffs. When her favorite rock star starts flirting with her, she believes all of her dreams have come true. Each of the characters at various points in the story try to understand their confusing relationships by comparing their lives to popular culture. Ollie ponders whether he helped advance a false narrative about love with his own pop songs. Candi watches a romantic comedy and imagines she is about to feature in such a story. Ethan, meanwhile, binge watches romantic comedies on the theme of imposters and deceit. He uses this to persuade himself that if he just comes up with a good enough speech explaining that he did it for love Candi will fall in love with him by the end of the movie.

Romantic comedies do not get a lot of love. They’re mocked and maligned as lightweight. But the romantic comedy tropes, like our other popular story telling conventions, are our modern mythology. They are archetypes. They promise that love is transformative. Each person has only one true love. A true love takes a person out of her comfort zone. It is not made it is discovered. It overcomes all obstacles. Once it is found, the happy end has been reached. It is the end of the story.

I am not really sure what this all means for our ordinary lives, but I keep writing about it to find out.

 

 

 

Straight Authors, Gay Characters. The Case of “Call Me By Your Name.”

The other day I watched the film Call Me By Your Name.  Whenever I see a film based on a novel, I am curious to know more about the book, which brought me to this clip in which The Advocate interviews author André Aciman.

I was interested to learn that like my own novel Angel, which is also the story of a consequential love between two men, the setting came first. Aciman was inspired to write about Italy. The setting must have been romantic to him, and it brought to mind the tentativeness of early love. He initially imagined a boy/girl couple, but quickly changed because, he felt he wanted to write about overcoming inhibition and that there would be more inhibition with a gay couple.

Angel was inspired by the Pacific Northwest. In particular, Mt. Rainier. I started writing to answer the question of what might cause a minister, who was burned out on the ministry, to become a mountain tour guide. The story I wanted to tell had to have undercurrents of nature. He had to be seeking something in the mountain that he had also been seeking in his ministry, and whatever it was that he was seeking should also be the cause of his separation from the church. The thematic link that came to me was that the minister, Paul, was drawn to beauty, beauty of a particular, transient kind. Rainier is a volcano and will one day erupt. So the beauty he found in the form of Ian was something that had an awesome power.

The question of appropriation comes up in this clip. Aciman believes that artists should not be constrained to write only about their own selves and that with empathy and imagination you can put yourself in the shoes of another person. There is a joke that I believe I have quoted here before that if writers only write what they know there would be nothing but books about English professors contemplating having extramarital affairs.

I found in my own writing that I wasn’t really able to write fiction worth reading until I got beyond myself. I thank God on a regular basis that there was not much self-publishing when I wrote my first self-indulgent autobiographical novel.  The publishers who rejected it did me a great service. I don’t think that old saw “write what you know” should be taken too literally. There are multiple ways of “knowing” and that one way is to use empathy and imagination.

What Aciman knows is the hesitation of first love, and how he felt he could best illustrate it was with these two characters. In Angel what I “knew” had something to do with what it feels like to experience beauty, beautiful moments, beautiful relationships and how valuable and fleeting those glimpses of beauty can be. For whatever reason Paul and Ian came to me as the best way for me to illustrate that concept.  I don’t think a writer should shy away from writing a story in the form it comes to her, because those sparks of inspiration that are compelling enough to propel you through an entire project are too rare to brush aside.

Appropriation is tricky, though. The real problem is not that an individual artist might feel called to tell a story across various identity lines. The problem comes when a dominant group, because they are seen as having more authority or access to an audience, drowns out the voices of people from other groups telling their own stories. I wrote about this a few years ago. I had read an interview with a white writer who said she’d written a dark skinned protagonist because the world needs more books with African-American heroes.  My reaction was:

If I were to say, “There are not enough stories with African-American protagonists, and I think I should write one,” the results would be clunky. Not because I am incapable of imagining the internal life of a Black woman but because I would be approaching her as a representative of a social identity rather than as a person in her own right. The only reason I would make the choice to write from that perspective is if a story came to me that I could not imagine any other way.

I would like to think that readers, and viewers in the case of film, get a feel for what the creator was trying to express and to do. It will come across in the writing if the story is properly told, if the author was empathetic or exploitative, if the story wouldn’t be the same in any other form. From the reviews I’ve seen of the film and novel, Aciman did write characters who both straight and gay people respond to as real.

 

 

P.S. After seeing the film I can’t get that Bach piece out of my head. I suppose there are worse songs to be stuck in a continuous loop but…

 

 

Crackpot Literary Theories

p30200_d_v8_aaLast night I watched the film The Luzhin Defence, an older title, which I got from the library. The film is based on the novel by Nabokov, which I have not read.

After watching the film, I developed an entire literary theory, which I subsequently discovered is utter nonsense, but it is so satisfying I feel I must share it anyway.

The ending of the film reminded me of something my Russian partner once told me.

We were talking about the “American story.” The hero wins against overwhelming odds and there is a happy ending. Good triumphs over evil and we can feel safe and secure knowing Truth, Justice and the American Way are safe. Americans are comfortable with the happy ending even if it’s an illusion. We agree to this conceit the way a ballet audience agrees that it is normal for women to wear tutus and walk on tip toe. It is a narrative convention.

So I asked my partner what the Russian Story was. His answer blew my mind. In the classic Russian tale, he said, boy meets girl. Boy dies. Boy comes back as a ghost. They live (or is it die?) happily ever after and there is a lesson- a moral.

The hero of the Russian story DIES before it has even gotten interesting! The American story is about winning. The Russian story is about what you learn from losing. American heroes continue in the face of all obstacles. They do not waver, and eventually win through sheer force of character and will.

Russian heroes, according to my are destroyed before they even have a chance to begin. Then the hero is reborn to the circumstances, he is victorious in failure and he brings his lesson back to the world. The American story does not teach us what to do with failure. It simply does not give us the option. Villains fail. Heroes succeed.

Now, my partner is a ballet dancer, not a writer. He has not made a study of Russian literature, and I don’t know if his off-the-cuff description of the “Russian story” is accurate or not. It was, in any case, thought-provoking.

When I saw The Luzhin Defence I felt I had confirmation. Spoiler alert: I will now talk about the end of the film.  The Luzhin Defence is the story of a man being driven mad by his obsession with chess. He only knows how to view the world as a chess game. The film focuses on Luzhin’s relationship with a woman named Natalya, who becomes his fiancee. In the film, Luzhin (brilliantly played by John Tuturro) has been sabotaged, and suffers a nervous break-down during a pause in the final game of the world championship. Told that chess is driving him mad, he must choose between a “normal” life with his fiancee but without chess, or chess and madness. He jumps to his death. In the final scene, the grieving Natalya finds Luzhin’s written plans to complete the chess game. Luzhin’s opponent agrees to let her play the game out using his strategy, and it wins.

Remembering what my partner once said, I concluded that Russian drama is not about what one achieves in his lifetime, but about his legacy. It is not the happy end, the tragic end, or the noble end. It is about the after-effects of a life.

Here’s the problem: The epilogue was not in the novel. From a review in The Guardian:

What was a beautifully structured narrative of mental drama becomes a rather over-familiar costume romance, pillowed by a swooningly sentimental epilogue that has nothing to do with Nabokov’s novel.

So it turns out it is just another example of a film maker adding a happy end (of sorts) to a novel that is felt to be too unsatisfying for the screen.

Steven Poole, in his review sheds some light on the problem film makers often face when translating a novel to film.

A clue is to be found in Nabokov’s 1943 short story, The Assistant Producer, in which the narrator draws a lugubrious parallel between cinema and life, both of which mock the unwary with fatal coincidence. “Indeterminism is banned from the studio,” he writes. That is precisely it: the cinema simply cannot maintain creative ambiguity. How do you preserve the master’s playful indeterminism when a movie must show one thing or the other?

So there is a perfectly good literary theory all shot to hell. This all made me think of Oscar Wilde’s story The Portrait of W.H. in which he has his character put forward a theory that the W.H. of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a boy actor in his company. After the character explains all the clues that point to his conclusion (and gets someone else excited about it) he abandons his theory because it pre-supposes the very thing he is trying to prove– the existence of the boy actor W.H.

You can imagine Wilde himself becoming excited about the idea of W.H., building a grand narrative about it, only to make the realization that his reasoning is circular. So he shifts his focus and makes his story not simply about W.H., but about the beauty of believing a beautiful story, rather than the factual underpinnings of the story itself. (Lord Alfred Douglas, always a black and white thinker, in his later years set out to prove W.H. did exist using church records.)

In the spirit of Wilde, I’m not going to abandon my beautiful theory just because it happens not to be true. Clearly the end of the film has nothing to do with Russian story-telling. But for a moment, when I believed it did, I glimpsed something– another option for viewing narrative.

What if our stories were more concerned with legacy than with success in the here and now? Would we live our lives differently?

The Happy End Requirement: The Brokeback Mountain Example

One of the common themes I have written about here is our culture’s insistence that stories have a happy end. In the first post I wrote on the subject, The Happy End vs. The Noble End, I used the example of Brokeback Mountain as one of the few examples of a popular story with a tragic ending.

Heath Ledger’s taciturn character Ennis Del Mar never does reveal the great love of his life to anyone. Only he and the audience know what happened between him and Jack Twist and what it meant to him. A character like Ennis Del Mar is a stand in for all of the people whose struggles we will never know.

Brokeback Mountain illustrates something important about tragedies. They usually have a third main character– the society that surrounds the characters. If Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist had ridden into the sunset together, it might have made us happier as an audience. Everyone could leave the theater reassured that there may have been problems along the way but in the end, people get what they deserve in life. It would not have been a powerful story that made us ask questions about society. Sometimes only tragedy can make that point.

The author of the original short story on which the film was based, Annie Proulx, agrees. She recently told the Paris Review that she is so frustrated with people trying to rewrite the story with a happy end that she wishes she had never written the story.

[T]he problem has come since the film. So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild.

They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way.