One of the most original, impressive films to reach North America from Europe this year was Il Postino (The Postman). Its story involves a shy, lovestruck postman who befriends the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1952 and learns something about the power and the danger of words. One Canadian journalist, who clearly loved this film, began her review by listing things that didn't bode well for it: five writers worked on the screenplay, the film was in Italian but was directed by an Englishman (Michael Radford), and "it's `about poetry.'"
About poetry-as if films could suffer from few worse fates! Yet when you consider other cinematic treatments of writers' lives, it's easy to see why someone would think poetry a heavy burden for a film to bear. In the weeks after seeing Il Postino, I grew increasingly curious about other feature films-not documentaries-that have grappled with writers' lives. I was sent searching through my memory and local video shops.
Some films do their damnedest to make writers' lives dramatic. In the world of Stephen King adaptations, if the writer isn't going mad (as in The Shining) he's victimized by the mad (Misery). In the thinly scripted Poetic Justice, which exploits some murky idea that writing poetry might be cool, Janet Jackson plays a hairdresser-poet who zooms down the highway with a backbiting crew of questionable friends and jots down poems while Californian landscapes slide past. Some movies skirt the difficulty of suggesting the writer's long hours of intense privacy by dwelling on the character as lover, social being, or suffering soul, leaving the writing far in the background. (See Shadowlands about C. S. Lewis, or Impromptu about George Sand.)
To make a film based on the life of an actual writer presents a special challenge: for viewers who have read books by the writer, there's a good chance the film will seem all surface and event, missing the dense texture of personality conveyed by the author's own work. Take, for example, Christopher Miles's Priest of Love, spanning the last years of D. H. Lawrence's life. It has some striking moments-such as when Lawrence playfully wears a flowered hat in bed after getting news that he has TB-yet overall it's glib and voyeuristic. Look at D. H. bare-bottomed in Mexico, bare-bottomed on a beach in England. See him inexplicably blow up at Frieda. Hear him announce, "There's nothing in England-just persecution and grey men." Lawrence in real life could be pontifical, ridiculous, and confused, but is that is any reason to reduce him to a caricature?
We need satirical eyes cast on writers-so I didn't mind the wickedly unflattering view of a Faulkner clone as a drunk shell of himself in the Coen brothers' Barton Fink. For all the pleasures of satire, we also need films that dare to get emotionally involved with their subjects as well as giving complex views of them. Thankfully, such films do exist. A few female writers have been especially well-served-with Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith in Stevie (directed by Robert Enders), Kerry Fox as Janet Frame in An Angel At My Table (by Jane Campion), and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Table (by Alan Parker).
In person Mrs. Parker was an unforgettable wit, so Leigh gets to throw off lines like "I write doodads because it's a doodads kind of town" and "Don't look at me in that tone of voice, Mr. Bentley." Struggles with drink, sex, and writer's compromises-very much part of the famous hotbed of the Algonquin Round Table in 1930's-permeate the film, yet it doesn't depict confused as merely tawdry. Moreover, in staged moments that suspend the action of the story and seem hauntingly outside time, Leigh recites some of Parker's poems; frantic socializing gives way to depths of private unhappiness hammered into funny, bitter stanzas. Imagine-film-makers being unafraid to offer passages of what a writer wrote.
For me a bonus of watching Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and An Angel At My Table is that they encouraged me to read Parker's and Frame's books for the first time. Like Il Postino, these films are memorable works of art in their own right, and they don't depend upon our knowing books by the authors whose lives they touch on. Still, having our appetite for certain writers' works awakened or sharpened even as our gratitude for films grows is one way in which literature and film can healthily interact.
In the final scene of An Angel At My Table, after years of frailty, tragedy, growing talent, and determination, Janet Frame briefly does a shadowy sort of half-dance to overheard rock and roll-a moment that might sum up her humble coping with agonizing shyness-then she begins typing. Up on the screen, a woman is typing, and for a moment-amazingly-nothing in the world seems more dramatic.
Brian Bartlett's most recent collection of poetry is Underwater Carpentry (Goose Lane Editions)