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The Scrivener: Impossible Love

...Luchino Visconti's 1971 film of Thomas Mann's novel won the Cannes Film Festival Special 25th Anniversary Prize. German friends assure me that it is a masterpiece. That helps to add objectivity to my subjective feeling that it is a truly magnificent film....

Brian Barratt remembers a great film and "loses'' a book.

It happened about five years ago. I was chatting to a Welsh friend about Dylan Thomas's play for voices, Under Milk Wood. I told her about a book with photos of the author and of the village which inspired the story. Back home, I went straight to that book, The American Society of Magazine Photographers Picture Annual for 1957.

So what? Well, it was an achievement or a feat of memory. There are about 5,000 books on my shelves.

The other day, after watching the film Death in Venice for the third time, I went to the shelves to get the novel. It's a Penguin paperback. It has always been on a shelf with other classics. I looked where it should be, searched where it might be, wondered where it could be... You guessed — I cannot find it

So much for feats of memory, eh? As I neither borrow nor lend books, it must be somewhere in this house.

Luchino Visconti's 1971 film of Thomas Mann's novel won the Cannes Film Festival Special 25th Anniversary Prize. German friends assure me that it is a masterpiece. That helps to add objectivity to my subjective feeling that it is a truly magnificent film.

The main point of all this is that I want to compare the film adaptation with the original story. There are often differences and changes when novels are adapted for the screen. William Golding's Lord of the Flies is a good example of what can happen. The original black and white film was a faithful rendering of the story, at all levels. The later Americanized colour version was an utter travesty, changing or leaving out key elements of the story and symbols in the allegory.

The other reason for the search is that I want to remind myself how Thomas Mann treated the main character Aschenbach's growing obsession, at a distance, with the handsome boy Tadzio. Visconti changed Aschenbach from being a writer to a musician. That enabled him to use Mahler's hauntingly beautiful symphonic Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony as thematic background music. It also highlighted Aschenbach's search for ideal spiritual beauty. That was an acceptable change. But did Mann describe the boy Tadzio as being androgynous, or was that Visconti's 'gay' interpretation?

All that, in turn, led me to wondering what turns a film into a masterpiece. Yes, I know it's a subjective issue. The public might adore a film which the critics consign to the cutting room floor. Your friend who says, 'You will enjoy it', with an emphasis on 'will', is usually wrong. You might even regard a film as a masterpiece when both the critics and the general public have rejected it. An example of this is Prospero's Books, which is Peter Greenaway's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Visconti's film has quite a lot in common with another story of impossible love, the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan. Visconti used the music of Mahler. Bo Widerberg used a piano concerto by Mozart. Musical purists are rather annoyed that piano concerto no. 21 is now often referred to as 'Elvira Madigan', such was the success of the film.

In both films, the camera often moves dreamily across a landscape, be it a Venetian beach or a Scandinavian countryside, relishing the colours and the atmosphere of a bygone era.

Perhaps one of the most striking similarities is the infrequency of dialogue. There are long periods when nobody says anything. They don't have to. Superb acting by Dirk Bogarde as well as the seductive posing of Björn Andrésen, in Death in Venice, and the mere presence of the delightfully beautiful Pia Degermark in Elvira Madigan, dispense with the need for talk. Their faces, fleeting expressions, movements and gestures say all that needs to be said.

We could chatter on about other masterpieces of film, such as Franco Zeffirelli's version of Romeo and Juliet, another story of impossible love. And why are so many of Federico Fellini's films available on DVD but Pasolini's are not? However, there are more pressing demands. I must go and have another hunt for that book.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2007, 2013

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For more of Brian's memorable words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

Abd do visit his Web site
www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

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