Archive > Peter Owen at the Cinema

Martin Scorsese’s Silence is not the only big screen adaptation of a Peter Owen novel (it’s not even the first time Silence has been adapted!). Here are some others …


Book: Gold: The Marvellous History of General John Augustus Sutter (1925) – Blaise Cendrars
Film(s): Sutter’s Gold (1936) – James Cruze
The Kaiser of California (1936) – Louis Trenker

Opening with a panning shot of a sleepy Swiss village, the first few pages of Gold reveal the profound influence of the cinema on its author Blaise Cendrars. This short but sweeping biopic of the life of General Sutter was made to be shot, and there was no shortage of takers. Hollywood approached Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, who began in earnest his plans for an adaptation. The Nazis, too, were interested. Goebbels enlisted Louis Trenker, and the heavily propagandized version entitled Der Kaiser Von Kalifornien (The Kaiser of California) was released in 1936. The director would spend much of the budget shooting his film on location, making it the first and only Nazi film to have been shot in the United States. Meanwhile, Hollywood, having dropped Sergei Eisenstein, now turned to a safe pair of hands in ‘Western’ director James Cruze. The film, Sutter’s Gold, also released in 1936, was panned by critics and would prove to be Hollywood’s biggest commercial failure to date.

— Do I read the book or see the film?
— You read the book.


Book: Among Women Only (1949) – Cesare Pavese
Film: The Friends (1955) – Michelangelo Antonioni

Based on the Cesare Pavese novel Tra Donne Sole (Among Women Only), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche (The Friends) is regarded as the best of the Italian director’s early films. Pavese’s novel follows the fortunes of five women living in Turin. Narrating events is salon owner Clelia, but in his adaptation Antonioni opens up the perspective to view as many characters as he can fit on the screen (the title, too, seems to reflect this expansion of the story). The multiple witty and aphoristic voices, often jostling for attention in the film, give it a lively metropolitan feel, making Rosetta, whose failed suicide attempt opens both book and film, a tragically peripheral figure.

Clelia and Rosetta in Le Amiche

Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) and Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) Le Amiche

By contrast, in Pavese’s novel Rosetta’s happiness is the underlying concern of Clelia’s narration. She is looking back, searching for clues, for an understanding of the outsider, retrospectively bringing her into the fold where Antonioni keeps her as much at a distance as her friends. The differences mean only that both author and director are ploughing two ends of the same furrow. Antonioni meets Pavese in bringing out the light and sensuous touches of his prose, the impressionistic outlines of his characters and in articulating the sense of postmodern despair that haunts Rosetta and with which her friends slowly start to identify.

— Do I read the book or see the film?
— You do both!


Book: Confessions of a Mask (1949) – Yukio Mishima
Film: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) – Paul Schrader

Confessions of a Mask is among the handful of Yukio Mishima novels that form the basis of Paul Schrader’s memorable 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The film, accompanied by an awesome Philip Glass score, follows Mishima’s life beyond the limits of the novel until (spoiler alert) Mishima’s ritual suicide in 1970, and a central dramatic thread in this beautiful, non-linear and hallucinatory film is the knowledge of that peculiar impending tragedy. But the film’s distinct visuals and music are certainly in keeping with the novel, which, without the same dramatic thread, derives its impetus from the narrator’s confession. A flood of language at once densely poetic and also staid and seemingly embattled, conveys the contradictory elements of mask and human being beneath it. Schrader achieves a similar effect blending black and white episodes with colourful and surreal ones.

— But if I only have time to do one?
— Make time.


Book: The Sea and Poison (1957) – Shusaku Endo
Film: The Sea and Poison (1986) – Kei Kumai (starring a young Ken Watanabe)

The long and unflinching operating scenes in Kei Kumai’s adaptation of The Sea and Poison are so realistic that the film performs a kind of vivisection itself, measuring how much an audience can endure. The agitated camera jumps from close-ups of sweating brows to oxygen pumps, scalpel incisions, vital organs and blood swirling in the sluice on the floor. The horror is reduced to the horror of the operating table itself, and it is of an altogether different quality than what you find in Endo’s complex novel, which, for all that it tells the story of medical experiments performed on American prisoners during the Second World War, does not linger in the operating room. Instead, Endo gets his chills from cold medical injunctions, from the absence of individual courage and humanity at the core of these medical professionals. In this way, it is not just the horrifying fact of the vivisections but the moral vacuum in which these operations are permissible that stays with you long after you have finished the book. With the film, however, what remains is the sight of an open heart being massaged; and once you have seen that, you will struggle to remember anything else at all.

— But, really, I only have time for one!
— In that case, just read the book.


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