Page and Screen: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This feature often asks whether some novels really are completely impossible to adapt for the screen. Usually diehard fans of much loved books being made into films are concerned primarily with one thing; the characters. They worry that the actors won’t fit their mental images of them or that the script will fail to accurately vocalise their defining thoughts and feelings. But occasionally a story will depend on the spark of its narrator rather than character, plot or setting.

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is just such a book. In the last Page and Screen I discussed the recent adaptation of One Day and during the opening chapter of that novel English student Emma has a copy of Kundera’s book in her room. The male half of One Day’s story, Dexter, immediately forms judgements about Emma at their first meeting, based partly on her owning the Czech novel.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being can certainly be seen as pretentious. It’s a book about love, politics and ideology, set during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. Its themes are high minded and perhaps far too ambitious for some. It tackles unanswerable questions about what it means to “be”, what it means to love and which ways to find satisfying purpose in life.

Aside from the book’s content its form is also thoroughly postmodern. It begins with musings from the narrator on the implications of the concept of eternal return, espoused by Nietzsche. At times it discusses and admits that the events being described are a fiction played out by imaginary characters. Two central love stories make up the narrative of the book and often, once we view key scenes from their lives, the narrator will wryly deconstruct and analyse them.

It’s the wit and self depreciating tone of the narrator that saves the book from becoming an overly serious tale, and makes up much of its appeal. The actual events of the narratives are often told in a simple style and the reader skips rapidly through time on the backs of basic sentences:

They had spent scarcely an hour together. She had accompanied him to the station and waited with him until he boarded the train. Ten days later she paid him a visit. They made love the day she arrived. That night she came down with a fever and stayed a whole week in his flat with the flu.”

In contrast the narrator’s sections are laden with references to philosophical works, religious texts, classical myths and even the music of Beethoven. These passages ought to be random and rambling but in fact range from the profound and insightful to the honest and humble. The problem for any film adaptation is that the voice of the narrator, which perhaps can be viewed as the authorial voice of Kundera himself, hints at a far more interesting character than those in the stories he describes and dissects.

Recently on BBC iPlayer was a 1988 transformation of the book, starring critically acclaimed actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who seems incapable of turning in a bad performance. He plays Czech surgeon Tomas, easily the book’s key figure besides the narrator. He is a womaniser, who feels compelled to sleep with numerous women. But he experiences a crisis of identity and ethics when he falls in love which prompts him to draw a distinction between his desire to make love to women and his need to sleep with, literally fall asleep next to, the one woman he truly loves.

This personal dilemma is the best image of the conflict that shapes the whole book, that between lightness and weight. Is it better to be free as a bird in life or to be tethered to something with meaning? My words cannot do Kundera’s justice and crucially neither can those of the film’s script. The author’s ideas, forged from intense experience of 20th century occupation and thought, make the stories of the lovers in the book standout as something special. Even if Daniel Day-Lewis can convey something of the character of Tomas through a brilliant gesture or look, he cannot replace the heart of the story, which comes from the narrator.

The characters in the book are vehicles for Kundera’s thoughts and feelings, and in the film it’s as though they have been stripped of their engines. The occasional ironic bit of writing on screen to introduce a scene cannot make up for what is missing and is a lame attempt to find the balance of the novel. The film is too reliant on the image of sex and is far too long, coming in at just under three hours.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in my view, can truly be classified as impossible to adapt. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s recent success has proved that intricate, sprawling novels can be successfully transformed if the filmmakers focus on mood and try to make something independent of the book. However in the case of The Unbearable Lightness of Being they made something that bore little relation to the feel of its source material, which perfectly illustrates how some works of art are inextricably linked to the voice of the artist.

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