Tag Archives: Czech

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.

Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are the perfect long term replacements for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic

Phil who? This was the reaction of a lot of football fans when it emerged that the first major bidding war of the summer had broken out over a 19 year old Blackburn centre back. Liverpool looked as though they were wrapping up a deal for yet another promising youngster, as Kenny Dalglish looks to rebuild, but then Manchester United swooped in with Sir Alex Ferguson on his own reconstruction mission. A sizeable £16 million release clause in his contract was triggered and after a period of uncertainty, Fergie got his man.

Or should I say boy? Jones is currently with the England Under 21s for the European Championships. Against a Spain side much fancied to win the whole tournament, Jones won plaudits for his performance alongside another United youngster, Chris Smalling. Sir Alex bought him last summer and he has since proved himself as a top quality, capable defender, deputising for the increasingly injured Rio Ferdinand with composure beyond his years. The 21 year old was also praised universally by pundits and columnists and it was generally accepted that but for Jones and Smalling in central defence the Spanish would not have been held to a 1-1 draw.

It’s looking worryingly like the same old story for England fans, even at Under 21 level. On paper the squad of youngsters is stronger than most, bursting with names that have already gained considerable Premiership experience and demonstrated their skills on a tough stage. Some might even think it’s stronger than Fabio Capello’s first team and many players will be looking to break through. But following the promise of the hard fought draw with Spain, England drew 0-0 with Ukraine, with the only impressive performances coming once again from the defenders. Talented forwards with enormous potential simply didn’t deliver.

And literally as I write England have capitulated to a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in a must win match. Danny Welbeck had headed them ahead with just twenty minutes or so to go, but then it all fell apart with an equaliser and a snatched winner as England poured forward in stoppage time. Their tournament is over. Stuart Pearce’s boys are no better at winning trophies than the men.

None of this will greatly concern Sir Alex Ferguson. He is used to watching England internationals as accomplished as Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney go off to tournaments and return dejected and defeated. It did not stop them becoming phenomenally successful Old Trafford legends. He will set about the task of moulding Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into the perfect readymade pairing to replace the ageing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.

In an interview this week Smalling said that he liked to think both he and Jones had a mixture of Ferdinand’s passing ability and football brain, as well as Vidic’s hard as nails tackling prowess. This might be true because certainly Smalling has proved that he is no physical lightweight and Jones is versatile enough to play in midfield, so he can presumably pass a ball reasonably well. But there’s no doubt that Jones appears to be the tough tackling long term replacement for Vidic and Smalling the smoother operator to step into Ferdinand’s shoes. I mean he even looks a bit like Rio.

Jones proved his Vidic-esque credentials by almost singlehandedly taking United’s title challenge to the last day of the season. In the end a penalty earned the Reds a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park but Blackburn almost gave Chelsea hope thanks largely to Jones’ one man brick wall. Even on his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March 2010, not long after his 18th birthday, Jones made his presence felt with some stinging but legal challenges on the likes of Frank Lampard.

Smalling meanwhile, as I said, has had a surprisingly key role over the last season at Old Trafford. I’m not sure even Fergie would have anticipated his rapid rise through the ranks, leaving the veteran manager contemplating selling the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Wes Brown with not too much concern. Ferdinand’s fitness is unlikely to ever reach the heights of reliability and effectiveness again, meaning that Smalling will be called upon more and more often until eventually Rio is relegated to experienced squad member. The former Fulham man will grow in confidence the more he plays, so that he’ll be bringing the ball out of defence and looking for a killer pass as Ferdinand did in his prime, as well as covering superbly.

Jones and Smalling then have the potential to become a durable, formidable and complimentary partnership at the heart of one of the best teams in the land. Any understanding the two develop could also be transplanted beneficially into future England teams. But before such a partnership forms, they are going to have to compete against one another to play alongside Vidic for perhaps the next couple of seasons.

This time will test, trial and prove the individual ability of each player but will give them little chance to play together. If they have both been useful and their talents have passed the tests of high quality football on a regular basis at the Theatre of Dreams at the end of this period, then Sir Alex (or his successor) will have relatively cheap, and English, replacements for two of the best defenders the Premiership has ever known.