Tag Archives: Thompson

Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?


The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?

Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.

On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.

Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.

Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.

This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.

The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.

Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.

On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:

“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”

Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.

Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

The Song of Lunch/ The Fry Chronicles/The Road/South of the Border, West of the Sun


Trawling through various cultural mediums is for me not just a search for entertainment and means of passing the time but a hunt for reassuring truths, universal truths of life that we all share and when found elsewhere as better formed, well expressed versions of your own troubles offer satisfying comfort. I am no poetry connoisseur but when I do read poems the ones I enjoy speak to me for saying something true, often in the simplest of ways.

Take The Song of Lunch, a BBC adaptation of Christopher Reid’s narrative poem, recommended to me by a friend. Through the artificial constructs of art it says something true and genuine about life, rising above the reality of existence. Of course lunches with old friends are not the profound verbal duels shown here, they are not always feasts of slow-mo exquisite detail. But at times the language, the imagery of the poem is spot on and the sentiments exact. That feeling of so much change and yet so little. Those regrets impossible to accurately voice. The simultaneous significance and insignificance of everyday gripes like the noise of the next table, the disappointing wine. On the whole the dramatisation of the poem works well too and certainly the first half an hour or so is immersive and engaging. Alan Rickman’s lazy, lingering, drooling tones suit such a piece perfectly. You rejoice with his ageing character as his planned escape from the office comes off, via the “yawn” of the lift and enjoy his observations of the London crowds. The direction matches the poem well, vividly evoking stand out lines and images. The arrival of the old lover and the disbelief and resurgence of old feeling is also dealt with well, but as Rickman’s character loses himself amongst his thoughts the adaptation struggles to convey the essence of the words, resorting to overlong focuses on Rickman’s vacant, ogling face. During these moments the drama loses its urgency and coherence and even Rickman’s loving recital of the language, full of irresistible rhythm and emphasis, cannot avert awkwardness for the audience. Despite this and the sense that the adaptation worked best at the beginning, only to trail away, The Song of Lunch was a beautiful, meaningful and enjoyable watch.

Emma Thompson, the old flame and muse of Rickman’s character in The Song of Lunch, also features prominently at times in Stephen Fry’s latest and second autobiographical work, The Fry Chronicles. This book focuses on Fry’s Cambridge years and the formative years of his career, mainly in comedy. However the book joyfully flits about all over the place, touching upon all manner of topics. Forgive me for what is a very Stephen Fry-espque tangent, but the cover of The Fry Chronicles, by which I mean the covering of the book itself, is extremely attractive and I cannot understand the unrealistic snobbery of people who continue to adhere strictly to the old mantra “never judge a book by its cover”.  It is surely impossible today not in some, even wholly unconscious way, to judge or dismiss books based upon their colourful jackets. A writer can slave away at the world’s next great novel only for it fall flat on its face, or be devoured by entirely the wrong sort of audience, because of a wrong decision in the marketing department. Fry’s book is carefully kept simple, with a mostly pure white background and a tasteful picture of himself accompanied by the title in bold blue. The quotes selected for the cover go some way to conveying the essence of what is in inside. I have also bought and shall soon read C by Tom McCarthy, the expected winner of this year’s Booker prize. His publishers too have done a fine job of creating an enticing, attractive cover, reflective of the book’s content (a whirl of lines reflect the theme of communication) and informative (positive criticism expectedly prevails), without excluding anyone by opting for a garish pink. A nice touch to The Fry Chronicles’ cover is that the inside cover has a coloured stripe pattern that matches that of the socks Stephen sports on the cover and generally such colours would seem to represent his personality too.

Cover rant over, is The Fry Chronicles actually any good, jostling for position as it does with whopping political memoirs from not just Blair himself but his advisers and fellow New Labour architects and other assorted celebrities with bright, bubbling, amusing lives to share? The answer is yes and I have not even quite finished the thematic, slightly chronological trip through Fry’s memories as yet. Of course like any autobiographical work has its faults but Fry does his best to acknowledge them. It is also surely more entertainingly, amusingly and playfully written than a host of other similar works set to come out in the endless run-up to Christmas gift season. Fry’s book will ride high on the bestselling lists right up to the turkey dinner and beyond, and deserves to. Not only is it stuffed full of interesting content and fascinating anecdotal tales, but offers an enormous amount of wit, humour and personal, emotional insight; of the truth I search for on my cultural wanderings.

If anything the book starts slowly with a brief focus on Fry’s adolescent addiction to sugar, which if I am honest I found irritating and hard to relate to, but never boring as the sheer energy and wit of Fry’s prose carried me through this section. Once he reached the start of Cambridge however I could identify far more and I whizzed through this portion of the book. Every now and then Fry will interrupt the recounting of actual events to bemoan his lack of confidence and express his own doubts. He fears that he has become a jack of all trades, master of none and that he has squandered natural talents. It is comforting to hear a man of such talent and intelligence admit to such fears about topics as wide ranging as ambition, fame and relationships. He even hopes that his trials and tribulations are merely facts of the human condition, shared by all, and in so doing says something true. At times his refusal to analyse the failings of others as he examines himself is frustrating, with most name-drops also accompanied by gushing praise, but this is all tolerable as he repeatedly acknowledges he is too kind to be a critic, can be seen as arrogant and would not want to judge anyone but himself, in what is after all, an excellent autobiography first and foremost, as well as a snapshot of the entertainment world of the eighties (which Fry makes accessible to those not familiar with the era, as well as the ardent fan).

If Fry’s book is for the most part a light hearted, jovial glance at what it means to be human, set amongst manicured university grounds and the artificial, rich entertainment world, then director John Hillcoat’s 2009 cinematic imagining of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a bleak and brutal, stripped back stare at the core of existence. Unlike Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which I reviewed last week, concluding that it had little purpose or idea of what it was, this movie has a strong narrative and never fails to engage, doing so on a number of levels. Early on we are struck simply by the aesthetics of a barren, apocalyptic landscape, the moving soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the emptiness of father and son walking, emaciated and dirty. Then there are moments of genuine tension, excitement and action when the gangs, cannibal or not, emerge and threaten to discover our protagonists and then no doubt exploit or kill them. The scene where a gang member discovers the crouched Viggo Mortensen whilst taking a piss, clutching a gun with just two bullets left, bullets meant for his son and himself should they be necessary, is incredibly tense. It emerges that to be a father in such an environment means being just steps from being a killer. The film grapples with some big ethical questions around suicide, parenting and violence by placing them in a fictional, extreme context. Even without thinking about these deeply it’s impossible not to be moved by the bonds between Viggo Mortensen’s father and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son, who both give excellent performances, or not to be gripped by the hard hitting action or grim scenery.

For me the most moving parts of the film were the flashbacks that revealed the boy’s mother choosing to leave the father and son, effectively choosing to die rather than go on living in a dangerous, frightening, fallen world. Viggo Mortensen’s character must deal with the fact she chose to die rather than be with them throughout the film as he clings desperately to life for his son. Again here I found that elusive truth that could resonate in my own life; people can do irreparable damage to each other, unimaginable hurt, just by living or in this case by choosing not to, but for her things were clearly so bad for it to be the only choice, the only path forward. This passive process, this capacity to senselessly destroy the meaning of the lives of others, is also recognised by Haruki Murakami in his novella South of the Border, West of the Sun.

I read this in its entirety during a series of train journeys this weekend and found it compulsive reading, for want of a better less clichéd phrase. This is the second Murakami I have read following Norwegian Wood and he seems to have an ability to articulate romantic feeling that I find fascinating, given the differences that perhaps ought to exist between Japanese and Western culture. He seems to capture some sort of universal feeling, especially when writing about the ambitions and frustrations of adolescence. His style is simple and elegant and full of spot on imagery, whilst always retaining a sense of urgency and passion. I could empathise with the narrator of South of the Border, West of the Sun despite our vast differences; he a wealthy, Japanese bar owner, facing a mid-life crisis and the return of a childhood sweetheart, me an ordinary student in Britain. I could share the agony of his conflicting desires and that sense that incompleteness will always prevail. In fact the novella seemed to conclude that such incompleteness was the only certain destiny of the human condition and that life will always be a meandering search for truth in vain.