Somerset Maugham and I have a rather chequered history and that, despite my having read two of his more famous pieces: Cakes and Ale (boring) and The Razor’s Edge (a poor man’s Gatsby). However, from the moment I saw the film trailer, I knew this was a must-see. The rule – book first, film second – gave Maugham his third and final chance ….. which he grabbed with both hands!
From the start, there is drama.
She gave a startled cry.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Notwithstanding the darkness of the shuttered room he saw her face on a sudden distraught with terror.
“Some one just tried the door.”
“Well, perhaps it was the amah, or one of the boys.£
“They never come at this time. They know I always sleep after tiffin.”
“Who else could it be?”
“Walter,” she whispered, her lips trembling.
Thus we are introduced to the misery that is the marriage between Kitty and Walter Fane – a misery played out in the high society of London, colonial Hong Kong and a cholera-infested politically-unstable mainland China. The novel is infused with a powerful sense of place and time, plenty of action, a host of strong characters and some incredibly vicious dialogue between the married pair.
Walter to Kitty: I had no illusions about you .. I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you. ….
Kitty to Walter: If a man hasn’t what’s necessary to make a woman love him, it’s his fault, not hers.
Ouch and ouch again.
Kitty’s journey from vacuous socialite to mature woman is colourful, dramatic and passionate. She doesn’t always get it first time (for Walter is right – she is silly and frivolous and empty-headed) …. thus she must learn that some mistakes can never be rectified. Her story follows that of Maugham’s own life experience “”I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed… In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel.” Painful for those experiencing such things – very entertaining for those reading about them.
The film is altogether a more gentle affair. The high drama of the novel’s first page occurs about 10 minutes in and the reasons for this are obvious – as are the other changes. Two major differences struck me:
1) Film – Kitty’s family background is given cursory explanation. But we see sufficient to understand the pressure she was under to marry. However, we do miss out on the invective heaped upon Kitty’s mother, a matriarchal dominatrix par excellence.
2) Film: The emphasis clearly shifts from Kitty’s development as an individual (novel) to her and Walter’s development as a couple. And, although Kitty does learn the same lessons in both, the learning curve is not quite as steep and brutal as in the novel. Even so, the film retains most of the wicked dialogue – in some places making it even more explicit.
The changes to the plot are understandable and do not change the essential outcomes. However, if you’ve seen the film, do read the book. It contains twists and subplots not hinted at in the film. Even so, the latter is a visual and atmospheric delight with Edward Norton delivering a stellar interpretation of the emotionally reserved but implacable Walter Fane.