unrecognizable (chapter 29, part 3)


If there was a lineup of body parts, could you pick your own ear out of the crowd?  Is that really your voice on that recording?  During an argument, did your lover swear you said something you didn’t?  Did you ever catch sight of yourself unexpectedly, in a reflection or a photograph, and feel stunned by the wrongness of it?  Who stole your body and took it for a joyride?  Who was that masked man?

Sometimes, I stumble across things I wrote long ago and I don’t recognize them–stilted love poems for a forgotten man, chirpy, pedantic prose from a poser, inane diaries– and I feel like I’ve played a dirty trick on myself.  

What the hell do you think you’re doing?  What if you have absolutely no idea who you are?

*

The first time she read The Awakening was over winter break, sophomore year in high school.  A favorite teacher had given her a paperback copy of the Bantam Classic with a big green and red bow.  It had taken Drew two days to read it, sitting in her mother’s orange chair in the den under an old crocheted blanket, swallowed by the vast, bare beauty of the words.  From time to time she’d pull her eyes from the page to gaze out the window at the frozen earth, naked trees against grey sky, or at the television in the corner that with its dark, dead eye.  In that book she found words for the sense that there was something big just under the surface of the world, some mammoth swimming up from below.  It was a feeling she thought few people would ever understand—Kate Chopin perhaps, maybe her mother.   

She couldn’t believe that it was universal and in her mind, no film could ever hope to convey that feeling. When she wrote the screenplay, she understood that certain things could never be shown  but she was willing to see them try.  Lang Westwood was the best woman for the impossible job and that’s the most anyone could hope for.  She would forgive Mae for being too small for the role.  Drew would love her anyway; that’s what friends do, right?  

The final jolt came when the lights dimmed, the film started to roll, and her veins begin to shrink down to penciled lines.  

It is so much bigger than Drew had ever imagined.  So much more real.  

But it isn’t hers.  It has nothing to do with her.  From end to end, not one line of dialogue is spoken as Drew wrote it.  And Mae’s Edna is almost unrecognizable, so fragile and childishly earnest that she fills Drew with an aching, impotent love, the kind of love one might feel for one’s own doomed daughter.  

And it’s not just Mae: every actor adds a new interpretation of the story: Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna’s artist/pianist friend, is played perfectly by a dwarf; anyone can see that Robert, Edna’s love interest, is gay, although no one in the film seems to notice. When Adele actually dies in protracted and bloody childbirth, the scene threatens to shift the focus of the whole film and for a moment, we forget Edna completely.  The audience’s sympathy slides away from Edna to Adele and the meaning of the story shifts accordingly: suddenly, the romance is frivolous, Edna is oblivious and self-absorbed and when Adele dies, Drew’s face is drenched with tears that stream past her ears, down her neck and into her cleavage.  

What did they do to the ending?  The final view of her floating face down in the ocean is shot from below with her arms outstretched so that she appears to be flying overhead.  Her eyes are open; she smiles an ambiguous smile as she hangs suspended like an equivocal vulture.  The music, the music beats like a whisk but explains nothing.

By the end, Drew is struggling to contain the high-pitched whine trapped at the top of her throat, drowning in the knowledge that she doesn’t know anything about anything or anybody.  Not Wayne, not her father, not her mother or the people sitting beside her in the dark, not the faces on the screen, not Mae, not Kate Chopin, not herself, nobody.  

*

Did you ever see a movie that was better than the book?

About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

15 comments

  1. Oh my god.

    I’ve heard that “The Bridges of Madison County” was much better than the book. It’s why I didn’t try to read it. I loved most of the film so.

    As to Drew, this put a lump in my chest. I’ve written a few things that haven’t been understood at all. So far, I’m sure it’s because I could have written them better. I don’t know how I’d feel if a piece I felt right about had been changed this way, changed by a committee of creative minds who all felt their point of view added something, but I’m sure my reaction would be something like Drew’s.

    • I think writing is like what they say about children, how they are little pieces of your heart chopped from you, exposed, walking around on legs. I can’t remember the original quote but it’s something like that. Argh! The pain!

  2. By coincidence I have just rented Wuthering Heights – the 1939 William Wyler directed version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon – and will be watching it a few hours from now.

    I am not expecting it to be better than the Emily Bronte book. Just cannot be possible!

    Books and Movies are different creatures though – a book has time to go deep, much deeper – a movie can too but necessarily has to take some short-cuts.

    Perhaps LA Confidential?

    • Ooooo Wuthering Heights! I’m afraid to watch it because just the words give me the good kind of goosebumps. So you’ll have to tell me if it was worth it.

      • Sorry but I can only answer with a maybe!

        As I thought Wuthering Heights likely unfilmable I should not really be disappointed that it failed to bring Emily Bronte’s words to celluloid life.

        Nevertheless there is a story in there and clearly not one that Hollywood or at least Samuel Goldwyn was ready to allow full reign. They made a ghost of Cathy Earnshaw when the Cathy on the Moor’s of Heathcliff’s imagination was surely the deep longing of his heart. They also made light of the brutishness of Heathcliff. I read that Wyler did not want the spectral ending but Sam Goldwyn’s ‘commercial instinct’ prevailed.

        I am glad they tried though. There was a British version of this film a few years back directed by Andrea Arnold which has not received too many promising reviews but I shall probably watch it too.

        I shall probably watch all the likely doomed attempts to film Emily Bronte’s masterpiece. Sister Charlotte’s masterpiece Jane Eyre on the other hand has had many good adaptations for both cinema and television.

        Though I think the ghost of Emily might be quietly pleased that her book has proved difficult to film. Mind you it did inspire a classic pop song from Kate Bush!

  3. This was beautiful, my favorite excerpt yet. And yes, I understand how strange we can be to ourselves, what equivocal vultures, devouring our pasts.

    • Favorite? Woah. Now I’ll have to figure out why and apply it to the rest….

      • “It had taken Drew two days to read it, sitting in her mother’s orange chair in the den under an old crocheted blanket, swallowed by the vast, bare beauty of the words. From time to time she’d pull her eyes from the page to gaze out the window at the frozen earth, naked trees against grey sky, or at the television in the corner that with its dark, dead eye. In that book she found words for the sense that there was something big just under the surface of the world, some mammoth swimming up from below.”

        “And Mae’s Edna is almost unrecognizable, so fragile and childishly earnest that she fills Drew with an aching, impotent love, the kind of love one might feel for one’s own doomed daughter.”

        “What did they do to the ending? The final view of her floating face down in the ocean is shot from below with her arms outstretched so that she appears to be flying overhead. Her eyes are open; she smiles an ambiguous smile as she hangs suspended like an equivocal vulture. The music, the music beats like a whisk but explains nothing.”

        “By the end, Drew is struggling to contain the high-pitched whine trapped at the top of her throat, drowning in the knowledge that she doesn’t know anything about anything or anybody.”

  4. glad i finally got here. i believe this.

  5. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    This is such eloquent writing. I agree with what you said at the beginning – about when you come across some old written piece of work & wonder who you WERE.
    Loved the ending, describing her looking as though she’s suspended in space, not in the water – arms out, flying. Excellent.

  6. 2&4&12B&24 9 29A 29C 27C 26B 18A 14B 22 12A 18B 26A 20B&7&16A&16B
    14A 15A&15B 11 23C 3B 3A 19A&19B 29B 28&13&27A&23A&23B&21A&21B
    20A 6 10 21C 25A&25B&8&17A&17B&5&1

    I don’t think this is what you intended, but I am reminded of when I worked on
    my first novel for years – I grew so sick of it, I coulden’t tell if it was bad or if I
    was just tired of it. I wonder if Drew isen’t enjoying the film because of the other
    things on her mind of if the fact great books can not be equally great movies is
    proven again – of if she just sick of whole mess. I take to self promotion pretty
    readily, only after ward do I feel like an idiot, I enjoy promoting myself – but fear
    I may not be so good at it.

    • I think that’s what must be happening to me, R. I think I’m just ready to think of something else. Of course, if there was some end in sight (if you edit this and this by this date, you will get published) I might feel differently….

  7. Money can be a surprisingly good
    motivator. ;)

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