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?