The Novel Vanishes

Years ago my dark psychological novel The German Money was optioned for film.  After my initial excitement, I read successive drafts of the screenplay with a growing sense of loss.  My novel was disappearing bit by bit, page by page.

I thought of that when I read disparaging  reviews of the recent new PBS film The Lady Vanishes which compared it invidiously to the 1938 movie of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock’s film about a woman who thinks another Englishwoman has been abducted on a  train traveling across Europe was based on The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. Though it’s widely admired, the movie completely subverts the book’s tone and undercuts its raw emotional power.  I find it painful to watch.

The novel haunts me.  Iris Carr is a spoiled socialite, alone in the world though she’s surrounded by high-living friends.  She seems rude and shallow, but she’s aware that the life she’s living is vapid, and when she gets briefly lost on her Balkan vacation, she realizes how truly isolated she is, and how vulnerable.  It’s a shattering epiphany.

Those feelings metastasize on her train ride home when her seat mate disappears, Iris claims a conspiracy, and she’s considered everything from a mere nuisance to hysterical by a wide range of passengers.  The book is hard to put down.

The new film version is scary and lovingly true to its source; where it diverges, it only intensifies and concentrates what’s in the novel.

I’m at a loss to understand critics like Mike Hale of the New York Times who wrote:

This new “Lady Vanishes,” directed by Diarmuid Lawrence (“South Riding”) from a screenplay by Fiona Seres, is a perfectly adequate television mystery of the week. But it forgoes the crackling pace, light touch and surprisingly sophisticated sexual banter of the original, opting for melancholy, ominousness and sentimentality. It’s about five minutes shorter than the Hitchcock, but its deliberate pace makes it seem longer. Watching the two in succession is like transferring from the express to a particularly poky, poorly ventilated local.

I couldn’t disagree more.  Watching the films in the same order as he did, I found the first one hokey, dated, and verging on the ridiculous with its cartoonish foreigners, trumped-up spy plot, and foolish gun battle.  The second movie was deep, disturbing, disorienting–just like the novel.  One detail I especially loved is that in the movie (as in the book), Iris is always having to push her way through the crowded corridors, which magnifies her dizziness and confusion and makes her feel even more trapped.

But I doubt Hale or any of the other TV critics who disliked the PBS version bothered to read the novel or they wouldn’t make careless comments like calling this new version a “remake” of Hitchcock’s film.  Yes, it shares the name (that’s obviously a PR move), but it’s nothing of the sort.  It’s a faithful, exciting adaptation of the original novel, and watching it, I wished the writer adapting my book had been even half as talented as Fiona Seres.  Luckily for me, that film didn’t get made, and that’s a sentence I never thought I’d be writing!

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9 Responses

  1. Hitchcock gave much the same farcical twist to Daphne DuMaurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’. The author watched it happening from afar and was terrified and disgusted by the final product, so much so that she tried to get him fired from the adaptation of her short story, ‘The Birds’.

  2. Now and then filmmakers get it right, sometimes the film is better than than the book, N.B. “A Good Year.” What I learned dancing the book-to-screenplay cha-cha-cha with books I’ve had optioned, is that it’s best not to think of the potential film version as your book, but only as a check that cleared the bank.

    • Well, you know what Hemingway said: meet the screenwriter or producer at the California state line: “You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came.”

  3. Intriguing post, Lev. I keep seeing new adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and am invariably disappointed. I saw the Hitchcock version of The Lady Vanishes years ago, but now want to catch a rerun (if possible) of the new PBS film–and see it through your sage-colored eyes.

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Nancy. I imagine the PBS version will be on video soon enough….

  5. Lev:
    Excellent post. I suspect you’ll appreciate the following:

    ONLY IN HOLLYWOOD…

    Shortly after publication of my first thriller novel, THE SIXTEENTH MAN, I received an excited – and exciting – phone call from a producer who had been shopping it: “Guess what! Barry Diller loves THE SIXTEENTH MAN and wants to put into [screenplay] development immediately!”

    “Wow! That’s great!” For those of you who aren’t familiar with Hollywood rankings, Mr. Diller was at the time a Major Player, a seriously BFD.

    Then came the button: “Except, well, that was the Good News…”

    “And…”

    “The Bad – he doesn’t want it to be about the JFK assassination.”

    I mean, it’s hard to invent that kind of stuff – or to describe it without people saying something on the order of: “Get out!”

    But for me, it once again confirmed my long-held belief that in Hollywood, life does not imitate art – it imitates satire.

    And to give this anecdote additional shape – not to mention more Hollywoodness, two days later, before the producer had conveyed my emphatic refusal, another Tinseltown phenomenon imposed itself. Diller and everyone else departed that studio – and as invariably happens, lest the new people become – yech – tainted, all of the former regime’s projects were tossed.

    Sigh…

    • “it’s hard to invent that kind of stuff – or to describe it without people saying something on the order of: “Get out!””

      As you so ably demonstrate 😉

      Only in Hollywood. LOL

    • Thanks, and I love your account, because it reminded me of Monster by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne where the story of a reporter who killed herself became something radically different and one of the first questions in a meeting was “Does she have to die at the end?”

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