Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book to Movie: Cold Comfort Farm

Forcing myself to avoid 'shipping my own work had a really interesting result. I came up with an idea for a scene that should be wonderful (if I do it right when I write it) and that isn't something I would have come up with otherwise. Sometimes those things that feel like delaying tactics end up causing something good that I might not have imagined if I hadn't had the delay time. Writing seems to be about 90 percent thinking and 10 percent stringing words together.

I mentioned watching Cold Comfort Farm on HBO Friday. I re-read the Stella Gibbons novel it was based on Sunday evening, so now I can discuss both.

First, a brief synopsis: A young society woman's parents die, leaving her with no property, little money and no useful skills. She decides to live with relatives and writes to see who'll take her, but the only response that sounds promising comes from a cousin who makes a vague reference to some wrong done to her father, and as an atonement, they're willing to give her a home at Cold Comfort Farm. She arrives to find a crumbling farm full of unhappy people, and it all seems to come down to the family matriarch, who "saw something nasty in the woodshed" as a child and who uses that to control everyone else, with the threat that she'll go mad if she doesn't get her way. Our heroine decides to tidy the place up and sets out to help each member of the family find his or her dream.

This is a quick read, a read-in-one-sitting book, and it's laugh-out-loud funny, with a rather arch, satiric tone. It's definitely a spoof of the rustic romance kind of book, with the lusty, brooding young men and wild, untamed young women, earthy servant girls, and madwomen living locked in their rooms. One of the things that really cracked me up was the dedication note up front. The book is dedicated to someone who is apparently acclaimed as a great literary author, with a mention that Gibbons can't live up to his level of writing because she's just a journalist and used to having to write so that it can be easily understood. She did occasionally try to write in a more literary way, so she starred the passages that she thinks are particularly good. The starred passages are the most purple, florid, dense prose you'll read outside a Victorian novel. I didn't find any insight into this dedication in the Wikipedia entry, so I don't know if it was meant as an insult or an inside joke, but I still found it hilarious.

There is one really odd thing about this book, though: It's set in the near future. It was written in 1931-32 and published in 1932. There's no specific date given for the setting, but an event in 1946 is mentioned as having taken place in the past, and there's a reference to Clark Gable and Gary Cooper as being actors from twenty years ago, so you might not have heard of them. Air travel is so common that it's almost eliminated railroads in England. You only take the train to towns that are too insignificant to have airports. There's also air mail -- where airplanes drop off parcels as they fly over. People communicate with videophones. But these details are just thrown in, and they aren't too consistent. The heroine mostly communicates with telegrams in spite of the videophones. Air travel is ordinary, but people in the country don't even have cars yet. The future setting isn't really established with world building. It's like the book is essentially about the time it was written, with the occasional addition of a few random details from the future. In a couple of cases, there's a future projection that turns out to be pretty wrong, like the mention of a war in 1946 that one character fought in, with none of the rest of the young men knowing what war was like. The weird thing is that this future setting has absolutely nothing to do with the story. If you remove those few "future" details, you've got a book that seems to be set around the time it was written, and it totally works. The author lived into the late 80s, and I think I'd have been tempted to do a revised edition that eliminated that element and let it be an early 30s period novel.

Which is what they did in the film adaptation. They skipped the science fictiony elements and kept it as a 1930s story, and yet it's still one of the most faithful book-to-movie adaptations I've ever seen. Almost everything is pretty much the way it's described in the book. It's practically a scene-by-scene adaptation, with only a few scenes cut or telescoped (the events of several scenes combined into one scene). There's only one outcome that's different. In a lot of cases, the dialogue is word-for-word from the book. They even use the florid, purple starred passages as examples of the heroine's attempt to write a novel.

The cast is all-star, all the usual British suspects. The star is a very, very young Kate Beckinsale, from back when she mostly did period pieces and long before she was a big-time action heroine (and when she had actual flesh on her bones). There's also Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen, Joanna Lumley, Stephen Fry and Rufus Sewell, among others. Watching this movie is like playing Six Degrees of Masterpiece Theatre, with a side game of "so, this is where they started."

Highly recommended if you like movies set in the 30s, snarky comedies or transformation stories -- and that applies to both book and movie. I think I need keeper copies of both book and movie because they're the sort of thing that's a sure cure for a bad day.

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