The Possessions

26 July 2003

Marriage as a long conversation. When entering a marriage, one should ask the question: do you think you will be able to have good conversations with this woman right into old age? Everything else in marriage transitory, but most of the time in interaction is spent in conversation. (Fredrich Nietzsche, Human, All too Human # 406)

I was reminded of the above quote by Hillary Clinton last spring, who was on TV doing promo for her memoir, reading an excerpt from the back of the book. In her bedtime story voice, she tells us that she began a conversation with Bill Clinton in the spring of 1971 and they’re still talking. Could not one consider text a conversation, held between the writer and the reader? If so, then last spring, I began a conversation with AS Byatt, through her text Possession, and the film adapted from it.

The Book

Having gotten over the repulsion I’d felt for years at seeing it’s pre-Raphaelite cover in the bookstore and thinking it was something entirely feminine and not at all of interest to a boy steeped in science fiction and the cynicism of contemporary art, I picked up this thick paperback at the local library, my interest piqued by last year’s film. Based on the trailer, I thought the story was one of reincarnation – two lovers in the 19th century rediscover each other through academic research and fall in love all over again. The story is more banal and far more intriguing.

Published in 1990, and set in 1986, this story takes place in the dying days of typewriters; computers do make their appearance here and there, but all in all, this is a tale for the last generation of academics who fell in love with words and the tales of deconstructed meta-narratives before the computer and internet came along to put it all together again. It is essentially two love stories, the first of which begins with a conversation which has not had a chance to complete itself. The 20th Century character Roland finds drafts of a letter which begins a search for an undisclosed portion of a 19th Century poet’s life – that of Mr Ash. Mr Ash is a complete fiction, but in this alternative reality he is perhaps akin to William Morris, a poet obscure, but not too obscure.

I think I have to stop pretending to claim any profound understanding of postmodernist issues, because every time I feel I have a grip on the theories I read something which throws me off balance – and I write this because Possession seems to have been written as a critique of postmodernist theory. AS Byatt had definitely mastered her craft, and the excessiveness of her skill is overbearing. Her recreation of 19th Century writing would be impossible for me, because the tone and formality of the language I find so inhumane as to be repellent, and I had to skip these portions of the text to simply to be able to breath. Byatt’s appropriation of academic jargon, and the 1986 setting, seem to posit that love is beyond discourse and that at the end of the day, all of our theories are nothing more than a pastime for the bored and over-educated. That deconstructed meta-narratives and post-something-or-other critique are there only to fill our lives in the absence of that which all mammals such as us seek – food, shelter, love or a bathroom.

Whole chapters of text written in a 19th Century style are not necessary to convey the one idea which anchors the plot line for that section – something which the film makers picked up on. This novel was really written for a generation who like Byatt were raised in a pre-televisual time, where a big fat book was all the more required to stave off the boredom of an evening next to a fireplace, a generation raised with Latin and Greek meta-narratives.

The Movie

Neil LaBute drinks mocca choca supercalifragiclicoala espresso while the sun rises above the Los Angeles horizon. Because he’s a famous Hollywood 2-bit schlep, he lives in one of those beach homes, where he sits and ponders the scripts of his magnum opiate. Should he be faithful to the text of this highbrow English hottie-tottie snob? Or should he find a way to blow something up near the end of the film, delivering a signature line which has been in his head since he overheard it at the restaurant – “That’ll be all.”

No, he has to focus; he has to get this project done, since it’s already been in limbo for years. He’s the director triumphant, he got the script, and he’s got his friend already lined up to play the lead. That fact that he’s American, and the character he’s supposed to play is British is irrelevant – this will be changed, so that the female character will have a reason to be snarky to him. Such a long book – and he has to get it down to a couple of hours! He thinks, “Oh this is just a chick flick, no need to satisfy the male urge to classify, and strategise by giving us a plot that makes sense”.

The movie becomes an exercise in summary. Talk about cutting to the chase, this film cuts out the chase, and replaces it with scenes that seem incongruous. This movie becomes the definition of a film swissed-cheesed with plot holes. In the novel, one sees how the characters arrive at their positions and decisions – in the film, its as if everything pops out of thin air, as if being directed from above … which it is … as if to say that internal narrative consistency and apparent irrationality of the characters do not matter since we all know this make believe anyway, and that you’re only here because you had nothing else to do – an attitude that is so disrespectful of the audience’s intelligence that director Neil LaBute should go into something else.

Why the hell do they dig up a grave at the end? This does not make sense! It’s the Chewbacca defense applied to a plotline.

The film adaptation makes up the unconscious identity of any text; for any song there exists the possibility of the remix, for the text, the possibility of a film. And while there are ‘definitive’ versions which try to create a faithful reproduction of events, there is the possibility for any number of modifications – this movie version chose to dumb down, to simplify, to become an exercise is brevity. Telling only what needed to be told, it is almost unfair to watch this film after reading the text. It is full of plot holes which are there only because they chose to exclude so much. A novel like Possession should be a 3 hour movie – that is not unreasonable, especially when one compares the two English Patients where the text is smaller but the film is large; instead here you have the reverse, a large text and a small film. It is only an hour and half long! Its so light and breezy it could blow away on late night television, you’d end up watching infomercials or the girls on the beach having forgotten the story over on channel 6. The film has disposed of much of the nuance and its sense of reality is compromised because it has paired down a complex story into something too simple to be believable.

Ratings:Book 8/10Movie 3/10

Instant Coffee Saturday Edition

  1. July 2003: Appeared in Instant Coffee Saturday Edition Issue No° 17
  2. 2002-2015 Archived on my websites & blog
  3. Sept 2015: this version produced