Inventing New Gods and Old

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 22]

It will always be my favorite example of Hollywood missing the point entirely: the 1999 remake/reimagining of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. The End of the Affair was one of my favorite novels that I read while I was in college. So when I first heard that the movie had come out with Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes, and Stephen Rea, I was excited to see how Greene’s vision translated to film.

I have no illusions about the difference between books and movies. I prefer, as often as possible, to read the book before I watch the film. But they are not the same sort of thing. Books can do things that films can’t, and vice-versa. But if the film misunderstands or completely misses the central theme of the book—especially if it’s one of my favorites!—it takes all enjoyment out of the experience of interacting with those two visions.

No Country for Old Men is one film where the film takes a slightly different tack than the book, and yet it manages to capture the feel and texture of the book’s themes and characters. The television show Fargo—to use a slightly different example—has very little in common with the original Coen brothers film, and yet its story and character differences feel like they exist in the same universe.

I admit that when I recently re-read The End of the Affair, it seemed a little melodramatic and, having read more of Greene, it has probably fallen at least to the bottom of my top five. And yet it uses the device of the marital affair between Sarah Miles and Maurice Bendrix to emphasize (perhaps too quickly and slightly contrived) a passion more fiery than mere human love. It is also the only novel of which I’m aware to push the reader to consider the power of even a half-hearted baptism. (Flannery O’Connor’s short story, The River, is far more powerful with regard to baptism.)

To watch the original, 1955 film with Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson is to watch a faithful adaptation of the novel, with much of the same power as the novel. Lenore Coffee’s screenplay understands Greene’s intentions. She seems to know very clearly that Sarah is caught between the human passion of Maurice and the divine passion of God. Unfortunately, Neil Jordan’s 1999 film runs directly contrary to what Greene’s novel is driving at. In fact, he seems to know that he is denying Greene’s purposes explicitly in one of the very first scenes (which is not in the book). Maurice and Sarah attend a film adaptation of one of Maurice’s novels and Maurice is huddled down in his seat, under his coat, cringing. He says, “That’s not what I wrote.”

It’s probably good that Graham Greene died eight years before this film was made. But I imagine him, in his grave, cringing and saying, “That’s not what I wrote.”

But before I get to the most significant and damaging difference between the book and the 1999 film, watching these two films back to back, as I did, highlights how much Hollywood changed in the intervening 45 years. In the 1955 film, you know (from the title, most explicitly) that this is the story of a sexual affair that has come to its end. The 1999 film turns the timeline inside out, and tells the older story primarily in flashback. I actually liked that approach, compared to the straightforward telling of the 1955 film.

But whereas that film understands that the affair is a means to an end (all you see is Sarah buttoning up her dress at one point), the 1999 film seems to revel in the sexuality between Maurice and Sarah, barely remembering that the story is about something else. Because of that, this film has to spend much more time explaining what Sarah is doing meeting with the priest (and completely ignores the atheist propagandist who tries to argue Sarah out of faith).

On the other hand, the 1955 film actually forces the viewer to put the pieces together about Sarah’s new “affair,” which Bendrix discovers by means of a private investigator and Sarah’s diary. This not only signals a change in audience expectations about sex on the screen, but also in audience understanding of religion.

That’s typical enough, and it might even be forgivable if Neil Jordan hadn’t decided the change the point of the story’s tension and actually contradict the title of the book and film. Because Jordan can’t actually believe that a lover might forsake her affair, the only thing that puts an end to the affair is Sarah’s death. The end of the affair is the central pivot of the book, and Neil Jordan has cut the strings on which the tension in the novel rests.

Greene and Coffee realize that as much as Sarah loves Maurice, she has been caught in a web she herself began to weave with her own promise to God in the moment of what she thinks is death and tragedy. But even that doesn’t go far enough. What Sarah confesses to Maurice in the 1955 film is, “I didn’t seek God. I invented a god to suit my own purposes.” That applies also, I think, to the god to whom she made her promise. She realizes that she hasn’t really understood who God is or what he’s all about. The other great exchange of dialogue between Sarah and Maurice is when she says, “What could I offer Him but a shabby second-best?” Maurice says, “I’ve heard He’s used to it.” And Sarah says, “How sad for Him.”

Further, as in the novel, Sarah disappears in the last act of the film. This is because, for Greene, the main actor is God, and the main antagonist, toward the Mileses as well as toward God, is Maurice Bendrix, who never gives up his hatred for Sarah’s God.

What does Sarah confess in the 1999 film? That she is too human, too weak, to keep her promises. So she and Maurice get on a train, and in a part of the film that’s fabricated out of whole cloth without any precedent in the novel or the earlier film, they go to Brighton and renew their affair! It’s easy to see that for Neil Jordan and, apparently, for audiences on the verge of the twenty-first century, the tension and the irreconcilability of Sarah’s love for God and for Maurice is incomprehensible.

It’s all too much that a woman who loves a man not her husband and continues the affair for months could come to the conclusion that it must end and end completely. And because of that, compared to the 1955 film, these characters come across as flat and uninspired. Their emotion seems off. It’s almost as if they don’t know how to deliver the most important lines in the film, which are the lines Jordan saw fit to include from Greene’s novel. When Julianne Moore’s character talks about making a promise to God, when she says that her mother always said she hoped her baptism took, like a vaccination (words that are spoken in both the novel and the 1955 film by Sarah’s mother), the words come out as simply unbelievable. Not only is she acting, but her character is acting.

Deborah Kerr’s Sarah, on the other hand, is bright and complicated. Van Johnson actually manages to portray the hurt and betrayal that Bendrix feels. Ralph Fiennes (as good as an actor as he can be) seems detached and removed for the most part. He is much more aloof, even with Sarah, than Johnson. And as much as I like Stephen Rea’s work, Peter Cushing’s Henry Miles fits the novel’s character so much better.

All of this to say that Hollywood, like the press, just doesn’t get religion. There’s a reason why religious people are so often portrayed as fakes and hypocrites—which may also, in fact, explain why so many religious films’ characters are insipidly pious. The 1999 version of the film is the best example I know of how difficult screenwriters find it to understand the contradictory impulses in people (even Romans 7 contradictions!). Kerr’s Sarah has those contradictions; Moore’s Sarah does not. Filmmakers in 1955 were still aware of them. By 1999, they were thought to be unrealistic or altogether indecipherable. Today, such films are few and far between, to the point that they’re largely ignored by both the religious and the irreligious. But films like the 1955 The End of the Affair are precisely the sorts of films that Christians should be seeking out.

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