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If the reaction I encountered a few months back in New York City at a showing of the 1940 William Wyler film "The Letter" is typical, contemporary movie audiences now have no sense of past Hollywood films as anything but a collection of antiquated conventions, attitudes and styles. "The Letter," based on a Somerset Maugham short story and starring Bette Davis in one of her greatest performances, is one of the most sophisticated movies ever made in this country. It's a hard examination of the place where colonialism and race and sex intersect. Set on a British rubber plantation in Singapore, the movie opens with Davis shooting her lover to death in front of a group of witnesses. But since the witnesses are all natives, there is never any question that she, a white woman, will get away with it.
A few scenes after the opening, her husband (the marvelous, underrated actor Herbert Marshall) turns up with their lawyer. Davis, who has changed into another outfit, emerges from the bedroom, hand extended in greeting, and welcomes the lawyer with "How good of you to come." The audience I saw the movie with exploded in laughter. And it is funny -- but not in the way it was laughed at. Wyler is showing us the grotesquerie of Davis' manner, the decorum that is paramount whether you're mixing a cocktail or you've just murdered a man. The audience had no inkling that Wyler was aware of the grotesquerie of that moment. Nobody really acts like this, they seemed to think, so the whole film, especially Davis' performance, became cause for derision. If "realism" is your standard, then Bette Davis is doomed.
But that having been said, I can name films that I thought beautifully captured the tone (and content) of a written work. And there are plenty of others that are acts of butchery.
My experience with movies based on Maugham's works is confined to Quartet, Trio and Encore, which date from the late 1940s and early 1950s and contain altogether screen versions of 10 of hi short stories. Some are admirable, some are not; certain incidents (endings especially) are changed to a much inferior ones. Some characters are amazingly portrayed, others appallingly. On the whole, enjoyable to watch, but for my part the most priceless moments are Maugham's appearances on the screen to introduce the movies - unfortunately very short and inexplicably cut.
All screenplays were published in book form together with the short stories that inspired them. Here are reviews if somebody's interested:
Interestingly, Maugham apparently wrote only one of these ten screenplays, The Verger, if Mr Calder is to be believed. Oddly enough, the screen version of this story is one of the most different than the story - but the charming ending is quite the same.
All three movies are easily available on DVD, separately or in one box.
''Being Julia'' is based on Maugham's ''Theatre'' - hardly a novella indeed. First published in 1937, ''Theatre'' is quite a novel, if strangely plotless and character-based for Maugham. It contains, to my mind, one of his most perfectly realised characters, especially Julia herself. I want to hate that woman but I always end in love with her and that's that.
The 3 DVDs box is perfect for you then. I think it's fairly cheap and won't be a grief if you don't like the movies.
Secret Agent (1936) by Hitchcock is a classic,
based on Ashenden. I haven't seen it for a long time.
on Conrad's Secret Agent! ;-) Both are all-time classics.
I leave it to Waldstein and others to say for sure.
"A trifle, to be sure, but brilliantly clever and amusing.
"Then and Now" (1946) is Maugham's penultimate novel, again hated by the critics. To my mind, it is a brilliant historical novel, set in Italy of Machiavelly and Cesare Borgia. It makes tremendously fascinating comparison with Maugham's previous historical novel, published 48 years before and only his second book. John Whitehead is one notable exception for a critic who admires this novel; Anthony Curtis too, to some extent at least.
Of course, when it comes to Mr Maugham, it's not just the plot; it's the characterization, the exquisite, careful use of language, the subtle nuances, all the sorts of things for which we read books instead of spending all our time at the movies.
Otherwise, I have watched very few movies based on Maugham's works and have never found any of them even remotely capturing the depth and complexity of his characters; most seem to treat Maugham simply as a great storyteller. That he certainly was, but he was much more than that.
Nevertheless, The Painted Veil was quite nice, if Edward Norton is bit of a strange choice and the guy who played Charlie Townsend an almost complete disappointment, and I remember, years ago, watching several times The Razor's Edge with Tyrone Power and found it quite nice, especially Herbert Marshal and Clifton Webb were superb; Gene Tierney and Anne Baxter weren't bad either as the bitchy Isabel and pathetic Sophie, respectively.
I have always been curious about that remake with Bill Murray but have never mustered the courage to see it. An odd choice for Larry indeed! Whatever The Razor's Edge is, it is no comedy, and whatever comedy it does contain, it is certainly not in Larry's character.
I've recently seen Groundhog Day with Bill Murray which I found surprisingly enjoyable given that I have never particularly cared for this actor. The idea of casting him in some of Maugham's comedies is fascinating; pity that nobody seems to care about these plays nowadays. The title roles in The Circle and The Breadwinner would probably be beyond him, but in some of the minor ones he may manage; perhaps the title roles in some of the farces, Jack Straw or Home and Beauty, would not be too much for him. At his best Maugham's comedies are frighfully serious, and it's interesting to note that towards the end of his career in the theatre he also wrote few harrowing dramas that could hardly have been further from comedy, like For Services Rendered and my favourite The Sacred Flame.
On the whole, it seems the older movies manage to capture whatever they can of Maugham's magic better. For all of their drawbacks, Quartet (1948), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951) are rather enjoyable and with some startingly brilliantly acting, though the most important parts for me remain Maugham's addresses. I wouldn't mind having a look at Of Human Bondage or The Letter with Bette Davies or any of the three (at least) versions of Rain.
PS Mentioning Bette Davies, I am always reminded about the nasty remark of Gore Vidal that the best that can be said about Of Human Bondage is that it gave a great role for Bette Davies.
I am most curious to see the later version with Laurence Harvey, who may be OK, and Kim Novak who seems to me much too sultry to play Mildred. After all, that would make Philip's passion too easy to explain and the story would lose an essential part of its strength (but I guess it would be easier to film).
Harvey and Novak appear on the cover of the mass market paperback of the abridged (by Maugham himself) version of the novel:
By the way, a touch of pure off-topic, if somebody knows how to separate titles, please separate the abridged edition from the original one. Also, Of Human Bondage, with a Digression on the Art of Fiction: An address certainly should be separated too, for it's a little pamphlet with the address Maugham gave on 20th of April 1946 in Coolidge Auditorium, The Library of Congress, on the occassion of his presenting the original manuscript of Of Human Bondage to the Library of Congress.
Coming back to the movies, I'll have a closer look on the ones with Bette Davies some of these days; the little I have seen did look promising. The Letter is particularly interesting for it was the only short story Maugham adapted for the stage himself; he even wrote two different endings. Interestingly enough, he omitted the play from The Collected Plays but it can be found in one more or less modern paperback: Maugham Plays, Volume Two (Methuen, 1999). It would be fascinating to see another version of this very fine story.
It may well be that in Of Human Bondage there are passages or episodes which are of too personal a nature to be of general interest or which owing to the passage of time or a change of fashion no longer have much point. I do not know. I am willing let others judge of that. ... A novel is not a scientific work nor a work of edification. So far as the reader is concerned it is a work which purports to offer him intelligent entertainment. If this book, in this shortened version, finds new readers who get just that from it I shall be well satisfied.
I have to confess that I have never read this version for I have never thought the original a single page too long nor more loosely structured as a novel dealing with the formation of a personality should be. But some time in the future I intend to read the abridged version out of pure curiosity what is it that Maugham left out; judging by the size (12mo, 373 pp), some half of the original novel must have been cut.
Since Maugham was famous, or notorious, for his cynicism I should like to propose a cynical motive for this abridgement, though this is rather far-fetched. Maugham might have done it in order to save himself some harsh criticism because he had done the same with all novels from his ''Top Ten''. Generally known or not, the ten essays which (save one) were originally published in Atlantic Monthly between November 1947 and July 1948 and later (all ten + introductory essay) in book form as Great Novelists and Their Novels (1949; later revised as Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1954) were written as introductions to abridged editions of these ten novels. I think the idea was of the publisher (Winston) and the abridgment was carried by Maugham himself.
It's time for another confession now, namely that I have read but one of Maugham's ''Top Ten'' and I certainly don't see anything to cut from Pride and Prejudice. Such abridgement is a point on which we - Maugham and I - strongly disagree. Another such point, a direct consequence of this one actually, is Maugham's advice to skip. He once confessed that he is a bad skipper and so am I. I always say that if you're going to skip, you'd better not read the bloody book at all. I made an exception only for excruciatingly tedious plot descriptions in critical studies of Maugham's works.
Despite the above, I confess I have been tempted to skip in a novel I'm currently laboring through, that being Conrad's Lord Jim. I'm hardly new to classic fiction, but have found it tough going. (I finally went back and started the book again, to make sure I wasn't overlooking its value, of which there is a great deal)
As for abridgement: one of Maugham's all-time favorite books is Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. When asked to choose the top ten novels ever published for Redbook magazine, where they were to be reprinted in abridged form, he declined to choose Remembrance in part because of the abrigdgement that would be necessary. (However, he did not balk at the prospect of being associated with the other abridgements by Redbook...)
I was struck by his confession that he found it difficult not to finish a book he started. He didn't try to justify it -- it was as if he was confessing a weakness, or perhaps a silly and harmless neurosis. It means he was advising readers to do what he himself found hard to do. By carefully editing some very long novels, he was helping the reader focus on the essentials, and probably exposing such classic works to a vast readership who otherwise might never be exposed to Austen, Dickens, and so on. I see his involvement with the Redbook project as of little or no benefit to WSM himself (he certainly had no need of the money!), but one of great benefit to readers, who might thereupon be more likely to tackle the original books. That's my opinion, for what it's worth
As a result, I find that I've carried a few books in my "currently reading" listings at LT for three years now. One of them I recently finished -- finally!
I find it amusing that Maugham advised readers to do what he himself apparently found impossible. Maybe he was trying to convince himself of the practice.
I was first introduced to Maugham through my love for old films. After seeing The Razor's Edge (1946) I read the book (it remains my favorite so far) and he became one of my favorite authors.
Although the production standards of the old films must often be overlooked, as mentioned in earlier posts, I can still enjoy the 1946 Razor's Edge because I think they respected their source material even if they could not be faithful to the book. I think the same is true of The Letter (1940) and The Narrow Corner (1933).
I remember reading that Bill Murray loved the book and original film of The Razor's Edge. He co-wrote the screenplay of the 1984 film version. What a mess.
and a review by our own Waldstein
I would like to see the movie you cited. I've seen Razor's Edge (not the Bill Murray one) and the classic Of Human Bondage. Here is another classic movie, The Beachcomber, made from a Maugham short story