the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Remains of the Day (1993)

The Remains of the Book
James Ivory has made a career producing films with a well-made play sensibility (e.g. The Bostonians, Room with a View, Heat and Dust, Mr and Mrs. Bridge). The only thing missing is Allistair Cooke giving a re-assuring introduction while sitting by the fire in his den. Mr. Ivory does go out on a limb now and then (i.e. Slaves of New York, Maurice*) but he seems most at home with a mannered drama cast with wealthy people of other eras facing upper class problems. It is natural that Mr. Ivory would gravitate to Kazuo Ishiguro's magnificent novel The Remains of the Day. Although this a contemporary work written by a young writer the central character is an elderly English butler in the twilight of his career which spanned from pre World War I through the 1950s.

Mr.Ishiguro's background sheds light the spirit of the story. He is a native of Japan but moved to England at an early age. The central character embodies an English sense of propriety and etiquette with a Japanese ethos of duty and honor. Mr. Ishiguro's Mr.Stevens approaches his work with a zealot's fervor. His mission in life is to be a truly great butler. His days are spent honing his skills and meditating on what qualities define "greatness". This goes beyond any notions of popular recognition. Mr. Steven's standards are not of this world. The closest mortal analogy would be the military. Mr. Stevens' relationship to his Lord resembles that of a dedicated foot soldier to a respected General. The Lord's whims, guests and dinners become the battle itself. It is not surprising than that Mr. Stevens refers to taking a position at any level of his profession as "being in service". Mr. Ishiguro structures this seemingly esoteric story brilliantly. The reader is draw into Mr. Steven's mind and becomes enthralled by his Weltanschauung. The book is the story of a man confronting his god and becoming an atheist. Unfortunately Mr. Ivory's movie concerns a man pursuing an old romance out of a sense of missed opportunity.

On the surface Mr. Ivory has been faithful to Mr. Ishiguro's text. The essential plot elements remain intact. The adjustments are minor and in many cases work to give the story a more concise framework. The movie melds the diplomat who criticizes Lord Darlington's pro-German positions with the American who purchases the estate after his death. This works well save the regrettable choice of Christopher Reeves (A brilliant Superman but this role required someone with a larger emotional palette). Mr. Stevens father is employed in the house as a replacement for a wayward footman who is struck by cupid's arrow. Introducing the father in this way helps build the romantic tension between the young Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton and it also reinforces the sense of isolation with those who remain "in service". The scene in which the young Mr. Stevens demotes his father is another improvement on Mr. Ishiguro's original story. This confrontation ironically paints Stevens the younger as a man of compassion despite his clipped words, stoic manner and harsh deeds.

There were two changes which were less successful. These alterations are seemingly minor but they speak to a significant difference in Mr. Ivory's approach to the character of Stevens. The country Doctor in Mr. Ishiguro's narrative is an idealist turned pragmatist. The socialist dreams which he nurtured in his privileged youth have long since faded into the mundane tasks involved in being a rural practitioner. Although there are tinges of regret about a life spent amongst the rustics he seems to have accepted his role in life. It is a interesting parallel to Mr. Stevens who is on the verge of assessing the fruits of being "in service". Mr. Ivory strips the character of the country doctor to the barest necessities: he is an upper class doctor who is held in high esteem by the locals. His youthful dreams and the attitude about his job are absent. The movie doctor is designed to play a different role. He aggressively questions Mr. Stevens about a career dedicated to the cares of another person. The doctor seems to be nibbling around the edges of: Haven't you wasted your life? This is a vulgar device which undercuts the spirit of Ishiguro's work. Even more disturbing is Mr. Stevens' answer. He replies that he is on a journey to rectify the situation.

The issue is one of awareness. In Mr. Ishiguro's novel Mr. Stevens' trip is undertaken in order to see if Miss Kenton is available "to return to service". It is clear that Mr. Stevens is unwilling to confront the fact that Miss Kenton is the unconsummated love of his life. The idea that Mr. Stevens would comment to a stranger that he is on a journey to turn his life around; (i.e. try to woo back his long lost love) is antithetical to Ishiguro's character. The Mr. Stevens of the novel would be unable to whisper this to himself alone in his own room. This is the beauty of the book. The reader sees what the protagonist cannot. The reader can shift through Mr. Stevens' reactions and grasp the overriding truth. His misconceptions are humorous and his unbending loyalty is admirable. In the end his fate is heartbreaking. After the encounter with Miss Kenton, Mr. Stevens is left a broken man. Although it is likely that Ishiguro's Stevens returns to Darlington Hall the author deliberately ends the book on the beach. His Mr. Stevens is alone on a bench as night falls. He has ceased sobbing and consoles himself by watching groups of people gather on an ocean pier. He muses on the ease with which they interact and attributes the general warmth exhibited to their ability to "banter". He follows this thought with the idea of practicing his bantering skills in order to please the new owner of Darlington Hall. It is a poignant moment of truth. Mr. Ivory ignores this scenario entirely and chooses to add a coda in which Mr. Stevens returns "to service" with the new American owner. There is a strange scene in which Mr. Stevens frees a pigeon which is trapped in one of the central rooms. The film ends with a literal "birds eye view" of the house and the surrounding countryside. This escapist imagery might be meant to highlight Mr. Stevens' predicament. Unfortunately seeing Mr. Stevens back "in service" plays against the thrust of the story. All of the heartfelt subtlety of Mr. Ishiguro's ingenious ending is lost.   

The closing scene illustrates the central challenge to a screen adaptation of this novel. How does a director tackle a story which is essentially inside the head of the protagonist? The beauty of the book lay in reacting to Mr. Stevens' ongoing monologue. Mr. Ivory's choice of highlighting the love interest in lieu of Stevens' ever-present self-scrutiny undermined the heart of the novel. Anthony Hopkins gave an admirable performance as did Emma Thompson. Unfortunately their efforts failed to convey the novel's unworldly sense of dignity. The blame can be laid to Mr. Ivory's misinterpretation of the text. The film is a professional rendering of the exterior of Ishiguro's work. The characters are there. The events are there. The setting is right. The soul is missing. This was a fatal mistake. The Remains of the Day is a story of religion; not love.

*-Maurice is a movie in which homosexuality takes center stage. This is in every sense a conventional James Ivory drama (i.e. a period piece set in the upper echelons of English society handled with bland professionalism). The reactionary social fervor which reigned during the Reagan-Thacter years made this lack-luster production a daring enterprise. Maurice's content should set it apart from the body of Mr. Ivory's work despite its form being identical.

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