October 2002

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Possession, Or the Lack Thereof

I used to work at a video store, and after a few months I had developed a bit of a patter, especially when I was asked for my opinion about the current new releases. "It's not very deep, but the comedy's fun." "The performances are really good, but it can be a bit of a downer for Friday night." "It's okay, but the book was better."

I said that last part a lot, because adaptations are huge in the film industry. Bidding wars always ensue over hot books. The adapted screenplay has its own Academy Award. 40% of all movies released in 2001 were adaptations or remakes, in fact. It's reliable material, in some sense - a good book will have strong characters, an interesting plot, enough twists and turns to keep the story moving. But it's never as easy as all that - because an adaptation is a risky thing. Movies can be too loyal to the source material (Harry Potter), completely disregard it (The Scarlet Letter) - or, more often, distill the story into a weak, tepid reflection, shortened and simplified for the popcorn crowd.

The major problem of the adaptation is that while something is gained, something else is always lost. The language is diluted into dialogue and voice-over, while the images come to life in widescreen Technicolor and the characters are embodied by actors of Hollywood perfection. Whether or not this is a fair trade depends on too many factors to name. I'm not sure of the answer, myself. But breaking down adaptations - looking at what makes them tick - is the best way I can think of to figuring this out.

Possession, Neil LaBute's adaptation of A.S. Byatt's postmodern Victorian/present day romance, is all about give and take. The essential story itself is not changed - two literary scholars, specialists each in a different Victorian poet, discover evidence that the two poets they know so well may have known each other. As they investigate further, they discover that the poets' relationship was much deeper than anyone ever imagined - even as their own relationship deepens.

Byatt's story is very much about the act of discovery, and in her sampling of the work of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, she provides the reader a chance to see the associations between the two poets, to understand how two creative people can influence and enhance the other's work. Their story is told almost entirely through the letters, poems, stories, and journals preserved and studied by Roland and Maud, the scholars of present-day England - even as we make our own deductive leaps, Roland and Maud put together the pieces of the unknown portions of the dead poets' lives. Possession is mostly a detective story, a treasure hunt, where characters search for clues, make deductions, and stumble onto the answers through the power of their reasoning. The love of Ash and LaMotte is a tragic romance; the relationship of Maud and Roland is the slow kindling of a deeper companionship.

Screenwriting 101 will tell you that movies are about characters who want something and have a hard time getting it. So while two characters who want to solve a mystery would seem to be the perfect set-up, the strange thing about the screenplay by Neil LaBute, David Henry Hwang, and Laura Jones is that this element of the story is sublimated below the romance - the story is driven more on the question "Will these characters get together?" than "Will these characters discover the truth about the past?" The major change driven towards making the story more suited to film is making Roland American and determined, a drastic change from the passive scholar of the book. Aaron Eckhart as Roland pushes through the austere archives of the British Museum in a rolling desk chair, stealing the important evidence that he would otherwise have a hard time getting. In comparison, Gwyneth Paltrow's Maud is repressed to the point of transparency, a partner to Roland but inevitably dominated by him. Rather than take the investigation for knowledge to the point of obsession, the two of them seem to investigate the past like two curious schoolchildren, only interested in finding out what happened before anyone else. The numerous scenes in which Maud and Roland talk about what poetry means to them are streamlined, left to the cutting floor - which would be fine, except that the viewer is left with little understanding about why this means so much - or why the movie's even called Possession.

They still quote poetry and dig through old books; the story still climaxes in Ash's grave being robbed of the key documents it contains. But the answers come easier to them, the story unfolds more quickly - in part because of time constraints, but due also to the fact that Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle were cast as Ash and LaMotte, and they deserve as much screen time as possible.

The letters Ash and LaMotte exchange are reduced to a few lines of voice-over, but in exchange for the loss of their prose (which, to be honest, I had to occasionally skim in the book), we get to see all the scenes we could only imagine enacted by the glowing gas lamps of Victorian England. And the scenes are good, rich with sublimated passion, especially in comparison to the Maud/Roland romance, which is rushed into existence by the cliché of "only one hotel room/bed available." A love story is only as good as its hero and heroine, and while Ash and LaMotte remain interesting, complicated characters, Roland's brashness and Maud's blandness undercut all the making out in the world.

Possession is a gorgeous film that takes as much delight in rain-soaked London streets as it does in the sumptuous decoration of Victorian sitting rooms. But it indulges too much in the romance, leaving out the passion that would drive it, and holding too close to the story of the book, while losing the meaning. We gain two great performances and the playing of scenes only hinted at, but the quest is lost - and what it means, as well.