Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Possession

I finally got around to seeing the film Possession. The movie is adapted from the novel of the same name by A.S. Byatt.

It was Al Zuckerman who originally recommended the novel Possession to me, back in 1994, and Al is absolutely no slouch when it comes to identifying a good book. So I bought a copy at JFK and started to read it on the flight home.

For those who haven't come across it, Possession tells a tale of two academics (Eng. Lit. specialists, God help us all) who are researching the secret love life of two fictional Victorian poets. And our two protagonists, one being male and one female, naturally proceed to have a love affair all of their own. The drama, such as it is, arises from wondering whether the two protagonists will beat another group of academics (baddies to the core) in a race to find out the truth about what really happened, all those years ago.

Now, theoretically, this book ought to have interested me, because the Victorian period is my favourite era, and I am very interested in at least one Victorian poet, namely Algernon Charles Swinburne. Why then was I not more enthusiastic?

The clue lies in the fact that Possession won the Booker prize in 1990. It is highly unlikely, other things being equal, that I am going to be overwhelmed by anything with that sort of literary pedigree.

The book runs to some 500 pages and I found it rather hard going. Judging by the comments on Amazon, I am not alone. Even those readers who gave it 5 stars were forced to admit that it 'can be a bit heavy at times.' Another Amazon critic only gave it one star and described it as 'dull, pretentious, and not half as clever as it thinks it is.' Hmm, well, it wasn't as bad as all that.

Anyway, I was sufficiently interested in the book to want to see the movie, which originally came out in 2002. It is directed by Neil LaBute and stars Gwyneth Paltrow, among others.

Well, the movie held my attention, for what that's worth, but I did wonder how it ever came to be made. Surely no one in Hollywood could possibly have mistaken this for a money-spinner? OK, it's romantic, up to a point: there are two parallel love stories running through it, one which ends tragically and one which ends on a hopeful note. But, er, that's about it. It's well written and well acted. I doubt, however, that it took more than tuppence ha'penny at the box office. About the time it came out, I found myself in conversation with one of the staff at the production company involved, and this person wondered aloud to me just who exactly was going to see the film. That's a good question, but surely it's the sort of thing you think about before you invest a few million dollars rather than after?

Anyway, there it is. The film is something of a departure for Neil LaBute, I would guess. LaBute is an American, and previously he had only come to my attention as a playwright. He wrote a play called The Distance from Here, which I saw at the Theatre Royal, Bath. It was supposed to be the latest hot thing, the new Shopping and Fucking, so to speak, but it attracted an audience of about 30 in a theatre which holds about 900.

The Distance from Here features characters who are about as far removed from Eng. Lit. academics and Victorian poets as it is possible to imagine, namely a group of moronic misfits living in an inner city US slum. (I seem to remember it was Brooklyn.) The language, as one reviewer put it, was American youthspeak. Oh, and the big dramatic moment was when one or two of these moronic youths murdered a baby.

Well, I'm sorry, but I remained resolutely unshocked and unmoved by this scene. To make us care about characters like that you need actors of the calibre of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh (you will recall, no doubt, A Streetcar name Desire). And on the night when I saw Mr LaBute's play his cast was competent but not in the Brando/Leigh league.

So, Possession, whether in Ms Byatt's version or Mr LaBute's, does not fill me with astonishment and joy. And what really depressed me, of course, was the reminder that there really are academics who fill their day by researching the lives of Victorian poets. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se. I myself have done some minor research on Swinburne, and I am thanked for it on the acknowledgements page of the poet's latest biography. But I did it all in my spare time, as an amateur, and not as a full-time academic, paid (as they so often are in the UK) very largely at the taxpayers' expense.

What is even more depressing, of course, is the thought that there are lots of young people who have been brainwashed into thinking that studying Eng. Lit. at a university, for three or four of the best years of their lives, is a useful and productive way to spend their time. Nothing could be further from the truth. The very process of reading novels is about as adult as sucking your thumb, and studying them full-time is unproductive to say the least. The only more futile form of study that I can think of is spending a year (and lots of money) on a creative-writing course.