Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Winter's Tale: My take on the movie based on Mark Helprin's majestic novel


I made my way into the near empty theater, bracing myself to see exactly how terrible the adaptation of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale was going to be. The book was majestic,  the 1983 bestseller was a century-spanning saga of love and timelessness and connections that last forever and ever, world without end; philosophy, fantasy and fable. But Helprin's novel weighs in at well over 600 pages; how do you condense a story like that in order to fit it into a watchable running time? 

You don't. 

If you read me with any regularity, you know I prefer the role of cheerleader to that of critic. I love movies and prefer to find and appreciate the good rather than snarking the bad, but especially for anyone who has read and loved Helprin's book - Goldman's film can only be an epic fail.

As writer/director/producer (do you see one of the problems?) Goldman began by ripping most of the novel to shreds and presenting the story as a cosmic love story between Peter Lake (Colin Ferrell) and Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) the dying daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher (William Hurt) A strange move, when you consider this was a passion project for Goldman. 

Rather than toss out huge chunks of the novel, the material might have been better served if it were presented episodically, on a Netflix type platform. There are so many characters, and meaty side stories, and Helprin has so much to say about about our humanity, our fears, faith, our better selves and the myriad ways in which we truly are connected, I can see this book exploring these themes filling several season's worth of spell-binding TV. 


Not enough chilly scenes of winter! We need more snow STAT

Instead Goldman eliminated some of our favorite characters, key and fascinating personalities like Hardesty Marratta - a remarkable man who turns away from wealth and goes on a search for a 'city of justice.' In the novel, Maratta marries Virginia Gamely while in the movie version with Maratta missing, Virginia Gamely is a single mother played by Jennifer Connelly. Pinto de Praeger, editor of The Sun, and Craig Binky, comedic relief in the form of the clown publisher of The Ghost and symbol of our basest selves, don't make it to the screen, nor does Jackson Mead, engineer and grand architect. All are missing, and meaningfully so. Without them the story becomes a love story at the center of a battle for good and evil. A simple concept - hammered in via voice over rather than the vastness of the world that Helprin has the reader contemplate. Goldman didn't just throw out, he added in idiotic elements such as Will Smith in a cameo as Lucifer - Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) actually calls him Lou - because every battle for good and evil needs a cut and dried devil. Unlike Peter Lake's guardian angel, the miraculous horse Athansor; it just doesn't fly.

Colin Farrell and Ms Brown Findlay, were both beautiful and sensual; but the novel's majesty doesn't come from scenes of trembling lips and intertwined bodies; it comes from the sheer glory of the power of love and the potential of its transformational powers. 


While I appreciated the warm glow Caleb Deschanel's cinematography lent to the lovers, I found myself missing the 'winter's' part of Winter's Tale. Mark Helprin's descriptions of snow and ice would put an eskimo to shame and I'd hoped some of Helprin's blindingly beautiful passages where Peter and Virginia dash through an unearthly winter wonderland in their sleigh would be brought to the screen by the five time Oscar-nominee. I'd hoped to see breathtakingly cinematic passages like this one from the novel when Virginia brings Peter home to the Lake of the Coheeries. Picture this...
"Blazing fires on shore ringed inward bays and harbors like necklaces. At each one, there was steaming chocolate, or rum and cider, and venison roasting on a spit. Skating on the lake in darkness, firing a pistol to keep in touch with a friend, was like traveling in space, for there were painfully bright stars above and all the way down to a horizon that rested on the lake like a bell jar. The stars were reflected perfectly, though dimly, in the ice, frozen until they could not sparkle. Long before, someone had had the idea of laying down wide runners, setting the light-as-a-wedding-cake village bandstand on them, and hitching up a half-dozen plough horses with ice shoes to tow the whole thing around at night. With lights shining from the shell, an entire enchanted village skated behind it as the Coheeries orchestra played a lovely, lucid, magical piece such as "Rhythm of Winter," by A.P. Clarissa. When the farmers all along the undulating lakeshore saw a chain of tiny orange flames, and the shining white castle moving dreamlike through the dark (like a dancer making quick steps under concealing skirts) they strapped on their skates and pogoed through their fields to leap onto the ice and race to the magic that glided across the horizon. As they approached, they were astonished by the music, and by the ghostly legions of men, women, and children skating in the darkness behind the bandshell. They looked like the unlit tail of a comet. Young girls twirled and piroutted to the music: others were content just to follow." 
                                                                                                                Winter's Tale, page 203

Now that's something I would love to see.




2 comments:

  1. That's unfortunate. Helprin's book is one of my favorites and it seemed few had even heard of it, Even though I knew a film couldn't capture that magic, I was excited for it to bring more attention to the book.

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  2. Happily it was knowing there was a film coming, that turned me onto Helprin's incredible book. I have never read anything like it; gorgeous and challenging and yep, magical.

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