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Cinema Lit

ISSUE:  Autumn 1997

Had I decided in my student days to become a gentleman scholar in bow tie and tweed jacket rather than a newspaper reporter in tattered raincoat slogging through the muddy trenches of life, I might have conducted a course in literature. Had I done so, I would have called my class Cinema Lit.

My reason for this should be quite clear to academics au courantwith today’s students. In a world plunging recklessly into a 21st century gorged with electronic amusements, it is obvious that the solitary reading and appreciation of literature is near rock bottom. What galvanizes the students in their stylish universities is what excites the six billion or so people who live in less rarefied and less expensive settlements. That intoxication is movies, whether emanating from large theater screens or from all-day, all-night television tubes.

Forget those literary intellectuals in New Haven pontificating incomprehensively about deconstructed, meaningless, indeterminate texts; those literary lights in New York in a tizzy over the “meanness, vengefulness and pettiness” of Simon de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre; those chattering classes in London pondering solemnly over which youthful writers should be crowned with the Booker and the Whitbread. The college students and the unwashed billions “couldn’t care less.” Ernest Hemingway’s Catherine Barkley can’t compete with Demi Moore’s striptease mom; Leo Tolstoy’s Prince Andrew is no match for Sean Connery’s 007; and Victor Hugo’s grim Quasimodo just doesn’t come close to Walt Disney’s loveable hunchback, The “dumbing down” barbarians are no longer at the gates. They have invaded and conquered. And professors of literature—at least those who reject the exaggerations of the multiculturalists and the absurdities of the deconstructionists—have become like monks, keeping alive the literary faith in monastic classrooms.

Princeton University professor Alvin Kernan has aptly described literature’s problems in his book The Death of Literature (Yale 1990). He wrote: “Television and other forms of electronic communication have increasingly replaced the printed book, especially its idealized form, literature, as a more attractive and authoritative source of knowledge.” As for today’s egocentric authors who seek to replace Wharton, Donne, and Molière, he said: “The art novel has grown increasingly involute and cryptic, poetry more opaque, gloomy, and inward, and theater more hysterical, crude, and vulgar in counter-productive attempts to assert their continued importance. What was once called ‘serious literature’ has now only a coterie audience, and almost no presence in the world outside university literature departments.”

Some years ago, in a break from a prominent newsroom whose reporters and editors strove to construct accurate, meaningful, and determinate proper English, I became the editor of a distinguished New York book publisher whose sedate Madison Avenue offices reflected its early 19th-century foundation and a proud literary history that included Trollope, Tolstoy, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.(Regrettably the firm no longer exists, taken over and soon killed by a wealthy religious publisher whose goal was not literature but proselytizing New York’s wicked literati.) In a quest for enlightenment, I decided to accompany a member of our sales department to the fortress-like headquarters of a mighty chain of bookstores whose acceptance or dismissal of a book can make or break it in the marketplace and strongly influence its appearance or non-appearance on The New York Times bestseller lists, where the unexceptional achieves celebrity. My idea was to learn how our latest group of books, which included our never-failing treasure Agatha Christie, was being received outside our editorial sanctuary.

We were warmly greeted by a sleek young woman, and over preliminary cups of coffee we had a chat at which we learned that she was a fairly recent graduate of a university of majestic reputation. Encouraged by this information, I brought to her attention one of our favorite and enduring writers, George Bernard Shaw. “Shaw?” she said. “Is he a new author?” “No,” I replied, trying hard not to seem surprised by her unfamiliarity, “he’s been around for some time.” I paused a moment, hoping for a belated sign of recognition.”He’s written a number of popular plays,” I hinted. “I’m afraid I don’t know his work,” she said.

An inspiration hit me. “Have you seen the movie My Fair Lady?” I asked.

Her face turned from apathetic to beatific. “Oh, did he write that!” she exclaimed.”I just loved it. Audrey Hepburn was really terrific.”

“Well, yes,” I replied, “he more or less wrote it. It was based on one of his plays.” I paused again, then suggested, hopefully, “Pygmalion.” “I see,” she said, although obviously she did not see at all.

Moving quickly to rescue Shaw from a fate worse than death, I pointed out that British actor Rex Harrison had written an introduction to our new collection of Shaw’s most popular plays, since he played Henry Higgins to Miss Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in the film. This seemed to interest her and my expectations rose.

“Well,” she said finally applying a pencil to a sheet of paper, “I suppose we can take a few copies.”

I smiled thankfully into her exquisite eyes and proceeded on to dear old reliable Agatha.

If I was astonished at the young woman’s unacquaintance with Shaw at the time of our interview, I doubt that I would be surprised in these closing days of the 20th century when “institutions of higher learning” are dropping such literary giants as Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare like burnt hot biscuits out of a 400-degree oven. A recent study by an organization called the National Alumni Forum reports that Shakespeare is on his way out of leading college and university curriculums even as crass Hollywood finds him a box office smash.

According to The New York Times, Georgetown University is dumping Shakespeare for a course entitled “The Gangster Film,” Duke is substituting “Melodrama and Soap Opera,” and Dartmouth is offering “20th Century American Boxing Fiction and Film.” Meanwhile, actor-director Kenneth Branagh has movie fans cheering for an uncut, four-hour Hamlet, and an Australian director named Baz Luhrmann has teenagers weeping in their theater seats as Romeo and Juliet seek romance in flashy Verona Beach, Florida.

All this is not in the least astounding when one learns that teachers across the land are telling their students, with straight faces no less, that King Lear is about “new forms of social organization,” that Shakespeare’s sonnets “articulate the frustration of language’s indeterminacy” (whatever that means), and that in act two, scene two of Hamlet what the Prince is really saying is “O, what a swindler and miserable flunky I am!”

“Most English departments,” Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tells The Times, “are now held so completely hostage to fashionable political and theoretical agendas that it is unlikely Shakespeare can qualify as an appropriate author.”

But some Shakespeareans are fighting back. After the Forum study was released, a firm rebuttal was issued by a miffed Modern Language Association. It emphatically asserted that Shakespeare is flourishing, not declining. It said that its research showed that students are eagerly taking Shakespearean courses on a voluntary basis in institutions throughout the land, from Columbia to Muhlenberg. But as a Times article observed, much of the student excitement results from Hollywood interpretation, not from professorial innovation, and it also noted a “stunning” increase in the sale of Shakespearean books as a result of the movies.


Most people, when they go to a movie theater or push a video cassette into a VCR or watch a film on television, are relentlessly uninterested in who conceived their entertainment. It is the glamorous actors and occasionally the director (sometimes pretentiously described as the “auteur,” an incorrect word for what is essentially an interpretive or even a managerial role) who are accorded the acclaim. Audiences tend to ignore the inventor of the story when the “credits” roll at the beginning or at the end of a film.

I, on the other hand, pay close attention to who wrote, or at least who inspired, the story since I believe the original writer is the most important person in my evening’s entertainment. And because I am an avid reader of books, I am particularly delighted when I learn that an outstanding film’s inspiration arose out of the brain of a “literary person” like Shaw or even from a popular author like Ken Follett whose thriller Eye of the Needle, for example, was a superior page turner that was transferred into an exceptionally gratifying movie.

That good books become good films on a more or less regular schedule indicates how much Hollywood and other international film centers owe to original writers and their printed words. This is true even when those words are altered by “creative types” (studio executives, producers, directors, even those denigrated workhorses known as screenwriters) who believe, usually incorrectly, that they can improve an author’s conception.

How does one explain the recent successful metamorphosis of the literary novel The English Patient by the Canadian-Sri Lankan author Michael Ondaatje into its extraordinary screen version? (The transfer to the screen pushed a paperback reprint of the novel, with the movie lovers embracing on the cover, onto The Washington Post and New York Times bestseller lists, a bonanza for the author who then went on a nationwide tour, a tribute to the power of film.)

Unlike the clear, straight story line of the Follett thriller, which appeals to anyone in search of a “good read,” Ondaatje’s novel is erratic, obscure, and consciously literary and intellectual. But the film is successful because it has fixed on one (and not necessarily the most important) portion of the book, which is the passionate and illicit affair between a beautiful married woman and her rugged lover (always a surefire crowd pleaser, as Tolstoy and Flaubert well knew). The English Patient would be an excellent candidate for my Cinema Lit class. My students could compare novel with film and ask which is more satisfying. That is a serious question. It confronts us as we look into the future and see the decline of reading and the growing popularity of electronic amusements.

Gore Vidal, who has been a constant film goer since childhood and states that he was “once a famous novelist,” has declared in a lecture at Harvard University (see Screening History, Harvard 1992) that “today where literature was movies are.” Art, he asserts, is now “sight and sound; and the books are shut.”

Literary persons have relinquished their celebrity to actors, directors, producers and even on occasion to photographers and script writers. Worshiping fans now seek satisfaction in movie theaters and on television screens rather than in books and lecture halls. The world prefers Robert Redford to Charles Dickens, the memory of Marilyn Monroe to Virginia Woolf, and the pleasant fantasies of director Frank Capra to the editing achievements of Ford Madox Ford, whose little magazines helped to establish such writers as Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce.

As for the press and its naughty pretender, television news, they pay meager attention to literary award ceremonies, much preferring the pretty actors in their tuxs and clinging, low-cut dresses on Academy Award nights to dowdy writers struggling to emerge from the loneliness of their long distance missions.

Still, if the great world, from its huge urban centers to its remote regions of jungle villages and desert outposts, is a “place” of sight and sound, I believe that writers of the first rank will always have a significant function to play, both in their books and in screen versions.

For example, the late Graham Greene, a major writer of the 20th century, had convincing successes in the cinema world, although in general he claimed that he was unhappy with those who made his stories into movies. In a 1958 essay (reprinted in Reflections, Penguin 1991), Greene noted that a writer has no rights when a film is made of his work, that a producer can turn a tragedy into a musical comedy if he so wishes. He distrusted “actors, directors and cameramen who are paid, and paid handsomely, whatever the result,” and he worried that even if a writer’s script “be followed word for word there are those gaps of silence which can be filled with the banal embrace [and] irony can be turned into sentiment by some romantic boob of an actor.” Greene concluded that the best course of action for a writer was to collect the money and run, ignoring what the director and the actors evolve out of the story that he or she has so painfully and meticulously created.

Having stated his case against motion pictures, Greene did admit that luck was on his side when Britain’s Carol Reed, “a fine director who could control his actors and his production,” fashioned exceptional films out of two of his stories, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol.

I have come to a conclusion, a “law” if you will, which says that unsubstantial or implausible stories by writers of the second or third rank can often be made into imaginative films by clever and creative directors and script writers, but that superior stories by writers of the first rank can be transferred successfully into remarkable movies only if the director and producer stick close to the original. Greene was pleased with Reed because the director did not stray. Director John Huston’s version of The Dead by James Joyce is a brilliant film because Huston did not digress from the author’s intent.

To support my case, I would reject for my course the original stories of four of the most popular movies ever made, all developed under the supervision of one of Hollywood’s most talented directors, Frank Capra, all using stars and character actors who have become movie legends. The movies are It Happened One Night, Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and It’s a Wonderful Life. The originals, published in popular magazines in the 1930’s, were workaday stories which possessed kernels of ideas that could be greatly embellished by Capra and his script writers. As a result, these prosaic stories of no literary distinction became wonderfully agreeable fantasies that delighted millions of Saturday night movie fans and continue to charm additional millions of television or video cassette viewers not in the mood for literary genius.

I would choose for my course two plays, Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fifth and The Male Animal by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent, the latter about a college professor, freedom of speech, and football. Both dramas are superior writing, the first a masterpiece, the other a superb example of control, simplicity and how to make a point through humor. Their derivative films also are remarkable, if it is agreed that remarkable means “worthy of being remarked or noticed” and that they are “uncommon” as opposed to ordinary, mundane, and forgettable, which most movies are. Indeed, some of my selected movies, like their printed stories, are to be forever treasured and taken off shelves for repeated viewing just as superior books are read and enjoyed time and again.

The word cinema is derived from the Greek word kinéma, which means motion. Thus, printed stories become motion stories when they are made into movies. But I think my course would show that a great story like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Fielding’s Tom Jones, as good as their film versions may be, cannot be fully appreciated unless the printed story is read in its entirety. And I don’t believe the student should be surprised that a majority of the stories are about love and war. All of us are constantly in search of, or dealing with, love in one form or another, and since the beginning of history war has been a major event in the lives of most people, though peace groups may find this distasteful. Love and war are dramatic occurrences and they can be both thrilling and painful. They are the stuff of stories.

It seems to me that literature—and I am thinking about first-class literature, whether it be a masterpiece by Jane Austin or a masterful entertainment by C.S.Forester—need not be obliterated by the dominance of sight and sound. I note that many libraries have growing video cassette sections. Why, I ask myself, do librarians not encourage users of videos to also read the stories that inspired the films? I noted recently that one of my local libraries has made a stab in that general direction. A modest sign over a display of perhaps 20 books, from Gone with the Wind to Pride and Prejudice, reads: “Seen the movie? Now read the book.”


In 1986 Professor Ed Hirshberg of the University of South Florida wrote an essay about deconstruction as it was running wild in university English departments around the country. The essay, which appeared in The Washington Book Review, described his frustration with a concept that baffled even the intellectual elitists who previously ballyhooed existentialism and structuralism that arose from the chaos of World War II.(See the Winter 1994 issue of the VQR,Richard Jones’s witty essay Sing Doo Wah Diddy With Derrida. )

As a Ph. D. “product” of Yale University’s “tyrannous” English department, Hirshberg questioned whether deconstruction could be of any use to him in his “attempts to teach young, callow, and often marginally interested students about literature.” He acknowledged the “tremendous impact” of Yale and other centers where deconstruction had penetrated deeply. But he questioned—to take one example—whether labeling as meaningless Shakespeare’s charming sonnet comparing a lady love to a summer’s day was “adequate compensation for my students’ time and their ever-mounting tuition.”

Hirshberg undoubtedly would have won the sympathy of kindred educators like the late Allan Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago and the author of The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster 1987), and Princeton’s Professor Kernan.

It is an “undeniable fact,” said Bloom, always crusty, that the students who enter the country’s universities “are uncivilized, and that the universities have some responsibility for civilizing them.” One prime reason for this uncivilized condition, he asserted, is the popularity of movies, a medium that does not allow students “to distinguish between the sublime and trash, insight and propaganda.”

Bloom continued: “The distance from the contemporary and its high seriousness that students most need in order not to indulge their petty desires and to discover what is most serious about themselves cannot be found in the cinema, which now only knows the present. Thus, the failure to read good books enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is.”

Besides electronic communication, Kernan in his book deplored what deconstruction has done to literature and reading. He said: “What were once the masterpieces of literature, the plays of Shakespeare or the novels of Flaubert, are now void of meaning, or, what comes to the same thing, filled with an infinity of meanings, their language indeterminate, contradictory, without foundation; their organizational structures, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, verbal slights of hand.

“Such meaning as they may have is merely provisional and conferred on them by the reader, not inherent in the text or set in place for all time by the writer’s word craft. Rather than being near-sacred myths of human experience of the world and the self, the most prized possessions of culture, universal statements about an unchanging and essential human nature, literature is increasingly treated as authoritarian and destructive of human freedom, the ideology of the patriarchy devised to instrument male, white hegemony over the female and the ‘lesser breeds.’”

So are colleges and universities, cognizant of professors like Hirshberg, Bloom, and Kernan, deflecting in some way their students from the power of moving images and distancing them from the obscurities of deconstruction? Some of them, or so it seems, have taken their clue from the television enemy. It’s sex. Once again I learn from The New York Times that Wesleyan University offers a course entitled “Girl Talk,” which is about Virginia Woolfe and, yes, Oscar Wilde; “Self and Desire: A Study of Don Juan,” from Skidmore College; and from Swarthmore, “Renaissance Sexualities,” which the newspaper reports explores “the homoerotic, chastity and friendship, marriage, adultery and incest.” I don’t know if these course titles are enticing students to read more books, but I doubt that they will cast aside Hollywood or TV sitcoms, which inform boys and girls everywhere in scholastic America that redneck behavior and obscenities are acceptable and that licentiousness is liberating. So why not Cinema Lit?

I would start my course in literature (not in films, it must be emphasized) in an easy manner, keeping at arm’s length for this introduction to books Aristotle, Homer, Dante, and other heavyweights. I would ask my students on day one to read three stories by three masters of the short story, A.S.Pushkin, Guy de Maupassant, and William Somerset Maugham.

Consider Maugham. Certainly I would have to defend him against pretentious arbiters of literature who have never accepted him as a “top” author. This of course is nonsense. In moments of literary disillusionment when reading today’s sullen fiction, I turn to Maugham to restore my faith in the difficult art of telling a proper story. Maugham once said he was influenced in his writing by Maupassant. In my opinion the two writers were equals as masters of the short story and that Maugham went a step further with his brilliance as a creator of novels and plays, many of which have been made into stunning films including The Razor’s Edge, The Moon and Sixpence, and The Letter.

The British have been especially adept at turning his short stories into films, including three remarkable “collections” entitled Trio, Encore, and Quartet. From the last I’d choose “The Colonel’s Lady,” a lovely story with an elegant bite about a country squire’s wife who writes a critically acclaimed book of poems describing her love affair with a young man. The film is faithful to the story up to the last scene when cinema censorship sovereign at the time in England did not allow a married woman to engage in extracurricular appointments. Is Maugham’s ending the true literary conclusion to the story or did the script writer and director create a better termination? I would request a student debate, then read a comment from the script writer, R.C.Sherriff, about creating screenplays from original stories (Quartet, Doubleday 1949).

“When the Quartet screenplays are compared with their originals,” Sherriff wrote, “it may be said that we have defeated our purpose by leaving out parts of certain stories and adding scenes to others. That comes in the normal business of adapting for the screen, which is to make the proper allowance for the different perspective of the reader lounging in his armchair and the people sitting upright in a cinema. The reader, as it were, can see the story from a distance, with all its side shoots and wandering tendrils: there is nothing to distract him. Subconsciously the man in the cinema puts on blinkers to help him concentrate: his perspective is narrowed while vision sharpens his conception, so you have to prune the story to the main stem to save him getting lost among the side shoots. That is not the same as mutilating the main stem to squeeze the story into the picture.”

Following Maugham we would consider Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif,” printed story and film, an acerbic tale of a prostitute whose oblation on behalf of sanctimony has stirred generations of readers. In 1945, as the Nazi occupation of France was ending, the French produced an excellent interpretation of the story, although they also included elements from another Maupassant story, “Mademoiselle Fifi.” This permitted the prostitute, played impressively by actress Micheline Presle, to wreak revenge on her Prussian oppressor.

Next, in tribute to a country that has produced a flowering and influential literature for almost 300 years, I would ask my students to think about Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin and his short story “The Queen of Spades.” I would point out that here was the writer who was the forerunner to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Pasternak, and Yevtushenko and who inspired some of Russia’s most exhilarating music in operas by Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tschaikowsky, and Glinka. And here was the writer who began the dogged resistance by prominent authors to the despotism of the Kremlin and the ruling classes. A rather impressive resume for a dead, white male writer!

“The Queen of Spades,” a tale of greed, is Pushkin’s best known short story, and it was made into a superb film in England in 1948, more than 100 years after its first publication. Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans were the primary actors and Anatole de Grunewald was the director who turned this gem of Russian romantic fiction into motion.

At this point the head of my English department might ask what have I achieved at our noble Oshkosh University, an institution ranked among the nation’s best with a student body that rejected the lures dangled by Harvard and Yale. I would reply that we have persuaded students ravished by movies, good and bad, to read three excellent literary stories that inspired three film producers to make three terrific motion picture interpretations. And I would suggest that these students might now wish to read other works by Pushkin, Maupassant, and Maugham and find delight and reward in what they see in the mind’s eye.


Autumn’s leaves have fallen, Thanksgiving is not far off, and I must choose an encore to my short story trio. I might select my old favorite, Bernard Shaw, whose play Pygmalion was unknown to the young woman at the bookstore chain. I’d use the marvelous Leslie Howard film to score success in addition to My Fair Lady. Or perhaps I might select Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” propelled Errol Flynn into battle in a highly entertaining, rousing, and inaccurate interpretation of military ineptitude. But think how this could lead to an equally rousing and entertaining discussion of 19th-century poetry, comparing Tennyson et al. to poets and their verse of the late 20th century. My pulse quickens at the thought!

I think, however, I would now challenge my students with Shakespeare and Austen. Shakespeare was not much older than my students when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, and in the play there is much youthful swordplay, dancing, and sexual intensity, all very evident in the splendid 1968 British-Italian production interpreted by director Franco Zeffirelli. It is especially noteworthy that the two lovers are played by actors close to the actual ages of Romeo and Juliet, 17-year-old Leonard Whiting and 15-year-old Olivia Hussey. It is clear that Shakespeare intended that their love should be consummated before their tragic deaths, and this intention is evident in the film as they say their reluctant farewells in Juliet’s bedroom after a night of love.

In this day of rather inelegant relationships between young men and women, what female student can resist the wit, charm, good manners, and serenity of Miss Austen. Two delectable versions of her most proficient work, Emma, have recently been produced on film. The first is a mischievous portrayal of Emma by 23-year-old actress Gwyneth Paltrow, the second is a darker and perhaps more accurate picture by Britain’s Kate Beckinsale, who is also 23.Shall my students read the book first or see the films before approaching the “text,” as the deconstructionists would call Austen’s likeable words? My suggestion is to read the book before approaching Paltrow and Beckinsale. This would be followed by a rousing discussion between my male and female scholars comparing today’s young women with Austen’s Emma, who Beckinsale accuses of being rather spoiled, rather isolated, and very ruthless.

The Christmas recess has now passed, the snow lies deep on the grounds of the university, and we have much to attempt before the raucous spring break in bikini-clad Florida. Shall we read a novel by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ernest Hemingway? His best was A Farewell to Arms. But we should also read the related short story that preceded the novel, called “A Very Short Story,” which has a bitter but perhaps more truthful ending. The 1932 film starring Helen Hays and Gary Cooper doesn’t come close to duplicating the novel with its controlled prose. But that doesn’t matter. Hemingway is required reading for any course in literature, since he has influenced all serious writers who came after him. Fiction writers, nonfiction writers, journalists, even those who wrote for motion pictures, all followed in his path.

Or how about the writer who made the owners of my book publishing firm wealthy, Agatha Christie? She’s wasn’t great, she wasn’t literary, but she had class. She wrote 85 books, 66 of them mysteries, and even literary scholars relish Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, whether in book form or on PBS television. All of the mysteries are still in print, even though she readily agreed with critics who said her work was undistinguished. She once said, “If I could write like Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark or Graham Greene, I should jump to high heaven with delight, but I know that I can’t, and it would never occur to me to attempt to copy them.” So a reading of her play, The Witness for the Prosecution, based on one of her short stories, would not be amiss in addition to a showing of the 1957 film starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester.

Still, the time has come for serious literature before the snow melts and Florida’s beaches beckon, especially the short story “The Dead” by James Joyce, a masterpiece of writing, and Huston’s masterful film that brilliantly captures Joyce’s writing. And Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The Nazis hated both book and film and threw them into a huge bonfire in front of Berlin University in 1933.And The Shooting Party by Isabel Colgate, still writing in England. It’s one of the 20th century’s best novels, a book about the extermination of a generation in World War I, although the story takes place on an English gentleman’s estate, not on the battlefields of France. The film interpretation, with James Mason as the gentleman, is simply outstanding.

Just before my students depart, I will permit them to choose one of two masterpieces to read: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, or The History of Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, thus contrasting a somber story of a woman who chooses sensuality over grim duty with a splendidly cheerful story of a young fellow captivated by female charms so enchanting that to resist them would be ingratitude.

There have been three film versions of Anna Karenina worthy of note. The Russians made one in 1967, which sought to come close to the original story by using many of the novel’s secondary characters. The other two versions largely ignored them, cutting off what screenwriter Sherriff would have called the distracting “side shoots and wandering tendrils.” Instead, they focus on the affair between Anna and her lover. In 1935 Hollywood produced an impressive interpretation with Greta Garbo and Fredric March, and in 1948 the British made a responsible rendering with Vivien Leigh giving a particularly sensitive performance. But all three films, good as they are, cannot duplicate the overpowering “performance” of Tolstoy’s words.

As for Tom Jones, he is literature’s most gallant youth in this tale of “goodness and innocence,” this history wherein Fielding endeavors “to laugh mankind out of their favorite follies and vices,” this story of a lad who provides assistance that only a gentleman can give a lovely lady such as the alluring Sophia, “bedecked with beauty, youth, sprightliness, innocence, modesty, and tenderness, breathing sweetness from her rosy lips, and darting brightness from her sparkling eyes.” Yet, should the women in my student audience feel that Fielding dwells too much on Sophia’s physical charms, the author also says: “Nor was this beautiful frame disgraced by an inhabitant unworthy of it. Her mind was every way equal to her person; nay, the latter borrowed some charms from the former; for when she smiled, the sweetness of her temper diffused that glory over her countenance which no regularity of features can give.”

The 1963 film of the 1749 novel is a grand and joyous version, with Albert Finney as Tom, Susannah York as Sophia, and Hugh Griffith as her father, Squire Western. The movie won many awards in the United States and England, but of special significance for our college course is that it made Fielding’s novel, which was very popular when it first appeared, an instant bestseller more than 200 years after its London debut.

Since I have assigned a very long novel to my busy students for reading and discussion, it appears that I can offer them nothing further in the way of the literary life before the school year ends and they rush off to enjoy the sprightly joys of summer. But what of Homer and Dante and the other greats of literature so championed by all except the deconstructionists who find their words no more enthralling than did the woman student at Cornell University who said that studying the local telephone directory was as valid an exercise as studying Shakespeare (again, see the Winter ‘94 issue of the VQR and the essay by Jones)?

Fortunately, Dante has yet to be discovered by Hollywood and one hopes never will. Unfortunately, NBC television, which finds riches in the absurd, was regrettably made aware of Homer and with the aid of $40 million recently created a four-hour “mini-series” version of The Odyssey that can only be described as atrocious. Therefore, I will tell my students (even as “rough winds do shake the darling buds of May”) that they shall have to see Odysseus in the Aegean and Dante in Hell in their own intelligent minds, without benefit of script writers, directors, or actors, so that when they soon return to the pleasures of the university (for “summer’s lease hath all too short a date”), they will celebrate not pictures, but meaningful, adventurous, glorious words!


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