Adaptation Corner is a feature where I discuss books that have been made into movies. To read my review of Possession by A.S. Byatt, click here.
Before watching Possession I had heard from most people who watched, some who’d read the book and some who hadn’t, that it was either mediocre or terrible. I settled in with this movie one Friday night when I was in the mood for a romance, and found myself disagreeing with both of these opinions. While the novel felt like it was geared primarily towards serious academics, the film is modified in a way that makes the story appealing and moving to a general audience.
If you’re looking for an exact replica of Byatt’s novel onto the screen, don’t turn to this adaptation. I have never made a movie myself, but I would imagine that novels that are both lengthy and lyrical are some of the hardest to adapt. Possession is five hundred pages and a lot of material from the novel was cut. However, I think that some of the cuts were made without seriously compromising the story.
As for characters, Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash are both true to my imagining of them. Jennifer Ehle, who’s been in several pieces which my mother refers to as “Every British Actor Movies” (Pride and Prejudice mini-series, The King’s Speech), plays LaMotte and she was very sensual and romantic, but in a subtle way. When I read Possession, it was challenging for me to imagine Blanche Glover and her affair with LaMotte, so seeing their dynamic on screen gave me a slightly deeper understanding of the novel.
Unlike LaMotte and Ash, Byatt’s modern couple is exceptionally different on screen. Not only was Roland instead of American, he is a bit more of a smooth talker, and I didn’t agree with these choices. I found his awkwardness in the novel to be very endearing and professor like, which felt more fitting to his character. The changes made to Maud Bailey, however, were absolutely perfect. Maud is a hardass, and is clearly one to keep physical and emotional distance from most people. Byatt describe Maud as an eccentric dresser who wears clothes such as turbans, and big screen Maud mainly wears some bulky sweaters and layers, but is otherwise fairly typically dressed. It's obvious that she’s quirky, while still maintaining her accessibility as a woman who not only cares about her job but also someone who has hopes of finding love one day, even if she guards her heart. We still see a bit of her sex appeal, but that could also have something to do with the fact that Maud is played by Gwyneth Paltrow.
Sadly, the romance between Roland and Maud is a little underdeveloped. In the novel, some of their most awkward encounters take place during their stay at Seal Court. I read Possession knowing that it had been made into a movie and looking forward to watching it afterwards, and I was thinking that those scenes would have been particularly comical acted out. I would imagine that they were left out to keep the movie from being too long.
If it’s not already clear that this film is telling a romantic story, the ending makes it obvious. The tale of Roland and Maud discovering LaMotte and Ash’s affairs ends incredibly abruptly, leaving a few loose threads hanging. The film closes with Ash meeting his young daughter, who doesn’t know that it’s him. As they talk and as she runs home, the viewer knows that even though LaMotte and Ash’s affair may have been short lived and caused it’s share of pain, it is one of the greatest loves of both of their lives. Their love lives on through their daughter, and generations later, goes on to touch the life of Maud. The romance is timeless, and one that will touch viewers, because it is the type of love that many people hope to experience.