Daily Archives: August 17, 2002

Possession: The Response


Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.

The last images faded from the screen, and we looked at each other, and she made a face, and I laughed and said, “What was that face all about?”, and we both went, “Hmmm” in a thoughtful fashion.

We know the book too well. We couldn’t get into the movie. We need someone who’s never read the book but who is sympathetic to the academic atmosphere to see it, and tell us if it succeeds as a movie in and of itself, which we cannot.

We tried. We talked about it with a couple of other teachers for a while afterwards; we had cakes and tea at Calories and tried to puzzle it out (and apart from the costuming, that cappuccino truffle cake was the high point of the day). The book had so much more that we were constantly aware of what was missing. The story didn’t appear to suffer; the depth of the emotion, however, did. Our final conclusion is that the pacing seemed wrong, somehow – it was the same pace from beginning to end, no exciting bits, no slower parts to sit back and take in… just, well, plodding along. Alas indeed, for Possession is a tale of undeniable attraction and, yes, fateful unfolding, but there’s more to it than “A leads to B, just follow the paper trail.”

And it was short – it was just about an hour and a quarter! I really and truly feel that there was so much more to this movie that was left on a cutting room floor. It felt sparse. Now, that might be due to the fact that we know the novel so well, but knowing that the movie has been in re-editing for two years leads me to believe that there were other levels to the movie that were abandoned. It did feel, well, dumbed down a bit. Granted, academic romances aren’t truly the thing to seize the American populace’s imagination, but the book had an irresistible draw to it that pulled the reader in with words and subtext. The film failed in that respect; it felt a bit tepid. The end, too, was rushed, which was unnecessary considering how short the running time is. Finally, the elimination of the poetry from the whole thing cut out an entire dimension of the novel. The poets fall in love through their poetry, as well as their letters. They exchange pieces of verse, telling stories, exploring issues about male and female identity and placing within the social and natural world (couched in Victorian poetry – makes for lush reading, let me tell you!) For a movie that claims to be about the sensuous use of words, limiting the poet’s writing to letters on-screen seems dreadfully severe.

Was the creative team concerned that the average American wouldn’t get it? We were told at every step of the turn, rather than shown. An issue that arose in discussion later revolved around audiences: the sort of people who are going to see this movie are likely to be the ones who have read the book (or Byatt’s work in some form), hence able to exercise intellectual ability to some degree. Dumbing it down was, in our opinion, unnecessary. And by dumbing it down, the urgency surrounding the unfolding research and revelation is lost, particularly at the end. (Connected and yet not: I didn’t mind the main male character being American. Not at all. It was fine.)

Visually, it was perfect – settings (modern and Victorian), costuming, characterisation… the stage trickery was brilliant as well. No special effects for Possession – when the Victorian characters walk out of a room, close the door, and the modern characters walk right into it, stagehands have moved false walls and silently switched furniture to effect the change. Gabriel Yared’s music was excellent as well, a wonderfully unintrusive companion to the visuals (except for that operatic piece used in the end credits). The editing between eras was also excellently done.

Something else I noticed, however, is that the title appears meaningless. With the apparent lack of emotional involvement, the term “possession” doesn’t connect anywhere. The word is never used (although “obssession” is); nor do the various applications of the term ever come into question (except through a certain minor character’s appearance at the opening auction, attempting to buy up as many pieces of a poet’s literaria as possible – and even then, I think I might only have realised the significance because there are so many mentions of his obssession to own these and other ephemera in the book) in any way. I don’t know if any audiences are going to be astute enough to catch that (or care to question it if they do), but it did bother me.

I’m going to sleep on it for a couple of weeks, then I’ll catch a matinee on a Tuesday and try again. Maybe now that my mind’s gone through the requisite “this as compared to the original book”, I’ll be able to approach it as a piece of art in its own right.