Thursday, 27 January 2011

A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood

I talked about great books becoming great films, last month. I thought I'd push the theory, or at least push my luck, by reading a book and watching the film in the same day. Brilliant idea. Stupid idea.

The problem with the film is that the book is brilliant. The other problem with the film is that the book involves mostly normal events going on in the background of the inside of George's head.

The Book is subtle and assured, effortlessly funny and almost heroically intelligent; and human. It works astoundingly well as a book of people, but it's also a 'book of ideas', which is usually enough to put me off. I've read too many recycled philosophical arguments in the mouths of dull caricatures to warm to the term.Book if ideas, indeed. Pshaw.

Geo and Charlotte do openly discuss the novel's themes of holding on to the past, mortality and loneliness... but it's okay. Not only is Isherwood too good at his craft to trip up here, the whole thing is fitted to the dynamic between the characters; the topics come up because of Charlotte's designs on the future, and Geo's resistance to those designs.So even when it's a book of ideas, it's really a book of people.

The Film includes the same characters (or at least the same names) and many of the same details of scene and dialogue; but it changes the entire plot into which these details fall. I saw adverts for it when it was released, and was pretty sure I would have loved it. In fact, watching it two days ago, I was convinced it was -- most probably -- a very good film. But it wasn't A Single Man.

Did I ruin the film for myself by reading the book first? I could just as easily have watched the film beforehand... is it possible to ruin a good book by watching the film first, though? Do films have that power?

And can any Isherwood fans tell me what to read of his next? Because the book really was excellent.


  1. I didn't read the book, but I thoroughly enjoyed the film and think the books would still intrigue. I'm one of the few people who thinks Colin Firth should have won the Oscar last year for his performance in this film (Jeff Bridges was great in Crazy Heart); his emotional output when he got the telephone call about his partner still blows me away.

  2. I disagree with you about the film. I didn't do them both in the same day, but I did do them both in the same year. It was the second read of the novel for me.

    Basically, I don't expect movies to be faithful to the book as far as plot goes. I expect them to be good movies and to keep some sense of the book's heart intact. I think the movie version of A Single Man did both of those. The two media are just far too different to expect their results to match.

    And I'd suggest reading his Berlin Stories next. A Single Man may be his best work, but there is lots of wonderful stuff in the Berlin Stories. You could even watch Cabaret, which is based on them, afterwards.