1999, Columbia. Directed by Neil Jordan. Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea, Ian Hart.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Strong sexual content and nudity in an adulterous context.
By Steven D. Greydanus
When a Catholic novelist writes a story about an extramarital affair; and when in the novel that affair comes to an end; and when the scene in which the end of the affair occurs is a crucial turning point at the center of the story in which one of the two participants goes so far as to literally swear to God that she will end the affair; and when she actually does end the affair; and when years later the man tries to renew the ended affair, but the woman suddenly dies (which the first chapter tells us will happen, so it’s legitimate to mention it); and when the woman was in any case resolved that she would keep her promise, that the affair was ended; and when the novelist writing the story goes so far as to name his book The End of the Affair: can any reader fail to recognize as a fundamental aspect of the author’s creative vision the fact that the affair does in fact, at that particular turning point mentioned above, end?
And when, therefore, a director undertakes to make a film adaptation of this novel; and when the film is remarkably faithful to the text of the book, up to, including, and beyond the crucial turning-point scene described above, which in the book signifies the end of the affair; but then the director proceeds to insert an extended sequence of new events, in which the affair is suddenly much later resumed, and the woman goes off with her lover, apparently planning to divorce her husband, until she proceeds, not to die suddenly as in the book, but to grow sickly and linger for six months before dying; so that said critical turning-point scene signifies not the end of the affair, but only the postponement of the affair; and the affair is not ended by the woman’s promise but merely cut short by her sickness and death; and yet the director still calls his film The End of the Affair: can anyone fail to recognize this as a fundamental betrayal of the author’s creative vision?
The answer, apparently, is that there are many film critics who can, since Neil Jordan’s film of The End of the Affair, which he adapted himself from Graham Greene’s novel of the same name, has been praised not only in general terms but specifically for its fidelity to the book. And, indeed, the film may be said to be largely faithful to the book, in the sense that the great majority of scenes are adapted more or less as they were written. But this is like saying that the character of Sarah (Julianne Moore) is largely faithful to her husband Henry (Stephen Rea) because the great majority of her time she isn’t sleeping with her lover Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes): the betrayal is crucial, and gives the lie to the supposed fidelity of the rest. If it’s not quite like making an otherwise "faithful" film about the life of Christ that omits the Crucifixion, it’s at any rate not entirely unlike making a film in which, some time after Good Friday, it turns out that Jesus hasn’t been crucified after all, but is actually living in Nazareth doing carpentry, and Pilate has to send up centurions to apprehend him and bring him forcibly to Jerusalem, where, after a six-month imprisonment, He is finally crucified shortly before Christmas. (Okay, it’s not exactly like that either, but you see what I’m getting at.)
Graham Greene was one of the literary giants of the twentieth century, and a convert to Catholicism. In his novels, such as the justly famous The Power and the Glory, Greene explored the implications of belief (and unbelief) for very imperfect people who were by no means saints or heroes. His characters struggled with despair, doubt, and their own weakness and attachment to sin; but at some crucial point they would make a decision that was the right one, certainly not for all the right reasons or without complaining, but the right decision nonetheless; and even this, Greene argued, was a work of, and occasion of, grace, in which might be found the seeds of their redemption. However numerous or complete one’s past moral failures, it’s never the case that one more failure, however insignificant, can do no harm; or that one lone victory, however mixed, can do no good.
Sarah, in The End of the Affair (the novel), has one such victory that unexpectedly leads to others. Though a thoroughly secular person, in a moment of crisis she throws up a desperate prayer to whomever might be there, offering to give up her affair. Afterwards, though her heart and her flesh cry out for her lover, and though she tells herself that she can’t be held to a promise of that sort, and isn’t even sure in any case that Anyone is there to hear her promise or hold her to it, she finds that she can’t simply behave as if it never happened.
She vacillates. Fights. Questions. Takes steps to leave her husband. Even begins spending time with a militant atheist in the hopes of putting the whole thing behind her. It will not do. At every turn she finds herself met by what she increasingly can’t help recognizing as, and even loving as, God. To Bendrix and Henry, her unexplained absences and preoccupation appear to suggest yet another love affair; and so it is, but a love affair that makes her more, not less, faithful to Henry, and that enables her to love even Bendrix in a new way. In the end, before she dies, her moral victory is complete.
All of this, in Greene’s novel, is precipitated by that one hasty promise, the vow that succeeds in binding her where her vows to her husband failed. Though she is no hero of virtue, nevertheless Sarah, like Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, learns to suffer for the sake of an oath, and in the end wins her soul.
What the revisionism of the film does is to change the story from an account of a woman who is morally and spiritually transformed by keeping a promise to God, into an account of a woman who is apparently punished for breaking a promise to God.
Is this necessarily a morally or spiritually bad story? No, not at all. Judged on its own terms, it’s not without merit. Like Graham Greene’s story, it does take seriously the reality of God and of promises made to Him. It raises important questions about God and our relationship to Him, His claims on our lives. Certainly it doesn’t impugn the claims of God or of virtue, or make a case for excusing wrongdoing. Nevertheless, it’s not remotely the story Greene wrote. However identical the rest of the events might be, they’ve been torn from the living moral heart of Greene’s novel, ripped bleeding out of the context in which he wrote them.
And the bizarre thing about this revisionism is that it does the exact opposite of what film revisionism, often justifiably, must do: Most films, unable in two or three hours to cover every event in a book, resort to omitting, editing, compressing, or conflating whichever events it is felt can be or ought to be so diminished for the sake of the film. Thus in a film one brief conversation may cover the same ground that in the novel took three separate and much longer discussions; lines originally spoken by a number of different characters may be put in the mouth of a single character; paragraphs of character development and subtext may be omitted because a voiceover or some other such device would quickly become unbearable. All of this is understandable, and things of this sort do occur in Jordan’s film.
But what is one to make of it when something that in the novel happens literally overnight is in the film replaced with a series of events occupying six months or more of narrative time and a fair chunk of screen time to boot? Perhaps such a change might be tolerable if it somehow enhanced or clarified for the film audience the author’s original intent; which is, of course, the exact opposite of what Jordan’s change actually accomplishes. It’s hard to imagine any possible artistic rationale for such butchery. (All the more perplexing, Jordan says he regards The End of the Affair as Greene’s finest novel, and said that what he "needed to do was to bring the human drama to the surface and find a way of making the whole thing understandable and believable in human terms." Does he find the concept that an adulteress might ever take seriously a promise to God incomprehensible and unbelievable? Or did he think that modern audiences wouldn’t have accepted it?)
When I first set out to review Jordan’s film, I hadn’t yet read the novel (though I had read Greene before), and rather abstractly supposed seeing the film "cold" would enable me to judge it on its own merits, rather than judging it in comparison to the book. Afterward, I thought, I would read the book and mention my findings without letting it unduly influence my existing opinion of the film.
However, during the film, my wife (who hasn’t read any Greene) turned to me at the exact point the film began to diverge from the book and wondered out loud whether that was the way Greene had written it. I too had my doubts. Though neither of us had read the novel, the force of Greene’s work up to that point came through with sufficient clarity that both of us recognized the precise moment of the betrayal.
A second major change is much more understandable, though it also weakens Greene’s story: The militant atheist with whom Sarah falls in after the end of the affair is transformed into a rather ordinary Roman Catholic priest, and conflated with a priest character who appears later in the book. Apparently Greene’s subversive idea that anti-Christian polemics helped make Sarah a believing Catholic was too daring or subtle for Jordan, and her conversion was made more conventional. Going along with this, an apparent miracle that in the novel befalls the atheist is transferred to another character. There is also some unfortunate juggling of the information that Sarah was baptized as a child; leading to a rather odd scene in which the priest speaks inappropriately of "baptism of desire" when he would surely know (the way the film tells it) that Sarah had been baptized.
Despite all this, Jordan does deserve some credit for following the rest of the novel so faithfully that at least some of what Greene was trying to do can’t help coming through. Whereas a 1955 version of the novel (which Greene reportedly loathed) straightened out the book’s convoluted chronology and told the story in order from beginning to end, Jordan successfully films Greene’s non-linear storytelling, and there is almost never any difficulty knowing when the action is taking place. And, as I wrote above, the film takes faith and religious obligations seriously. The fact that Sarah doesn’t keep her promise, while fundamentally altering the story, doesn’t make it a bad story.
What some may feel does make it a bad film is the explicit nudity in the sex scenes. I myself found these scenes oddly untempting and unsexy; Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, both good actors, were very earnest, but didn’t succeed in creating any sense of pleasure or happiness. I’m not yet sure if the nudity itself was the problem here; if my ability to enter into the fictional story and suspend my disbelief was short-circuited by the brute fact that I was watching an actor bare his backside to a camera or an actress with no shirt on; or if what might have had emotional impact had it been shot with close-ups on faces simply got muted from medium-distance full-length shots of actors’ bodies. In any case, the characters seemed overly serious and glum, and without ever really feeling the joy of the characters’ love I found it hard to sympathize with the pain or jealousy of the separation.
My final word on this one: Read the book.
P.S. In writing The End of the Affair Graham Greene allegedly drew upon an actual extramarital affair between himself and a married woman. Bendrix does seem to be to at least in part a fictionalization of Greene himself, or of some of Greene’s experiences. However, the story can hardly be called "autobiographical," as many critics have done. For one thing, Greene was for better or for worse a Catholic, not a religious blank like Bendrix. One thing seems certain: The book contains no effort to exculpate Greene for his sins.