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A La Recherche du Temps Perdu: The Proust Screenplay
By Stanley Kauffmann

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared in The New Republic in 1977 and was included in Stanley Kauffmann's criticism collection Before My Eyes in 1980. We reprint it now, with Kauffmann's permission, on the occasion of Harold Pinter's receipt of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, hoping that it will draw new attention to Pinter's extraordinary screenplay. In 2000, a stage adaptation of the Proust screenplay, done by Pinter and Di Trevis, was directed by Trevis at the Royal National Theatre in London. The critic Charles McNulty referred to it then as "the greatest film never made."]

Excuse a personal note it's relevant. Early in 1974 Harold Pinter, whom I know slightly, read a historical anthology called American Film Criticism which I had edited (with the help of Bruce Henstell). Pinter wrote me about the book, saying that he had been particularly struck by Paul Goodman's essay "The Proustian Camera Eye," written in 1935. Pinter said he was sending me a copy of his Proust screenplay, which was the first I heard of it, asked me to read it, then forward it to Goodman. I read it, wrote Pinter about it, and said I couldn't forward it because Goodman was dead. Might I keep the script? Pinter had said that expense was clouding production of the film, and I wanted to have at least this much of it. He replied that I could keep it, that there was still no money to make the picture, and that for various reasons he couldn't even publish the script.

The film has not been made, but at least the screenplay is now published. I speak carefully when I say that it's incomparably the best screen adaptation ever made of a great work and that it is in itself a work of genius minor compared with the source, as Pinter surely would be the first to scornfully insist, but I would insist that this screenplay far surpasses anything conveyed by the term "adaptation" and becomes a recomposition in another art. This is by far the best of his screenwriting and not just because it comes from a titanic novel: look at most screenplays from great novels. Pinter has touched genius in some of his plays; here, touched by a giant genius, he rises in the film form, technically and imaginatively, to the level of his best theater work.

A lover of Proust can take the stand that the novel should not be adapted. It is; and it doesn't need to exist in any other way. With that view I can see no argument. But aside from that absolute purity, for anyone interested in seeing Proust on the screen, Pinter has transformed it miraculously. A purist lover of Othello may not care what Boito and Verdi did with it. His loss, I'd say. The analogy is incomplete because the opera is often performed and is recorded, while what we have of Pinter's so far is only the "Score." But if you can read this screenplay, you can get more than a measure of the power in a possible film of it.

Reading a screenplay means, minimally, reading slowly: not assuming that the few descriptive words at the start of each shot are easily digestible just because they are few and not "literary." It means responding out of your filmgoing experience to "furnish" each shot and to imagine the succession of shots. Anyone who can and will do those things can enjoy this book.

Joseph Losey, with whom Pinter has worked on three films, was to have directed this picture and is credited with help on the screenplay (as is Barbara Bray, whom Pinter knew as a Proustian authority). I'm hardly an unswerving Losey admirer, but the best of Losey say, in the textural qualitites of The Go-Between would have been at its best here. If the film had been well photographed and designed and cast, it could have been the work toward which Losey's career was groping. (And why am I using the despairing past tense?)

What Pinter has done is to dismiss any thought of carpentry, of sawing and patching to get an intelligible synopsis of the vast book into three hours plus (my guess at about how long this picture would run). Instead he apparently drenched himself in the book, absorbed it, let it seep into his blood and marrow, and then figuratively forgot about the work's prior existence. He seems to have said to himself: "If I were Proust, with his societal experience, his interior landscape, his range of sensory appetites, his intoxication with the Idea of Time, and if I wanted to write a screenplay with all this instead of a novel, what screenplay would I write?" In short, insofar as matters as delicate as Proust's work and the creative process in general can be laid out diagrammatically, we can say that Pinter disassembled the book and rebuilt its materials into a different medium.

I give one major example of deliberate omission and one of imaginative recomposition. When I knew that Pinter's screenplay was en route to me, I speculated that it would begin on that night in early January 1909 when the thirty-eight-year-old Proust dipped the rusk in the tea and the taste and scent took him back to boyhood and the madeleines. Not at all. In the whole screenplay there is no madeleine. Pinter made his own means. Here are the first five shots:

1. Yellow screen. Sound of a garden-gate bell.

2. Open countryside, a line of trees, seen from a railway carriage. The train is still. No sound. Quick fadeout.

3. Momentary yellow screen.

4. The sea, seen from a high window, a towel hanging on a towel rack in foreground. No sound. Quick fadeout.

5. Momentary yellow screen.

This process continues for another sixteen shots, with glimpses of the Guermantes house, of the middle-aged Marcel, of his aged friends, of Venice, of the thematic "spoon hitting the plate," some silent, some with sound, all interleaved with recurring shots of the screen completely yellow. At Shot 22 we get the yellow screen again. This time "the camera pulls back to discover that the yellow screen is actually a patch of yellow wall in a painting. The painting is Vermeer's View of Delft." ("The most beautiful painting in the world," says Marcel later.) When I read that camera direction and saw how this visual motif had been brought forward to underlie a new sensory-mnemonic-emotional system in a different medium, I felt a cold shiver of excitement. The book had been trans-formed. And, page after page, that excitement continued.

Throughout the screenplay a complex of time-planes is dexterously manipulated. All the years of the novel are assumed to exist simultaneously, and the film moves in and out of them as it needs to. The changes are almost always immediately clear, but even when a change is briefly ambiguous, this contributes to the paramount effect: of being suspended in a magical vessel full of time.

It would be child's play to list what of the book is left out and what is proportionately diminished (Gilberte, for instance). What's amazing is how much of the book is contained in the script, not salvaged or snipped but reworked to a new vitality in a new medium to approximate some of the dimensions of the original. Places are established to be loved and returned to; characters are vivid, developed through growth and decay. A great fugue of European history, social and cultural and moral, is once again deployed across our senses other senses, which is the point of making the book into a film.

The Royal National Theatre adaptation of "The Proust Screenplay," by Harold Pinter and Di Trevis, 2000I have two grave reservations, and they're connected. The first is about the Narrator (only twice called Marcel in the book), who is here made into the protagonist Marcel. It makes a tremendous difference when the narrator of a book is taken off the printed page, so to speak, and made a character just as "visible" as the others. In the very article that Pinter admires, Goodman says, "The Narrator is perfectly passive." In that very helpful little book Marcel Proust, Roger Shattuck says: "In spite of his constant efforts to do so, Marcel never adequately beholds himself and cannot really believe in his identity or role." Here he is propelled into a role, put in front of the camera, and although he is interesting enough, he has the task of being central among characters who are mostly more interesting than he is, characters whom in the book he mostly observed.

Good casting of Marcel would enrich the role, of course; but it would still leave a second, related flaw. Because we get the whole of the novel through the Narrator, his progress toward becoming the author capable of writing what we have been reading is organic in our very reading. That progress is not well conveyed here. From time to time he is said to be a writer, and at the very end the last shot is the yellow screen we hear Marcell say, "it was time to begin." It's not quite enough.

But these are not Pinter's flaws, they are inescapable in a film version. What could be done, he has done: unpredictably, authentically, superlatively. This screenplay could be made into a film that, without by any means being the full equivalent of the novel, would be worthy of its source. The Proust Screenplay is beautiful art, still uncompleted. Must it remain so?

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