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
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
2. Open countryside, a line of trees,
seen from a railway carriage. The train is still. No sound.
3. Momentary yellow screen.
4. The sea, seen from a high window,
a towel hanging on a towel rack in foreground. No sound. Quick
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.
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?