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
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
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.
I 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?