A Happy Death, adultery, Albert Camus, Alienation of Affection, Book Review, China, Cholera, David Yates, dysfunctional relationship, Edward Norton, Film, film review, Fun Home, Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, imperialism, infidelity, J.K. Rowling, Kitty Fane, Literature, Luna Lovegood, Marriage, Marshall McLuhan, Naomi Watts, Novel, Postmodernism, Sphere of Influence, The Painted Veil, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Victorianism, W. Somerset Maughum, Walter Fane
With the exception of Fight Club, The Painted Veil is the only film I have seen that I can honestly say I enjoyed more than the book. This is a common cliché that’s often represented in the acts of stand-up comedians as well as cartoons from the early 90s, but often what accompanies trailers for movies based on books is that one of the two friends going to see a movie will immediately lean over and say, “the book was better.” This is somewhat amusing given the fact that books are apparently a “dead” medium, but the internet and media abounds with voices claiming that films entirely missed the point of books they are based upon and the average movie-going public, who are often simply trying to passively escape reality for an hour and a half, are forced to listen to this spiteful rhetoric mildly entertained or else mildly annoyed that their afternoon will now be filled with a movie review they didn’t ask for. For my own part I’m not immune to this impulse for I’m a part of the Harry Potter generation and like a small portion of the population, I can explain why the absence of the ghost Peeves in the film series was history’s greatest tragedy.
I do believe that part of this impulse to explain the books as “superior” than films is rooted in a bit of elitism; that the people who express the “superiority” or the book over the film is a desire to boost the ego by professing that there is a difference between the medium experiences of “reading” and “watching.” Considering this attitude, I wondered about Marshall McLuhan, and it may be best to just cite the man directly. In case you don’t know who he is, he’s that dude who pops out from behind the sign in Annie Hall when Alvy’s having the argument with the media professor during his fourth-wall break. If you’ve never seen Annie Hall that’s probably because you enjoy your life. Marshall McLuhan was a philosopher and writer who explored how human beings interact with media, specifically how their minds work in relation to media whether it be movies, comics, books, television, radio, automobiles, etc. His book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was an eye opening experience and I would highly recommend it. In one passage he explains the nature of film against the nature of writing:
In terms of other media such as the printed page, film has the power to convey a great deal of information. In an instant it presents a scene of landscape with figures that would require several pages of prose to describe. In the next instant it repeats, and can go on repeating this detailed information. The writer, on the other hand, has no means of holding a mass of detail before his reader in a large bloc[sic] or gestalt. As the photograph urged the painter in the direction of the abstract, sculptural art, so the film has confirmed the writer in verbal economy and depth symbolism where film cannot rival him. (252).
Looking back to Harry Potter for a moment this is certainly true. In the fifth book, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, the character Luna Lovegood, who was a secret crush of mine for years for the record, produced a magically enhanced “lion-hat” to wear during the Quidditch games when Gryffindor and Slytherin were playing. J.K. Rowling gives a description of the hat:
“Hello,” said a vague and dreamy voice from behind them. Harry looked up: Luna Lovegood had drifted over from the Ravenclaw table. Many people were staring at her and a few openly laughing and pointing; she had managed to procure a hat shaped like a life-size lion’s head, which was perched precariously on her head.
“I’m supporting Gryffindor,” said Luna, pointing unnecessarily at her hat. “Look what it does…”
She reached up and tapped the hat with her wand. It opened its mouth wife and gave an extremely realistic roar that made everyone in the vicinity roar that made everyone in the vicinity jump.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” said Luna happily. “I wanted to have it chewing up a serpent to represent Slytherin, you know, but there wasn’t time. Anyway…good luck, Ronald!” (403).
This scene wasn’t included in the fifth film, it was pushed to The Half-Blood Prince, and in the film adaptation there isn’t such a dramatic entrance of the hat, and in fact the scene in question when the viewer first sees it there isn’t an introduction period. The viewer is asked only to see the hat, and passively acknowledge that Luna Lovegood is a loon while the director David Yates also manages to create the environment of Hogwarts around her. Looking at just the still of Luna wearing her hat Yates’s film is almost like a painting, and while that is also a cliché of describing moments in film, Yates’s direction validates the original concept. The scene appears blurry, almost impressionistic, and the colors of the shot have been seemingly dulled mirroring the dramatic tone of the film as the viewer, who’s in on the extended universe of Harry Potter at this point, understands that the world is darkening with the rise of Voldemort and his evil cult. Trying to describe the hat, and match the tone of the outside danger, and convey the oddity that is the mundane existence inside of Hogwarts, and try to explain how the students are finding any real sense of sanity in their world, would almost impossible for a writer to accomplish unless they possess genius.
My point in this opening tangent is not to smear J.K. Rowling as an inferior writer, too much of my childhood and creative upbringing was dedicated to her work, but instead my effort is to understand that reading a book and watching a movie are two entirely different experiences. When reading a book an individual is engaging the art product “actively” by creating and imagining their own reality in their minds. When watching a movie, they are experiencing the art product “passively” because someone else has imagined the universe for them and so they simply have to experience and absorb the images on the screen. Let me be clear I don’t believe watching a movie is necessarily lazier than reading, just different, and that leads me back to The Painted Veil. There really are few films that can leave a more distinct impression upon a viewer than the book did, partly because when the reader actually reads the book they create the universe, but in the case of The Painted Veil I found the world far more beautiful and impressionable.
To this day I don’t know what compelled me to watch the film. On some level it may just be because seeing the trailer I was struck by how gorgeous the movie actually looked. Shot after shot of the landscape of rural China left me almost weak as I marveled the shots the director John Curran made managing to place actors against such landscapes without any real sense of struggle. Whatever is said about film by critics and writers I do believe that it is possible to capture beauty in film, and directors should try, to the best of their ability, to do so when they can. But what also struck me at the time was the material of the actual plot.
The Painted Veil is about a marriage fouled by infidelity and at the time nothing bothered me so much as this concept. Part of it is simply my psychology. Since as long as I could remember I was plagued by a general feeling of worthlessness and this manifested in paranoia or delusions that, even if I could find someone who might love me and marry me they would eventually leave me for someone else.
I have no basis for this, my mind simply created this warped, corrupting fallacy and so any and all movies that dealt with cheating spouses (usually on the woman’s part) left me feeling uncomfortable and angry. In hindsight I think this is just part of emotional maturation for boys. We typically teach young men, at least in the United States, that they are allowed to be sexually voracious but women can’t. As such watching women cheat on their boyfriends and husbands leaves us paranoid and scrambling for a sense of control.
This of course is misogynist bullshit and I managed to grow out of it, partly because of The Painted Veil. Watching the film introduced me to the idea that men are just as responsible in a marriage as women to “make it work,” and part of that is by realizing your partner for who they really are. After Walter has discovered Kitty has been cheating on him with a work associate named Charlie he tells her he’s taking her deep into China on a work assignment, specifically an outbreak of cholera in a small village. Kitty says she won’t go and a fight ensues:
Walter Fane: I knew when I married you that you were selfish and spoiled. But I loved you. I knew you only married me to get as far away from your mother as possible. And I hoped that one day… there’d be something more. I was wrong. You don’t have it in you.
Kitty Fane: If a man hasn’t what’s necessary to make a woman love him then it’s his fault not hers.
Walter Fane: Either way. Tomorrow morning we are to leave for Mei-tan-fu, or I shall file my petition.
Kitty Fane: Walter, you can’t be serious about taking me into the middle of a cholera epidemic.
Walter Fane: Do you think that I’m not?
Kitty Fane: My God. That’s what you want isn’t it? Do you really think Charlie will let you do this?
Walter Fane: I don’t think Charlie has very much to say about it.
Kitty Fane: Everything you said is true. Everything. I married you even though I didn’t love you. But you knew that. Aren’t you as much to blame for what’s happened as I?
This exchange is important because the first time I watched this my young mind wanted to blame Kitty entirely, but with each watching I’ve become more and more forgiving of the woman, and in fact I find myself sympathetic. Part of this is actually being married myself. Marriage is a difficult and, at times, unsatisfying partnership, but a healthy one is rooted in a mutual recognition and respect for one another. Let’s be fair as well, marriage to the right person can bring happiness, mine certainly did, but it takes a lot of work. That statement is the stuff of bad marriage counseling self-help books, but clichés are clichés for a reason. From the beginning to their relationship Walter blinds himself to Kitty’s qualities as an individual and he actually says so outright when he notes:
Walter Fane: It was silly of us to look for qualities in each other that we never had.
Looking at this I’m reminded of a passage in Fun Home: A Family Tragcomic, which notes a passage in A Happy Death by Albert Camus:
The Painted Veil is ultimately about marriage, how it can be splintered apart, but also how it can recover and heal. Based originally on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, it follows Walter and Kitty (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts respectively) as they meet originally in England during the early 1900s. Kitty is a rebellious woman who enjoys dancing and culture and frivolities when she meets Walter who works for the British government as a bacteriologist studying disease. He meets Kitty, marries her, and the two of them travel to Beijing where they live rather unhappily for a year. During this time Kitty meets a man by the name of Charlie Townsend who, apart from being incredibly handsome and played by Live Schreiber, is charming eventually seducing Kitty into an affair. Walter discovers the affair and when an epidemic of cholera breaks out in a small village into the mainland of China he takes Kitty with him. It should be noted that he offers a divorce only if Charlie agrees to divorce his wife and marry Kitty which he doesn’t. From there the remainder of the film follows Walter as he tries to find an answer to the disease which is running rampant, and Kitty trying to find some sense of purpose as she finds herself more and more isolated and estranged from Walter. Eventually she takes up helping at the orphanage/hospital where Walter works alongside a group of Catholic French nuns who are helping the local population.
It may sound at first that The Painted Veil is just a romance, however the film takes place in the early 1900s, specifically the 1920s as the local Chinese population have begun rebelling against the outright imperialism of Britain. This is a problem for me due largely to the fact that when it comes to the history of China I admit freely that I am weak. Growing up my history lessons tended to be more Eurocentric and while I would learn about Europe’s influence over the colonies, most of my teachers tended to gloss over the details of China apart from Genghis Khan. What I can relate is that during this time China was increasingly divided and, while not actually colonized by the nations of Europe, there were sections of power sometimes referred to as “spheres of influence.” These were unofficial areas designated as under the power of particular nations such as France, Russia, Germany, Britain, and even in some small cases the United States. The Painted Veil relies on this division of China heavily for Walter is looked upon as suspect by most of the people in the village, and while the story does center itself around the reconciliation of Walter and Kitty there are plenty of references to historical events taking place at this time, particularly the beginning dissolving of the might of the British Empire.
This is addressed often in exchanges between Walter and a Chinese government officer by the name of Yu:
Colonel Yu: I think China belongs to Chinese people, but the rest of the world seems to disagree.
Walter Fane: Yes, but that’s got nothing to do with me. I didn’t come here with a gun, you know. I came here with a microscope.
The ending of Empire and the rise of nationalism is fascinating avenue that’s explored sporadically in the film, likewise is the death of Victorianism but my contester appears frustrated that it’s taken me so long to acknowledge their complaint. The Painted Veil sounds like a boring art-house movie, the kind of film that tries to appeal to hipsters and avant-garde types who enjoy knowing more about everyone else in the room. Why should a casual movie goer see a film that’s so esoteric?
I’ve done a disservice to my contester by presenting their argument so poorly, but this is the typical reaction of a casual movie-goer and in all fairness I completely understand this complaint. Most people go to see a movie so that they don’t have to think, they can simply observe the movie, enjoy a good story, have some popcorn, and leave talking about how awesome Ben Affleck was as Batman (which for the record he was). I sympathize because I do the exact same thing. My response however is to try and return to my thesis which started before I pursued a long tangent and caught my reader up on the plot of the movie, which is that I enjoyed The Painted Veil as a film rather than as a novel.
Perhaps I just don’t enjoy the novels of W. Somerset Maughum, but by the end of the book Walter had died and Kitty was living back in England, and having seen the film first I didn’t understand what significance could come from hearing about her life after Walter. In fact, the entire novel was never about Walter at all, it was simply about Kitty trying to find happiness and satisfaction on her own without the need of a companion in life, and while this was a fascinating feminist and postmodern sentiment the delivery fell flat.
The difference between watching The Painted Veil and reading it was that by the end of both I found myself feeling far more closure in the film. The reason for this was because, even if Walter died at the end from Cholera the two of them had achieved some kind of reconciliation. From the beginning of the film to almost the very end Walter and Kitty stand opposed to one another:
Kitty Fane: By the way, you might be happy to know that I am just as useless to the nuns as I am to you.
Walter Fane: I shut off the town’s only water supply today.
Kitty Fane: What will you do?
Walter Fane: I have no idea.
Kitty Fane: Hmm. Then I suppose we’re both useless. At last, something in common.
Or even an earlier scene:
Walter Fane: I’d like to press on, if you don’t mind.
Kitty Fane: Surely my comforts are no concern to you.
Though Kitty herself offers the best sentiment:
Kitty Fane: As if a woman ever loved a man for his virtue.
These exchanges predate the eventual reconciliation between Kitty and Walter, and while it may seem from afar that the film is simply driven by the formula “will they get back together? Will they not?” there is in fact a deeper attempt at work here. The Painted Veil is always a film that concerns itself with atmosphere, capturing the environment that people occupy in order to show their interactions as more than simple formula. Walter and Kitty and human beings occupying a beautiful country and while there they manage to find one another. If I can provide one last quote it may provide an insight into the larger theme at work:
Walter Fane: Do you like flowers?
Kitty Fane: Not particularly, no. Well, I mean yes, but we don’t really have them around the house. Mother says, “Why purchase something you can grow for free?” Then, we don’t really grow them either. It does seem silly really. To put all that effort into something that’s just going to die.
Relationships, whether romantic or simply friendships, are difficult because each person brings their own idiosyncrasies and faults. Along with this comes a person’s ambitions, personal philosophies, ideologies, dreams, and energy and the person interacting with the other has to match or tread similar ground if the relationship is going to flourish or at least survive. In a relationship model like marriage, especially as it was coming out of the end of Victorianism, two people entered into the coupling aware that they were connecting themselves to a person who they would spend the rest of their life with. Novels like Jane Eyre explore beautifully the pitfalls of this system as many people were screwed into marriages that brought them little if any real satisfaction. It’s difficult then in the Postmodern, or Psuedomodern period, to understand this kind of pain. We’re a society that’s become inured to divorce, or at least comfortable with its presence and possible reliance upon it if things go terribly wrong. While I do believe, having seen it firsthand, that some marriages are just bad and not doing anyone any good, watching a film like The Painted Veil does afford the opportunity to watch another marriage and wonder about my own. Watching a film, passively receiving the events and observing two people manage to find love and trust in one another after it seemed like it could never happen again, is beautiful and inspiring.
It reminds me why I love my wife. It reminds me I want to be a good man for her. And it also reminds me that I forgot to buy butter this week and she’s going to kill me.