Thursday, September 29, 2022

Literary Movie Churches Adaptations Volume V: The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair
(1955 and 1999)

Literary Month concludes with a religious novel featuring tawdry sex. Well, perhaps tawdry isn't a fair term at all because I’m sure the characters, a married woman and her unmarried love, believe theirs was a singular love, beautiful and not at all wrong. Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, published in 1951, has been adapted twice for the screen, in 1955 and 1999.

Considering when they were made, it’s not surprising there are a number of differences between the films. The first is in black and white, and the second is in color. The first starred an American (Van Johnson) as novelist Maurice Bendrix, and made the character a Yank, while the second starred Ralph Fiennes as a British writer (also named Maurice Bendrix). And the second film has explicit sex scenes while the 1955 film does not. (Both films were made in England, so while the first film didn’t need to follow the American Production code, the British code could be even more strict.)

Of course, these differences don’t matter much to us here at Movie Churches. The differences in how the films handle churches and clergy matter here.

The novel and the film adaptations all share the same basic plot. During World War 2, a novelist in London begins an affair with Sarah, the wife of Henry, a British bureaucrat. (Greene admitted the story was based on an affair of his own.) As Maurice and Sarah meet during an air raid, the apartment building is bombed. Sarah is concerned that Maurice is dead and prays, promising God that if Maurice does live, she will break off the affair. Maurice is uninjured, and Sarah breaks up with him.

Time passes and Maurice doesn’t know why Sarah ended the relationship. He suspects there may be another man, so he goes to Henry (Peter Cushing in 1955, Stephen Rea in 1999) and says he will be hiring a private detective to follow Sarah (Deborah Kerr in 1955, Julianne Moore in 1999). Maurice (pronounced "Morris" in case you wondered) tells Henry he will pretend to be Sarah’s lover to save Henry from the embarrassment of the situation. A detective named Pakis, who brings his young son along on his jobs, follows Sarah. This is where the film plots diverge from one another.

The two Sarahs in the two films follow two very different men.

In the 1955 film, Sarah hears a “preacher” in a park proclaiming a message of atheism. He offers counseling to help people overcome the hindrances of religion. Sarah goes to him, hoping he will free her from her promise to give up Maurice. Pakis reports to Maurice that Sarah is seeing a man. This man, Richard Smythe (Michael Goodliffe), fails to persuade Sarah that God doesn’t exist. In fact, his hate for God is so strong (half his face is covered by a birthmark) that Sarah says he convinced her that God exists. How could he hate someone he didn't believe exists?

Sadly, Sarah coughs in the film. We all know that in old movies, coughs indicate a fatal illness (usually, but not always, consumption). Sarah goes to a priest who refuses to give her any easy answers. Sarah comes to embrace her faith in God. And dies offscreen.

Maurice meets Sarah’s mother, who tells him that Sarah was baptized into the Catholic church when she was two, but her father was Jewish so they couldn’t practice their faith. Maurice comes, reluctantly, to faith in God.

In the 1999 version, Parkis the detective finds Sarah has been seeing a different Richard Smythe (Jason Isaacs). He’s a priest who lives with his sister. Believing he has been having an affair with Sarah, Maurice confronts the priest, “Aren’t you bound by the vows of chastity?”

Maurice is mistaken. Sarah has been receiving spiritual counsel, not physical affection from the priest. She comes to have faith in God. In this version, it is Sarah who tells Maurice that she was baptized in the Catholic Church at the age of two. She also coughs in this film, obviously signaling a fatal illness.

Because of her illness, Sarah is confined to her home with Henry, but Henry, learning of the affair, invites Maurice to live with them and help care for Sarah. Though neither Henry nor Sarah know it, Maurice bars Father Smythe from seeing Sarah. After Sarah dies, Maurice convinces Henry to cremate Sarah rather than have a Catholic funeral.

However, after her death, Maurice learns more about Sarah. The detective’s young son Lance has a deforming birthmark. Lance follows Sarah as his father's assistant but falls asleep. Sarah, finding him asleep, kisses his birthmark, which vanishes within weeks. In this film also, Maurice comes grudgingly to faith in God.

Both films lead one to think that Maurice eventually believes in God, but in the novel, Maurice believes God exists but refuses to have a relationship with Him because Maurice now believes that love is too painful.

In both films, Sarah goes to a church to wrestle with her painful promise. In both films, she receives kind but firm counsel from a priest. So we’re giving the Church, Father Crompton (Stephen Murray) from the 1955 version, and Father Smythe from the 1999 version our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Graham Greene Bonus: This month we've been focusing on film adaptations of novels, but while the focus is on Greene, I'd like to recommend Went the Day Well? based on his short story, "The Lieutenant Died Last." (Both of those titles are bad, but I believe the film title is worse). Made in 1942, it imagines German soldiers emulating Brits and invading a small English village. It is well worth seeking out. Most of the villagers are confined in the local church. The priest takes a stand against the Nazis that would earn him a Four Steeple Movie Churches rating.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Literary Movie Church Adaptations Volume 4: The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers
(1973 and 1993)

When our kids were young we often listened to books on tape. I believe it was on a trip to Yosemite that we listened to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. A classic like that would be swell for the whole family, right?

Somehow I didn’t remember that a key plot point in the novel is that Queen Anne, the wife of the king of France, is having an affair with the English Duke of Buckingham. The Musketeers, somehow on behalf of the King to whom they have sworn allegiance, take on the duty of keeping the Queen’s affair secret to prevent a war between France and England.

That was a lot to explain to elementary school kids. In addition, one of the chief villains of the book is Cardinal Richelieu, an official in the Roman Catholic Church. It's easy to see why Tom Sawyer loved the book, and why boys since it was first published in 1844 love the swordfights, derring-do, and adventures. But it’s not exactly “wholesome.” 

Of course, it was written by a Frenchman, Alexandre Dumas, and the French apparently have a different idea about what is family-friendly.

Fortunately, Movie Churches has never counted family friendliness among the criteria for films reviewed; the only requirement is that a film has churches and/or clergy. This means the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers doesn’t fit our criteria. In order to avoid offending any Catholics in the audience (or the Roman Catholic Church itself), MGM had VIncent Price play “Prime Minister” Richelieu rather than Cardinal Richelieu.

Fortunately, there have been many, many screen adaptions of The Three Musketeers, from a 1921 silent feature through a 2011 abomination with blimps and high-wire kung-fu. We’ll limit ourselves to two versions, beginning with director Richard Lester’s 1973 version (subtitled "The Queen’s Diamonds"). Along with screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser (known for his series of satirical Flashman novels), Lester leans into the moral shadiness of the adventures, playing up the sex and moral hypocrisy. In addition, Charleton Heston most certainly plays the Cardinal Richelieu.

A young farm boy, D’Artagnan (Michael York), is warned about the Cardinal by his father as he goes off to Paris to become one of the King’s Musketeers, “Never accept insults…Unless it’s from the King…Or the Cardinal Richelieu. Don’t trust him.” Arriving in Paris, D’Artagnan manages to insult three of the King’s Musketeers: Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), and Porthos (Frank Finley). He challenges all three to a duel, but the first duel is interrupted by the Cardinal’s Guards (who we soon learn are rivals of the King’s Musketeers). The Musketeers allow D’Artagnan to join them in a scuffle with the Guards, and the Musketeers are victorious over greater numbers. A group of nuns on a balcony watch the fight excitedly without seeming to choose sides.)

As in the novel, Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) lends her diamonds to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham of England (Simon Ward). Cardinal Richelieu learns of this and encourages King Louis XIII (Jean-Perre Cassel) to hold a ball at which the Queen will wear her diamonds. The Cardinal plans to reveal the queen's affair with the leader of the English, a nobleman, and begin a war between the nations.

The Cardinal’s plan is, of course, foiled by the Musketeers, but he takes his defeat in good spirits. He is cold and calculating, but he also doesn’t seek revenge when there's no profit in it. Compared to the Cardinal Richelieu played by Tim Curry in Disney’s 1993 version of the film, he’s a relative saint.

In this version, the French Musketeers are played by Americans: Chris O’Donnell (D’Artagnan), Charlie Sheen (Aramis), Keifer Sutherland (Athos), and Oliver Platt (Porthos). I’m sure the success of Young Guns played a part in the casting. I’m just surprised they didn’t title the film Young Swords.

I suppose because it was Disney, the Musketeers’ assignment is not to cover up the Queen’s affair, but instead, the Musketeers must recover a secret treaty the Cardinal sends to England.

Curry’s Cardinal is a much nastier piece of work than Heston’s. We see him early in the film visiting prisoners in their cells. One of the men pleads for mercy from the Cardinal for the crime of theft. “My family was starving. Please in the name of God…”

“Very well,” says the Cardinal. “In the Name of God.” And the Cardinal has the prisoner executed, saying, “One less mouth to feed.”

In this film, the Cardinal isn’t trying to expose Queen Anne's (Gabrielle Anwar) affair but wants to have an affair with her himself. He enters her room as she bathes and watches lustfully. He says to her, “After all, I’m still a man.” 

She responds, “Your sacrifice brings you closer to God.” 

He responds, “But it is not God I desire to be close to.” In spite of his efforts, she is able to parry his advances.

I was rather surprised by the graphic nature of this scene. There are also a number of killings in the film and lingering shots of women’s bosoms, but that doesn’t impact the film’s Movie Churches Steeple rating, which is based on the behavior of the Cardinal, who is the prominent clergyman in the films. The 1973 Cardinal Heston and the 1993 Cardinal Curry average out to a lowly Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Literary Month Church Adaptations Volume 3: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice

Most pastors tire of hearing variations on, “So, you only work one day a week, right?” When I read Jane Austen novels (and other novels of the Georgian era in Great Britain) I wonder whether the clergy in those books even work one day a week. All they seem to do is study and sometimes have tea with people in their parishes.

One would think Austen, whose father was a rector at All Souls College, Oxford, would write kindly of the clergy, and she wrote favorably of Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. But in what is perhaps her most beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice, the Reverend Mr. Collins is an utterly ridiculous figure. He is pompous with a tendency to make long-winded, self-aggrandizing speeches. He’s willingly under the thumb of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Most important to the story, he is also heir to the estate that's the home of the book’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. He, in fact, intends to make Elizabeth his bride.

When filmmakers adapt the story, Mr. Collins continues to be a most silly character. Probably the most beloved version of Austen’s novel was the 1995 BBC miniseries, but sadly, we do films rather than television here.

I find it very interesting though that in MGM’s 1940, star-studded version of the story, Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) is no longer a clergyman. He instead refers to himself as Lady Catherine’s librarian and seems to act as a steward of some sort. When he proposes to Elizabeth, instead of referring to himself as a clergyman who would be prudent to marry (as he does in other adaptations and in the novel itself), he calls himself, “a gentleman of easy circumstances.”

So if this 1940s Pride and Prejudice was all we had to go on, we here at Movie Churches would be out of luck. We need a church and/or clergy to write about. Aside from the dastardly Mr. Wickham’s likely false claim that he had hoped to pursue the taking of orders (how the Church of England at the time referred to becoming a clergyman), there is no reference to the people and institutions that feed this blog. So much for that film. 

Happily for us, in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice directed by Joe Wright, Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) is most certainly a clergyman. And a pompous fool, just as he is in the book.

He comes to visit the Bennets to find a bride (as his patroness, Lady Catherine, advised him to do). He refers to himself in the third person when he introduces himself, and compliments everyone and everything, including the cooking of the boiled potatoes, which he wishes to credit to one of the Bennet sisters. 

“We have a cook,” Mrs. Bennet informs him, offended that he thinks her daughters were working in the kitchen. 

After dinner, he offers to provide the evening’s entertainment, “I would like to read to you all an hour or two. Are you familiar with Fordyce’s Sermons, Miss Bennet? It has excellent teaching on morals.” The Bennets decline.

Mr. Collins's idea of entertainment isn’t limited to a good sermon. At a ball, he is willing to dance, asking Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) to be his partner, “Perhaps you will do me join me. I do not think it incompatible with the office of clergyman to indulge in such an innocent diversion. In fact, several people, Her Ladyship included, have complimented me on my lightness of foot.” And Collins admits, “It is my intention, if I may be so bold, to stay close with you throughout the evening.”

Unhappily for himself, Mr. Collins makes the social faux pas of offending Mr. Darcy, finding that Darcy is Lady Catherine's nephew.

Mr. Collins continues his social awkwardness when he proposes marriage to Elizabeth. “Firstly, it is the duty of a clergyman to set the example of matrimony to his congregation. Secondly, it would add greatly to my happiness. And thirdly, that it is at the urging of my esteemed patroness to select a wife.” It's not a proposal that exudes love or passion. To Mr. Collin's great embarrassment (and disbelief), Elizabeth refuses his offer.

Within a few days, he proposes to Elizabeth's best friend, Charlotte. They marry soon after. When Elizabeth asks her friend how she could think of marrying such a man, she responds, "I'm 27 years old...Not all of us can afford to be romantic. Don’t judge me, Lizzie, don’t you dare judge me.”

We see (and hear) Mr. Collins preaching, and he seems to be just as tedious in the pulpit as in conversation. There is no reference to God or His grace, just moral preening. The congregation seems exceedingly bored.

Collins is a silly little man, but he doesn’t seem to act intentionally with malice. Unlike the Apostle Paul who spoke in Galatians 1 of the importance of pleasing God rather than people, the Reverend Mr. Collins seems to consider his most important duty to please Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Judi Dench). Therefore he receives a lowly Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Literary Movie Church Adaptations Volume 2: Tess of d'Ubervilles


Let’s just get this out of the way now. I have problems with the creators of this work, Tess.

The film is based on Tess of the d’Ubervilles, a novel by Thomas Hardy. We had to read Hardy’s The Return of the Native in high school. I always read the assigned novels, and I usually enjoyed them. Hardy's novel drove me crazy because of his use of “fate.”

Throughout the novel, characters would try their best, but unlikely circumstances would draw them from one horror to another. They were unable to escape their “fate” and their “fate” was always tragic. As I read through the novel, though, I was always aware that the impersonal forces of “fate” weren't driving characters. Rather, the quite obvious manipulations of the author were. It was annoying as could be. This same use of “fate” is found in the film Tess (and, I assume, in the novel. I haven't read it because the other novel was so irritating).

Polanski & Kinski

As for the director of the film, Roman Polanski: I admire him very much as a filmmaker. Chinatown is renowned as the greatest detective film. The Pianist is a moving story about the Holocaust, made even more powerful since it mirrored the experiences of Polanski’s youth in Poland. 

But there are many things about Polanski’s real life that are reprehensible. During his days in Hollywood, he confessed to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl; he fled to the country to avoid serving his prison term. Knowing this about Polankski makes for difficult viewing because a key plot point involves young heroine Tess being raped by her older “cousin.”

This month, we're looking at film adaptions of novels, so it doesn’t really matter what my feelings are about the source or the filmmaker. We’re just here to look at the churches and clergy in the film, and a clergyman makes an early appearance in this 1979 film, setting the plot in motion.

The film opens in the English countryside in the 1880’s. Pastor Tringham (Tony Church -- yes, the actor’s name is “Church”) encounters a poor farmer by the name of John Durbeyfield (John Collin). He tells John that his lineage is a noble one that goes back to the time of William the Conquerer, but that unfortunately, his ancestors wasted their fortune and sold their property. This leads John to seek out relatives, and he sends his daughter Tess (Nastassja Kinski) to seek employment at the property of Alec d’Uberville. It is Alec who rapes Tess. She becomes pregnant and returns to her parents’ home.

Tess gives birth to her bastard child and goes back to working on the family farm. She tells her sisters that she wishes her child was dead in the churchyard and that she was alongside it, but Tess’s mother assures her other daughters that Tess loves her child.

But the child becomes very ill. The local vicar (Robert Pearson) hears about the child’s illness and goes to the Durbeyfields’ home. John Durbeyfield meets him at the door and asks, “What is your business?”

“What else but the child? I must baptize it before the Lord gathers it to his bosom,” the vicar replies.

Durbeyfield says, “All my children are baptized.”

“Don’t play games with the Almighty!” Vicar responds.

Tess’ mother calls from in the house, “The child is dying, let the vicar in!”

“He’s not coming in," John says.

Tess's mother frantically asks again that the vicar be allowed in.  

"Over my dead body!” John says, “There’s enough disgrace on this house.”

The vicar doesn’t enter the house. The child dies.

The next day, Tess goes to the vicar’s house and finds him beekeeping.

Tess tells him that she baptized the child herself. ”I woke my brothers and sisters and asked them to kneel down and pray. Liza-Lu held the prayer book open, and I lit a candle. I held my child like this over the basin. And I poured water over his forehead, and I said, 'I baptize thee in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost.’”

The vicar asks, “Did you make the sign of the cross?”

“Yes, I did that, too.” Tess answers, “Will it be just the same as if you baptized it? In the sight of God, I mean.”

Tess registers great relief when the priest assures her, “Yes, my dear, it will be the same.”

She asks, “Then you’ll give him a Christian burial?”

The clergyman responds, “That’s another matter. That would concern the village as a whole, and not just the two of us, you understand?” He tells her it is out of the question to bury an illegitimate child in the graveyard because the people of the village wouldn’t understand.

Tess is visibly crushed and tells the vicar, “Then I don’t like you. I shall never come to your church again. Never!”

Tess buries her child beside the churchyard and makes a little cross. She decides to leave her village.

Tess goes to work at a dairy run by a godly family. She falls in love with Angel, the son of the owner, and he falls in love with her. They marry. but on their wedding night, Angel confesses to his bride that he has been with another woman in the past. Tess seems to take comfort in this confession. She tells Angel her story, about being raped and mothering a child. This is too much for Angel, who leaves her.

Tess struggles to find work to support herself but eventually returns to her purported cousin Alec as her only hope. Meanwhile, Angel has gone to South America as a missionary, where he became ill and almost dies. He returns to England to find that Tess has murdered Alec. They try to run off together, but they are caught by the police. We are assured this is all due to “fate.”

This movie deepened my dislike for Hardy along with my loathing for Polanski. But they don’t get Movie Church ratings (which would be pretty darn low). 

The Vicar of Marlott, on the other hand, did show concern for Tess and her son, so he doesn’t get our lowest church rating. He was more concerned with his image in the village than with doing what God was calling him to do, so he receives a Two out of Four Steeple Rating.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Literary Movie Church Adaptations Volume 1: Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist
Oliver! (1968)

In A Christmas Carol, solicitors ask Ebenezer Scrooge if he will give to help the poor and he responds, “Are there no prisons? And the Union Workhouses? Are they still in operation? The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” 

When told these institutions were all still in force, Scrooge is relieved. No need for him to take personal action.

Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, was evidently not pleased with contemporary institutions intended to help those in need. During his time, the government ran the prisons, but often the workhouses he decried were privately owned. In his novel, Oliver Twist, the workhouse featured is a “parish workhouse;” it is owned and operated by the Anglican Church.

In 1948, David Lean adapted the novel and directed his version of the story of the orphan who asked for “more.” Oliver’s mother died, leaving her newborn son at an orphanage that also served as a parish workhouse. When the children living there are old enough, they are put to work. The institution is managed by Mr. Bumble the Beadle (Francis L. Sullivan). And yes, I did have to look up the definition of a “beadle.” I'll save you the effort: A beadle is a ceremonial officer in a church institution. A beadle would not necessarily have theological or Biblical training, but would be assigned menial duties. In this case, he was charged with the care of hundreds of young children.

At the age of nine, Oliver (John Howard Davies) is brought before the board of directors of the workhouse. One of the board members states, “Gentlemen, it is my opinion our charity is being taken advantage of. This workhouse has become a source of entertainment to the poorer classes.” Oliver’s “entertainment,” along with other boys in the workhouse, is “picking oakum,” separating loose fiber from nautical ropes in order to use the fiber to make more rope. 

A member of the board tells Oliver, “I hope you say your prayers every night. And say your prayers to the people who feed you and brought you up.” The board wants Oliver to express appreciation for his daily “gruel” (a thin, liquid form of oatmeal boiled in water or milk). Oliver expresses his appreciation in a way that neither the Beadle nor the Matron, Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare).On behalf of the other boys, he asks for a second helping of gruel. The Beadle is outraged and puts Oliver up for sale.

Oliver is purchased by an undertaker, who wants to use Oliver as a “mute,” a silent mourner at the funerals of children. When another worker insults Oliver’s late mother, Oliver goes wild, beating the worker. He's eventually trapped in a coffin and kept there until the Beadle is summoned. The Beadle takes him back, suggesting the problem was that they fed Oliver meat.

Oliver runs away from Mr. Bumble and heads to London, where he's invited to join Fagin (Alec Guinness wearing a ridiculously large nose --  the anti-Semitism isn't subtle) and a gang of orphans who roam the streets steeling whatever they can. Fagin is unscrupulous, vile, and conniving, but he comes off as a better person than the Beadle.

Eventually, Oliver is taken in by a rich benefactor, Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), who coincidently proves to be Oliver's grandfather. We learn that Mrs. Corney (now Mrs. Bumble) concealed evidence that would have shown Oliver’s heritage. Brownlow promises that Mr. Bumble  will never hold a position of responsibility again. When Bumble complains it was his wife who caused the trouble, Brownlow assures him that, according to the law, he is responsible for his wife’s actions, which brings Bumble’s famous response, “The Law is a ass.”

The story is pretty much the same in director Carol Reed’s 1968 musical version of the story, Oliver!, which won that year's Oscar for Best Picture. Oliver (Mark Lester) still endures great hardship before his eventually happy ending. And the Beadle, Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe) is still a very poor representative for the church.

We do have a glimpse of a couple of other clerics following a wedding, while the Artful Dodger (Jack Wilde) gives Oliver a tour of London. the two men seem quite unsympathetic to children. Particularly poor children. 

I should have noted that in both films, the workhouse walls are decorated with signs that read “God is Life,” “God is Good,” and “God is Love,” though the authorities of the workhouses do nothing to show the truth of these statements.

Both Bumbles and the workhouses they superintend receive our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.