Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Beguiled (the novel) by Thomas Cullinan

The Beguiled makes for a fascinating case study. It is a 1966 novel which has been filmed twice.The 1971 movie, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood was a classic.

The 2017 remake was directed by Sofia Coppola with Colin Farrell in the Eastwood role, and I've said some rather harsh things about it.

Not least concerning the way it marginalised the author of the original novel — Thomas Cullinan — who doesn't even get credit on the poster.

However, the Coppola film did at least have the effect of bringing Cullinan's book back into print and allowing me to re-read it. (My battered paperback tie-in of the Eastwood movie is long since history.)

My first impression of the novel was that it was amazingly self assured, extremely well written and shaping up to be a fascinating hybrid of True Grit and The Lord of the Flies. 

It was the way it so strongly evoked its female narrators which reminded me of Charles Portis's True Grit.  

And the connection with William Golding's Lord of the Flies arises at the beginning when Mattie (Matilda), the slave, reflects on the schools inhabitants. "I didn't have any notion then how much evil we got in us, all of us."

Unfortunately, as I continued to read, these strongly positive reactions began to ebb away and I came to see that Cullinan's book was considerably weaker than the first film adaptation... and indeed the second one.

Fundamentally the same material is here in all cases, but there's an utterly decisive shift of emphasis. The movies are about a wounded Union soldier who is taken in by a girls' school in the South. 

The book is about a girls' school in the South which takes in a wounded Union soldier. 

This is a crucial shift of emphasis. In the book the soldier McBurney is a peripheral figure — a catalyst. To Cullinan this novel is all about the girls and women; the denizens of the school.

For a goodly portion of the book (about 70 pages) McBurney is comatose. Supine and unconscious, he is a blank slate on which the females can project their fantasies. When he finally does wake up, so does the novel, which frankly had become rather dull.

It's a long book, nearly 400 pages, and unfortunately dullness sets in again. Just over the halfway mark we have the essential event of the story: the brutal, and quite possibly unnecessary, amputation of McBurney's leg.

In the film this was the cue for a rapid and dramatic escalation of drama, heading downhill to a murderous conclusion.

But in the book, McBurney's initial horror and anger abates, and he becomes resigned to his mutilation. The story plateaus for a long while before he rather arbitrarily recaptures his rage and resentment, and precipitates the events which lead to his downfall — crucially, the killing of Amelia's pet turtle.

This faltering stop-and-start pacing and the endless digressions into the backgrounds of the school's womenfolk are the fatal flaws of the novel. Of course, Cullinan wouldn't see it that way. He loved his characters and wanted to bring them fully to life.

Yet I'd argue it was possible to do that and still also tell a taut and gripping story. Which is actually what the book's editor should have demanded — by tightening the pace and cutting about a hundred pages out of the book.

No doubt Cullinan would have been about as pleased with that as McBurney was with the removal of his leg. But it could have turned the novel into a masterpiece. As it is, it's a rather shapeless and frustrating volume, the often excellent writing and potentially explosive plot going to waste.

However, when the Hollywood scriptwriters got to work on it, The Beguiled ended up transformed into the powerful and unforgettable Gothic drama it always had the scope to become.

There is much to admire in this book. The characterisation is often sharp and amusing: "Alice... she's really not too mean as long as you don't provoke her."

And Cullinan also clearly knew an immense amount about the Civil War, conveying a firm sense of the period with its odd beliefs ("all this cannon fire would surely bring on rain"). 

His descriptions are also often brilliant, as when Amelia first finds McBurney lying wounded in the woods, "one arm around a fallen log, just clinging to it like it was his mother or a raft in deep water." 

Or much later in the book when Harriet hears McBurney coming ominously upstairs with "the measured thump of his crutches."

But ultimately Thomas Cullinan's The Beguiled is an object lesson in a novel which only realised its full potential when it was adapted for the screen.

(Image credits: Thank you, Good Reads.)

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