5 August 2012
A challenge when adapting literature to film is how to handle texts depending on what is written between the lines. Not all stories are surface enough so dialogue and narration carry the narrative; several narratives end up being about the things never directly stated in the text, and in these more complicated pieces the cinematic adaptations much express ways for the film audience to discover what is embedded within just as literary readers connect the dots and read between he lines. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is the type of deft novel which makes a cinematic translation complex. The frozen emotional state of the novel’s protagonist, James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), is the focal point of the novel, specifically how this emotional vacancy sabotages his ability to love the novel’s Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson). Yet, within the Merchant and Ivory dream team is screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who adapted many of James Ivory’s most noteworthy films, and Prawer Jhabvala managed to skillfully translate The Remains of the Day through a collaborative process with Merchant and Ivory. Between screenplay, production design, and direction, the three maintain the novel’s digression, using the actors, sets, and props to help convey the novel’s vast depth between the written lines; in short, how heartbreaking Mr. Steven’s severed feelings are, and the suffering his emotional inadequacy causes him and those who love him.
Merchant and Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993) tells of Mr. Stevens, a diligent, hard-working butler at Darlington Hall, an estate in England. Although Mr. Steven’s work ethic and devotion to exceptional service is admirable, he is an emotionally blocked man who does not allow love, in any form, into his life. After two fellow servants elope, Mr. Stevens hires a new housekeeper in charge of Darlington Hall; her name is Ms. Kenton. The new hire’s work ethic meets Mr. Stevens’ high expectations, but Ms. Kenton is a more intimate person than Mr. Stevens, which initially disturbs him. Ms. Kenton desires connections with those around her to escape the loneliness she claims to feel, and this desire forces the unemotional Mr. Stevens to keep his distance from her. However, Ms. Kenton falls for Mr. Stevens, and Mr. Stevens, too, develops his own type of caring for her, but, because of his emotional detachment, the relationship stalls. Eventually, Ms. Kenton marries Mr. Ben and leaves Darlington Hall, paining the estate’s butler considerably, yet silently. Several years pass and, once again, the estate is in need of a housekeeper. Seemingly desperate to bring the now divorced Ms. Kenton back to Darlington Hall, Mr. Stevens goes to visit her. Sadly, with all the time gone by, it is now Ms. Kenton who has emotionally detached herself from Mr. Stevens, and Mr. Steven’s is still unable to declare any sort of love for her directly. The two part ways for the final time.
From Ms. Kenton’s arrival at Darlington Hall, toward the start of The Remains of the Day, it is obvious blocking is a pivotal conveyor of meaning in the film. The blocking, specifically prop placement, positioning, and body language, expresses meanings which the screenplay’s dialogue never addresses directly. For example, in the initial scenes between Mr. Stevens and Ms. Kenton, there is always a prop or set piece between the two characters. First, when they are interviewing, it is a desk. A bit later on, when Ms. Kenton returns to Ms. Steven’s private quarters to give him the first of many flower arrangements, Mr. Steven’s smokes a cigar and blows smoke between the two of them. Quickly, he then moves behind his desk, a prop that repeatedly comes between the two characters. Figuratively, both the desk and cigar smoke physicalize walls between the two, put up by Mr. Stevens.
Moreover, still toward the beginning of the film, Mr. Stevens occasionally watches Ms. Kenton through windows, keyholes, and even speaks to her in darkness. First, during a flashback, Mr. Stevens thinks of Ms. Keaton walking down one of the estate’s corridors. As he remembers this he peers in the corridor through a circular window in one of the estate’s swinging doors. Shortly after, while up in his office, Mr. Stevens hears Ms. Kenton outside. He walks over to the window and watches her. Also, after a slight argument between Mr. Stevens and Ms. Kenton, Mr. Stevens sends Ms Kenton out of the room they are in and shuts the door behind her. He then watches her through the door’s keyhole. In a following scene, when Mr. Stevens’ father passes away, Ms. Kenton comes to tell Mr. Stevens and express her condolences. Although much of the set is lit, the two characters are in darkness as they speak; unable to make out each other’s faces. Thus, not only are there sly and discreet props positioned to suggest the blocking of any possible emotion or intimacy between the two, there is also a motif of Mr. Steven’s view of Ms. Kenton being obscured or altered. Mr. Stevens develops a habit, at least in the early part of the film, of not looking at Ms. Keaton directly, instead seeing her glass, keyholes, or in darkness. And, during a moment of even the smallest degree of emotion—such as during that slight argument—Mr. Stevens forces Ms. Keaton away and gazes at her indirectly, minimizing and distorting his view of her. While the film is not suggesting Mr. Stevens consciously distorts his view of Ms. Kenton, but the film repeatedly captures this distorted view to communicate with audience members how disconnected Mr. Stevens is emotionally.
However, as the film progresses, Mr. Stevens slowly becomes more comfortable with Ms. Kenton, in his own way, and the props and set pieces stop coming between them. Moreover, the actors are placed in closer proximity to each other within shots. Their new found closeness leads up to one of the film’s major climaxes, after which the two begin to drift apart, symmetrically with how they drifted together, and the props reemerge as physicalized blockades between the two.
This quiet climax occurs when Ms. Kenton insists on seeing which book Mr. Stevens is reading in his private quarters. The scene opens with Ms. Kenton bringing Mr. Stevens flowers, as usual, and she finds him asleep in an armchair, in the middle of his office, with a book in his hand. Her footsteps awaken him and she becomes immediately interested in the book he clenches. Mr. Stevens avoids showing Ms. Kenton the book, clearly trying to keep his reading selection a secret. At first, Mr. Stevens scurries behind his desk, both literally and figuratively relying on the safety of an object to buffer any intimacy between the two. Yet, their relationship is somewhat closer now than what it once was, at least from Ms. Kenton’s perspective, so she steps around the desk and joins him behind it. This backs Mr. Stevens into a corner, with the book still firmly gripped in his hand. The book is now the only prop between the two characters. Remarkably, Ms. Kenton grabs hold of the book and carefully pulls it out of Mr. Stevens hand, revealing it is a romance novel.
Ms. Kenton’s intimacy, expressed through her physically proximity and touching, halts Mr. Stevens in statuesque silence, and this scene marks the beginning of Mr. Stevens regression, symbolized by the return of prop pieces and objects placed between Mr. Stevens and Ms. Kenton to obstruct emotion. After this scene, Mr. Stevens is back to watching Ms. Kenton through the windows, and Ivory increases the space between the actors more and more, signaling the Mr. Stevens’ brief spark of interest in intimacy with Ms. Kenton has been extinguished and he has reverted to his cold, distant ways.
In the film’s conclusion, when Ms. Kenton and Mr. Stevens meet several years after their time together in Darlington Hall, the same old obstacles remain between them, however, in these later years, Ms. Kenton has become similar to Mr. Stevens. Her once warm, friendly disposition is much colder. As they enjoy tea, there is the table (much like the desk) between them. Over tea, Ms. Kenton smokes a cigarette and the smoke bellows between them. Earlier it was Mr. Stevens whose cigar created the haze between them, but now Ms. Kenton is doing the blocking. Although the two walk side by side to catch Ms. Kenton’s streetcar, Ms. Kenton refuses Ms. Stevens’ offer to return to Darlington Hall. As Ms. Kenton boards her streetcar and it pulls away, the closeness between the two, which had momentarily returned, is permanently shattered. Ms. Kenton is driven away from Mr. Stevens farther than she has even been before; completely out of the shot and out of his sight forever.
Ironically, The Remains of the Day is a deeply emotional film about an emotionless man. The clever ways the film communicates with its audience inspire an active, alert cinematic experience. Perhaps the film is not as deft or complex as the novel it derives from, but it is, nevertheless, a skillful film.