As mentioned in a previous post, I often feel a slight twinge of disgust when I learn that literature I treasure is going to be morphed into a film adaptation. It’s not that I dislike the act of doing so as a concept; it’s just that the current body of film adaptations does not instill any hope that new ones will be any good. So imagine the horror and despair I felt when I learned that a former fashion designer (a field for which I do not have much respect) had adapted the most accomplished novel from my most revered writer into a new film?
To my pleasant surprise however, Tom Ford’s rendition of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man was highly enjoyable to watch. And while I reserve some criticism around his choices in bringing this devastating story to the screen, I would recommend it overall, particularly for those of you who enjoy Isherwood’s work. It was refreshing to finally see Colin Firth as George break out of those interminable tethers to his famous presentation of Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, which he seemingly represents in nearly all of his roles. Julianne Moore, as George’s boozy British best friend, is also a delight, but that is nothing new.
Ford manages to convey the power of Isherwood’s story: the ordinariness of George’s pain in losing his long time lover, suffocated underneath the cultural conservatism and fear rampant in mid-century America. In doing this, Ford seems to have done just fine with his film. What more can we ask? As originally determined from the film’s trailer, the visuals are stunning. Sometimes it almost reaches the point where I was not sure if I was watching a commercial for high end luxury products or a film. We can forgive Ford his indulgences, for he does give us imagery that is astounding overall and coaxes his actors into fine performances. I thought the New York Times review of the film did very well in comparing Ford’s work to that of Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-Wai.
This adaptation was tastefully done: any changes made to the story seemed natural in the transition from written word to moving screen image. Adding the gun and George’s desire to commit suicide gave the movie some dramatic impetus, which is needed in a film but can be left out of a piece of literature. My one main criticism has to do with the hyper-stylization of the film, even though I did find it gorgeous. Art directed to the maximum effect, Ford seems to pander to the materialistic and consumptive side of our culture in needing to make everything beautiful. The characters seem to be wealthier than represented in the novel, and everyone is so fashionable! But perhaps this is what audiences want to see, why would we want to be reminded of our drab lives? It just rings a little false in comparison to Isherwood’s original story, which was not glamorous. It seems like Ford did a great job of adapting the novel, but in bringing it to the screen put the entire thing before his personal fashion panel: anything that could be made pretty was done up, the whole tableau of visuals fit together too perfectly.
Overall though, the film was a very pleasant surprise from an untested filmmaker, who managed not to crap all over a seminal work in modern queer literature. For this alone, Ford deserves praise. It will certainly be interesting to see what he does next with his new found path. Hopefully this wonderful novel will get a bit more attention now that the publishers have slapped Colin Firth’s mug on the cover for a re-print.