A reader’s grievances are understandable when it comes to book adaptions. Subject to re-writes, snips, cuts, and ornate embellishment, a book can take on a life of it’s own when born into a new skin, be it film, TV, or any other medium. More often than not, the I-read-the-book-first’s are bound to walk away from the theater with a empty bag of popcorn, gutted box of milk duds, and, unfortunately, less faith in cinema. It’s not just commercial ploys or cinema regulations that cause this disconnect. Often it’s a problem in translation, or the introduction of a new ‘author’ with a new vision. Yet even if we can grudgingly appreciate the kernel of a story refashioned, adaptions often do the original a disservice. In the case of these characters, cropping their sexuality makes for a radically different vision, falling short of its predecesor’s queer commentary on the joy of intimacy and the pain of isolation.
Paul Varjak, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Paul may have been the hunky hetero heart throb in George Axelrod’s rendition of the Capote classic, but in the original, he was what Holly Golightly (aka Audrey Hepburn) called “Maude” – a term more or less meaning gay. Similarly, Holly Golightly wasn’t strictly hetero either. In the book she was characterized as bisexual (and also a bit of a stoner).
Ruth Jamison, Fried Green Tomatoes
Although the John Avnet directed film focused on ‘best friends’ Idgie and Ruth, the Flagg original presents a different kind of relationship between the two characters. It’s never explicitly said, but in the text the relationship is hinted at, mostly from an outside perspective: the whole town sees the two as soul mates. For a film centering on the 30’s South with a nod to the decade’s racist tensions, the community’s tolerance for the couple is pretty remarkable. For many, the book is considered a queer novel, one in which the romantic relationship is normalized and natural rather than put on display. Unfortunately, this portrayal didn’t quite make the director’s cut.
Brick Pollitt, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Originally a story about truth, illusion, and a confrontation with health and homosexuality, Cat on Hot Tin Roof shows little trace of this sexual confusion in the Paul Newman – Elizabeth Taylor film edition. The Tennessee Williams narrative centers in on Maggie and Brick, a married couple suffering a sharp wedge in their relationship. After the suicide of Brick’s close friend Skipper (who is assumed to be a lover/someone Brick had feelings for), Brick spirals into a depressive abusive decline, with his wife left wondering how they can patch together their relationship. This latent sexual frustration that gives rise to both the suicide and the marital rift is no more than a vestige in the film. Sexual tensions are diluted and the audience is spared the more complex story line by the Hays’ Code-enforced (and neutered) version of Cat.
Williams, walking by a group of ticket holders outside a theater, supposedly told the crowd “This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!”
Celie Johnson, The Color Purple
“I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie,” Steven Spielberg admitted after many readers became aware of a dissonance between the film and the book. What was a blatantly romantic relationship between Shug and Celie in the novel was watered down to a single kiss in the movie. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg spoke candidly about the alterations he made to the Alice Walker Original.
“There were certain things in the [lesbian] relationship between Shug Avery and Celie that were very finely detailed in Alice’s book, that I didn’t feel we could get a [PG-13] rating […] perhaps I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie, because I did soften those. I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss. I got a lot of criticism for that.”
Don Birnam, The Lost Weekend
The Lost Weekend covers the five day liver-pickling bender of Don Birnam, a rye connoisseur of sorts and unquestionably an alcoholic. The story is a rough sketch of author Charles Jackson’s life. Don calls himself a writer, spewing Shakespeare and citing famous authors as he barters for liquor money, attempts to steal a purse, and injures himself terribly in his drunken stupor. His turn to alcohol is the product of his failed writing career, but also a plague of bad childhood memories, many of which entail homoerotic sexual experiences. Much of the sexual hints are hidden in the subtext: Birnam recalls being banned from his fraternity, and refers to homosexuality as “a blind alley, not shameful but useless, futile, vain, offering no attractions whatever, no hope, nowhere a chance to build.” In the film, this subtext is crudely stripped away. Jackson however, closeted until the 60’s, was very pleased with the film and not surprised that the director veered away from the homoerotic undertones.
Featured image courtesy of WomanTribe.com.