Vol. 3 No. 9 · 21 May 1981

Frank Kermode writes about Granada Television’s version, broadcast on 15 April, of Ford Madox Ford’s ‘The Good Soldier’

1450 words

The conversion of Ford’s novel into a television play was an enterprise even more foolhardy than the BBC’s Golden Bowl some years back. The adapter must at once resign himself to the sacrifice of dozens of ambiguities and implications, for they are made possible by purely novelistic means – in this instance, by the taste of the narrator for seeming irrelevance, for digressions that do not digress, for missing apparently obvious connections and for insisting hysterically upon others that look imaginary and without point, Ford professed to despise story: the idea was, by using all the available liberty of discourse, to represent an ‘affair’ in such a way as to extract every drop of meaning from it, which you could not do if you recounted it in story sequence. And although film and television drama can perfectly well do something like this, they lack the power to comment, with the suspicious certainty or the dubious innocence of Ford’s narrator, on the events and utterances thus artfully represented. The Good Soldier is continually preoccupied with knowing: it looks at that word, as at the word ‘heart’ from many semantic angles, and in consequence allows very little to be certainly known. But in dramatic adaptation there is a requirement that characters should do things much less ambiguously: their acts cannot be filtered through the head of John Dowell, the rich American simpleton (if indeed that is what he is) who tells the story. Moreover Dowell has to be there with the others, objectively represented as well as in voice-over; and it is beyond the power of any actor to play an impotent bonehead who is also a cauldron of passion and a sensitive register of cultural disaster (if that is indeed what he is).

So much one could have written without even seeing the production: having done so, one is obliged to qualify the a priori criticism and allow that Julian Mitchell, who wrote the play, and Kevin Billington, who directed it, applied themselves to their impossible tasks with much ingenuity, and a proper sense of what they were taking on. You can read Ford’s novel as an account of the dreary adulteries of ‘good people’ in the decade before the Great War, as a peculiar blend of bovarysme, sexual ignorance, faked illness and disastrous bouts of lust; or you can read it as a sort of allegory of the social and spiritual disorder that eventually caused the war (hence the narrator’s manic insistence that most of the important events of the book took place on August 4th). The first reading is the one a dramatist can best handle; and it is here delicately reproduced, and indeed reinforced, by the photography, which catches wonderfully the extraordinary elegance of the spa where the central action takes place, while the direction equally well suggests that we are in a maximum security prison. Yet, for all its fineness, this was the easier achievement, and I should think the makers felt more pride in their attempt, far less successful, to communicate some of the remoter hints and resonances that suggest the second and grander kind of interpretation.

The relative failure is marked by a perhaps unavoidable over-explicitness. Ford’s Dowell can be over-explicit when he chooses, vague and discontinuous when he chooses. The reader, turning the pages back and forth, can piece together Dowell’s account in many different ways. But the playwright can do only a little of this, if he is not to fall into incoherence. Mitchell introduces characters who, in the novel, are only reported – Jimmy, the early lover of Dowell’s wife; the girl Edward Ashburnham kissed in a railway carriage – and makes people speak what Ford’s characters certainly would not have uttered – as when Florence says to Leonora of Dowell: ‘he wouldn’t take me when he could have done.’ He leaves out what Ford saw fit to put in: Dowell’s absurd elopement with Florence, Leonora’s Irish Catholic childhood and the problems of her mixed marriage, Edward Ashburnham’s gambling and his bovarysme, Nancy Rufford’s drunken mother, and more.

There’s no doubt these changes add up to a major alteration of emphasis: but all readings of this extraordinary book choose to stress some aspects at the expense of others, and the complaint is perhaps not very serious. The play certainly gets across the torments of pure, vengeful Leonora, honourable, randy Ashburnham, sweet, vicious Florence, and the two young women driven by their elders to death and madness. And it pays Ford the tribute of adapting his device of running the same scene a second time, from a different angle. The death of Florence, and the great pivotal scene at Marburg, where Florence, lecturing on the Protest, drives Leonora into a frenzy, and to a revelation Dowell is incapable of understanding, are properly treated in this way. The method is also applied to a scene (not in the novel) in which Edward takes Maisie Maidan to the casino. A great deal of productive thought went into this kind of thing, and into developing other points that are mere hints in Ford – the bored Dowell measuring out the spa by counting his footsteps, Florence in her therapeutic bath, the silvery splendours of the hotel, which all these ‘heart’ cases take for granted. An early shot of the principal quartet, perfectly dressed in white, is matched by a view of them after Maisie’s funeral, perfectly dressed in black. At first I thought we were to be fobbed off with texture, with splendid old carriages and trains and Edwardian elegance – but no, it was all put to work.

Some things, however, were truly wrong. Maisie dies while packing her trunk (she is the only character who really does have a ‘heart’) and she ‘died so grotesquely that her little body had fallen forward into the trunk’: but in this version she lies looking quite composed, on her back. Ford wanted the grotesquerie, and prepared for it by an anecdote about a cow, here omitted. Maisie must not, at this point, look like a Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. In fact, the play is altogether a bit defective in the grotesque and the sinister: the marvellous scene with the German officials after Florence’s death is pretty well lost.

There was some trouble in the casting. Jeremy Brett gives a fine performance – a chaos of sentimentality under his terrific assurance – but he doesn’t look like the Ashburnham of the book, and his past has been too heavily cut for him to be wholly convincing. Susan Fleetwood, beautiful to look at and listen to, lacks the angularity of Leonora: when she says, ‘Imagine me crying!’ the trouble is we can. The American couple came off worst. Robin Ellis as Dowell contrives to look polite, bewildered and in essential ways ignorant, but that is all. There is nothing of the man who imagined himself to be very like Ashburnham – a virgin with potentially terrific sexual drive, which is muted by his ‘American origin’. He is also too young, and implausible as an American, especially an upper-class American of the period, who would certainly know how to pronounce ‘Poughkeepsie’. Vickery Turner’s Florence hardly does at all: it is true that Leonora spotted her at once for an intolerably crafty vulgarian, but she cannot be as vacuous as she is made in this play.

More minor lapses: it is unlikely that the quartet would have played contract bridge in the period between 1904 and 1913, though bidding hearts makes a nice Fordian point; Ford would not have let his characters refer to a love affair as a ‘romance’; Dowell’s ties were all of a particular shade of blue, obtainable only from a shop in the Burlington Arcade – that could have been got right. A more important lapse came at the end. Perhaps Ford wouldn’t have minded having so much of the story in Leonora’s voice, but he cared a lot about endings, which should exhaust, not the story (he was down on story), but the affair. Nancy, packed off to Ceylon by Leonora, sends an ‘atrocious’ telegram from Brindisi, the very sight of which is enough to make Edward commit suicide. But before he does so, he asks Dowell to take the telegram to Leonora. He takes it, and reports that ‘she was quite pleased with it.’ To alter that ending is to alter the whole. But when all is said, one can’t deny real distinction to the production. If in future we propose to let television do our novel-reading, it’s a comfort that the quality of the originals can be reflected with only this degree of distortion.

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