Film: Singleton Sellout

So far, this year’s films have been so wretched that even the critic of Variety, the unofficial house organ of Hollywood, broke down and complained in print. As for me, I’ve been watching The Sopranos, marveling at the graphic casualty reports that trickle in from the front, and reminding myself that the great thing about not going to bad movies is that it needn’t stop you from complaining about them.

As I contemplate the improbable fact that Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who specialize in pretentious movies based on highbrow novels, have now filmed Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, I am irresistibly reminded, not for the first time, of Simon’s Law. According to John Simon, who writes about movies for National Review (usually with his teeth gritted), “There is a simple law governing the dramatization of novels: if it is worth doing, it can’t be done; if it can be done, it wasn’t worth it.”

Like most aphorisms, this one isn’t as true as it looks—I can even think of a couple of respectable Henry James movies—but there is nevertheless something to what Simon says. A good novel doesn’t need to be made into a movie, least of all one that is scrupulously faithful to its source; no matter how well done they are, such films are by definition superfluous, unless you’re illiterate. Indeed, the best way to make a good movie out of a good novel is to take the opposite tack. Amy Heckerling transplanted Jane Austen’s Emma from 19th-century England to sunny Beverly Hills and came up with the charming Clueless (1995), one of the most engaging film versions of a classic ever made. By all accounts, Merchant and Ivory have stuck doggedly to the Gospel According to James, which is why I’m not planning to see The Golden Bowl. I know how to read.

Needless to say, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary was no Golden Bowl, but it had something interesting to say and said it rather well. The book started life as a column for a London newspaper consisting of entries in the fictional “diary” of a neurotic, unmarried, unloved book publicist whose private life consisted mainly of smoking too much, drinking too much, obsessing about her weight, and longing for a steady boyfriend who wasn’t a commitment-phobic jerk. Fielding eventually spun the column into a featherweight novel that was a smash hit in Britain and also did well over here, though Bridget Jones is not so universal a pop-culture symbol among middle-class American women as she is in the country of her birth.

The novel was funny enough in its glib and brittle way, but its hapless heroine’s plight was no laughing matter. At thirtysomething, Bridget realizes with rue that she has at last attained “the age when men of my own age no longer find their contemporaries attractive.” Surrounded by Smug Marrieds (her term, capital letters included) who chose dull convention over sleeping around and having a career, she now wonders whether she and her fellow “singletons” will spend the rest of their lives alone. While she is not yet prepared to blame feminism for her chronic inability to find a decent boyfriend, that doesn’t make her situation any less poignant—or relevant.

If you haven’t read Bridget Jones’s Diary and don’t know any thirty-something singletons, you might well find Sharon Maguire’s film version (for which Fielding served as executive producer and co-scriptwriter) to be an over obvious but moderately satisfactory romantic comedy. Renée Zellweger plays Bridget, and her English accent is pretty good for a blonde from Texas, though her ingratiating manner skews the book’s sweet-and-sour balance of toughness and self-pity. Still, Zellweger is both endearing and amusing, and the 20 extra pounds she put on to portray the weight-obsessed Bridget make her that much more adorable. Everybody else in the cast is unequivocally fine, especially Hugh Grant, who was born to play heartless cads and does so here with evident relish, and Jim Broadbent, who was extraordinary as W.S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy (1999) and is nearly as good in the less demanding role of Bridget’s father.

So what’s wrong? For a while, not much. The first part of the script is generally faithful to the original plot, if not to the harshly mocking voice of Bridget’s diary entries. The trouble starts about two-thirds of the way through. Fielding tacked a happy ending onto the book, but it rang hollow, perhaps deliberately; the movie not only retains the happily-ever-after coda but beefs it up in an embarrassingly blatant way. Quite a few reviewers were irked by this sentimentalization of the book, but their ire appears to have been politically motivated. Writing in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane grumped that “the idea that a young woman might be not just unhappy but somehow incomplete without a man would have struck even Jane Austen as laughably passé.” (Bridget’s dream man is named Mark Darcy, and other references to Pride and Prejudice are scattered throughout both book and movie, all of them coy.)

In fact, that very idea, or something close to it, was central to the original popularity of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Though few of the Bridget Joneses I know would admit that their lives might be “incomplete” without a man, they all long for one, un-abashedly and often desperately. The book appealed to them in part because it acknowledged this ideologically uncomfortable reality, and also because it frankly admitted that Bridget’s chances of getting a man are frighteningly low: Like them, she has waited a little too long.

The movie, by contrast, systematically softens the tone of the first part of the book to make the happy ending consistent with all that has come before it. As happens so often at the movies, Patrick Doyle’s sugar-sweet musical score gives the game away: It tells you that Bridget’s misery is not to be taken seriously, that all she needs is to meet the right man and her pinched, parched single life will instantly effloresce into rapture. The casting sends the same mixed signal: No way is a dumpling like Zellweger not going to snag herself a Mark Darcy, even if she is 20 pounds overweight (i.e., normal).

To be sure, such devil’s deals are standard operating procedure in the movie business, and a strong property can occasionally survive a certain amount of judicious watering-down. Besides, it isn’t as though the fate of the West hinged on the quality of the film version of Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s just a movie, one that for all its weaknesses is several cuts above the miserable norm of this stinking season; it made me laugh, and I rarely ask more than that in return for my ten bucks. In any case, I suspect that most of the American viewers who have made it a hit haven’t read the book (or any other book, judging by the New York audience in whose company I saw it), and thus won’t know or care how it has been changed.

And yet, wouldn’t it be nice if just once, some brave soul making a popular movie would sneak in a few awkwardly heterodox home truths about the way we live now? Helen Fielding managed to sneak such truths into a popular book that is still selling. Was it absolutely necessary for her to toss them out the window to bring Bridget Jones’s Diary to the screen? Probably so. The other day, I assured a twenty- something friend of mine that once upon a time, art museums sought to raise the public to their level rather than lowering themselves to the public’s level. She looked pityingly at me and said, “How can you be so naive? Everything’s all about money.” Maybe not Rembrandt, but definitely the movies.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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