The exportation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
This article traces the various attempts made since the 1940s to represent the fiction of James Leslie Mitchell, better known by his pen-name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, in non-text forms. The author's major works, principally the trilogy of novels A Scots Quair, and pre-eminently the first novel Sunset Song, are seen as dynamic narratives that lend themselves to adaptation for radio, stage, television and film; indeed, Mitchell himself is shown to have been interested in the creative potential of the art form of the cinema. Specific details are given of the radio, stage and television versions of the Gibbon works produced over the years, and of the published aims of the script writers. Finally, the most recent adaptation, Terence Davies's feature film version of Sunset Song, is judged a disappointing film as well as an unfaithful adaptation of a classic text.
Over the last decade, highly acclaimed British auteur film director Terence Davies has regularly declared his love for Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon's groundbreaking modernist novel from 1932. (1) The prospect of Davies bringing his fifteen-year-long ambition to realise Gibbon's novel cinematically has been particularly eagerly awaited in Scotland, where Pharic Maclaren's BBC television serialisation--which sparked Davies's interest in Gibbon's book on its transmission in 1971--is popularly remembered with great warmth as a production that set down a firm marker indicating the capacity of Gibbon's novel to effect the exportation to the visual medium. (2)
Following seemingly interminable delays with funding and pre-production and having secured the combined backing of Hurricane Films, Iris Productions, BFI Film Fund, BBC Scotland, Luxembourg Film Fund and Creative Scotland, the project seems to have been energised over the last two years, with the final ground-rush culminating in the film making its global debut at the Toronto Film Festival on 13 September last year before securing its first UK appearance at the BFI London Film Festival on 15 October. From there, the film steadily worked its way north of the border for Scottish premieres at Edinburgh Filmhouse on 11 November (supported by the director and select cast members) and at Glasgow Film Theatre on 12 November. A sense of homecoming was engendered by the film's sold-out northern premiere at Aberdeen's Belmont Filmhouse on 13 November, where Terence Davies was joined by actors Agyness Deyn (Chris), Kevin Guthrie (Ewan) and Ian Pirie (Chae) in introducing the fruits of their labours in duly reverential terms. Finally, there was a lingering feeling of propriety when the Grassic Gibbon Centre at Arbuthnott hosted a showing of the film at a packed out Arbuthnott Parish Hall on 30 November, St Andrew's Day, in homage to their most famous son.
Now that the hype surrounding the release of Davies's feature has settled following its official release in British cinemas on 4 December 2015 and with the film's swift transference to DVD, this seems a useful point to take stock of what has actually been produced by the convergence of two hugely respected talents in their own particular creative fields.
Gibbon's global importance, centred inevitably on his epic trilogy A Scots Quair, has steadily been assured ever since H. Gustav Klaus's percipient identification of the volume in 1978 as 'the outstanding Socialist prose work of the inter-war period'. (3) This testimonial has subsequently been reaffirmed by republication of long out of print works by Mitchell, principally by Canongate in their Scottish Classics imprint and by Polygon in their 'Lewis Grassic Gibbon Series', by the adoption of Sunset Song as a specified text by the Open University in 2005, and by the rural novel's induction to the Penguin Classics stable in 2007, which served to introduce the book to a conventional English readership that had been slow to acknowledge Gibbon's literary status within contemporary canonical groupings of the novel. (The generalist tendency in Scottish literary studies since the late 1960s to play up the nationalist properties of the trilogy disappointingly was instrumental in intensifying the political and linguistic resistance to its charms furth of the border.) The recent publication of a slim but robust collection of critical essays by scholars culled from home and abroad titled The International Companion to Lewis Grassic Gibbon, drawing out the subtleties of the author's multi-faceted achievement as, amongst other things, radical modernist, cultural nationalist, left-wing humanitarian, champion of female rights and proto-Romantic visionary, offers real hope that the name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon is becoming as highly respected outwith his native land as it is back in Scotland, where Sunset Song has grabbed publicity constantly by topping polls to find Scotland's favourite writers. (4)
Renowned as a writer of quite phenomenal productivity and equally stunning versatility, James Leslie Mitchell/Lewis Grassic Gibbon himself was fascinated by the artistic potential of the cinema in the 1930s. Chris Guthrie's visit to the Duncairn Picturedrome with Ma Cleghorn in Grey Granite perhaps projects a negative image of the film medium as home to mawkish escapist melodrama, which Chris sardonically debunks as 'looking at shadows'; (5) yet as a full-time writer, Leslie Mitchell was well aware of the riches to be gained by tapping in to the lucrative possibilities offered by film, with Hollywood already heading boldly into its golden age following on from the riproaring success in 1927 of The Jazz Singer and the innovation of sound. More seriously, as a writer with a pronounced interest in modernist experimentation, one of Gibbon's last essays, for the Edinburgh-based journal Cinema Quarterly, hailed the artistic potential of the cinema, as yet considered unfulfilled, in its capacity to provide 'the free and undefiled illusion', (6) possessing an additional dimension in the cultivation of the suspension of disbelief. Following the runaway success of Sunset Song in Britain, just before the book's publication on the other side of the Atlantic, American film producer Alexander Korda was showing an interest in the first Grassic Gibbon novel as a possible subject for the full Hollywood treatment. (7) The author remained typically grounded about the prospect of his brainchild being turned into a cinematic blockbuster when he wrote wryly to Helen B. Cruickshank on 3 November 1932:
Sunset Song's coming out in America this month, and there's even an American film-company nibbling at it. I'd like an American film with Long Rob ejaculating a nasal 'Sez you!' to Chae. (8)
The pursuit of possible film tie-ups extended beyond the author's own lifetime: shortly after Leslie Mitchell's death, his widow Ray Mitchell unsuccessfully pursued the cinematic angle for her husband's fiction, with concrete plans to sell the novels Spartacus and The Lost Trumpet unfortunately coming to naught. (9) The financial losses suffered in missing out on the former project was made painfully manifest by the runaway success in 1960 of Stanley Kubrick's Hollywood epic featuring Kirk Douglas, based on Howard Fast's 1951 novel (with a typically trenchant script by blacklisted left-wing writer Dalton Trumbo).
Sunset Song is a novel that readily lends itself to representation in drama and in media. The first novel of the epic trilogy possesses a host of qualities that positively beg for translation to dramatic media, boasting key traditional elements of narrative fiction: unforgettable characterisation, including in Chris Guthrie one of the most vividly distinctive central characters in all fiction; compelling bittersweet storyline, tracing the personal development of the main protagonist from daughter through romance to wife/mother/ widow played out against the turbulent years surrounding the First World War; profound and lyrical reflective passages on a host of timeless themes; regular injections of melodrama, farce, ghostly visions and friction to pep up the pace; pithy dialogue; deeply lyrical setting; and gripping tonal balance, with the beautifully controlled mood steadily darkening towards the book's climax.
The capacity of Gibbon's masterpiece to effect the crossover to different genres has long been recognised in practice, with varying degrees of success. John Wilson's pioneering radio adaptation of Sunset Song, produced by James Crampsey and featuring Lennox Milne as Chris Guthrie, was broadcast by the Scottish Home Service in three parts from 2 December 1948, followed by Wilson's version of Cloud Howe in May 195 3. (10) Gibbon's love affair with radio continued the following decade with dramatisations of the stories 'Smeddum', 'Sim' 'Clay' and 'Greenden' broadcast on the BBC Home Service between October 1966 and February 1967. Bill Craig's sensitive scripts for the fondly remembered BBC television dramatisations of the trilogy from the 1970s and 1980s retained the vigour of the original novels whilst easing the transition to screen; (11) the script writer's achievement has commonly been thought to have lived up to his exalted aims, recorded in The Radio Times in 1983, in which he defined his primary intention 'to try to dramatise the novels as Mitchell would have dramatised them had he been around to write the screenplays'. (12) In recent times the trilogy has made a welcome reappearance on radio. Gerda Stevenson, veteran participant from the BBC television dramatisations of 'Clay' (as Rachel Galt) and Grey Granite (as Ellen Johns), vividly recast the novel in 2009 as a radio play that fulfilled her stated aim to achieve fidelity to the original novel: 'I tried to be true to Grassic Gibbon, to retain all that was crucial in terms of telling the story and engaging the audience'. (13)
Gibbon's fiction also has a long-standing affinity with the stage. Gibbon's biographer Ian S Munro directed a condensed version of Sunset Song at the New Arts Centre in Aberdeen from 24 to 30 May 1964, (14) but it was Tony Graham's production of TAG Theatre's muscular rendition of Alastair Cording's adaptation of the components of the trilogy in the 1990s that made the strongest case for Grassic Gibbon's ability to make the transition to the stage. (15) Cording, whose stage adaptation has formed the bedrock of theatrical presentations of the trilogy from 1991, has also recorded his overriding intention to remain faithful to the original novel. While regretting cuts made from the novel forced upon him by simple demands of space, and while acknowledging the imaginative license invoked in translating fiction to non-naturalistic drama (using music and dance as well as dialogue and action), Cording was quick to recognise the theatrical appeal of the original, writing especially perceptively in the introduction to the first published version of his script of the usefulness of Gibbon's prose style: 'Gibbon himself invented "the Speak"--the ready-made chorus of rural gossip personified, and a gift to any playwright.' (16) Ten years later, in the book version of his script, he expanded valuably as man of the theatre on the full dramatic possibilities of Gibbon's style:
The great achievement is the use of Scottish rhythm-patterns in the narrative, combined with the brilliantly conceived narrative voice, the Speak of Kinraddie, a personification of local gossip and rumour, satire, comedy and commentary. It is simultaneously perceptive, plain-spoken, intimate, ignorant and untrustworthy. The Speak's identity shifts constantly and effortlessly: sometimes it is Chris herself. It brilliantly exploits the Scottish use of the second-person singular/plural--'you'--sometimes in a very direct address to the reader, implying a shared set of values and understanding; sometimes it is the inner voice of a character speaking to themselves. The English equivalent--'one'--has the opposite effect, distancing and depersonalising. (17)
Terence Davies perhaps appears an unlikely amanuensis for Grassic Gibbon, although the prospect of a non-Scot tackling the task of adapting Sunset Song may be welcomed as an antidote to the native urge to smother Gibbon's achievement in an insularly jingoistic embrace. In any case, Leslie Mitchell/Lewis Grassic Gibbon himself was certainly not a parochial Scot, but a proud arbiter of a much broader-ranging vision of global harmony completely transcending nationhood and defined by him in his seminal essay on 'Glasgow' in Scottish Scene as 'cosmopolitanism'. (18) Arguably the only home grown director with a proven track record in film and the cultural and ideological nous to direct Sunset Song was the late Bill Douglas, whose unfulfilled aim to film his adaptation of James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner remains one of the great tragedies of our slight cinematic history; but Douglas's filmic milieu was palpably urban, even had he been granted a fuller life. Politically, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach might have emerged as outside candidates, with their solid left-wing credentials and Loach's proven track record with adaptation of the novel, particularly the vibrant treatment from 1969 of Barry Hines's A Kestrel for a Knave. And outwith the UK, Edgar Reitz, director of Heimat, certainly could have been trusted to pursue a sympathetically balanced approach in entering a small close-knit rural communality--although his favoured setting has always been restricted to the communities of the Rhine.
In objective terms, Davies's directorial credentials are impressive. His semi-autobiographical trilogy of shorts--something of a companion piece to Bill Douglas's seminal autobiographical trilogy--beginning with Children from 1976 and running through Madonna and Child from 1980 to Death and Transfiguration in 1983 established his reputation as champion of the unorthodox and chronicler of social repression in post-war Britain. His first feature film Distant Voices, Still Lives won him international recognition, with Pete Postlethwaite's virtuoso performance as the abusive father--a portent of the tyrannical John Guthrie--stealing the show as Davies's lingering anatomy of the ambivalences of ordinary family life in Liverpool in the 1940s and 1950s won the International Critics' Award at Cannes in 1988. The Long Day Closes from 1992 forms something of a sequel, in its impressionistic bittersweet study of adolescence in a working-class Catholic family in Liverpool. However, it was his adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth in 2000, dominated by a revelatory performance by Gillian Anderson, that first signalled his move away from autobiographical self-examination (subsequently continued with the more directly personal portrait of Liverpool offered by 2008's Of Time and the City) towards the fertile field of literary adaptation, with Rachel Weisz's leading role as Hester Collyer in the rather muddled 2011 film of Terence Rattigan's stage play The Deep Blue Sea demonstrating the director's growing penchant for strong female protagonists.
What, then, can the Scottish reading public realistically expect when faced with the prospect of a full-length feature film of Sunset Song, as an artful production presumably avoiding the commercial temptation to fillet a classic to produce a crass Braveheart or Outlander Scotsploitation epic, a Mearnslander tartan bodice-ripper slathered with blood and lust and death and romance dispensing with the more nuanced features of the text? This being so, then to what extent has Terence Davies delivered on his much more exalted directorial brief?
Initial reaction to Davies's film following its Toronto debut was mixed. The most perceptive review, by Henry Barnes in the Guardian on 13 September, balanced light criticism of directorial 'indulgence' against Davies's trademark predilection for scrutinising family dysfunction, particularly that presided over by tyrannical patriarchs. The central performance of Agyness Deyn is generously, if guardedly, applauded. The most worrying reference for those familiar with Gibbon's novel, however, is to Davies's avowed desire to escape the harshnesses of contemporary life by escaping into a romantic past, compounded by his determination to eschew the 'socialist or egalitarian message at its heart'. (19) Readers familiar with Sunset Song will be aware of the tremendous radical political drive of the narrative, in setting up the pressing moral mandate for social change subsequently pursued in the more overtly politicised sequels in the trilogy Cloud Howe and Grey Granite. Gibbon's whole structure, both in the climax of the first novel and in the remainder of the trilogy, cautions against the temptation to wallow in an idealisation of the past and posits instead the possibility of drawing inspiration from the goodness that has gone--personified by the crofting community whose passing is so eloquently lamented in Sunset Song--and harnessing it to the effort to combat the evils of the present. The local, the parochial, the safe, the traditional--all, it is suggested, are now under grave threat from world-wide social and political movements of highly dubious moral character. In the terminology of Russian critic Svetlana Boym, the nostalgia peddled in Sunset Song is not the passive 'restorative nostalgia' involving the censoring of the past into a 'perfect snapshot' of home and homeland purged of its blemishes, but the dynamic 'reflective nostalgia' yoking the portrait to an active ideological purpose. (20)
Several key concerns surfaced pre-production concerning Davies's adaptation of Gibbon's novel. Firstly, Davies was faced with the primary challenge facing all stage and media directors, of turning Gibbon's bespoke literary style into a verbal one--of imposing an exteriorised voice upon language that is skilfully measured by the author as lightly Scotticised English, and that each reader individually subjectifies as he or she reads the text; stage, radio, television and film adaptations are all subject to invidious questions of vernacular authenticity and, by extension, of inherited problems of accessibility and target audience. Perhaps, as Gibbon's ironic apercu to Helen Cruickshank suggests, the option of exporting the novel to a completely separate country might circumvent such awkwardnesses of linguistic and cultural faithfulness at a stroke; the notion of Sunset Song as a revisionist John Ford-style western, with native Americans as the ethnic people battling the forces of progress, is not quite as outlandish as it first appears. More specifically, Davies faced the unenviable task of superseding Pharic Maclaren's fondly remembered BBC television dramatisation from 1971, which drew his attention to the book. In particular, he faced the challenge of displacing Vivien Heilbron's highly lauded performance as Chris Guthrie, which for many viewers provided the authoritative physical image of Gibbon's heroine. (Gibbon's stipulation to an illustrator for newspaper serialisation of Cloud Home that, 'Chris should be lovely, but not prettified--high cheek-bones & so on' (21) was fully realised in Heilbron's persona.) Major worries before the film focused on Davies's iconoclastic casting for his heroine; several critics thought Invernesian Karen Gillan ('flame-haired' Amy Pond, side-kick of Matt Smith's Doctor Who in 2010) was tailormade to play Chris Guthrie, in terms of looks, accent and acting presence, and therefore supermodel Agyness Deyn's choice was shockingly radical--especially considering Deyn's Lancashire roots and her limited acting experience (mainly centring on her part in Nicolas Winding Refn's gritty in-your-face 2012 thriller Pusher). Peter Mullan as John Guthrie, however, seemed a much safer piece of casting in terms of his experience and his Scottish provenance. Additional disquiet was expressed about the chosen locations for the novel, which sustained fleeting location filming in Arbuthnott, real-life model for Kinraddie, but which widened to take in Aberdeenshire, further north, divested of the unique red clay farmland of the Mearns, and even harvesting scenes seasonally imported from New Zealand.
In the final estimation, several positives emerged. Deyn is passable as the gauche ingenue Chris Guthrie as young girl, but her inexperience shows in the second half of the film, where she appears too fumblingly indecisive, and indeed too flat verbally, for the smeddum-firm heroine whose forthright character has been honed and tempered by harsh elemental experience. Deyn's Chris Guthrie falls badly short of the female icons of film, of Nastassja Kinski's Tess, of Julie Christie's Bashsheba, of Maggie Smith's Jean Brodie, in more recent times of Ruth Wilson's Jane Eyre. However, Jack Greenlees is a nicely understated foil as Chris's big brother Will, a vital role model in the book who counterbalances their father's dreadful shortcomings, particularly with regard to his loving romantic relationship. Playing to form, Peter Mullan is muscularly hirsute as John Guthrie Bad, the unforgiving Old Testament-style arbiter of inflexible and corrupt behavioural codes; his representation of Guthrie squirming convulsively on the ground in the first throes of a stroke pays full visual testimony to Gibbon's graphic description of his seizure, 'as though a great frog were squattering there in the stour'. (22) Sterling support is provided by Ian Pirie as Chae, one of the paragons in the storyline and the chief moral anchor in the film, although Douglas Rankine's comparable potential as Long Rob is trimmed by the truncation of his role in the film. Credible cameos add valuably to the authentic sepia-tinted human tableau, with the doctor, Aunt Janet and Uncle Tam, Mistress Melon and John Muir all bringing belief to their parts despite collectively adding to the overweening negativity struck in Davies's characterisation (Auntie Janet and Uncle Tam are definitively dour in demeanour and in spirit).
Although Davies is straying into unknown territory in the outdoors shooting, Michael McDonough's photography captures something of the splendour of Gibbon's nature descriptions in the farming scenes and in the unspoilt vistas exemplifying what the author dubbed 'the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies'. (23) Luminously sunny scenes of Chris and of the locals dandering through the golden harvest show up by contrast the prevailing gloom of the film, while inviting the damaging criticism that in reality such wanton negligence would elicit violent repercussions from the farmers whose crops are thus being vandalised; Peter Mullan's John Guthrie would mercilessly track down all perpetrators of such a misdeed. The beautiful interior mise-en-scene fashioned throughout the film boasts Davies's directorial hallmark, the gloomy Vermeer-like claustrophobia that is the established norm and that adds vitally to the impression of Calvinist repression in the scenes portraying the formalities attending the deaths of Chris's mother and father again adding vitally to the film's dominant mood.
Overall there are a few other memorable individual scenes in the course of the film. Peter Mullan is entirely convincing in the aftermath of Guthrie's stroke, humiliatingly trapped in bed by paralysis as the doctor goes wryly about his business. Some deft touches intimate Davies's mature craftsmanship: the witty juxtapositioning of the scenes representing the doctor's blood-smeared attendance at childbirth and his ravenous devouring of a boiled egg in the immediate aftermath; the literal depiction of Chris wrapping up her books and storing them away in a chest while the voiceover relates Gibbon's symbolic comment, that with Jean Guthrie's death, 'the Chris of the books and the dreams died with it, or you folded them up in their paper of tissue and laid them away by the dark, quiet corpse that was your childhood'. (24) And the languorous study of Chris's self-examination of her burgeoning post-pubescent nakedness is sweetly done. There is one superb overhead shot tracing the locals' gravitation towards church service on the outbreak of war, backed by a hyperbolically ramped up choral score. And the key shot of the film comes at the climax following Ewan's execution, gliding over the murky devastation of no-man's-land half-obscuring all sorts of churned up debris--human and non-human.
On the negative side, the film has enduring flaws that damage its impact both as an artefact in its own right and as an adaptation of a classic novel. In the casting, Deyn's Chris lacks the poise and the assurance of a mature heroine who in Gibbon's vibrant portraiture ranks alongside the great female protagonists of the novel, from Scott's Jeanie Deans and Spark's Jean Brodie to Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Hardy's Bathsheba Everdene. While Deyn's voice coaches helped to foster a creditable stab at a generic Scottish accent, in moments of stridency, such as Chris's final standoff with Ewan, her control vanishes alarmingly. Similarly, Peter Mullan's John Guthrie unfortunately lacks the depth and complexity of Gibbon's patriarch, presented in the novel as a victim of social and political repression as a crofting farmer of the old school condemned to unrelentingly unproductive toil. The failure to indicate redeeming positives in his characterisation--his stern familial devotion and his fierce sense of social justice--have the knock-on effect of detracting from Chris's roundedness: her epiphany at her father's funeral in Seed-Time where she comes to apprehend his victim status ('only God had beaten him in the end' (25)) is one of the most telling insights in the novel signposting her developing maturity. Most disappointing of all, though, is the casting of Ewan Tavendale, whose physical inferiority to the statuesque Chris somehow reflects his character's unworthiness as her chosen soul-mate. Kevin Guthrie projects an endlessly puckish figure whose boyish weakness is made manifest in his cowardliness in the war; in the novel, Ewan is totally grounded, salt of the earth, the archetypal farmer who, like John Guthrie, is tragically exposed to the corrupting effect of vastly superior forces--principally the military war machine which dictates his tragedy.
Davies's own screenplay boasts several shortcomings that mar the final effect. As other writers who have made a script out of Gibbon's original have observed, the novel readily lends itself to adaptation, providing not only vibrant action and setting and characterisation, but some of the most lively and witty dialogue as well as some of the most deeply poetic and lyrical passages in all fiction. Davies's executive decision to rewrite and paraphrase the vast bulk of the original text is hubristically misguided, with the most profound of Chris's internal monologues being poorly glossed or crudely conflated with other related and unrelated meditations. (Deyn's wistfully faltering delivery of the more extended reflections also undermines the notion of Chris's outstanding intellect, flagged up at the film's outset.) Most confusing of all, however, is Davies's disorientating approach to the narrative mode, spurning Gibbon's generic 'you'--as the ideal vehicle for voiceover in opening out the heroine's narrative to include the reader/viewer and opting instead to put it into third person, narrated by Chris herself, barring a couple of isolated lapses into second person towards the close of the film. As a result, the viewer is baffled as to why Chris should keep talking about herself as if she is somebody else.
The overall continuity of the film is very clunky, coming across as a disjointed series of set-pieces arbitrarily thrown together. Even the musical score is bitty, questioning the wisdom of Davies's decision to dispense with a generic score, such as the beautiful traditional accompaniment created by Paul Anderson of Aberdeen University's Elphinstone Institute for Kenny Ireland's dramatisation of the novel at His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen in 2008. (26) Davies's film in fact employs a strange mish-mash of musical styles. There is some sub-Enya-style heavenly warbling as well as unremarkable lush romantic strings, particularly obtrusive as accompaniment to the scene following the birth of the twins and notably out of place in the scene where Chris is caught by her father tramping the washing in her undergarments. There are instantly forgettable instrumental flourishes (with an unctuously sugary harp appearing the night before Chris's wedding), while a brief snatch of ceilidh wildness at Chris's wedding dance and a plangent fiddle score played over the poignancy of Will's departure from Kinraddie hint at what might have been. Most egregious of all, however, is the obtrusive choice of Ronnie Browne's hackneyed muzaky version of 'The Flowers of the Forest', complete with strings, harp and guitar, marring one of the two most innovative scenes in the film, as the overhead camera slides over muddied no-mans-land wasteland at the end, following Ewan's death. Surely the lament that forms the anthemic refrain of the book deserves a more dignified rendition--by classic traditionalists such as Shona Donaldson, Karine Pol wart or Sheena Wellington--or perhaps simply a reprise of Deyn's poignant unaccompanied refrain from her wedding, which would have had the additional bonus of forging a direct aural link with Ewan's death as a war casualty.
Judged as an adaptation, Davies's film is even less impressive. The demands of shrinking down a substantial novel for a film of reasonable proportions, granted, are exceptional, as recently Andrew Davies, charged by the BBC with the herculean task of reducing Tolstoy's War and Peace to six hour-long episodes, will testify. In Terence Davies's case, though, the plot is a skeletal reflection of the book, omitting just too many key scenes and destroying the balance that is intrinsic to Gibbon's grand vision. The celebration of community spirit and of essential human values that stands at the heart of Gibbon's novel is all but lost as the folk of Kinraddie, with the solitary exception of Chae Strachan, are reduced to a shadowy mass glimpsed fleetingly at the harvest home, at Chris's wedding and strangely unmoving in church. Cameos plucked from the herd pretty much to a man and woman are dour and severe, contributing to what essentially constitutes a miserabilist picture of rural life more reminiscent of George Douglas Brown's The House with the Green Shutters than of Grassic Gibbon's realism, with his psychological probing and his bracing moral ambivalences. Rather than drawing strength from her bond with such an elemental way of life, from the existential apprehension of natural harmony, Chris in the film is represented snatching tiny shards of pleasure from a world that is comprehensively and unremittingly grim and forbidding.
When James Naughtie hailed the film's appearance in a warm personal tribute to Gibbon's novel in the Guardian, (27) he picked out for special praise the closing scene of the book, the sermon preached by the incoming minister Robert Colquohoun, Chris's new partner, a scene which almost singlehandedly hoists the novel from conventional status as Scottish rural realism to a classic work of fiction encapsulating pan-European themes about post-war politics and society and culture and philosophy. Unwittingly, Naughtie puts his finger right on the major shortcoming in Davies's adaptation--his failure to match the lofty ambition of the original book. Rumours persist of Kevin McKidd's rendition of the minister's elegy ending up on the cutting-room floor--an unforgivable excision that betrays the broader editorial intention to strip Gibbon's masterpiece of its radical import. All previous script-writers have signalled the importance of Colquohoun's threnody for the crofters, and of his political channelling of the moral imperative built up in the first book of the trilogy--indeed the rhetorical and thematic urgency of Gibbon's beautifully crafted rhetoric forced Alasdair Cording to seek elsewhere in the narrative for cuts required to fit his adaptation to the stage. (28) Unfortunately, viewers coming to Davies's film will be getting at best Grassic Gibbon Lite, at worst a directorial vanity project in the form of a novel reduced to a tale of doomed romance, with an emasculated theme stripped of all left-wing vibrancy and reduced to anti-war polemic--only one of the many refrains in Gibbon's grand symphony. Ewan Tavendale is sacrificed to Davies's perversion of Gibbon's intention: far from being a tragic victim of a war machine that represents the ultimate modern manifestation of the evil of capitalism and of what Gibbon the Diffusionist perceived as the barbarism of civilisation, Ewan is simply a fearty who cracks up as a result of his innate character weakness. The very last scene of the film is confusing at best, as Chris appears to be seeking personal solace in a lone pilgrimage to the standing stones (themselves minimised as a trope in the film), while a disembodied piper seems to have popped out for a quick pibroch (as you do), to play 'The Flowers of the Forest'. Davies's butchery here is unforgivable; in addition, he has missed an opportunity to open the story out to the poignancy of Gibbon's tragically abbreviated biography through a Schindler's List-style tribute to the author with a final dissolve into Leslie Mitchell's gravestone at Arbuthnott, featuring the inspirational refrain from the closing sermon (again sadly jettisoned): 'the kindness of friends, the warmth of toil, the peace of rest'.
On balance, the reviews elicited by Davies's film have been largely positive, the highest accolade being dished out by Mark Ivermode, a confirmed Terence Davies aficionado, who not only made Sunset Song his film of the week in the Observer on 6 December, but included it in his top ten films of the year the following week. (29) It's tempting to excuse kind reviewers on possible grounds of unfamiliarity with the original novel. Certainly the film disappoints woefully as adaptation, comparing most unflatteringly with other classics of the kind, from Lewis Milestone's landmark 1930 version of Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front through David Lean's atmospheric Great Expectations of 1946 up to John Hillcoat's brilliant 2009 visualisation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic fantasy The Road. Most recently, while critically Thomas Vinterberg's remake of Far From the Madding Crowd compared unfavourably with John Schlesinger's 1967 version, it provides an object lesson in the art of fluent and coherent rendering of a classic novel, from David Nicholls's script and rock-solid casting to the panoramic setting framing and embracing the human drama, wholly believable acting and, possibly most telling in the final comparison, post-production editing and musical embellishment which enhances the work's sense of continuity and uniformity. Davies's film fails to preserve the fabric and spirit of Gibbon's original work; indeed, unlike David Greig's bold dramatisation of Alasdair Gray's magnum opus Lanark at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival which deployed imaginative theatrical techniques to reinvent the original work's experimental nature in the field of the novel, Davies brings little of filmic originality in the creative re-imagining of Gibbon's book. (30)
In Davies's defence, his well documented problems with funding perhaps prevent his film from standing comparison with big-budget productions like The Road and Far From the Madding Crowd-, the art-house label automatically denotes shoestring budgeting. The final impression left by the film of Sunset Song, though, is of an opportunity missed. The tone of the media response intimates that, together with his biopic of Emily Dickinson, it will probably be enough to seal Terence Davies's Lifetime Achievement Award for services to British cinema--which would be churlish to begrudge him. The film will also keep a great Scottish author's name in the forefront of the popular imagination for the foreseeable future, sending readers back to the novel, and perhaps opening up a new readership in Scotland, England and beyond. Ultimately, however, both as an original feature film and as an adaptation of a classic, Davies's Sunset Song is more notable for what it doesn't do than for what it actually does.
The film of Sunset Song was released on DVD and Blu-ray on 4 April 2016.
(1) See Teddy Jamieson, 'You can't read that last page without being in tears', in The Herald Magazine, 28 November 2105, pp. 50-35.
(2) Pharic Maclaren's dramatisation of Bill Craig's script of Sunset Song was originally transmitted on six consecutive weeks from 26 March 1971 on BBC2; it was repeated from 11 September that year (in Scotland only) and from 25 March 1972, again on BBC2. The first, Scottish, repeat, was prefaced by Places of the Sunset: The Hand of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, a documentary written and produced by James Wilson, including contributions from Mrs Ray Mitchell, Ian S Munro and Christopher Murray Grieve ('Hugh MacDiarmid'), transmitted on BBC Scotland on 10 September 1971. Clay, Smeddum and Greenden, another memorable dramatisation, this time of Gibbon's three Scots Magazine stories, again directed by Pharic Maclaren, appeared on BBC1 as a 'Play for Today' on 24 February 1976, earning a repeat in the same slot on 18 August 1977. Cloud Howe, the second volume of the trilogy A Scots Quair, directed by Tom Cotter, was broadcast over four episodes on BBC2 from 14 July 1982. The third volume of the trilogy, Grey Granite, was shown in three episodes on BBC2 from 3 August 1983.
(3) H Gustav Klaus, 'Socialist Fiction in the 1930s: Some preliminary observations', in The 1930s: A Challenge to Orthodoxy, edited by John Lucas (Harvester: Hassocks, 1978), p. 32.
(4) Lyall, Scott, editor, The International Companion to Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2015). Gibbon's current popularity has been affirmed over the last ten years. In 2005, Scotland's MSPs voted Sunset Song their outstanding favourite from Scotland's rich literary heritage; that same year Sunset Song topped the summer poll of the hundred best Scottish books of all time compiled by The List magazine; and in August of that year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Sunset Song was revealed as the winner of the accolade of Scotland's favourite book in a readers' vote conducted by The Herald newspaper.
(5) Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Grey Granite (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1990, p. 88).
(6) Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 'A Novelist Looks at the Cinema', in Cinema Quarterly, 3 (1935), pp. 81-5. The essay is reprinted in the comprehensive miscellany Smeddum: A Lewis Grassic Gibbon Anthology, edited by Valentine Bold (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2001), pp. 730-43.
(7) According to Mitchell's widow Ray, in a letter to C M Grieve, dated 3/4/35, Korda was considering films of Sunset Song and Spartacus. See Dear Grieve: letters to Hugh MacDiarmid (C M Grieve) selected and edited by John Manson (Kilkerran: Kennedy & Boyd, 2011), p. 132.
(8) Letter, Gibbon to Helen B Cruickshank, dated 3 November 1932, property of the Estate of Laurence Graham.
(9) In a letter to the present writer dated 25 January 1978, Ray Mitchell recalled: 'I tried hard years ago to get a film of "Spartacus" but Howard Fast's Spartacus put paid to that. I nearly achieved a film (old) of "The Lost Trumpet" but war killed that.'
(10) John Wilson's original scripts are lodged in The National Library of Scotland, NLS MSS26083-5.
(11) Bill Craig's scripts for Sunset Song are available for consultation in NLS MS26087-92. Fascinating manuscript and typescript drafts are deposited in NLS MS26110-12, while further papers relating to the production deposited by the BBC are to be found in NLS MS26113-4.
(12) The Radio Times, 30 July-5 August 1983, p. 7.
(13) Gerda Stevenson's dramatisation of Sunset Song directed by Kirsty Williams and starring Amy Morrison as Chris Guthrie was broadcast as BBC Radio 4's Classic Serial in two hour-long episodes, on 15 March 2009 (repeated on 21 March) and on 22 March 2009 (repeated on 28 March). Stevenson provides a fascinating insight to the principle and practice of radio dramatisation in 'Spreading the Speak', in The Speak of the Place, 6 (Spring 2009), pp. 2-4. The second volume of the trilogy, Cloud Howe, adapted by Donna Franceschild, was aired on BBC Radio 4 on 21 January and 1 February 2015.
(14) Munro's typescript for the theatrical production is available in NLS MS26086.
(15) TAG Theatre Company first presented Sunset Song adapted by Alastair Cording, directed by Tony Graham and starring Pauline Knowles as Chris Guthrie at the Crawfurd Theatre, Jordanhill, Glasgow on 22 August 1991, before embarking on an extensive nationwide tour. The whole trilogy, again adapted by Alastair Cording and with Pauline Knowles as Chris, co-directed by Tony Graham and Andy Howitt, was rolled out at the Edinburgh International Festival at the Assembly Hall from 17 August to 4 September 1993, before touring Scotland. Prime Productions' revival of Sunset Song directed by Benjamin Twist, featuring Cora Bissett in the leading role, toured Scotland in 2002, beginning at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow between 27 and 31 August. Kenny Ireland's imaginative staging of Sunset Song as the first in-house production by His Majesty Theatre in Aberdeen from ; to 13 September 2008, thereafter touring the major Scottish cities, featuring Hannah Donaldson as Chris included a memorable original score commissioned from Northeast fiddler and traditional music expert Paul Anderson. The latest production by Sell a Door Theatre Company and Beacon Arts Centre, directed by Julie Ellen and starring Rebecca Elise, toured Scotland in autumn of 2014.
(16) Cording's adaptation first appeared as a Playscript Special edition of Theatre Scotland in 1993. The quotation is taken from the brief introduction, 'Sunset Song', by Cording on page 3.
(17) Alastair Cording, 'Adapting Sunset Song for the Stage', in Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song dramatised by Alastair Cording (London: Nick Hern Books, 2004), p. xix.
(18) Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 'Glasgow', in Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Scottish Scene, or The Intelligent Man's Guide to Albyn (London: Jarrolds, 1934), p. 146. (Reprinted in Smeddum, p. 108)
(19) Quoted in Phil Miller, 'The Making of Sunset Song', in The Herald, 29 November 2015.
(20) See Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
(21) Lewis Grassic Gibbon, postcard to Charles Bannerman (photocopy), dated 12 January 1934, National Library of Scotland, NLS MS26109.
(22) Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (London: Jarrolds, 1932), p. 125; (London: Penguin Books, 2007), p. hi. All further references are to the Penguin edition.
(23) Sunset Song, p. 42.
(24) Sunset Song, pp. 72-3.
(25) Sunset Song, p. 123.
(26) The original Motion Picture Soundtrack for Terence Davies's film of Sunset Song, composed and performed by Gast Waltzing, was released on CD in 2015 by WP Productions and Editions Milan Music. Paul Anderson's original score for His Majesty's Theatre's presentation of Sunset Song appeared in CD form from Aberdeen Performing Arts in 2008.
(27) James Naughtie, 'Loons and queans and orramen', in the Guardian (G2), 25 November 2015, pp. 18-19.
(28) Cording's restoration of projected cuts from Colquohoun's sermon was one of the most pleasing outcomes of the present writer's advisory input in his capacity as script consultant to TAG Theatre between July 1991 to March 1993.
(29) Mark Kermode, 'A hymn to the land and the lives upon it', in The New Review, The Observer, 6 December 2015, pp. 24-5; 'Top 10', in The New Review, the Observer, 13 December 2015, p. 17.
(30) In 'The Television Adaptation of Grey Granite', in Books in Scotland No. 13 (Autumn 1983), pp. 8-10, the present writer offered some tentative suggestions regarding techniques that might usefully be deployed to bring Gibbon's novels to dynamic and sympathetic life as film.
The Grassic Gibbon Centre
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|Author:||Malcolm, William K.|
|Publication:||Scottish Literary Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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