Thursday 22 December 2011

Revisiting Books AND Films: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

I've literally never seen a book and film with such disparity as there is between the film and book versions of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. What I mean by this is obviously that the play is amazing, and the film is awful; since, as I think I've already mentioned, I have a deep and abiding love for Tennessee Williams. But that film... Well, we'll get to that. I want to give you a summary of the story, really I do, but the film ruins it so effectively that the original power, themes, and meanings of the play are almost entirely erased. It seems to me that it should be pretty difficult for a filmmaker to ruin a play for goodness sake, since its main function is to be performed rather than read, but this one manages to do it quite effectively and efficiently. For shame!

The play is so amazing- carefully nuanced and subtle, never giving too much away, but really making you wonder about these characters- what they've been through, why they're in the position they're in now, and just why everything is so fucked up. The film doesn't do this in the slightest- it just bulldozes through its own agenda, creating caricatures  of some of its characters (I'm thinking Mae and Gooper) and ignoring some very pertinent motives of others (Brick). About the only thing the film doesn't ruin is the character of Maggie, which is mainly because Elizabeth Taylor is pretty great, but also because most of what she says actually sticks pretty closely to the original, rather than the new lines given to most of the other characters, most of the time.

Here's what mainly bugged me. The entire background thing that isn't massively talked about in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is the nature of the relationship between Brick and his recently deceased best friend Skipper, which, it is made clear, wasn't an active sexual or any kind of romantic relationship, but which definitely gave rise to some feelings in Brick that he is ashamed of, and even unable to fully accept in himself. What is clear is that, while Skipper was on the slippery slope into death from alcoholism, he called Brick, told him that he loved him, and Brick couldn't handle such a thought, hence his own descent into the bottle. What I find most interesting about this whole thing, is the conversation Big Daddy has with Brick about it, in which he indicates that, if this is the way that Brick is, he's willing and able to accept it (this is aided by the fact that the plantation they live on was formerly owned by a gay couple, who Big Daddy worked for his entire life) and this is a big part of what makes Big Daddy a remarkable character: "One thing you can grow on a big place more important than cotton - is tolerance! - I grown it."

So here's the deal with the movie- this entire thing? Completely ignored, unmentioned, expunged. No homosexuality, no way. Big Daddy is not at all likely to be tolerant of that kind of thing, but it's fine because he doesn't have to be. Here's the story the film give us- Skipper was sad because he played badly in a football game, he felt like he'd disappointed Brick, then Maggie tried to seduce him (they actually did sleep together in the play) so Brick wouldn't want to be his friend anymore, but couldn't go through with it; then Skipper felt even more guilty, phoned Brick and asked for his help (and told him he had slept with Maggie) and then jumped out of the hotel window. This literally doesn't make ANY sense. Skipper seems to have very little motive for wanting to die, and what this story does is make it seem like the only reason Brick is angry with Maggie is because she had sex with his friend. It's a disservice to the play, to Williams, and to the actors in the film. And the WORLD!

The film also suffers with a lack of proper focus. Because of the lack of homosexual undertones, whilst the film begins with a focus on Brick and Maggie and their relationship (as does the play) the focus soon shifts to making it all about Big Daddy, his wealth, emotional coldness, and the fact that he is dying. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, since I really do love Big Daddy, in all honesty, his storyline is, in the play, very secondary to everything that is happening between Maggie and Brick, and he's really important only in getting Brick to talk about what he's been feeling and what's going on between him and Maggie. I don't object to Big Daddy being of greater importance, but I do when 1) that's not what the beginning of the film suggests, and 2) it's at the expense of removing most of what's great and important about the play.

Further investigation (i.e. looking on Wikipedia) about the film reveals that the film had to be wildly changed from the play because of the Hays Code, which apparently meant that nothing at all interesting or revealing could be portrayed through film, and that Paul Newman was disappointed with the adaptation, which I could have guessed because he strikes me as having been so unbelievably awesome. And, something which I already knew (I studied Cat On A Hot Tin Roof twice at various educational facilities) is that Tennessee Williams told people queueing to see the film "This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!" I mean, when the original writer of something doesn't like the adaptation, you know that can't be good!

I could say so much more about both the play and the film, but I should probably stop before you get bored and want to punch me in the face to shut me up (if you don't want to already). Suffice to say, there's practically no point in seeing the film, although I suppose if you watched it before reading the play, you wouldn't know what you were missing in terms of greatness. In my opinion, skip the film and just read the play instead- it won't disappoint like only Hollywood can.

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