Transferring literary bestsellers to the big screen is never an easy business. Firstly, there’s the problem of length: something has to be cut in order to reduce most novels to a two hour movie (Fight Club being the only exception that springs to mind). It doesn’t help that literary readers are almost as protective of the original source material as Harry Potter fans. Then you have the matter of the tone: deep introspection may work well on the page, but when it comes to the cinema people expect a little bang for their buck. They expect not just to be educated, but to be entertained. Plus it takes a brave actor to tackle a literary lead role – not only might they make a bad movie if they get it wrong, but they could derail their entire career.
Some adaptations get it right, and some get it wrong. Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient is a fine example of the former; John Madden’s version of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin a not-so-fine example of the latter. Luckily Jeremy Padewsa’s Fugitive Pieces, based on the Anne Michaels novel of the same name, falls into the first camp. Die-hard fans of the book will undoubtedly still find fault with the way in which he’s simplified its narrative structure, or the changes to the finer nuances of the plot, but everyone involved should consider this movie a success.
For those who are unfamiliar with the source material, here’s a brief rundown of the plot (the abbreviated movie version). Nine year old Jakob Beer witnesses the death of his parents and the abduction of his sister by German soldiers in Poland in 1942, but luckily for him he’s quickly rescued by a visiting Greek archaeologist before the soldiers track him down. The archaeologist, Athos Roussos, smuggles Jakob out of the country and back to Greece, where he cares for him until the war is over. Athos is then offered a position overseas, and the two of them move to the relative security of Canada. Jakob grows up to become a successful author, and after one failed marriage he finally finds some sense of solace, and a hope for the future, in the arms of younger woman Michaela.
At least, this would be the plot if it were told from beginning to end, but Padewsa avoids much of the obvious bathos by switching backwards and forwards in time, revealing facets of Jakob’s character, and his struggle, in gradual increments. The end result is that he’s made all the more human, and a startlingly subtle performance by Stephen Dillane slowly unpeels his many layers for us until we see this long-suffering, lonely man laid bare. It’s not a comfortable ride, but it makes for riveting viewing.
Of course, Fugitive Pieces is still not a perfect movie – those only come along once or twice in a lifetime. On the whole it gets things right more often than it gets them wrong, however, and in an age of simplistic Hollywood weepies it’s good to see Anne Michaels’ novel get the sophisticated treatment that it deserves. The fact that it has some of the wartime tragedy of The English Patient – along with a hopeful, optimistic conclusion – should only help its box office receipts, too. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about it, though, is the fact that Fugitive Pieces was made on a small budget, outside of the Hollywood system, with a cast and crew of largely unknown faces. Maybe literary novels don’t always have to turn into simplistic, tear-jerking blockbusters after all.