How are the major themes of Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome displayed in John Madden's film version?
The primary themes of Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome are suitably demonstrated in the 1993 film version directed by John Madden, though they are not all presented as effectively or accurately as lovers of the novel might wish them to be.
One primary theme of the novel which is almost accurately depicted in the film is the bleakness and barrenness of both Starkfield and Ethan Frome's life.
He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of it's frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.
The setting in the movie is accurate, a perpetual winter causing isolation as well as emotional frozenness. The masterful description in the novel is matched by the visual impact of Starkfield in the movie. Though Ethan's emotional emptiness and longing are clear in both the novel and the movie, the movie implies that these things can be filled with a physical relationship with Mattie. When it becomes clear that this is not something Ethan can have for more than one night, he is then in his worst despair in the movie. In the novel, this longing for the warmth and light Mattie brings is a slow, tortuous, romantic--and unfulfilled--yearning. The result may be the same, but the impact of the novel is greater.
Another theme is the desire to escape, something we sense even in the morose and uncommunicative Ethan when he reads the engineering magazine the narrator inadvertently leaves behind. We get a real sense of longing for something that might have been. While that is not as evident in the movie, we do see Ethan longing for a time before Zeena--or at least without her. The "movie Zeena" is so unpleasant that it is hard to imagine what Ethan must have been and felt before he met her. We do not think much of Ethan for marrying her when, in truth, the fact that he marries such a woman should make us feel the depths of the loneliness which caused him to do so. In both the movie and the novel, however, we do understand his need to escape. He is trapped in every possible way both by his own choices and by circumstances out of his control. When we watch him live his life, we understand his desire to escape it.
Finally, we are struck by the characters' inability to express themselves. Ethan is the least able to do this, but he is not the only one. How many times does Zeena "say" that she suspects her husband of loving Mattie without ever using words; and Mattie is full of words but does not use them to express her feelings (which is more true of the novel than the movie). Even the fact that the narrator has to piece together Ethan's story from bits of conversations and his own observations suggests that Starkfield has "frozen" the characters' ability to speak about their feelings. There are plenty of passions to be expressed in this story, but we rarely hear any of them. In the movie we watch and assume; in the novel we are privy to thoughts and wonder why they are not spoken.
Though the themes of this novel are not demonstrated in exactly the same way in the movie as they are in the novel, they are nevertheless evident.