The Proust Screenplay

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1591

Harold Pinter is familiar to American audiences as the author of plays such as The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, The Caretaker, and The Dumb Waiter. Most people are probably not aware that he also wrote the scenario for several successful motion pictures, including The Servant, The Quiller Memorandum, and The...

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Harold Pinter is familiar to American audiences as the author of plays such as The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, The Caretaker, and The Dumb Waiter. Most people are probably not aware that he also wrote the scenario for several successful motion pictures, including The Servant, The Quiller Memorandum, and The Pumpkin Eater, all adapted from novels. With The Proust Screenplay, Pinter once again creates a filmscript from a novel. This time, he tackles Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), a monumental work of some four thousand pages, first published in seven volumes from 1913 to 1927. The complete work contains over three hundred characters, and is as complex as one might ever want a novel to be.

Obviously, Pinter has engaged in an ambitious undertaking, for he must reduce this material to less than two hundred pages, or about two hours on the screen. His collaborators in this project were the movie producer Joseph Losey and Barbara Bray, a Proustian authority and script editor for the British Broadcasting Company. Pinter worked on the adaptation for a year, producing a finished manuscript in 1973. It was not published until 1977, and it still has not found its way to the screen.

With the recent surge of interest in film as an art form and field of academic study, the amount of screen literature in print has increased enormously, While Pinter’s newly published work looks like any other filmscript, it represents an unusual case. Most scenarios are published after the film is made, in response to popular or critical interest on the part of the public. The Proust Screenplay is a script without a film, and its appearance is a response to widespread interest in the two authors represented, Proust and Pinter. Perhaps someday there will be a film, although the complexity of the script makes that possibility seem unlikely.

The reader unfamiliar with scenarios may find this book somewhat difficult at first, for this literary form is not for the untrained. It requires a certain effort to translate the scenic indications into a visual image of what the film would be. Of course, the same problem exists in literature for the stage, but here it is complicated by the spacial and temporal flexibility of film and by the very selective perspective of the camera. Since Pinter’s screenplay makes liberal use of the cinema’s potential for freedom, it becomes a very complex work. As literature, however, it is an excellent condensation of Proust’s novel, for it captures the spirit and essence of that vast creation with admirable economy. Whether it would really work as a film, though, is questionable.

In a short introduction, Pinter discusses the difficulty of adapting such a work. He explains that he finally decided to concentrate on two Proustian principles: “One, a movement, chiefly narrative, toward disillusion, and the other, more intermittent, toward revelation, rising to where time that was lost is found, and fixed forever in art.” Pinter does in fact develop the screenplay according to the opposing principles of chronological time and instantaneous, repetitious atemporality.

The narrative progression of the film begins with a scene from 1921 of Marcel at the age of forty-one in the Guermantes house, surrounded by old people in grotesque dress and makeup. The narrative then shifts back to Marcel’s childhood and portrays his life with the chronology intact in the major scenes. The longest sequences depict his experience at Combray in 1888; the period of 1897-1902 in Paris and Balbec; 1915 in wartime Paris; and finally, 1921, ending with a repetition of the perverse opening scene in the Guermantes house. Although these extensive sequences are presented in chronological order, brief shots from almost every year between 1879 and 1921 disrupt the logical progression of time. There are frequent montages of things (steeples, trees, windows, a magic lantern, a patch of yellow from Vermeer’s View of Delft) and people. In this way, the script develops the two concepts of time essential to Proust’s novel: the narrative, chronological temporality from 1879 to 1921, and the intermittent, instantaneous perceptions that create a sense of atemporal experience.

This constant shifting between objective and subjective time is Pinter’s way of confronting the essence of Remembrance of Things Past. The crucial problem lies in the fact that Marcel is the narrator of Proust’s novel. He tells his own story, primarily through an introspective account of his remembered experience. As narrator, Marcel can say, in effect: “I see this (or, I taste this, or, I hear this) and this reminds me of my past experience.” Adapting this kind of first-person narrative for the screen is extremely difficult. In general, films do not have narrators, and even when they do, the role of the narrator is quite limited. This limitation of the cinema is inherent in the art form itself, since films do not “tell” us an experience, but show it to us. How, then, can Pinter create the impression that this is Marcel’s remembered experience, and that the perceptions shown in the film are Marcel’s perceptions?

The technique of the 1921 scene as a kind of preface to the film creates the primary structural principle of the entire story as a memory. This flashback device is one of the most common in the history of the fiction-film. It alone does not accomplish very much, because audiences are inured to that sort of thing. More effective are the hundreds of static images produced by quick shots of things associated with Marcel’s experience, interspersed with shots of Marcel’s face. These gradually effect an impression that the montage sequences constitute an atemporal reality from the perspective of the protagonist. The audience relates this “intermittent” reality to the chronological narrative and begins to sense this reality as a timeless, indefinable memory. In effect, the audience is seduced into the role of participant in the experience of the central character. Here Pinter is exploiting one of the potentials of the cinema as an art form. In every kind of art, the successful artist creates a work of art that “involves” the audience.

Pinter’s decisions about the role of Marcel in the scenario surely result from the playwright’s awareness of the problem of the narrator. In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel narrates his own experience as an observer of and participant in the elegant world of France in the early years of the twentieth century. His gradual awareness of the decadent perversity of his surrounding reality is reflected in his own ironic view of the world and of himself. In transferring this narrative to the screen, Pinter manipulates Proust’s portrayal of the protagonist in an interesting way. In the screenplay, Marcel becomes a rather passive, reflective spectator on the action. For the most part, he is expressionless and mute while the people around him do all the talking. This is not inconsistent with the spirit of the novel, for there is in Proust a strange sense of the protagonist-narrator as a man whose life consists of perceiving what other people do and what the things around him are. In the scenario, this curious perspective is evoked through the montages of inanimate things and people that surround the scenes in which Marcel appears as a passive observer of the actions of other characters.

The Proust Screenplay, then, creates a fascinating paradox. This is Marcel’s story, perceived by Marcel, yet his life seems to consist of the reality around him. To the extent that this is true, Pinter’s adaptation is reminiscent of the original creations of Pinter the dramatist. Many critics consider the works of the playwright to be absurdist, primarily because of the emphasis on the nonsensical, illogical mutterings of characters involved in doing nothing in particular. In an interview with The Paris Review, Pinter comments: “I find myself stuck with these characters who are either sitting or standing, and they’ve either got to walk out of a door, or come in through a door, and that’s about all they can do.” In the thousands of pages of Proust, the characters do many things, but everything seems to be rather inconsequential. The Pinter screenplay creates this same feeling, that the characters never get anywhere. The emphasis is on Marcel’s observing them (or remembering them) in the act of being there, nothing more.

The Proust Screenplay is of greatest interest as a by-product of Proust’s novel. Whether it could stand alone in its final form, as a film, is the unanswerable question at this point. As a piece of literature, it is comprehensible to the reader unfamiliar with Proust, but this is because there is a great deal of explanatory writing in the scenic directions. There are many indications of who the characters in the shot are and what the year is: 95. EXT. ALLÉE DES ACACIAS. PARIS. WINTER. 1897. DAY. MARCEL (17) watches a victoria approach. ODETTE lies back in it, holding a violet parasol. TWO MEN, near MARCEL, doff their hats, bow. She smiles, gently, at them. In the finished film, the informative notes would be lost. The viewer would have to know something about Proust’s novel to understand who, when, and where. Since the screenplay presents about a dozen of the characters at eight or ten significantly different stages in their lives, in several different locales, the potential for total confusion is enormous. To the avid reader of Proust, the film would probably be an impressive work of art. To the unfamiliar, it could be puzzling, if not totally incomprehensible.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7

New York Times Book Review. December 11, 1977, p. 9.

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