The Proust Screenplay

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 entire section is 1591 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

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