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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Current Cinema - Carol - a few late and random thoughts before Oscar night

SPOILER ALERT Plot chunks given away. 

There are some interesting adaptation decisions in Carol (Todd Haynes, USA, 2015) which bespeak attempts to take us back into the past while simultaneously bringing the book by Patricia Highsmith up to date. There is for instance the straightfoward decision to change Therese’s professional ambitions from that of stage designer starting out to that of a would be professional photographer. In the PH version Carol gives Therese the gift of funds to enable her to join the Broadway designers guild, an organisation which charges extremely high entry fees (possibly for the purpose of keeping people out rather than inviting them in, it’s a trope of much old-fashioned American unionism).

But start at the start. Originally published as The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan in 1952, the book had one immediate question. What does the title refer to? You have to wait until Chapter 22 to pick it up. “...The music lived but the world was dead. And the song would die one day, she thought, but how would the world come back to life? How would its salt come back.” That seems to be it. So the Brit publishers who finally put it out in 1990 with a new title and a new afterword changed the name. 

The first cheap paperback edition of the book was published in the US by Bantam and sold for 25 cents. Highsmith claims in the final  Brit edition afterword  that it  sold “nearly a million copies”.  
Highsmith's name eventually appeared on the cover of the US Naiad edition replacing 'Claire Morgan' sometime in the late 80s

In the movie version of Carol Therese is given an expensive new camera. Similarly in the book Therese has had some sort of sexual experiences with her boyfriend Richard which she didn’t really like. In the movie she makes clear that they haven’t had any sex at all. Not sure why that twist was put in but there you are.

The main decision however was to abandon the simple chronological telling of the tale entirely from Therese’s perspective. In the novel the only things that are described are things that Therese knows about. Haynes and his writer Phyllis Nagy spread the perspectives to include that of Carol Aird, the married woman in a fairly opulent, but terminal, domestic relationship who is attracted to the young temporary shopgirl Therese Belivet. There is also a single scene involving Carol’s husband’s perspective as he vainly, and near violently, searches for his wife to take her home to his family for Christmas in an attempted show of family unity. On his ever-informative blog David Bordwell dissects how this has been done as part of a longer piece on what he calls the ‘protagonist menu’ and applies it to a wide range of current releases. Most instructive as always.

One thing that a reading of the book gave me was the structural similarity with Nabokov’s  “Lolita”. In both of them the build-up is towards the runaway random journey across the back blocks of America. Nights after nights of cheap hotels, flat landscapes and both being pursued by a vaguely familiar male figure with malevolent intent. Haynes pares this section of the story way down. Kubrick relished it, especially as it gave him the chance to bring forward Peter Sellers as Quilty. Just a thought and I’d be very surprised if Nabokov notwithstanding his interest in the mechanics of the detective story had read the earlier book.


One thing the film doesn't attempt is to give vent to Highsmith's always dazzling knowledge of liquor. There is a drink for every moment and every purpose throughout her books. Amusing in this one for instance that when Therese and Carol decide to stop over for a 'drink' at a diner on the way to Carol's home, they are disappointed that no 'drinks' are on offer, only beer and wine. Highsmith did enjoy the world of American drinking of what we call spirits. ....And it's a fascination shared for instance by the writers and producers of the US cable series Justified. The variations of liquor are endless.

Finally let me draw your attention to the short note on another post by Rod Bishop which succinctly sets out the film’s virtues (Ed Lachman’s cinematography at the top of my list in what looks like an endless and brilliantly conceived perpetual homage to Edward Hopper) and its deficiencies.

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