Watching The Bookshop, adapted from the late Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel by the Catalan director Isabel Coixet, admirers of the English novelist have the chance to test their memories. Which parts of the dialogue and the third-person voice-over narration (delivered by Julie Christie) come directly from the book? Which are newly invented? And which have been sourced from elsewhere?
The hunt for the answers leads down some unexpected paths. ‘When we read a story, we inhabit it.’ This sounds too sententious to be authentic Fitzgerald: it turns out to be a quote from Coixet’s late friend John Berger, to whom the film is dedicated. ‘A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit.’ This comes originally from a passage in Milton’s Areopagitica, adopted as a motto by Everyman’s Library; Fitzgerald cites it with quiet irony, whereas Coixet treats the sentiment as straightforwardly inspirational. But when the film’s narrator declares that human beings are divided into ‘exterminators and exterminatees’, there can be no doubt who first expressed the thought. This is the sort of offhand but chilling remark we trip over from time to time in Fitzgerald’s work, and one which no reader of The Bookshop is likely to have forgotten.
Fitzgerald’s novel is about the exterminators and the exterminatees – and many other subjects, including the gap between life and literature. Told in little more than a hundred pages, the story is a simple one. The heroine is the middle-aged widow Florence Green (played in the film by Emily Mortimer), who decides to open a bookshop in a crumbling old house in the significantly named East Anglian town of Hardborough, where she has been living for ten years (the period is the late 1950s). Not all the locals approve, especially not the well-connected Violet Gamet (Patricia Clarkson) who is bent on establishing an ‘arts centre’ in the same spot. But she finds allies, too, among them her ten-year-old helper Christine (Honor Kneafsey) and the reclusive Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy), the subject of many local legends.
So it goes too in Coixet’s telling of the story, with due allowance made for the requirements of cinema. Mortimer is not the physically nondescript Florence of the book: she has the kind of face which a less good novelist than Fitzgerald might describe as ‘sadly pretty’. All the same, she fits the part, with her determined smile and anxious eyes that convey a perpetual sense of not fitting in. Some of the supporting players struggle to pinpoint a tone halfway between comedy and drama: James Lance is a bit too broad a caricature as Milo North, a louche fellow from the BBC who takes an interest in Florence’s enterprise (I was reminded at points of David Walliams in Little Britain). By contrast, Clarkson seizes what opportunities she has to make Violet more than a one-dimensional villain, though she can only do so much to fill out a character whose deeper motives are never entirely clear.
One of Coixet’s wisest choices as a screenwriter is to increase the prominence of the awkward but genuinely sensitive Mr Brundish, without allowing his tentative rapport with Florence– in the book, the pair come face to face only once – to develop into overt romance. The result gives full scope to Nighy’s universally recognised though not quite definable charm, which stems partly from his way of hovering above and to the side of any story he appears in. The scene where Florence and Brundish meet over afternoon tea is a highlight of the film, staying largely true to Fitzgerald’s dialogue and letting Nighy make the most of moments like Brundish’s puzzlement at the idea of an arts centre. ‘How can the arts have a centre?’ he demands.
In outline, The Bookshop could well be seen as a version of a story we are used to seeing in cinema, pitting fresh liberal thinking against the forces of stuffy conformity. The objection to the film is that it leans into this side of the material while systematically softening the sharper or odder aspects of Fitzgerald’s vision. The pretty scenery (the locations were on the Irish coast) tends to undermine the premise of Hardborough as basically forbidding; gone are most of the pointed references to local poverty, and the details which underline the town's decay, like the rusted tin strips, relics of former advertisements, which hang in the breeze at the railway station. Gone too, sadly, is the poltergeist or ‘rapper’ haunting the bookshop: an important presence in the novel, treated in the same matter-of-fact manner as everything else. Still, Coixet retains the essentials of Fitzgerald’s plot, which brings home the message that good intentions are rarely enough, though the all too realistic ending has been reshaped into something both more melodramatic and more upbeat.
To complain that a film adaptation of a novel differs from the original is, as we all know, a waste of time. Just the same, there is something dismaying about a film that purports to champion books yet verges on being a sentimental betrayal of its own source. Then again, the intrinsic value of literature is a theme that Fitzgerald was at pains to avoid, at least on the surface. ‘Culture is for amateurs,’ she has Florence declare early on. ‘Shakespeare was a professional.’ Perhaps she would approve Coixet’s changes after all, considering that they may give the film a fighting chance of making some money.
The Bookshop (Transmission Films), 113 minutes, directed by Isabel Coixet, based on the 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. In cinemas 24 May 2018.
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