A Doll's House
A Faithful Infidelity
How to make a faithfully faithless adaptation? Joseph Losey's A Doll's House is not faithful to Ibsen's play, and perhaps inevitably as we will digress a little from the work to comprehend how difficult theatrical fidelity in cinema would be, and how two things tend to undermine and yet transform a play without radically changing it at all. Even a faithful adaptation of a play can become unfaithful if the film incorporates within it the stardom of its star. There was in this sense no infidelity to Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire for two reasons. Firstly, Marlon Brando played the role on the stage and then took it into film. Secondly, Brando was not yet a star when he and Kazan made a film of Tennessee Williams' play, even if he had appeared in The Men the year before. Not only was Brando not yet a star, he was also someone for whom the play had been shaped. Williams originally had in mind an older figure but then thought of Brando "It had not occurred to me before what an excellent value would come through casting a very young actor in this part. It humanizes the character of Stanley in that it becomes the brutality and callousness of youth rather than a vicious old man ... A new value came out of Brando's reading which was by far the best reading I have ever heard." (Modern America Drama on Screen) But an actor so welded to a part is rare, and why wouldn't it be when in theatre the actor is merely passing through the role no matter if they play it night after night, while in film a character is usually much more associated with an actor? Numerous people have played Hamlet, King Lear, Medea, Nora and Vanya but if someone were to appear again as Travis Bickle, Scottie Ferguson or Charles Foster Kane it might seem insolent. It isn't that Taxi Driver, Vertigo and Citizen Kane couldn't be remade with other actors in the roles, but the parts are synonymous with Robert De Niro, James Stewart and Orson Welles. Someone playing the part wouldn't just be stepping into the character; they would also potentially be stepping on another actor's toes. As Bette Davis said of her role in All About Eve, "I think it would be discourteous to remake Eve while I am alive. I believe I own that part while I am living, not legally, but morally. Margo was not me. But I was Margo." (The Girl Who Walked Home Alone)
However, when adapting a play to film, usually an actor brings a persona to the work that means the character becomes distorted by the actor; that their extra-diegetic presence in the world (usually much greater than a stage actor's), gives to the performances a frisson that extends beyond the limits of the play's proper content. When Mike Nichols cast the troublesomely married and hugely famous Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he was creating a context for the play that wouldn't have been there if the original members were cast: Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill. Speaking of adapting the play, Nichols said " When you take Virginia Woolf from the stage and put it in a movie, you lose one character: the audience. Because the audience, much more than in most other plays is a character in that play." (The Film Director as Superstar) Nichols reckons in the spats between the couple on the stage the audience laughs at the point-scoring and the performers can react to the audience.
Perhaps, though, the stardom the actors bring serves as an audience that is inevitably missing next to a live performance. When directing famous actors in an adaptation how can a director not be aware of the potential audience the star brings with them, the expectations of the star's persona? And thus we turn to A Doll's House, and director Joseph Losey's remark about casting Jane Fonda: "what made me feel that she was right for Nora was her absolute conviction about the issue of women's right, plus her background. I mean Vadim, Barbarella, even the Henry Fonda aspects, you know," (Conversations with Losey) It is as though any infidelity in the adaptation was going to be weak next to the presence of the star that would generate a new perception of the character. Losey may have noted that he thought Fonda was right for the role, but that appropriateness clearly included an awareness of much more than her thespian competence, with Losey recognising too that the broader questions the play asks coincided with Fonda's life at the time. He even noted that it threatened to distort the play more than he wished. Near the end, as Nora talks about leaving her husband, "I felt she was playing it in an almost agit-prop way and disagreed about it completely." (Conversations with Losey)
In many ways, Losey's film is an accurate rendition of the play. Nobody watching it will be unaware that it is about a woman's sacrifice for her husband, a man who years before was very ill and where Nora borrowed money to pay for Torvald's treatment, mindful that he would have been too proud to accept a loan to save his health. Yet while we can acknowledge that a generally faithful adaptation will still distort the play through the stars it usually casts, at the same time the play is often more or less faithfully rendered since the material allows for a director's preoccupations to become evident and perhaps all the more so through that fidelity without at the same time feeling merely like a work putting a classic on the screen. There may well be very famous stage directors that were contemporaneous with Losey, and also worked in cinema (like Peter Brook, Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn) but it was as though theatre could never quite claim status as a director's medium no matter how important it would be for a theatre connoisseur to wonder who the director was. Generally, a theatregoer is going to see an Albee, an Ibsen or a Chekhov play they are going because of the writer. In film, it is rare indeed for the audience to see a screenwriter's work over the director's exceptions, perhaps, include Paddy Chayefsky and Charlie Kaufman, but who watching The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, The Untouchables, was there because of David Mamet's scripts, even if he was a major American playwright of the eighties? Harold Pinter may of course have written The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between for Losey, but if people were going partly because of Pinter's work, it was for his reputation as a playwright and his collaboration with a major filmmaker. Pinter wrote numerous other scripts but The Quiller Memorandum and Turtle Diary could in this sense have been written by anybody.
Yet if cinema is a director's medium and theatre a writer's one, then is a filmmaker more obliged than a theatre director to change the play, not so much to open it up, though they may, but often to give it a verisimilitude inevitably missing from the stage? Nichols, discussing partly why Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf cost so much money beyond half the $5m budget going on the stars and buying the rights, said part of it was insisting on a location shoot. He wanted, "...the actors to be on a real college in real winter with their breaths really showing and really at night." (The Film Director as Superstar) For A Doll's House, Losey insisted there was "not a foot of studio and all the houses are real houses...I used the townspeople, the bank manager, the schoolteacher, the doctor's wife, the grocer." (Conversations with Losey) But there is also in Losey's mise en scene an aesthetic nuance to match the location shooting. If he was resistant To Fonda's agitprop, while also interested in deploying her persona, it rests on Losey's political preoccupations that must come through the film's design and its casting, not through categorical statements.
In The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between, Losey found a visual correlative to power dynamics that meant direct confrontation was less important than insinuation and visualisation. In The Servant, for example, the tensions between the young owner of the house and his slightly older servant of the title becomes a psychic battle of a weak mind and a stronger, more manipulative one, as the film almost entirely plays out in the one residence. It might be Tony who owns the house but it is Hugo who runs it, and part of Losey's purpose is to show the baroque sexual psychology in the context of a house that remains a slippery and obscure space. Speaking of the house he filmed The Servant in, Losey said "those houses are like that. But not quite. We had to distort the architecture a little to get it." (Conversations with Losey)
In A Doll's House, it may too have been a location shoot and, as Nichols notes, this isn't a minor detail in transposing a work from the stage to the screen: often vital to the faithful infidelity of adaptation. But Losey's was one of at least three films of the time (Cries and Whispers and Edvard Munch the others) drawing fundamentally on Munch's work. While Bergman's Munchian influence has been clearly acknowledged and Peter Watkins's unavoidable in the very title of the film, little has been made of Losey's absorption of the Norwegian's aesthetic, a look absent from the other A Doll's House made the same year with Claire Bloom and Anthony Hopkins. The evening scene, at the beginning of the film, in a prologue missing from the play, and the evening scene a third of the way through, show this Munchian influence. The former scene shows us Nora and her friend Kristine chatting about Nora's marriage, and then Kristine's lover Krogstad discussing with Kristine why she cannot marry him. The latter witnesses Nora and Krogstad in discussion outside. Krogstad who has loaned Nora the money years earlier had recently been working in her husband's bank and has just been fired and can now blackmail Nora if he wishes. Both scenes capture a crepuscular blue that may remind us of Munch's The Starry Night and Young Woman on the Seashore. The interiors too occasionally suggest Munch's influence, with the Night Wanderer sharing similarities with the presence of Dr Rank, this constant visitor to the Helmer home and yet also a stranger to it.
One needn't exaggerate Munch's presence in the material, and how many shots might invoke Munch's work for no better reason than that Munch and Ibsen were Norwegians in the latter half of the 19th-century? Nevertheless, what Losey can do is insist on the realism of the location, while also drawing upon a colour palette and varying shades of light that turns the film into a work that transcends the limits of the stage once the film no longer feels beholden to its classic status. Visually, the Bloom/Patrick Garland version remains stage-bound even if was also a cinematic production, while Losey obviously sees himself as a filmmaker and not a stage adapter. This doesn't mean a play needs to be radically altered and only semi-recognisable (Welles' Chimes at Midnight, Rivette's Va Savoir, Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho; Jarman's The Tempest) but it does indicate that there is a respect for cinema that coincides with a respect for the play - but where the respect for the former can't be eschewed due to the status of the latter. When one feels the play is the thing and cinema only the means by which to record it, the film becomes a weak version of the live event that it cannot replicate. By staying mainly faithful to the play's words, but by insisting on locations and a sense of light and colour that evokes some of the beauty of Munch's art, Losey insists on unfaithful fidelity.
How else is this apparent? Perhaps partly by the presence of David Mercer as the film's scriptwriter, and where Losey allows Mercer a few freedoms in the adaptation. Mercer worked for Karel Reisz, Ken Loach and Alain Resnais, and wrote numerous television plays, and concerns with mental health, emancipation and ageing all show up here as if extending Mercer's preoccupations by coinciding with the sort of interests expressed in his previous script for Loach's Family Life (itself in many ways a film version of Mercer's teleplay In Two Minds, also directed by Loach). If Nora finds that under her father and her husband's influence she has never been free, Mercer explored, through the ideas of RD Laing, the oppression of family life almost a hundred years after Ibsen's play.
It didn't look any better, the central character a young woman with conservative parents, parents who cannot tolerate the shame of a pregnant daughter as we watch her struggling to cope and her mental well-being deteriorate. But Mercer and Losey also tightened Ibsen's dialogue, making it more cinematic, if exposition is often the enemy of film, and made it a little less coincidental. "Having studied the play I found one, that Ibsen was terribly verbally expository; two, that his plots were incredibly convenient." (Conversations with Losey)
Thus in the context of the latter, the likelihood of Nora's childhood friend Kristine turning up at the same time that Nils Krogstad (Kristine's former love) is in Torvald's office, begging to keep his job at the bank now that Torvald has taken over and wishes to fire him, seems slightly more so within the context of the drama. By opening on a prologue years earlier, where we have seen Kristine (Delphine Seyrig) and Nora chatting about love, and where we then see Kristine rejecting Krogstad because with various dependents she needs to marry someone with more money, the appearance in the same room seems less contrived because it seems at least dramatically expected.
The prologue may even set up an expectation: that since we know Krogstad and Kristine know each other, they must be keen to talk. If anything Losey retreats from what we might expect as Kristine says she has to go and look for lodgings and we might think that she instead has to go and look for Krogstad. A minute earlier we have seen Krogstad leave Torvald's study and Kristine, in the foreground of the shot, seen from behind, clearly seeing him depart as she stands up and puts a finger to her mouth. Will she now try and find him? But, instead, she does seek lodgings as she leaves with Dr Rank and Torvald, while Krogstad has actually stayed behind to confront Nora in the house. The moment where Krogstad leaves and Kristine notices him depart isn't in the play, and on top of that, the prologue gives to the Kristine/Krogstad story more weight than contrivance, as though even if the play is very much about Nora and Torvald's marriage, it can also in the background concern too the relationship between Kristine and Krogstad.
Instead of Kristine and Krogstad appearing coincidentally, Mercer and Losey play it contrapuntally: here is a relationship that we know was based on brutal honesty, as Kristine and Krogstad couldn't be together because Kristine had a mother and two young brothers to support. It is what she says to Krogstad in the prologue: that her predicament leaves her unable to marry Krogstad even if she loves him. By the end of the play, they can be together as Nora and Torvald cannot, if for no other reason than they have the honest conversations Torvald and Nora have always avoided. When, before she leaves Torvald, Nora says, "we've been married eight years. This is the first time you and I, man and wife, have had a serious conversation together," we have seen, in the course of the film, Kristine and Krogstad have already had two: the prologue and near the end when Kristine talks to Krogstad about the note he has sent Torvald but also about how solitary she feels. "I am alone in the world now and I feel dreadfully lost." She says she believes in Nils but can Krogstad believe in himself? "...Can I make myself believe in me as you do?" he says. Throughout the film, and of course the play, Torvald has been offering constant cooing words of condescending affection as he refers to Nora as "a funny little thing", a "little one" and someone "moping under our poor old droopy wings". There has been no such affection between Krogstad and Kristine, but their acrimonious exchanges do lead to love when the opportunity arises. When Nora and Torvald finally talk it is of course when Nora says she is leaving him. Nora may have done a very honourable thing to keep her husband alive years earlier, but that she has hidden it from him for so long has left a hole in the marriage, and it would take a more lucid, less hubristic and more modulated a man than Torvald to accept the reason for it, all these years later, when he is told.
Speaking of the play, and of Nora, Stanley Cavell muses over what her duties happen to be. She is after all not only a wife but also a mother: she will be leaving a husband, yes, but also two children, duties we may recall Kristine has more than met with children that weren't even her own, looking after her younger brothers. It is a duty she is willing to take up again when she says that Krogstad's children need a mother (he is a single parent). Cavell reckons "what Nora wants a way of saying is that there is no rightful duty she has as a wife and mother that costs what is asked of her her existence as a human being." (Cities of Words) Whatever the cost to Kristine of losing Krogstad years earlier, of working so hard to support a mother and her brothers, one assumes that cost was not at the expense of her as a human being. When Kristine says to Nils that "I've learned to look at things practically. Life and poverty have taught me that" this slight tweaking of the original may reflect Mercer's background as the grandchild of a miner and the son of a house servant and an engine driver. Mercer left school at fourteen and ended up in the merchant navy. But what is clear (in both film and play) is that whatever sacrifices Kristine makes needn't run contrary to her sense of self. Nora feels that to stay with Torvald aware that while she has made enormous sacrifices for him, he wouldn't make them for her. He admits as much, saying no man would sacrifice their honour, even for the woman he loves. Nora says "millions of women have done it."
Mercer and Losey alters the line from thousands to millions, in another small change to the play that nevertheless augments Ibsen's point rather than changing it, making it more plausible since it does not feel obligated to the fidelity of filmed theatre. As Judith Crist reckoned: "Where the earlier work [with Bloom and Hopkins] was a filmed stage play and could be credited primarily as a record of a performance by first-rank players, Losey and Mercer have opted for cinema, with a linear script detailing the past, with a remarkable cast clarifying the present, and with location shooting enriching the ambienceindoors and outand underlining the universality of the theme." (Texas Monthly) Merely by casting a star like Fonda, insisting on using location shooting, bringing out more clearly the subplot between Kristine and Krogstad, and removing and adding a few lines here and there, Losey offers a film that anybody who didn't know the play could view and feel they had indeed seen it, while at the same time would also have been watching a work true to Mercer, Losey and Fonda's own preoccupations. It is indeed a faithful act of infidelity.
© Tony McKibbin