Wednesday, January 24, 2007

notes on notes on a scandal

A couple weeks ago, SK and I went to see Notes on a Scandal at the theater (or the cinema, SK would say). We both loved it, but I found myself wishing there was *more.* I find that I am maybe pathologically curious about taboo relationships and I have always been especially intrigued by the phenomenon of female teachers taking up with their young, male students. I think of Mary Kay Latourno, with her bouncy blonde hair-do and her perfect family suddenly caught up with a kid who could barely grow a moustache.

I have tried to imagine what could motivate an otherwise established, succesful, settled (*grown*) woman to do something so foolish and, in my mind, bizarre. When SK and I went to see this movie, I was hoping to gain some insight, and even though I *loved* the movie, I was a little disappointed that it didn't dig deeper into the psychology behind the relationship Sheba (Cate Blanchet's character) has with her young, male student. As we left the theater, I found myself wishing the movie had been based on a book, so I could read more.

Well, turns out, it *was* based on a book. "What Was She Thinking (Notes on a Scandal)" by Zoe Heller. I just finished it last night and it was a really interesting read, but for reasons I wouldn't have imagined. Again, the book didn't delve too deeply into the psychological depths of the teacher -- the dark and murky depths I have imagined must lurk whenever a 40 year old woman decides to have sex with a 14 year old boy. And maybe I should just leave well enough alone. Maybe it is, after all, much simpler than I imagine. As the book tells it, their affair was simple and lusty and his appeal was pretty plain: he was young, sexy and full of testosterone. I am obviously not so moved by that clump of characteristics and that has perhaps blinded me from understanding what straight women could possibly see in teenage boys. Frankly, it stimulates my gag reflex a little. But whatever.

I abandoned that line of inquiry and found myself reading the book with pleasure, relishing the crisp bitchiness of the voice. The book is narrated by Barbara Covett (Judi Dench's character), the old spinster who takes a sinister, clingy interest in Sheba's life. Leaving the plot aside for a moment, I'll say I really enjoyed the consistency and pitch-perfect clarity of Barbara's voice in this book. Dench must have read it in preparation for the movie, because she embodied that character perfectly and, as I read, I could hear Dench's Barbara speaking each, clever, articulate line in my mind.

Unfortunately, the other reason I enjoyed reading the book so much doesn't speak well of the book. As a writer, I found it really fascinating to note the ways the film shifted and condensed the book, taking major liberties in some places, to make the story much more efficient and impactful. The subtle changes were most notable, slightly rearranging plot-points as though they were free-standing building blocks that could be placed into a better, shaplier order. The result is a film that's much tighter than the book, not because the book is sprawling, but because the book just isn't as well organized.

I was mildly disappointed to realize that the movie added extra-emphasis to Barbara's supposed lesbianism. In the novel, it's subtle to the point of nonexistance. You're left wondering if maybe it's so deeply suppressed that maybe it isn't there at all. In fact, the book paints her as much more a lonely spinster who is too bitter and clever to allow easy intimacy, yet who longs for it painfully and jealously. In the book you can see Barbara much more as the lonely schoolgirl who longed for emotional intimacy and intense bonds of friendship and who never quite graduated to concerns of physical love and romance.

The movie, however, implies something much more lurid and the scene in which Sheba confronts Barbara was more vulgar and explicit in the movie than the book. In the book, Sheba never even begins to accuse Barbara of having a lesbian crush on her and it makes me shudder just a little to realize that the filmmakers have once again used lesbianism to add an ick-factor to a circumstance where it otherwise wouldn't apply. Although, maybe I'm just being overly sensitive. Maybe the filmmakers were right to bring something out of the subtext and expose it more fully to the light. Who knows.

Anyway, when it's all said and done, if you're only going to experience one or the other of them, I recommend the movie. It's great.


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