Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Classics: A Comparison of The Razor's Edge 1946 and 1984 By Lauren Ennis

The saying goes that beauty lies within the eye of the beholder, so too for each story that is told the interpretation lies within the perspective of the reader. As a result, numerous versions of any given fable, legend, or novel can co-exist and each tell their own rendition of the original, while still retaining its central meaning. Such is the case with the 1944 W. Somerset Maugham novel The Razor’s Edge, which has been put to film twice, first in 1946 and again in 1984. While both films follow the general plot of the novel and emphasize its central ideas, each version possesses its own distinct style and tone that provides fresh twists on the original text. As a result, each outshines the other in certain ways, but the question remains, which film truly captures the ‘big picture’ that Maugham sought to inspire his readers with?

A very 40's take on the 20's, try that for a time warp
1.      PLOT: Although both films chronicle the same major events as the novel, the 1984 version adds another layer of back story in order to help viewers better understand the characters and their relation to one another. While the 1946 version and novel both begin when protagonist Larry Darrell and his friends are celebrating after his return from fighting in WWI, the 1984 version begins four years earlier on the eve of the war. While this additional information may seem unnecessary at first, it serves to provide vital insight into the frivolous man that Larry was before his traumatic experiences in the war led him to question his beliefs. The 1984 version then goes on to show Larry’s evolution throughout the war until he loses all faith in his former values when his commanding officer is killed while saving his life.  This section of the film also shows Larry’s early interactions with his haughty fiancé, Isabel and their close friend, Sophie. During these scenes it is revealed that Larry and Isabel already see the world differently, as she is primarily concerned with material possessions and keeping up public appearances, while he just wants to enjoy life and have fun regardless of what other people think. Similarly, Larry is shown to possess a strong bond with Sophie although she has already become engaged to Larry’s friend, Bob, following an unplanned pregnancy (which was not included in the novel or 1946 film), circumstances that foreshadow Sophie’s promiscuous downfall and relationship with Larry later in the film. By contrast, the 1946 version is an almost verbatim adaptation of Maugham’s novel, which retains his inclusion of himself as a minor character and the story’s narrator. In this film, the narration and dialogue follow the novel word for word and the chronology of the novel remains intact. The only instances in which the 1946 film differs from the novel are during the scenes that would have been too risqué for the censors of the day, particularly the scenes relating to Sophie’s descent into opium addiction and promiscuity.  Although the 1984 film’s emphasis upon back story provides unique insight into the story’s characters and their attitudes, the 1946 film is the better bet for a faithful adaptation.


2.      TONE: Although both films relate the same events, each does so in its own manner, causing each film to contain a very different tone. The 1946 film was made shortly after the end of World War II, which ensured that audiences would understand the dilemma that Larry and Isabel faced after each anxiously awaited his return home, only to find that both had changed during the course of the war. Because the story hit so close to home for audiences, there was no need to include the back story of Larry’s time in the war, or to explain the trauma that he suffered. There was also no need to make the story more relevant, as it was only twenty five years after the events of the novel, and contemporary audiences were already in the midst of their own search for meaning after a world war. This intimacy with the subject matter made it necessary for the cast and crew to treat the story in a serious and sensitive manner, which respected the impact of war on both returning servicemen and those waiting for them on the home front. As a result, the 1946 film is purposeful and serious in its approach to the story with the exception of some dry humor in the form of Isabel’s pompous uncle, Elliott, and forsakes much of Maugham’s original instances comedy.


Freinds forever...or foreverish
By contrast, the 1984 film needed to relate the story in a way that would be of interest to modern audiences. One way that the film’s makers remedied this issue was to play up the comedic aspects of the story. For instance, at the start of the film Larry jokes with his friends including the heartfelt goodbye to Sophie in which he avoids becoming too emotional by making a joke about her whirlwind romance with Bob. Similarly, Isabel rejects Larry’s bohemian lifestyle in Paris after spending a romantic night with him, only to wake up to find a roach on her pillow and a rat in the trash can in his apartment. Both scenes expertly capture the emotional weight of the character’s situations while still demonstrating the author’s original intentions through a bit of sly humor. The 1984 film was also free of the strict censors that restricted the 1946 film. As a result, such added details as Sophie’s unwed pregnancy, Larry and Isabel’s premarital sex, and Sophie’s self-destructive behavior following the deaths of her husband and child could be included in the script. While the 1946 film was able to convey the general sense of the story without these racy details, their inclusion in the 1984 version allowed the story to be more relatable to modern viewers living with relaxed social mores. Through its frank treatment of adult subjects and comedic take on an otherwise dry story, the 1984 film is more relatable and relevant to the modern viewer.


                            For the record, the 1946 version spawned a hit song to boot!

3.      CAST: Although both films tell very different versions of the same tale, both contain excellent performances. Bill Murray used this film to effectively show audiences that he was capable of more than just comedy in his layered performance as Larry. Despite his desire to move on from comedy, however, Murray still brings his signature sarcasm and wit to the role, making Larry a relatable ,as well as enjoyable, character. Tyrone Power’s portrayal of Larry is also engaging, although for different reasons. Because of the serious tone in the 1946 film, the role of Larry called upon Power to be more of the enlightened mystic that Maugham portrays him as at the end of the novel. As a result, Power’s Larry, while decent, honest, and likable is more difficult to relate to for the average viewer, and his example proves more daunting than inspiring. Catherine Hicks portrays Isabel as an average woman desperate to hold onto her love for an unusual man. In her performance, Isabel acts upon her impulses and need for frivolous pleasures without meaning to necessarily cause harm, but often does just that. Gene Tierney’s performance greatly contrasts with Hicks’ as Tierney displays both the petty childishness that motivates Isabel, and the calculated manipulation with which she achieves it. Tierney also successfully shows both the pleasant and cultured exterior that Isabel utilizes to maintain appearances and the vindictive jealousy lying just beneath its surface. Theresa Russell provides a truly tragic performance as Sophie and captures the damaged, sensitive, soul that she is while still emphasizing the bitterness that has consumed her. Anne Baxter also does an excellent job of portraying Sophie’s self-destructive downfall, but her portrayal of Sophie’s initial innocence at the start of the film is less convincing, softening her later descent into depravity. John Payne and James Keach both do their best but fade into the film’s background in the role of Isabel’s conventional husband, and Denholm Elliott provides an adequate turn as Isabel’s uncle Elliott, but fails to match Clifton Webb’s comically snobbish portrayal. Overall, both casts provide excellent performances, leaving the casts at a tie and the overall comparison at a tie as well. Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments, I’d love to know which film you prefer!

Love flapper style

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