Between having some idle time, and doing some Egyptian-themed reading, I decided to watch a movie I’d been meaning to see for some years, The Awakening. No, I’m not going Kate Chopin on you, nor am I talking about the 2011 film of the same name. The one I’m talking about was released in 1980. It starred Charlton Heston, Susanna York, and Stephanie Zimbalist. And it was based on a Bram Stoker novel from 1903, The Jewel of Seven Stars.
As it turns out, the movie is so-so. And the reasons can be traced all the way back to Stoker’s most famous novel, Dracula, which had been published only six years before Jewel.
What made Dracula work? Stoker drew us deeper and deeper into the mystery of the Count through multiple narrative threads, brought in Van Helsing to explain the deep history and supernatural elements, and then led us through a chase of the hunted vampire. The plot was chock-a-block with surprises and suspense. Oh, and it was all coated in a romantically superstitious Victorian Christianity.
Stoker doesn’t seem to have fully understood what he had done, because he tried to recreate it several times and failed. This is what happened in The Jewel of Seven Stars. Instead of being about a vampire coming back to life, Jewel was about an ancient Egyptian queen coming back to life via her mummy. Stoker began with a mystery, developed a historical and supernatural background, and then led us to what he hoped would be a thrilling conclusion. So far, Jewel was an Egyptian Dracula. But Jewel‘s plot was simpler, its pace slower, the surprises fewer, the suspense dulled. Worse for its original readers, Stoker suggested that Egyptian gods could have been real and rivals to the Christian God, and the novel ended with an unhappy conclusion. So disliked were these last two elements that the publisher eventually forced Stoker to rewrite the end of the story, eliminating the offensive metaphysics and giving the story a happy ending.
The screenwriters for The Awakening chose to keep Stoker’s original plot. However, they wisely abandoned Stoker’s treatment of the story, which would have imprisoned the movie in a sick room for its first half, and updated the story to contemporary times. And they tossed in two new elements to drive the plot. The lesser element was a romantic triangle between the archaeologist who finds the mummy, his wife, and his young female research assistant. The more important element is the characterizing of the mummified Egyptian queen as a supernaturally evil woman. When this movie came out, many critics felt this was an attempt to capitalize on the success of The Omen, by echoing its plot of the rebirth of evil. But the writers may have also taken a page from an earlier adaptation of Jewel, Hammer Films’ 1971 film Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, which depicted the mummy queen as evil. The notion can even be traced back to the original novel, for Stoker hinted that the mummy queen might in fact be a vicious and ruthless woman. Whatever the origin of the idea, it added needed suspense to what otherwise was a bland story.
It could have been a very good movie of its kind. What went wrong? I blame the screenwriters at two critical points. First, writers are told to “show not tell,” and that advice goes double for movies. Queen Kara is supposed to have been this evil black magician? Then do a flashback and show her in ancient Egypt, carrying out just one of her crimes! All we get instead are hints and one story, told in a perfunctory manner. Second, when Heston and Zimbalist come together, apparently viewers are supposed to be confused about whether they are obsessed, possessed, or simply psychotic. Unfortunately, the two actors come across simply as confused as the viewer. One can imagine Zimbalist, who was just starting her career, asking Heston how to handle the dialogue and scenes between them, and him replying that since the dialogue was confusing and didn’t make sense, they might as well play it that way.
It doesn’t help that almost all of the supporting characters developed for the movie are just thrown away. The movie could have been infused with tragic passion, between Drury and Zimbalist, or between Heston and his two wives. Instead, Patrick Drury, Zimbalist’s love interest, gets a passionless date and then gets killed off camera. And Heston treats his two wives as blond trophies. One wonders what his wives saw in him. Or for that matter, what he saw in them. Jill Townsend as Heston’s first wife and Zimbalist’s mother spends her time being petulant. Only Susannah York among the supporting characters gets to play a real personality in the early part of the movie, when she’s Heston’s enthusiastic research assistant who doesn’t want to cause waves in Heston’s marriage. There could have been some wonderful chemistry between the two of them. But we never see it. York is chaste as a graduate student, and dull as a married woman. When she gets added to the victims, we shrug our shoulders, and wonder why Townsend doesn’t get killed, too.
So, let me give an enthusiastic “eh, what?” to The Awakening. Stoker’s story has been made into a film or TV production at least four other times, including the aforementioned 1971 Hammer film, “The Curse of the Mummy” (a 1970 ITV episode from the Mystery and Imagination series), 1986’s The Tomb, and 1998’s (Bram Stoker’s) Legend of the Mummy (not to be confused with The Mummy, which was remade around the same time). If you have seen any of these five productions, feel free to offer your opinion in the comments.