You’ve heard the refrain: if only the movie had been true to the book, it would have been so much better! Of course, much of what can make a book good are things that are difficult to capture in a visual medium. And then there’s the problem of one’s own visualization being different from the movie. All of which leads to the conclusion that there is no mechanical way to transfer a book to the screen.
Partly because his name came up in Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree (and Trillion Year Spree, which I’ve also finished reading), and partly because I’d heard of the story, I recently picked up Kingsley Amis’s 1969 ghost story, The Green Man. Although I enjoyed the story, I didn’t think that much of it at first. However, as I reviewed it in my mind I had to admit it was a nifty bit of work. It reads something like a slapdash ghost story, but it’s actually carefully constructed, with numerous comparisons and contrasts being drawn. Amis also gets his digs in at some of the sillier notions from the late 1960s, while suggesting there may not actually be all that much new under the sun.
So what’s it about? Our protagonist, Maurice Allington, is the keeper of the Green Man, an inn a bit off the beaten path in Hertfordshire. He is, shall we say, a charming cad. He has his difficulties: a family falling apart, a drinking habit that is ruining his health, and a ghost. For the inn is haunted by one Dr. Thomas Underhill, late of Cambridge University. Very late, in fact: Underhill lived in the 17th century. In his own way, he was a charming cad, too. And that is one reason he’s going to be a problem for Maurice Allington.
(By the way, this is definitely a story for adults, in both the book and video versions. There’s a fair bit of nudity and sex, the latter not terribly explicit in either the book or the video adaptation.)
The British Broadcasting Company and the American network Arts & Entertainment collaborated on a three part adaptation shown on TV in 1990. It’s a good adaptation. The producers and screenwriters followed the book where they could, and came up with clever ways to cover some material in cinematic fashion. Underhill’s history, for example, instead of being dumped in our laps at the beginning as in the book, is unveiled step-by-step as Maurice has to cope with the ghost. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Maurice Allington after you see Albert Finney in the role. He looks like one would imagine Maurice Allington: an older man, once handsome, still with some of his looks, and a bit of weight around the middle, charming without being good.
What makes the story work, both as a book and TV movie, is the dynamic between Maurice Allington and Dr. Thomas Underhill. They are both “bad boys,” as Maurice’s father puts it. And when they come to deal with each other, each will stay true to his character. The results will not be what you expect, unless you’ve been paying very, very close attention. But they are satisfying.