Notes on an adaptation

Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal is a brilliant film based on a middling novel. So why are so many critics still banging on about the book?

Emily Hill

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Notes on a Scandal, directed by Richard Eyre, on general release in British cinemas.

It is not often I have read the novel on which a film is based. And judging by the lit crit-thick responses of the rest of London’s hacks to the film version of Notes on a Scandal – ‘the unreliable narrator!’; ‘Nabokovian!’; ‘Booker short-listed novel!’ – I’m not the only one who is feeling smug. It seems that the overriding trend in the film criticism of Notes on a Scandal is that the reviews are not so much reviews of the film as reviews of the film as an adaptation of the novel. (Rather like this review might threaten to become a review of the reviews of the film as a film of the novel. Oh dear.)

The translation of novel to the big screen is often an interesting exercise to contemplate. And it might be so in this case, too, if Zoe Heller’s novel was Ulysses and it represented a challenge to film as a medium. But Heller’s book is a clever, zeitgeisty riff on student-teacher sex, and zipped up, twilight-year Sapphism. It is fairly well imagined and pretty well executed, but all in all it is a potboiler that can be digested within a train ride – which no doubt explains why so many reviewers have read it. It is exactly the sort of book (heavy on plot, strong on atmosphere) that translates well to screen (no odes penned or necessary).

So let’s get back to the film.

Notes on a Scandal centres on the obsession that a lonely, elderly schoolteacher, Barbara (Judi Dench), develops for a middle-aged, sexpot art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett), who is having illicit sex with a 15-year-old special-needs pupil, Steven (Andrew Simpson). Barbara uses her knowledge of Sheba’s affair to gain a hold over her. She gains access to Sheba’s house and family, deluding herself as to her own place in Sheba’s affections. She also places increasing emotional demands on Sheba. When Sheba cannot and will not meet those demands, Barbara quietly sets about bringing Sheba’s sins home to roost – which they do, in spectacular fashion.

There is a strong element of class conflict in the film. Barbara, the lower middle-class schoolmarm, is fascinated by Sheba’s upper middle-class world of bourgeois bohemia, her large, beautiful townhouse, with its leafy surroundings and pottery studio; the photograph frame Sheba buys her from Asprey’s; the imagined invites to the summer getaway in the Dordogne; the ‘immediate, incautious intimacy’ in which Sheba seems to involve her. Visits to Sheba’s scruffy suburban palace are, to Barbara, a ‘merry flag on the wilderness of my calendar’.

Sheba’s obsession with her pupil, too, is strongly tinged by ideas about class. Sheba does not need to teach for the money, and Barbara pours scorn on her idealism, her ‘trendy politics’ and belief that she can ‘make a difference’ through pottery. Sheba’s affair with her pupil commences when the boy expresses an interest in art – a class he cannot take because he has special needs. His interest fascinates Sheba (in the eyes of Barbara) because he is ‘working class and likes art – as if a monkey strode out of the rainforest and asked for a gin and tonic’.

If we must compare the book to the film, then we must conclude that the film is far superior. The fascination that Sheba is supposed to inspire never really grabbed me in the book, in which Sheba wears purple shoes and diaphanous dresses, whines like a schoolgirl and has the smarts of Princess Di. But in the film, Chris Menges’ cinematography makes Blanchett’s beauty inescapable. Screenwriter Patrick Marber’s ‘new’ ending may have scandalised certain critics, but throughout he has taken Barbara’s prim meant-to-be acerbic prose and made it acidic. Teaching in a London comprehensive is now a matter of ‘cattle-prod and pray’ but only Barbara can recognise the system’s true ‘quotidian awfulness’. Sheba is seduced by the tall tales of her teenage boyfriend – about his cancer-suffering working-class mother and the beatings he receives from his working-class father – because it ‘made [her] feel like Bob Geldof’. Yet Barbara realises that ‘the boy has done her like a kipper’.

Dench’s crisp voicing of such phrases completes the process, making Notes on a Scandal the triumph it is. She has taken Barbara, and through Marber’s revamped voiceovers, and her perfect, malleable mask of a face, fully realised the loneliness and longing of the vampirish spinster. The scene where Barbara smokes cigarettes in her dowdy bathroom, her thinning hair clinging to her forehead, her puffy arm wet against the dull green tub, recounting the reality of loneliness, the ‘drip drip of solitude’ which means ‘the accidental brush of the bus conductor can send a jolt of longing straight to your groin’, has to be one of the most striking vignettes in cinema thus far this year.

So the question of why so many critics are focusing on the book, and the film’s apparent failure to capture its essence, is baffling. Is it because some of them are mates with Zoe Heller, the journalist turned author, and feel the need to big up her literary achievement? Or is it because they are aspiring authors themselves and want to flag up the authority of original authorship? Maybe it’s because they think transforming a ‘subtle’ (read plodding and uneven) character study into a dynamic thriller for mass cinema audiences is something of a vulgar exercise.

Whatever the answer, everyone seems to have remembered the book as more important than it was. The book may have been easily digestible, but the film is utterly compelling – and it deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Emily Hill is staff writer for spiked, and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.

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