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Ford Madox Ford and unfilmable Modernism

By Max Saunders


One definition of a classic book is a work which inspires repeated metamorphoses. Romeo and Juliet, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Great Gatsby don’t just wait in their original forms to be watched or read, but continually migrate from one medium to another: painting, opera, melodrama, dramatization, film, comic-strip. New technologies inspire further reincarnations. Sometimes it’s a matter of transferring a version from one medium to another — audio recordings to digital files, say. More often, different technologies and different markets encourage new realisations: Hitchcock’s Psycho re-shot in colour; French or German films remade for American audiences; widescreen or 3D remakes of classic movies or stories.

Cinema is notoriously hungry for adaptations of literary works. The adaptation that’s been preoccupying me lately is the BBC/HBO version of Parade’s End, the series of four novels about the Edwardian era and the First World War, written by Ford Madox Ford. Ford was British, but an unusually cosmopolitan and bohemian kind of Brit. His father was a German émigré, a musicologist who ended up as music critic for the London Times. His mother was an artist, the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. Ford was educated trilingually, in French and German as well as English. When he was introduced to Joseph Conrad at the turn of the century, they decided to collaborate on a novel, and went on over a decade to produce three collaborative books. He also got to know Henry James and Stephen Crane at this time — the two Americans were also living nearby, on the Southeast coast of England. Americans were to prove increasingly important in Ford’s life. He moved to London in 1907, and soon set up the literary magazine that helped define pre-war modernism: the English Review. He had a gift for discovering new talent, and was soon publishing D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis alongside James and Conrad. But it was Ezra Pound, who he also met and published at this time, who was to become his most important literary friend after Conrad.

Ford served in the First World War, getting injured and suffering from shell shock in the Battle of the Somme. He moved to France after the war, where he soon joined forces with Pound again, to form another influential modernist magazine, the transatlantic review, which published Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Rhys. Ford took on another young American, Ernest Hemingway, as his sub-editor. Ford held regular soirees, either in a working class dance-hall with a bar that he’d commandeered, or in the studio he lived in with his partner, the Australian painter Stella Bowen. He found himself at the centre of the (largely American) expatriate artist community in the Paris of the 20s. And it was there, and in Provence in the winters, and partly in New York, that he wrote the four novels of Parade’s End, that made him a celebrity in the US. He spent an increasing amount of time in the US through the 20s and 30s, based on Fifth Avenue in New York, becoming a writer in residence in the small liberal arts Olivet College in Michigan, spending time with writer-friends like Theodore Dreiser and William Carlos Williams, and among the younger generation, Robert Lowell and e. e. cummings.

Parade’s End (1924-28) has been dramatized for TV by Sir Tom Stoppard. It has to be one of the most challenging books to film; but Stoppard has the theatrical ingenuity, and experience, to bring it off. It’s a classic work of Modernism: with a non-linear time-scheme that can jump around in disconcerting ways; dense experimental writing that plays with styles and techniques. Though it includes some of the most brilliant conversations in the British novel, and its characters have a strong dramatic presence, much of it is inherently un-dramatic and, you might have thought, unfilmable: long interior monologues, descriptions of what characters see and feel; and — perhaps hardest of all to convey in drama — moments when they don’t say what they feel, or do what we might expect of them. Imagine T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, populated by Chekhovian characters, but set on the Western Front.

I’ve worked on Ford for some years, yet still find him engaging, tantalising, often incomprehensibly rewarding, so I was watching Parade’s End with fascination. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

Stoppard and the director, Susanna White, have done an extraordinary job in transforming this rich and complex text into a dramatic line that is at once lucid and moving. Sometimes where Ford just mentions an event in passing, the adaptation dramatizes the scene for us. The protagonist is Christopher Tietjens, a man of high-Tory principle — a paradoxical mix of extreme formality and unconventional intelligence – is played outstandingly by Benedict Cumberbatch, with a rare gift to convey thought behind Tietjens’ taciturn exterior. In the novel’s backstory, Christopher has been seduced in a railway carriage by Sylvia, who thinks she’s pregnant by another man. The TV version adds a conversation as they meet in the train; then cuts rapidly to a sex scene. It’s more than just a hook for viewers unconcerned about textual fidelity, though. What it establishes is what Ford only hints at through the novel, and what would be missed without Tietjen’s brooding thoughts about Sylvia: that her outrageousness turns him on as much as it torments him. In another example, where the novelist can describe the gossip circulating like wildfire in this select upper-class social world, the dramatist needs to give it a location; so Stoppard invents a scene at an Eton cricket match for several of the characters to meet, and insult Valentine Wannop, while she and Tietjens are trying not to have the affair that everyone assumes they are already having. Valentine is an ardent suffragette. In the novel, she and Tietjens argue about women and politics and education. Stoppard introduces a real historical event from the period — a Suffragette slashing Velasquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’ in the National Gallery — as a way of saying it visually; and then complicating it beautifully with another intensely visual interpolated moment. In the book Ford has Valentine unconcsciously rearranging the cushions on her sofa as she waits to see Tietjens the evening before he’s posted back to the war. When she becomes aware that she’s fiddling with the cushions because she’s anticipating a love-scene with him, the adaptation disconcertingly places Valentine nude on her sofa in the same position as the ‘Rokeby Venus’ — in a flash both sexualizing her politics and politicizing her sexuality.

Such changes cause a double-take in viewers who know the novels. But they’re never gratuitous, and always respond to something genuine in the writing.

Perhaps the most striking transformation comes during one of the most amazing moments in the second volume, No More Parades. Tietjens is back in France, stationed at a Base Camp in Rouen, struggling against the military bureaucracy to get drafts of troops ready to be sent to the Front Line. Sylvia, who can’t help loving Tietjens though he drives her mad, has somehow managed to get across the Channel and pursue him to his Regiment. She has been unfaithful, and he is determined not to sleep with her; but because his principles won’t let a man divorce a woman, he feels obliged to share her hotel room so as not to humiliate her publicly. She is determined to seduce him once more; but has been flirting with other officers in the hotel, two of whom also end up in their bedroom in a drunken brawl. It’s an extraordinary moment of frustration, hysteria, terror (there has been a bombardment that evening), confusion, and farce. In the book we sense Sylvia’s seductive power, and that Tietjens isn’t immune to it, even though by then in love with Valentine. He resists. But in the film version, they kiss passionately before being interrupted.

Valentine and Christopher. Adelaide Clemens and Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade’s End. (c) BBC/HBO.

The scene may have been changed to emphasize the power she still has over Tietjens: as if, paradoxically, he needs to be seen to succumb for a moment to make his resistance to her the more heroic. The change that’s going to exercise enthusiasts of the novels, though, is the way three of the five episodes were devoted to the first novel, Some Do Not…; and roughly one each to the second and third; with very little of the fourth volume, Last Post, being included at all. The third volume, A Man Could Stand Up — ends where the adaptation does, with Christopher and Valentine finally being united on Armistice night, a suitably dramatic and symbolic as well as romantic climax. Last Post is set in the 1920s and deals with post-war reconstruction. One can see why it would have been the hardest to film: much of it is interior monologue, and though Tietjens is often the subject of it he is absent for most of the book. Some crucial scenes from the action of the earlier books is only supplied as characters remember them in Last Post, such as when Syliva turns up after the Armistice night party lying to Christopher and Valentine that  she has cancer in an attempt to frustrate their union. Stoppard incorporates this into the last episode, but he writes new dialogue for it to give it a kind of closure the novels studiedly resist. Valentine challenges her as a liar, and from Tietjens’ reaction, Sylvia appears to recognize the reality of his love for her and gives her their blessing.

Rebecca Hall, playing Sylvia, has been so brilliantly and scathingly sarcastic all the way through that this change of heart — moving though it is — might seem out of character: even the character the film gives her, which is arguably more sympathetic than the one most readers find in the novel. Yet her reversal is in Last Post. But what triggers it there, much later on, is when she confronts Valentine but finds her pregnant. Even the genius of Tom Stoppard couldn’t make that happen before Valentine and Christopher have been able to make love. But there are two other factors, which he was able to shift from the post-war time of Last Post into the war’s endgame of the last episode. One is that Sylvia has focused her plotting on a new object. Refusing the role of the abandoned wife of Tietjens, she has now set her sights on General Campion, and begun scheming to get him made Viceroy of India. The other is that she feels she has already dealt Tietjens a devastating blow, in getting the ‘Great Tree’ at his ancestral stately home of Groby cut down. In the book she does this after the war by encouraging the American who’s leasing it to get it felled. In the film she’s done it before the Armistice; she’s at Groby; Tietjens visits there; has a Stoppard scene with Sylvia arranged in her bed like a Pre-Raphaelite vision in a last attempt to re-seduce him, which fails partly because of his anger over the tree. In the books the Great Tree represents the Tietjens family, continuity, even history itself. Ford writes a sentence about how the villagers “would ask permission to hang rags and things from the boughs,” but Stoppard and White make that image of the tree, all decorated with trinkets and charms, a much more prominent motif, returning to it throughout the series, and turning it into a symbol of superstition and magic. But then Stoppard characteristically plays on the motif, and has Christopher take a couple of blocks of wood from the felled tree back to London. One he gives to his brother, in a wonderfully tangible and taciturn gesture of renouncing the whole estate and the history it stands for. The other he uses in his flat, throwing whisky over it in the fireplace to light a fire to keep himself and Valentine warm. That gesture shows how it isn’t just Sylvia who is saying ‘Goodbye to All That’, but all the major characters are anticipating the life that, though the series doesn’t show it, Ford presents in the beautifully elegiac Last Post.

Max Saunders is author of Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life (OUP, 1996/2012), and editor of Some Do Not . . ., the first volume of Ford’s Parade’s End (Manchester: Carcanet, 2010) and Ford’s The Good Soldier (Oxford: OUP, 2012). He was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the Culture Show’s ‘Who on Earth was Ford Madox Ford’ (BBC 2; 1 September 2012), and his blog on Ford’s life and work can be read on the OUPblog and New Statesman.

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Image credits: (1) Portrait of Ford Madox Ford (Source: Wikimedia Commons); (2) Still from BBC2 adaption of Parade’s End. (Source: bbc.co.uk).

Recent Comments

  1. Shelley

    Benedict Cumberbatch can do anything. Even this.

  2. [...] On looking into previous ownership of the property it appears that it once belonged to relatives of Ford Madox Ford, a contemporary of Joseph Conrad, who had co-authored two novels with the famous writer. The couple [...]

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