Films that are adapted from books and manage to maintain the integrity of the original source while still bringing all of the drama and the emotion to the screen in a clever and creative way are a wonder, in a way. Rarer than that, but being able to bring true tomes whose plotlines and details are as thick and untidy as anything presents an even harder task to the director and writers, as well as the cast. However impossible the task seems, it is indeed possible. Take, for instance, the masterful adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Numerous characters abound, a sprawling tale that remains a classic in the realms of literature; the film itself is presented in a clean and epic way, perfectly brought to the screen revealing every facet and nuance of character (that was possible). Yes, things were left out, but that comes with the territory.
As skillful and excellent as Peter Jackson’s work was on those films, perhaps an (almost) equally difficult adaptation is Isabel Allende’s sweeping epic the House of the Spirits. While one may interpret Allende’s narrative structure and story as convoluted, one cannot deny the expertise that Allende demonstrates when crafting a story about three generations. Palme d’Or winner Billie August, a native of Denmark, attempted to take this behemoth of a family history and dribble down to its most accessible, trying earnestly to retain emotion, integrity, and drama. Stripping it to its basic form, the director tries to wring as much emotion and power from the pages as possible, but does so haphazardly.
However impressive the task itself was, the execution was borderline atrocious. Hampered by a nearly incoherent screenplay, a strangely imperfect cast, and clumsily editing, The House of the Spirits is one of the most terrific failures of film adaptations in recent memory. There have certainly been looser adaptations, but the intentions to be loose were already present. Sheer audacity for such an adaptation does not cut it when it comes to making a viably entertaining film.
Allende’s cast of characters and their following actions could be described in one word: enthralling. Allende paints with a delicate brush as she illustrates the motivations and thoughts of every person within her novel. When transferred to the screen, however, much of that emotion is left to waste, barely appearing transparent on the screen. Jeremy Irons portrays the patriarch, a bombastic and forceful tyrant named Esteban Trueba. Irons, who won an Academy Award for Reversal of Fortune, is a perfectly excellent actor in general terms. Able to bring out the fire and tenderness of any given role, he somehow seems misplaced and lost in as Esteban. Despite excellent make up to accentuate Trueba’s aging body and soul, irons speaks his lines with an element hamminess, chewing scenery in only a way that could be compared to Lawrence Olivier. He bothers not with any kind of Spanish accent, and that may have been for the better. Most disappointing is the lack of actual urgency Irons brings to the role. When Esteban goes to the prostitute who owed him money, there’s a desperation and yearning in the scene; but a few soft spoken sentences are marked as a major letdown.
Meryl Streep, the titan of the American film world, is incredibly miscast as Clara, Esteban’s wife and the mystic of the family. Clara may have been gentle in the novel, but Streep’s overly soft spoken tone is perceived as unsure and even obnoxious. A woman as powerful as she (in both respects) should command the role. Despite having been nominated for sixteen Oscars, none of that skill or deftness is evident.
Winona Ryder also underperforms as Blanca, Clara’s daughter and protagonist midway through the film. Her lines are spoken as if she is dragging them out of her mouth against her will, which serves as irksome and obtrusive to the viewing. Her inability to dramatically articulate her dialogue thus damages her credibility as the character in general, for any depth of sense of pathos is gone.
The only actor to accomplish some sense of believability is Glen Close, who gets a woefully underwritten role as Esteban’s doomed sister Ferula. The two had worked together in Reversals of Fortune, and the same kind of chemistry is there. There is at least a sense of peril and danger she feels when she is attracted to Clara. As tainted as the scenes are, Close brings her crazy from Fatal Attraction onto the set and succeeds, even making the cacophonous dialogue sound relatively good.
Director August must have either been blithely unaware of his cast’s inability to effectively interpret the characters, or the studio executives pushed far too hard to get big names at the expense of terrible acting. The screenplay, barely using any direct dialogue from the novel, has the mark of someone who does not speak English as their native tongue. Each line seems wrought with so much drama and so much emotion that their use as something actually serious means nothing. The actors continuously strain to give the words life, but the words themselves strangled the life out of them.
It’s fair to say that the novel can be at time both erotic and horrifying. But the strains of whiffs of eroticism are not here and instead replaced by either gratuitous nudity or disconcerting voyeurism. It ends up creating a disconnect between the audience and the characters, who are then forced to partake in the peeping. That kind of thing only works with certain films, like Peeping Tom; here, however, is is deathly misused.
The aspect ratio of the film (2.35:1) does not help matters. The widescreen cinematography actually dampens dramatic effect, providing the viewer with too wide of a space, making the celluloid geography unbearable to look at. With a story that’s so intensely driven by its characters, wide shots and close shots (that end up being wide because of the camera lens) ruin the effect, as if trying to make the locale a character in the story. The concentrated version of this story does not permit this move, forcing the characters to take on the burden of moving the story forward, not the setting. Setting also becomes an issue as the titular house never actually appears. Occasionally, though seldom, the still shots of scenes look rather good, sometimes even a little magnificent, but too many other production issues again hinder this enjoyment.
Lazy editing becomes a chief offender in the film. As they say, editing is telling the story; the primary tool for making the director’s vision come true. However, the editing in The House of the Spirits is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Cutting from scene to scene with no sense of space, geography, or timing, the actual pace of the film is ruined extravagantly. This is shown in one particular scene where editing would have been key to making the scene a success. When Esteban comes to Tres Marias, he rapes a woman named Pancha. The scene begins to build up, but is over too soon to make a lasting impression on the viewer. There’s a buildup, but there’s no climax.
As admirable as the attempt at making a film out of Allende’s languid and lustrous political commentary and dramatic masterpiece is, its execution is hopeless. One would have been better off making the text into a mini-series; in that format, much of the detail would have been able to remain untarnished. I like to think of The House of the Spirits as a beautiful tapestry that is once tattered and threadbare when it reached the screen. Caught on the wind in a daze, it tries hard to muster the appearance of beauty. But we all know that it can’t.