Movie as Metaphor: Focus on Daniel Martin

By Ward, Carol | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1987 | Go to article overview

Movie as Metaphor: Focus on Daniel Martin


Ward, Carol, Literature/Film Quarterly


If you want story, character, suspense, description, all that antiquated nonsense from pre-modernist times, then go to the cinema. Or read comics. You do not come to a serious modern writer Like me.1

Implicit in this comment by Miles Green, the writer/narrator of John Fowles's latest novel Mantissa, is Fowles's disappointment with film as an art form: film's appeal to comic book mentality, commençai film's artistic lag behind literary stylistic experiments, and the alienation of "serious modern writers" from the film industry. Although at one time an avid filmgoer and movie fan, Fowles himself became disillusioned with the filmmaking process when his novels The Collector and The Magus were adapted to the screen.2 Disturbed by Hollywood's treatments of his literary works, he exerted more control over the recent film version of The French Lieutenant' s Woman. This one artistic success, though, did not come about in time to halt his increasing disenchantment with movie art. However, Fowles does not reject film without thoughtful, systematic analysis of its potentials and limits. This critical analysis forms the core of his novel Daniel Martin, written during the complicated negotiations to bring The French Lieutenant' s Woman to the screen, at a time when he experienced a "curious sense of Hollywood's barrenness and inertia."3

In this massive, multi-dimensional novel, Fowles creates a complex persona poised on the brink of changes: a career change from screenwriter to novelist, a romantic change from his Hollywood lover (Jenny) to his former college sweetheart (Jane), a geographical change from California to England, and a psychological change from his escapist immaturity to a mature acceptance of himself, his past, and his mortality. This difficult personal evolution is accomplished primarily through the therapeutic process of art as Daniel writes a self-consciously old-fashioned psychological novel describing his feelings about these changes. He seeks artistic "whole sight." the totality of perception and of expression found in the true artist, to prevent his life from becoming "desolation."4 The emblem of this whole sight is the Rembrandt self-portrait he encounters at the end of the novel. This timeless artistic masterpiece reveals to him the complex nature of true art. Human compassion and will must be united in the artist and expressed through the work itself. Art achieved through this whole sight "is not finally a matter of skill, of knowledge, of intellect; of good luck or bad; but of choosing and learning to feel" (p. 672). Thus before he can enter the timeless realm of art, Daniel must make the difficult personal/aesthetic choices facing him and experience the emotions he has been suppressing.

A major thematic/structural component in Daniel's first person narrative about writing a novel is Fowles's comparison of the aesthetic properties of film and literature (represented by both fiction and drama). As an accomplished dramatist, a disillusioned screenwriter, and a novice novelist, Daniel is particularly well suited to explore some of Fowles's own concerns about the essential natures of the different art forms. The weaknesses and strengths of each artistic medium are manipulated by Fowles on one level to reflect Daniel's personal evolution and on another level to criticize contemporary society in its ongoing battle of word and image. The aesthetic elements essential to an understanding of both Daniel's growth and Fowles's overall evaluation of society are point of view, the treatment of time, the portrayal of physical reality, audience perception, and artistic creation.

Artistic perspective is a fundamental component in Fowles's characterization of Daniel as an aloof, non-committed individual. Since film is basically a "third-person art" (p. 441) to Daniel and Fowles, it fosters objectivity and distance between viewer and viewed, between artist and creation. Although there have been experiments with the use of subjective camera (in avant garde films and commercially in Robert Montgomery's 1946 Lady in the Lake), film narratives have traditionally used the objective, external third-person camera to record the actions performed before it as unobtrusively and inconspicuously as possible. …

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