The Evil That Men Do: Mark Rydell's Adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's the Fox

By Urbano, Cosimo | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Evil That Men Do: Mark Rydell's Adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's the Fox


Urbano, Cosimo, Literature/Film Quarterly


In 1968 The Fox won the Golden Globe award for best English-language foreign film. Reviews, however, were far from being unanimously positive. And when in 1973, in the very first issue of Literature/Film Quarterly, Joan Mellen analyzed the film from a more scholarly perspective, her critique of it held many of the points that had been made by the film's harshest detractors. The film, according to them, was a "slick and sick psychological melodrama," it was "superficial," plagued by "trite musical scoring," and was "monumentally unimaginative" (Time, Gelmi, Blanc 12, Kael 34). It was, in short, what every lover of literature fears a Hollywood adaptation of a great novel will turn out to be.

Sometimes, though, an excessive readiness to find out that a filmic adaptation has "betrayed" or "trivialized" its source may dim the critic's vision to the point that his or her reading of the film proves to be inaccurate. Mellen, for example, refers to "an idyllic farmhouse at sunset as the first shot of the film" as proof of the "flamboyant and visually overwhelming mise en scène" (17) used by Rydell. It is true that the first shot of the film shows a farmhouse at sunset; yet, despite the "beauty" of the photography, the shot is far from conveying an idyllic sense. Rather, the emphasis on the ice and the stillness of the place, together with an ominous musical theme, suggest that there is something off-balance from the beginning and that the worst is yet to come. In such a reading, the text has been made to say quite the opposite of what it actually says, due to a superficial and hasty association of certain formal aspects with the thematic meaning they are believed to be bound to unequivocally convey.

I think that today it is worth trying to look back at The Fox with somehow less prejudiced eyes to see how, through its melodramatic treatment of Lawrence's short novel, Rydell's film does not betray or trivialize it, but uses it instead as a base (in the sense of the film being "based on" the short novel) upon which to build a powerfully critical account of the mechanisms of patriarchy.

The film sticks closely to the basic story of Lawrence's novella: as two women, March and Jill (Anne Heywood and Sandy Dennis), are trying to run a farm by themselves, a man, Paul (Keir Dullea),1 intrudes in their life, somehow pulls them apart, and is finally responsible for the "accidental" death of one of the two. The second is now free to marry him, but whether she'll be happy is left very much in doubt. If the story remains pretty much the same, the way the book's reader perceives it is, however, quite different from that of the film's spectator. This is due to the fact that whereas in the film the main character, the center of the story, its protagonist, is clearly March, in the book the reader is asked to divide his or her attention between March and Paul.

In the book, in fact, the story is focalized, to use Genette's terminology, through both March and Paul, alternatively. To put us "inside" the consciousness of one of the characters, to make us perceive what the character sees or thinks, is one of the ways in which a writer can stress that character's importance in the narrative. In a film, a director must find other ways to indicate who is the main character, since, as Lady in the Lake (R. Montgomery, 1946) has shown, to be literally put "inside" the protagonist, far from being involving, is instead quite distracting and alienating. It is also quite impossible for a film to reproduce the effect of a passage such as:

Since he had realized that she was a woman, and vulnerable, accessible, a certain heaviness had possessed his soul. He did not want to make love to her. He shrank from any such performance, almost with fear. She was a woman, and vulnerable, accessible to him finally, and he held back from that which was ahead, almost with dread. It was a kind of darkness he knew he would enter finally, but of which he did not want as yet even to think. …

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