Eroticism and Justice: Harold Pinter's Screenplay of Ian McEwan's the Comfort of Strangers

By Mirowska, Paulina | Text Matters, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Eroticism and Justice: Harold Pinter's Screenplay of Ian McEwan's the Comfort of Strangers


Mirowska, Paulina, Text Matters


In the 1980s and early 1990s, while Pinter's playwriting was confined mostly to one-act plays and sketches, his interest in writing for the cinema surged, as did his political engagement. During the eighties, Pinter authored more filmscripts than in any previous decade, mainly adapting other writers' novels for the screen. His cinematic translation of John Fowles's famous novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, described by Gale as the dramatist's "most inventive and imaginative screenplay" ("Harold Pinter" 98), was released in 1981. It was soon followed by the film version of his own play, Betrayal, directed by David Jones. In 1982, Pinter wrote the screenplay of Victory, based on Joseph Conrad's novel published in 1915 (still unfilmed); Turtle Diary, adapted from Russell Hoban's book of the same name, was produced in 1985. The late 1980s brought Pinter's adaptations of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day, and Fred Uhlman's Reunion. All three films were concerned with violence and authoritarian urges: Handmaid's Tale in the future, The Heat of the Day in wartime Britain, and Reunion in Germany at the beginning of the Nazi era. Furthermore, in 1989, Pinter started working on the screen adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, made into a film in 1993, and wrote the script for Ian McEwan's short novel The Comfort of Strangers, tackling the causes of violence and oppression on both the public and private level of human interaction.

Rather than providing a digression from the artist's playwriting career, Pinter's screenwriting seemed to supplement, even heighten, the dramatist's recurrent preoccupations, reworking them in imaginative and challenging ways. Already in his first film, and his first cinematic success, The Servant (1963), adapted from Robert Maugham's 1948 novella of the same name, Pinter creatively developed his favourite theme of dominance and subservience-the "battle for positions" (Pinter, "Art" 61) which appears repeatedly in his own plays from the stage debut, The Room (1957), onwards-offering an original insight into class and gender relations and expanding on what he had confronted in his dramas. What is significant, even though the films tended to diverge from the scrupulous fractal geometry of Pinter's theatre, they consistently investigated the intriguing links between the political and personal realms, exposing injustice and championing love, friendship, empathy and freedom from tyranny as the highest goods.

A closer look at the screenplays of the 1980s yields an illustration of how Pinter's choice of cinematic projects enhanced the focus of his political theatre in that decade, his relentless enquiry into the workings of power, love and destruction and bold challenging of inherited dogmas. It seems, however, that few of the scripts did so in such a simple yet effective way as Pinter's disturbing fusion of the erotic, the political and ethical concerns in The Comfort of Strangers. The script, which, on the face of it, might seem a slight work in Pinter's canon, portraying the luridly perverse behaviour of an Italian couple who ensnare and brutalize naive English holidaymakers, in the end, fosters a better understanding of the relationship between love and justice. Similarly to a number of Pinter plays of the 1980s and 1990s, the erotic and the lethal become alarmingly intertwined in the screenplay where the ostensibly innocent, who ultimately fall victim to extreme cruelty, are depicted as, at least partly, complicit in their own fates.

Directed by Paul Schrader and released in 1990, The Comfort of Strangers is based upon McEwan's complex, deeply allusive text probing, among other things, the intricacies and tensions of gender relations and sexual intimacy. Many critics agree, quite rightly it seems, that Pinter's screenplay is not merely an adaptation of the novel, first published in 1981, but that it creates another, perhaps more powerful, work of art which can be analysed in its own right (Hall 87). …

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