As any reader knows, a poor film adaptation of your favorite novel can break your heart.
It’s even worse for authors: Jodi Picoult has disowned the 2012 adaptation of My Sister’s Keeper, and will likely never sell the film rights to another one of her bestselling novels. P.L. Travers hated Mary Poppins and Bret Easton Ellis disliked American Psycho. Even Stephen King, who’s had dozens of successful adaptations, hasn’t been shy about his distaste for the 1980 film The Shining.
For these authors, and most who dislike film adaptations, the criticism boils down to this: it might be an okay movie, but it’s not the story I wrote.
Even this critique, it turns out, is as old as Hollywood itself.
As any kid who read My Ántonia in high school English class knows, Willa Cather was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and one of the best chroniclers of the pioneer days in the American West. In this and her other pioneer novels, she expertly showed the bravery, hardship, and grit that was required to set out to make your fortune in an uncivilized land.
There’s no doubt that Cather’s pioneer trilogy of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia could be made into lush, wonderful films that could bring in a boatload of Oscars and devotion from fans.
But we’ll never see any of them on screens big or small, all because of an all-but-forgotten film starring Barbara Stanwyck in 1934.
Willa Cather wrote A Lost Lady in 1923, a short but moving novel set in the late nineteenth century about the death of the early pioneers and the pioneer way of life. Marian Forrester is the beautiful and much younger wife of Captain Daniel Forrester, a railroad man. They spend part of the year in their home in Sweet Water, a western stop on the transcontinental railroad.
In the novel, we see Marian only through the eyes of others, primarily Niel Herbert, a boy who grows into a young man. He idolizes Marian as the ideal woman and wife. She is beautiful, and a legendary hostess known from Sweet Water to California. She always knows the right word to say, the right drink to pour, the right dances. But there is a lurking cynicism that only shows in flashes. Marian Forrester is a lovely woman with an unknowable heart that makes her all the more appealing. She is loyal to her husband but terribly lonely on the prairie. Neil is dismayed when he discovers that she is having an affair with a man passing through town.
The Captain and his friends are the last of a dying breed, the honest pioneers who put honor ahead of business. When the market crashes, the Captain goes against his lawyer’s advice and spends most of his fortune to ensure his employees get their full savings from a failed bank. The gesture is admirable, but when the Captain dies, Marian is left with nothing and quickly falls from grace.
The Captain is dead. The pioneer spirit is dead, giving way to a colder, more capitalistic world.
But Marian Forrester refuses to die.
Neil, a young man by this time, is disillusioned by watching Marian struggle, consorting by necessity with unsavory characters whom he feels are beneath her. He wants her to remain the pure, perfect wife, and expresses his resentment in the novel’s most famous lines:
“It was what he held most against Mrs. Forrester; that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.”
So what did Hollywood do when it got its hands on this complicated story about the death of the pioneer days, the mystery of another’s marriage, and the subtle coming of age story of an idealistic young man?
Flattened it like a pancake, and left its heart on the cutting room floor.
It isn’t a terrible film. It just isn’t the story Cather wrote.
In Hollywood’s version, Stanwyck plays Marian Forrester, and while she is excellent in this film, she is slightly miscast for Cather’s version of Marian. Stanwyck herself, and Hollywood’s Marian, is too honest and direct.
Cather’s Marian is a bundle of contradictions, a woman who charmed and drew in all the men around her without ever revealing her essential self—a woman like our aforementioned Grace Kelly would’ve been perfect for this role, but for that fact that she was five years old and playing with dolls in Philadelphia when the film was made.
As in the novel, Marian marries Captain Forrester out of gratitude and affection. He rescues her after a great heartbreak (when her fiance is shot by his mistresses’ husband) and a great injury (a fall that breaks her leg).
In the film, Marian has lost the will to live, but Captain Forrester believes he can love her back to life. He is thrilled to show off his new wife to his friends, and untroubled by his loveless (and apparently sexless) marriage.
They promise an unflinching honesty, which becomes a problem when Forrester leaves town on a business trip and Marian finds her long-dormant libido awakened when handsome cad Frank Ellinger comes to town.
Marian tells the Captain about the affair, and he sets about stoically letting her go, even though he is now as heartbroken as she at the beginning of the film. His stress causes a heart attack, and his near death makes Marian realize she loves him after all. She breaks it off with Ellinger, and nurses the Captain back to love and faith, as he once did for her.
The film ends with them both equally in love for the first time in their marriage, and the promise of a happy, fulfilling, and true marriage.
There is no mention of the American West. No reversal of fortune. Niel is Marian’s age and falls in love with her but agrees to a platonic friendship out of respect for the Captain (and because she does not reciprocate his feelings.) When he discovers her affair with Ellinger, he is not so much disillusioned as wondering why it can’t be him.
At one point, he says to her, “you think I’m judging you, but I’m not,” when of course, the entire novel is his ever-changing judgement of her.
A well-acted, serviceable movie, kept alive today by Stanwyck’s reputation.
But is it any wonder that Cather absolutely despised the film fashioned from a few bits of her novel?
She hated it so much, in fact, that she had her will stipulate that her novels and stories could never be made into films or plays, even after her death.
So no actress or director will ever get another crack at Marian Forrester and A Lost Lady, which seems a shame. Some have written that the novel is unfilmable, but I disagree. Sure, with a poor director, it could become one of those films where strong emotions are conveyed with excessively long close-ups, but in the right hands, someone could do justice to Cather’s masterpiece.
Any actress would love to sink her teeth into the role of Marian Forrester.
But we will never see it, nor will we see My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, or any of Cather’s other works.
Cather said that she never wanted to be associated with words in a script she hadn’t written, and accurately accused Hollywood of mutilating her great work.
But in her version of A Lost Lady, Niel judges Marian harshly for letting go of the old pioneer ways and engaging in a sort of crass commercialism in order to survive. Cather does not seem to approve of Niel’s judgement, and in fact the novel ends when he has aged and reconsidered Marian with the wisdom time brings. His bitterness has drained away and he can understand her point of view, and even hope that she is happy with her second husband, who pulled her out of poverty and draped her in furs.
Cather lived to be seventy-four and died in 1947, seemingly without ever reconsidering her harsh critique of the crassness of Hollywood.
That’s her right, of course. And her stories live on in the pages of her novels, for subsequent generations to discover.
But I can’t help but mourn the Cather films that will never be made, imperfect and crass though they may have been.
- Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady.
- Smith, Ella. Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck.
- Madsen, Axel. Stanwyck.
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