PINTER, HAROLD - OBITUARY
The obituaries for Harold Pinter concentrated almost exclusively on his
contribution to the theatre. A single par, even a mere few words, were generally
all that his substantial contribution to the cinema apparently warranted. Here,
Geoff Gardner makes amends ...
There were a number of fine film adaptations of Harold Pinterís work that via TV
and now DVD would have been seen by many more people than ever attended a
production of his work. But there they lie, almost completely ignored, filmed
adaptations, mostly of the early plays to add to a long string of script credits
including, most especially, a fruitful series of collaborations with Joseph
Losey that, in the 60s and 70s substantially enhanced the reputations of both
the writer and the director.
"a breakthrough work"
Loseyís career was merely muddling along before the collaboration started. He
was making mostly low budget films in Britain where and when he could. He had
just made perhaps his greatest film, The Criminal at the very low rent Merton
Park Studios. The Damned (1962) had been made for Hammer Studios. Blind Date
(1959) was a low budget detective story and Eva (1962) despite its big budget,
was an international disaster. They were however, films which addressed some
tough issues and attracted some positive reviews as well as high quality actors
and writers into the directorís orbit. Notwithstanding that, none of those films
were box office successes. Yet somehow or other the money for The Servant (1963)
was conjured up by Losey via his agent Robin Fox and Lesley Grade provided he
could keep the budget to $500,000. Losey, Pinter and Dirk Bogarde then combined
to make an off beat, baroque, and highly erotic movie from Robin Maughamís very
short novella and together, with gusto, they peeled back the skin of the British
class system to do some revelling in personal weakness and corruption. It was a
breakthrough work for all three and their films both together and separately,
were treated very differently following its success.
The three collaborated again in 1967 with Accident, an adaptation of Nicholas
Mosleyís very British novel and on L P Hartley's masterpiece The Go-Between. The
Go Between was a Cannes prize-winner in 1970 and a huge success around the
world. One amazingly ambitious project never came to pass, an adaptation of
Proustís Remembrance of Thingís Past, though Pinterís six hour script was
apparently once performed in a reading at the National Theatre in London.
"adaptations of just about anything"
Beyond these highlights Pinter seemed ever ready to do adaptations of just
about anything. He ranged from domestic dramas to a common or garden spy story
and in each, the so-called Pinteresque dialogue which the obituaries have
laboured over, was always somewhere present. Alec Guinness proved particularly
adroit at delivering those short, clipped lines and pregnant pauses for the
otherwise unremarkable The Quiller Memorandum directed by Michael Anderson in
The range of this element of his work is noteworthy and most authors were
well-served by Pinterís transformations. His filmed scripts included The Pumpkin
Eater (Penelope Mortimer/Jack Clayton, 1964), The Last Tycoon (F. Scott
Fitzgerald/Elia Kazan (1976), The French Lieutenantís Woman (John Fowles/Karel
Reisz, 1981), Turtle Diary (Russell Hoban/John Irvin, 1985), Reunion (Fred
Uhlman/Jerry Schatzberg, 1989), The Handmaidís Tale (Margaret Atwod/Volker
Schlondorff, 1990), The Comfort of Strangers (Ian McEwan/Paul Schrader, 1990)
and the remake of Sleuth (Peter Shaffer/Kenneth Branagh, 2007). One adaptation
for TV that remains unseen here as far as I know is his TV adaptation of Kafka's
the Trial, made in 1996 and starring Anthony Hopkins.
Pinter also directed a film adaptation of Simon Grayís Butley done as part of
the American Film Theatre series of film versions of modern drama in 1974. He
also directed several TV films. The film adaptations of Pinterís plays were all
high quality movies though none were very successful with filmgoers. They began
with Clive Donnerís version of The Caretaker (1963) and this was quickly
followed by William Friedkinís version of The Birthday Party (1965). Pinterís
own The Homecoming was also done as a part of the American Film Theatre series
by Peter Hall and later David Jones did an interesting version of Betrayal
(1982), the last film produced by the legendary Sam Spiegel.
Pinter also seemed to enjoy the social life of making movies and appeared in
quite a few small roles including in both The Servant and Accident. Losey
recounts how Pinter was very involved in the shooting of both films, a presence
on the set which added apparently to the morale of the enterprises. He had a
very funny part as Uncle Benny in John Boormanís Le Carre adaptation The Tailor
of Panama (2001) and small roles in movies as oddly diverse as Mansfield Park
(Patricia Rozema, 1999), The Tamarind Seed (Blake Edwards, 1974) and The Rise
and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Kevin Billington,1970).
"a rare tribute"
A couple of years ago a major season of Pinterís work for the cinema was
presented in New York. It was a rare tribute for a writer in the director or
thematically-oriented world of film cultural programming. Pinter was a most
deserving case for such attention. As a writer of original scripts, adaptations
of his own and other work, most notably modern British writers, as a director
and even as an actor his contribution was unique. His work in film was in many
ways a seamless continuation of his original work for the theatre which is the
basis of what will be an enduring reputation. It shouldnít have be nearly
completely overlooked in any assessment of the manís life and work.
There have been a huge number of TV adaptations done of his own plays in all
parts of the world and as well there have been a seemingly limitless number of
profiles, interviews, reviews, discussions and colloquia devoted to his work. He
seemed to freely participate in all of these, perhaps mindful that the theatre
is a public art and relies on the electronic media for endless amounts of
publicity. But he was much more than a practitioner of the high art of the
theatre and there are instant reminders of his work everywhere. He took on with
great gusto the duties of the artist to discuss, expose, crusade, engage and
enrage. If you want a quick reminder you can find it on the shelves where The
Servant, Accident, The Go Between, The Comfort of Strangers and The Last Tycoon
are freely there for all to see. Maybe soon someone will add The Pumpkin Eater
and Jerry Schatzberg's very under-rated Reunion to that list to serve as further
reminders that Pinter practiced a craft within the film industry as well as the
art of the theatre.
(Note: Geoff Gardner will be presenting a course focussing on Pinter's
film adaptations at the Eastern Suburbs Community College later this year)
Published January 22, 2009
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Harold Pinter, CH, CBE, Nobel Laureate (10 October 1930 Ė 24 December 2008), was
an English playwright, screenwriter, actor, director, poet, author, and
political activist considered by many "the most influential and imitated
dramatist of his generation."