TRANSFORMING A NOVEL into a screenplay is like feeding a tapeworm. No matter how skillful and sensitive the adaptation, the end result will drain the source material's strength—its limitless possibility. Specific, indelible images replace the reader's inexhaustible imagination. It's one thing to do this to Tom Clancy or Anne Rice, another to choose, as director Atom Egoyan has done, Russell Banks or William Trevor.
directed by Atom Egoyan
with Bob Hoskins and Elaine Cassidy
opens November 19 at Harvard Exit
Though he's the most literary of filmmakers, Egoyan fell short with his version of Banks' The Sweet Hereafter. He made a wonderful film, but the book remains deeper and more nuanced. The same is true for the Canadian director's more modest follow-up, Felicia's Journey, based on the Trevor novel of the same name. The picture is engrossing enough, but it never quite reaches the profundity of its source.
Egoyan reveals much of the story in flashback. Wide-eyed, pregnant Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) leaves her home in a tiny Irish village to scour the industrial Midlands of England for the boyfriend who abandoned her. Her first day off the boat, she asks directions from Mr. Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), who senses immediately that she's in some kind of trouble. As she wanders from industrial park to shopping mall, Hilditch watches her, eventually offering her a ride.
Gradually it becomes clear that beneath Hilditch's pleasant, plump exterior lies an unhinged mind. He hunts for needy young girls like Felicia and does whatever he can to help them through their trouble. When they try to move on, however, he murders them. His brain hides the act of killing in some unreachable place; a girl was there, now she's gone, and that's all he consciously knows.
Hilditch is an extreme example of someone estranged from his own identity, but he's not alone. The naﶥ Felicia also doesn't acknowledge her own will; likewise the wandering "God-botherer" who proselytizes to both of them about the paradise waiting "for the one who dies." When the blinders are finally ripped from their eyes, the price of their self-knowledge is steep.
EGOYAN'S CRYPTIC STYLE serves Trevor's clean, unsentimental prose, and the two share certain thematic preoccupations: individual and family secrets; the whims of fate; the inscrutability of others. Yet the director can't resist embellishing the story with some of his trademark elements. Voyeurism colors his films The Adjustor and Exotica; in The Sweet Hereafter, a lawyer practically stalks parents who've lost children in a school bus crash. Here, Egoyan combines the watching eye with another of his favorite visual conceits, videotape. Hilditch hides a video camera in his car; when he's remembering his victims, we see grainy footage of them, chain-smoking, talking—and eventually trying to escape.
Taking another opportunity to insert cameras—and a bit of absurdity—into the story, Egoyan imagines Hilditch's dead mother as a famous cooking show host (played by the director's wife, Arsin饠Khanjian). Each night, the bachelor prepares an elaborate meal by following a tape of one of his mother's old programs. He stores the tapes of the girls in the same locked room that holds his mother's belongings.
Cassidy avoids making Felicia's innocence come across as blankness, while Hoskins makes Hilditch tragic despite his creepiness. A look of oblivious joy crosses his features as he fusses around his gourmet kitchen in an immaculately pressed suit; played by the wrong actor, he'd be just another serial killer with a penchant for show tunes. The film hums along, but Egoyan soft-pedals the specifics of Hilditch's pathology and then sanitizes the story's ending. The result is an artificial uplift that pales besides Trevor's realism. It's true: You should always read the book before you see the movie.