Student Model Essay: Comparing a Novel and Film Adaptation

The Power of Mise-en-scène versus Landscape and Dialogue:
Opening Scenes in A Month in the Country

by Marco Werlang
English 302 Dr Moody
October 5, 2003
Essay # 1

In both the 1986 novel by J. L. Carr and the 1987 film, directed by Pat O'Connor (screenplay Simon Grey), A Month in the Country, Mr. Birkin arrives by train. He is a serious man. His sole possession is one bag. He has traveled alone. Exiting the train, the rain comes down hard. The trench coat and boots he wears symbolizes who he is and where he came from. The details of these visual details run parallel to each other in the movie and in the book. They are close. Although the film and the book resemble each other, they are not one in the same. World War one was one central factor in how they differed. The first mise-en-scène set precedence to the development of Mr. Birkin in the film, whereas in the book, the opening meditation and visualized scene was the church in the town of Oxgodby.

In the film in an explicit fashion, the actual first scene began is not the man arriving on a train and coming upon a church suddenly. Instead we are in the middle of a war-torn countryside. The bombs are falling and the bullets are flying. The rain is coming down hard. There are men who are screaming their last grasp. Mr. Birkin lies in the midst of all this insanity. In his panicked and shocked stricken face, we see he does not know if he will make it to the next minute or let alone survive one more second. The images in this scene make an unforgettable memory for the viewer. By virtue of the violence and death, there is only one kind of setting that can explain what we are seeing: the devastation of World War One.

By introducing Mr. Birkin in a wartime setting, his character begins to develop through our memories of this war and his. He is a medium to tall man, still young looking. His facial features, for being a young looking man already shows the tragic experience in life. We soon see that his face twitches and he stammers badly. He is serious looking, wearing a mustache and looks uncomfortable, even frightened too. The image of him in this setting is nightmarish and we will get repeat indications of his endurance of nightmares when he sleeps through the first part of the filml.

Not all wartime veterans are the same. Mr. Birkin was a combat vet. He is a combat vet fighting in one of the bloodiest of all wars. That was in according to the authors of America Past and Present: "The Great War, later referred to as World War One, may have been the most terrible war of all time" (541). The start painted such a surreal image, that later in the movie it was used again and again, emphasizing what he had to conquer. The purpose was to show him moving in a positive direction, however, difficult to do. The opening scene transports the memory. The war was like an unforgiving catalyst, a chemical laced upon him, which altered his life greatly. The introduction to Mr. Birkin's troubles defines him as living the way he does because of his war experience from the very start.

By contrast, in the book, the action begins during the train ride. Mr. Birkin arrives into Oxgodby. His character begins to take form. There was not much mentioned about war. There were no battles, trenches or death mentioned. The details that have anything to do with war came out into the narrative in bits and pieces. The narrator develops Mr. Birkin on what he has seen in the past, and what he sees right now.

Part of what he's seen must have something to do with war. What he sees now is new to him. That is what is found in the beginning of the story. By relating one element to another, Mr. Birkin's character begins to develop. Notice his first comments toward the people as he is arriving, "If this was a fair sample of northerners, then this was enemy country so I wasn't too careful where I put my boots" (3). On the next page, there is some detail about his coat. This gives a point in time to reference to. In Mr. Birkin's words, "it was pre war about 1907 I should imagine"(4). His boots and his coat perhaps could have some story to tell if they could only speak. What would they say? Would they mention the trenches, dead bodies and or bravery of the other men?

The boots and coat are only a small part of Mr. Birkin's make up. The narrator is interested more on the separation. Perhaps moving from soldier to tradesman and then citizen. The effect of his past trouble is not the priority for his development. What Mr. Birkin sees thinks and does give a direction in the narrative. While going into Oxgodby, there is the perception that he is limited but as fact began to reveal, a military minded man is uncovered.

Here is where the book establishes Mr. Birkin as a person who has been scarred. He's somewhat unsociable, pessimistic, unable to respond easily to overtures of friendship or help. That is evident in his treatment of the stationmaster, where most sound minds would have accepted an offer for tea and recovered a bit from the falling rain. The book manifests implicitly that something happened to him in the past, but we have to wait to see a full explanation.

In the narrative, he moves "half-heartedly" and the animal, "A dog, an Airedale, dragged on its chain, howled half-heartedly and ran for shelter... "(5). The gloominess that surrounds his persona is heavy. Every detail that grabs his attention on the way to the church of Oxgodby, this demonstrates what a burden it must have been to come from where he came from. The symbols along the trail are like metaphors of his mental state. The "rusting cast iron fence," was one. The "decaying orchard" was another, and "starveling country"(5) proved yet to be another symbol.

How quickly the tone changed when Mr. Birkin arrived at the church. Outside in the rain, he gazed upon it, investigating it and absorbing anything that it had to offer. Almost as if a flame was lit in his mind, he begins a transformation. The craftsman and artisan in him takes over. That is a side of him in which he sees beauty. He critiques the church. "I saw that the masonry had been fettled up very nicely -- limestone ashlar not rubble. Even between the buttresses it had been beautifully cut with only a hint of mortar and near- enough drowning as I was, I silently applauded the masons"(5,6). It has beauty because it has been built for good uses and to last:

"The graveyard wall was in good repair, although, surprisingly, the narrow gate's sneck was smashed nd it was held-to by a loop of binder wire. There were some good eighteenth-century headstones . . . I glimpsed two or three spikes of a family grave overwhelmed by briars: a gray cat peered out, glared hostilely at me and was gone. Heaven knows what else was living htere: nowadays it would have been a listed wildlife sanctuary.

The rain-gutters and down-pipes -- I couldn't help myself: I had to see if they were coping. So I threshed around the building. Not a gusher anywhere, not a trace of wash on the walls! Damp's the doom of wall-paintings. If there'd even been one green wall, I might as well have turned around there and then and lte myself be washed ack to the station (6).

The church in town of Oxgodby has the right ingredients that nourish him.

In brief, the church was for the book what the military experience was for the movie. I would define it as a progression, a way for the story to move from one point to another with a purpose in mind. In a very strong Hollywood film fashion this movement was immediately present. The military man's horror showed the ending of one part in Mr. Birkin's life and the story line began, trying to move away from this horror. The morning after Mr Birkin wakes up in the church belfry, he looks out on the countryside and the film moves from dark gloom to a scene flooded with sunlight. By using this method of drama in the film, Mr. Birkin's future hope and progress was suggested. It was suggested where the progression would come from: the church and the natural landscape.

On the other hand, in the book, the process to inject progress occurred in a more subtle and gradual process. The book is not as immdiately dramatic as the movie but potent in psychological and visualized prose and spoken dialogues. We feel Mr. Birkin weary, tired and in search of himself. There was less emphasis on the military and more emphasis on his mind. He is in a rural landscape. He dialogues with intense strain with Mr Keach over the job he is to do. He wants to do it, and the church has been built in a way that will allow him to save what's artfully meaningful in it. He has no money, but what does that matter. Neither apparently has Mr Keach. The prose allows you to soak in the man's mood and what's going to be important.

Eventually both movie and book will leave you in awe and with qualified joy to see that there is life after so much death and despair surrounded Mr. Birkin at one time. Two different framings were presented which would push on the viewer a different slant on what is to come, the one vivid and about war, and the other psychological and about a state of mind connected to a building and landscape. In the end Mr Birkin was shown in both film and book to recover, but how this came about followed suit thematically and from the point of view of differing filmic and texual techniques.

Works Cited

Carr, James Loyd. A Month in the Country, introd. Michael Holroyd. New York: New York Review of Books, 2000.

Divine, Breen, Fredrickson, Williams, and Roberts, eds. America Past and Present, 5th ed. Vol 2. New York: Longman, 2002. 2 vols.

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