Student Model Essay: Comparing a Novel and Film Adaptation

Mise-en-scène and Verbal Imagery:
What Human Beings Treasure Most

by Virginia Emery
English 302 Dr Moody
October 5, 2003
Essay # 1

Last Orders written by Graham Swift is a realistic drama about what human beings treasure most: memories, friendship, their place in their society, and their shared past. Brought to life on the big screen, the film Last Orders directed by Fred Schepisi uses elements of mise-en-scène such as costume, lighting and set to tell the story. The novel doesn't have the advantage of cinematography and relies on imagery such as verbal descriptions of costume, lighting and set to present a mental picture. However, if we examine the elements of mise-en scène, specifically lighting, costume and setting and compare these to the imagery and soliloquies in the book, we discover how effective and important both are.

In the film, costume is kept rather simple so emphasis is on the story and not flashy costumes. The simple costume however, does not lack in any character. Indeed we see a style that is distinctive to London. Trench coats and caps are one fashion trend that is present during the film. Another good example is when Ray is at the pub, the Coach during a flashback sequence. He is wearing casual slacks, a white button up collared shirt, topped with a red v-neck cardigan. This is not unlike the Mr. Rogers look (on TV) that we knew as children.

A film makes seeing clothes obvious; in a book, the reader must visulize from the words on the page. In the novel, Swift doesn't describe everyone's clothes, except in certain circumstances. And even then, he offers just a glimpse, a suggestive detail. For example, in one description of Amy's clothes, Swift says, "The breeze was flipping my skirt" and "there was a strap rubbing on one of my shoes, my new shoes." (1:255). Other descriptive language about costume includes a reference to Vince, "He's wearing one of his fancy ties, blue and yellow zig-zags, knot pulled loose" (1:8). In another instance Vince is thinking about his daughter as a persuasive sales tactic. Swift writes, "she's wearing a skirt like an armband and a tight white T-shirt, and where he comes from they dress'em up like nuns (1:166). Here costume defines the woman's inner natures and their attitude towards their society: Kath gets through life by turning herself into an alluring obvious sex object; Amy regards her clothes as indices of her respectability and where she stands on the social scale.

Another element that creates mood and meaning in a film is lighting. A good lighting scheme adds meaning to the original story. Lighting in the film Last Orders, is kept natural so viewers are focused on the story and characters. The scheme in the film varies from time to time, but it does move mostly from warm and sunny to dark and cold, depending on the age of the characters, their place, and what's happening in the scene. Conceptually, the technique keeps to realism. For example, when in the film Vince, Vic, Lenny and Ray finally reach Margate to spread Jack's ashes, the lighting is overcast, dark, grey and dreary. The book's imagery is quietly realistic too. For example, the description of Margate at the close of the book is both thematiclaly suggestive and realistically persuasive: "there's only grey thick sky and grey thick sea and a grey horizon" (1:269).

Another scene that occurs in both book and film that involves lighting is the opening at the group pub, the Coach. In the novel, Ray is waiting for the others in anticipation: he intends to carry out Jack's last orders with Jack's friends and son. Swift writes, "There's a shaft of sunlight coming through the window, full of specks. Makes you think of a church" (1:1). The film follows this description subtly and you don't get the same feeling as Swift gives: the light is whiter, more natural. We switch from the pub, to the quiet morning light of the streets. But then there is a sudden dramatic switch to a sharp yellow as suddenly we are in the same pub one night; it's crowded, and there in a flashback stands Michael Caine before us. The electric effect comes from the kind of light and the juxaposition of man and object -- Michael Caine then and the plastic jar which holds all there is left of Jack now.

We can see an analogous contrast in media when it comes to setting. Setting must always be present in film, but a realistic book also relies heavily on verbal imagery as setting to convey the meaning and events of the story. Here it's not just a matter of the difference between immediate visual flashback sequences (with living filmed actors in them); there are in the book many soliloquies verbalized or written memories where the character also responds to his or her surroundings. Swift is very good at intertwining scenes in the character's minds, the actual place the character is in and dialogues past and present:

"This is where I belong, upstairs on this bus. It seems to me that for years now I've been more at home on a number 44 than I have been anywhere else. Neither here nor there, just traveling in between. I don't know if I could ever have made my home in a bungalow in Margate. 'I'm packing it in, Ame,' he says. When I'd long since given up on him, when I'd long since thought it coudl never happen, when I thought ,One day he'll just drop dead there, behind the counter, in his striped apron, cleaver in his hand, and that's how he'd want it, another carcass to deal with. 'I'm jacking it in. Geddit?' Ha. 'It's a new life for you and me, girl.' I dont' know what caused it, what suddenly tipped him over, what blinding flash. But he looked at me as if I'd be overjoyed, as if he wasn't looking at the woman he'd been looking at fir fifty years, he was looking at someone new. He said, 'Margate. How about Margate.?' As if we could put the clock back and start off again where it all stopped. Second honeymoon. As if Margate was another word for magic" (228-29)

To indulge our senses, the novel and film bring us real geographic London, real highways, two-story red buses, yellow and green fields, and the sea. One of the most striking uses of setting in both the film and book is of Canterbury Cathedral. In the film its shown as a glorious, beautiful sight. We see it large as life. Taking us inside, we see striking architecture and a sense of redemption and love is conveyed through the objects the men move among. It is here that Ray, Vince, Vie and Lenny pay homage and respect to their memories of Jack. They figured it was the right thing to do. The film conveys a powerful feeling about this place. Visually, it is a holy experience for everyone, and not just about Jack's ashes. It is about England's past too, its rich culture.

In the book, the Cathedral's imagery is conveyed through the various characters thoughts. Ray's are: "It's a big building, long and tall, but it's like it hasn't stretched up yet to its full height, it's still growing. It makes the cathedral at Rochester look like any old church and it malces you feel sort of cheap and titchy. Like it's looking down at you, saying I'm Canterbury Cathedral, who the hell are you?" (1:194). Swift has Vic's character say "Well it makes you feel humble. It makes a man in my line of business feel humble to think of what they've got in here. Tombs, effigies, crypts, whole chapels" (l:196). The book gives some insight about what the cathedral is like, but more interesting though, are the character's inward reactions. In contrast, we see the characters hearts soften as one looks at another sitting down or the group talks quietly while they follow their guidebook, with one of them pointing out things to the others.

In a film elements of mise-en-scène such as costume, lighting and setting and in a book the verbal imagery and solilquies are ways of giving a story emotional depth and ethical meaning. Both the film and the book called Last Orders are about what human beings treasure most: memories, friendship, their place in their society, and their shared past. Swift's book and Schepisi's film convey what Jack's last orders and the carrying out of these means in ways that go beyond what is literally before us in the filmed scene and worded page.

Works Cited

Swift, Graham. Last Orders. New York: Vintage International, 1996.

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