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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Novel-to-Film Roadblock

Aggiornamento: 12 apr 2023

Can a good novel be brought to the screen without losing what’s good about it? Let’s scrutinise one case at a time and not answer the question in generalities. The American writer John Fante published Wait Until Spring, Bandini in 1936. It’s the story of Arturo, an Italian-American boy immersed in the troubled marital life of his parents. In the final pages of the novel, he goes to bring home his father from the house of a wealthy widow with whom Bandini, the wayward pater familias, has begun an affair.

On his way, Arturo is followed by a dog, half-wolf, that has attached itself to him. The animal has discovered a putrefying dead rabbit and brings it along in its jaws. The boy confronts his father outside the Widow’s house and urges him to return to his family. A cagey exchange ensues between the two. The truculent parent is not a dog-lover. He’s angered by the overpowering stench of the rabbit carcass. The beast must go.

The Widow opens her front door and is outraged by the odour of carrion on her property. Not only the beast but the boy who brought it must go. This gives his father pause. He reminds the Widow that the boy is his son and should be respected. In the hubbub that follows, the woman, with native-American assurance, inveighs against threadbare foreigners. This is too much for the Abruzzi-born family man to stomach. He bellows an echoing “puttana” and his extra-marital adventure is over. He and Arturo trudge down the road homeward bound with the half-wolf trailing them. It’s a happy ending of sorts in a rosy, if not sweet-smelling, cloud.

However, in Wait Until Spring, Bandini, the movie which Dominique Deruddere wrote and directed, the ending is happier still. His script leaves out the reeking roadkill, making the big dog a more congenial playmate for an all-American boy. It’s a detail that demonstrates one of the reasons a novel is cut for filming. Here the elision is made to suit a broader audience, one that doesn’t wish to be reminded of bad smells.

That audience also likes glamour and niceness in beautiful people. So Faye Dunaway plays the Widow. Fante has given us a correct but cold woman secure in her wealth but hankering for a sexual interlude with a coarse workingman. Deruddere can’t saddle our Hollywood Faye with any such unpleasantness. He makes her warm and understanding. In a spirit of sacrifice, she collaborates with Arturo to get his father home and make the family whole again at Christmas and ever after. The rewrite isn’t insignificant. It shows the intent to make a feel-good movie of a novel that, though sprinkled with comedy, spares no truth about human beings.

At its heart is laddish Arturo, whose age Fante gives sometimes as twelve, sometimes as fourteen, in small-town Colorado in 1928. Arturo’s inner thoughts are a tug-of-war of contradictions. Love and hate for his parents tussle in a vicious tango. Fante gets this down on the page. It is what’s most valuable in the novel. Deruddere finds no way to put it on film. Voice-over or flashbacks won’t do. They would be redundant or merely illustrate the dialogue. Neither will clever camera angles, atmospheric shots or deft montage do the job. So he shows us Arturo’s gestures and actions in the hope that we can imagine the thinking behind them. We can’t. An angry boy kicking a stone down the road or cruelly killing a chicken doesn’t portray Arturo’s Oedipal predicament. To grasp that we have to go to Arturo’s inner debate that Fante has laid out for us.

“He was Arturo and he loved his father […]He loved his mother, but he hated her. […]why did his mother let Bandini do that to her?[…] Then he hated them both, but his hatred of her was greatest.[…]Look at his father there. Look at him smashing eggs with his fork to show how angry he was. Look at the egg yellow on his father’s chin! And on his mustache. Oh sure, he was a dago wop, so he had to have a mustache, but did he have to pour those eggs through his ears? Couldn’t he find his mouth? Oh God, these Italians!”

“[He was] very proud of his father. No use talking: this was pretty swell. His father was a lowdown dog and all those things, but he was in that cottage now, and it certainly proved something. You couldn’t be very lowdown if you could move in on something like that. You’re quite a guy, Papa. You’re killing Mamma, buy you’re wonderful. You and me both. Because someday I’ll be doing it too, and her name is Rosa Pinelli.”

Deruddere doesn’t give us Fante’s Arturo whole. He forgets his cruelty and glosses over his obsession with sex and his love object, schoolmate Rosa. Arturo needs more sexual orientation than he gets in the confessional owning up to his sins of “impurity”. Deruddere’s shifting of emphases is more than a tweaking of the storyline. Fante’s novel is saying that Catholicism in backwoods Colorado in 1928 isn’t up to steering its faithful through life. Arturo is desperately trying in his imagination to get his parents back together in a happy couple with he himself and Rosa emulating them.

The movie also cleanses Arturo’s mother, Maria, of her pathological obsessions. Fante pictures a religious fanatic mumbling over her rosary for hours when a difficulty befalls her. In the face of her husband’s temporary desertion, she shelters in a spell of insanity. But Deruddere feels his target audience doesn’t want to see Arturo’s mother, especially when played by the appealing Ornella Muti, as a brainless church mouse at the end of her tether. He ignores her masochism and makes her over into a mistreated stay-at-home mom roused to rightful passion, downplaying her attempt to scratch out her husband’s eyes and passing over altogether her attack on him with “a long pair of sewing scissors”.

This lessens the impact of the novel’s most moving moment. Maria’s retreat into madness leaves Arturo and his two younger siblings alone, abruptly deprived of her devoted, around-the-clock care. They are crushed, wordless. Arturo, as well as looking after his parents’s love life, now has to run the household.

There are numerous minor changes from novel to film script. All of them aim to make the story more agreeable to an audience looking for life without half-wolves dragging in dead rabbits. Bandini senior is engaged in a senseless war with his snooty mother-in-law who in her crassness merits his hatred. Fante describes the old woman as obscenely fat:

“She was constructed like a pyramid, without hips. There was so much flesh in her arms that they hung not downward but at an angle, her puffed fingers dangling like sausages.”

But the movie gives us an actress suffering at most from middle-age spread.

Bandini whose face the Dunaway-Widow called “sensitive” is presented by Fante as an unpolishable rough diamond. The novel also makes a point about Bandini’s psychology that the movie misses, perhaps because it reflects badly on married life in general. His wife’s excess devotion to him brings security but also boredom.

“…[H]e thought how foolish for a wife to love a man so much.”

The script cut Bandini’s remark when Arturo tells him Rosa has died. He only damns her father as a strike-breaking scab in the local coal mine. But, hold on, Deruddere has changed her from Rosa Pinelli to Rosa Helmer. She has become the daughter of a disagreeable German banker whom the movie public has seen earlier and is pleased to hear abused. To let Bandini damn Pinelli would underline one of Fante’s themes better muted. The immigrant Italians squabble among themselves and feel both self-loathing and exaggerated pride in their origin. And, to descend to the trivial, where has Sister Celia’s eye of glass gone? Her movie face is comely and perfectly symmetrical. But Fante tells us how Arturo’s classmates guessed their teacher’s mood by how the lid over her glass eye twitched. One fears Deruddere was wary of making an ostentatious servant of religion less than all there. Fante had no such qualms. Arturo thought, “His mother had too much God in her” and tore apart her rosary spreading the beads in the snow.

So should the 1989 movie be dismissed out of hand? No. Michael Bacall as Arturo is impressive. Joe Mantegna, Ornella Muti and Faye Dunaway are competent. The whole thing is handsome and entertaining. Paolo Conte contributes a rousing Neapolitan song, Sant’America, to the soundtrack. But if the movie hasn’t lost everything that was good in the novel, it has lost what was best in it.

(The movie is available on Netflix. It was a Belgian, French, Italian, U.S production that was never released in America.)

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