Napkin versus serviette: class wars in Pret A Manger

There’s a Pret quite close to Baker Street tube station and I often pop in there when I go to London for one of my regular visits to Howarth’s. It’s a handy place to grab a cup of tea, and the tea’s not bad either – it’s hot and plentiful, and that’s what you want, really, isn’t it?

But the wording on their napkins really annoys me, and so you can also appreciate its hypocritical humbuggery, here it is in full:

This napkin is 100% recyclable (Pret’s sustainability department is militant, we’re making headway). If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins (which you don’t need or want) please give them the evil eye. Waste not want not.

…and this is piously followed by the recyclable symbol.

recycleit

But, you know, what’s all this? Give staff the evil eye? Would this be the same staff who are on their feet all sodding day, who are probably on minimum wage (£6.50 per hour in 2014), who no doubt have to deal with plenty of rudeness and bad behaviour from the Gen Pub already? Yup, that’s them. And no doubt it was a hugely overpaid consultant who penned those very words we see printed on every napkin, words which grant carte blanche to Pret’s customers to bully those behind the counter – barista staff who have to work for the best part of half an hour before they have earned enough money to buy one of the overpriced coffees they serve.

And you just know, don’t you, that some sanctimonious more-organic-than-thou twat is actually going to take up this offer. Brendan O’Neill, writing for The Guardian, was present when precisely such an event took place:

I actually once witnessed a woman following this advice. She gave a Pret worker a piece of her mind after he handed her two napkins instead of one, presumably by accident. “I only need one,” she said sternly, and loudly enough so that the 27 groggy-eyed people queuing for their morning coffee could hear her, too, the smug cow.

I can only say that I wish I’d been there too. I would have reminded her – loudly, of course – that good manners cost nothing. You can read all of O’Neill’s nicely tart piece here, but it’s probably best if you don’t look at the comments that follow. It’s a thread that’s just as depressing and dispiriting as these things usually are.

One thing O’Neill doesn’t mention is the shift from ‘serviette’ to ‘napkin’. To recap, the wording is: ‘If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins’; so, the staff hand out serviettes, but the customers take napkins. I thought I’d investigate by having a quick look at Debrett’s online, and sure enough, Debrett’s is firmly against ‘serviette’:

if you are anxious to pass muster in more class-aware environments you should remember the basics: loo or lavatory never toilet; sofa never settee; napkin never serviette; supper never tea; drawing room or sitting room, never lounge or front room.

(See more here – if you can bear it. There’s a point at which it stops being amusing, and that point comes when you start thinking about people being forced to use food banks while the kind of toffs who care about the sort of crap on this website are swilling champagne.)

But, revenons à nos moutons. Pret want to convince you of their love of all things organic and wholesome and healthy, and so you can join them in their fight to save the planet, they ask that you berate their staff for the terrible crime of handing out more napkins/serviettes/whatever than is absolutely necessary. And the insinuation in the shift from serviette to napkin is that it’s perfectly alright for you to do so, because the staff are of a lower social class than you. You are the Napkin. They are the Serviettes.

So there you have it. Pret A Manger: fighting to change the world for the better, in spite of their lower-class employees! And – as O’Neill points out – 33% owned by McDonald’s.

Don’t You ‘Actually’ Me! – What I Really Think about The Guardian’s ‘What I’m Really Thinking’ column

Let’s get this clear from the start: I wouldn’t dream of reading any newspaper other than The Guardian – except perhaps possibly maybe The Independent – but the What I’m Really Thinking column which appears in the Guardian Weekend magazine renders me puce with apoplectic rage every Saturday morning.

The idea of this column is that you send in your real thoughts about one of your roles in life, those vile horrible oh-god-what-an-evil-person-I-am thoughts: so, for example, I could write in as Woman Who Chose Not To Have Children and bitch on and on about the people who’ve referred to me in the past as ‘monstrous’ and ‘unnatural’ and then I could follow that up with comments about how secretly I pity them because they are obviously slaves to their biology, that sort of thing. You see? It’s really not nice. The column’s purpose – if it has one – is probably something drippy such as ‘dispel stereotypical notions surrounding the role in question’, but what it actually provides is usually some pretty nasty-minded voyeurism along with a replacement set of stereotypes designed to satisfy the self-important reader.

Guardian Weekend would have us believe that the column is written by a different person each week, but, mysteriously, the writing style is always the same. I’m prepared to believe that the substance of the column is provided by Guardian readers and that one member of the editorial team works it up every week, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. I haven’t spent years studying literary style for nothing.

However…I can’t resist reading the damn thing. I try not to. But the temptation to start my weekend by working myself up into a state of frothing bile is just too strong and one day not too long ago, when my fury had apparently attained its zenith, I was sufficiently enraged to tweet my objections and to voice my hearty disapproval in a public forum (rather than bending poor Dr B’s ear about it again). So I tweeted thus:

I didn’t really expect to hear anything in reply and, to be honest, my fury had been sated by simply putting that tweet out there. But reply they did:

Now, I wasn’t going to have some prissy pert little madam saying ‘actually’ to me. My rejoinder was as follows:

I see your ‘actually’ and raise you a ‘Pffffft’. Five Fs in my ‘pffffft’ were all I could manage with just 140 characters, otherwise I would have added more. Pfffffffffffffffffffffft.

I’ve already outlined my first objection – that the column isn’t the product of anonymous contributions as is claimed – and my second objection, that the column is poorly-researched, I’ll explain by way of elaborating on my comment on the ‘Exam Invigilator’ – you can read the original column here. This, as I mentioned in my retaliatory tweet, is outdated nonsense. The writer’s comment that ‘[t]his is the sharp end of the educational treadmill: three years of study distilled into a few hours of pure pressure’ refers to the kind of university finals that just don’t exist anymore – not outside of Oxford, Cambridge and possibly Durham anyway. Nowadays, most undergraduate programmes are assessed by means of appropriately weighted coursework submitted over a three-year period. And the invigilator’s final comment too is a piece of pure poppycock: he or she writes ‘[s]o am I a fan of exams as a method of assessment? Yes, sure. Without them, I wouldn’t have a job’. A moment’s thought is surely enough for most people to work out that no one can make a living as an exam invigilator. Exams take place once or twice a year and the pay for invigilators is minimal. I know this because I work in university administration and it’s part of my job to organise exam invigilators. They’re often PhD students looking to make few bob on the side – about sixteen quid, usually. I’d like to know how our Guardian Exam Invigilator survives for a whole year on just sixteen quid. My conclusion? This column is poorly-researched bollocks.

But I haven’t finished yet. My third and – for now – final objection harks back to the question of stereotypes I mentioned earlier. The Guardian Weekend team seem to be on a mission to persuade readers not to judge people by the job they do. Nothing wrong with that – a person is not their job, after all. People do the work they do for all sorts of reasons. But if you could believe what you read in this magazine, you’d be led into thinking that every person in a job obviously considered menial by the Guardian Weekend editorial team is actually a university student just filling in time and earning a bit of pocket money. The shelf-stacker tells us that ‘[w]hen I hear you shout, “Oi you, over here” in my direction, I smile and put down the crate of bottles I’m unpacking. I’m thinking, at least I’m studying for a science degree and I’ll soon be out of here’, and the call centre worker joins in with ‘[t]he thing is, the job’s not bad, your stories make for good anecdotes, oh, and I’m going back to university next week’. Well, I have news for the editorial team. Some people do these jobs all the time – yes, all the time. Why are their voices not represented? You see, the column is headed with a definite, not an indefinite article: the shelf-stacker, the call centre worker, the supermarket delivery driver, the effect of which is to induce us to believe that the words which follow are representative of every single member of the profession in question and not just a single spotty student whiling away the summer months in Asda.

Clearly the Guardian wants us to replace the notion that people do certain jobs because they do not have a university degree with another equally damaging assumption that everyone is really a budding Stephen Hawking in the making. Surely someone, somewhere amongst the editorial team must have some idea how patronising this is. But I’m guessing that person isn’t the Little Miss Pert-Arsed Prissy Pants who ‘actually’-ed me.


By way of afterword, and plonking myself firmly in Hypocrite’s Corner, it’s only fair to point out how much I enjoyed the outpouring of venom from Guardian readers that greeted the GP’s Receptionist when it was her turn to contribute a column. The Letters page the following week was full of it. I was enormously cheered by this because I have in the past been reduced to sobbing down the phone when trying to reason with a cow-bag receptionist who ‘[found] it hard to care about a bladder infection’ and it was only when I threatened to go to A&E that the doctor intervened and made her give me an appointment. Yeah! Suck on that!

The Hunt for ‘Mr Pig’

Right, so this is my film for Hallowe’en. I’ve already done the ‘Scary’ iMovie Trailer (see The Bun of Terror), so I thought I’d have a go at the ‘Film Noir’ template. My camera has a setting called ‘Palette 4’ which is black and white with an additional lovely blue shimmer; however, our front room is rather too gloomy for this setting to work properly, so some of the film is a bit too noir. Well, never mind, I had fun doing the filming even if poor Petey Pickles turned out to be desperately camera-shy. Basil, though, was perfectly cast as the tough-but-dim detective and gave a marvellously dappy performance. The bun done good.

Masculinity and Metaphor in ‘Teen Wolf’

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As may be evident from my rather matronly appearance these days, I was a teenager during the eighties. Yes, really I was, and like every other teenage girl in 1985, I was madly in love with Michael J. Fox. I spent my pocket-money on going to the cinema to see Back to the Future and Teen Wolf at least six times apiece, and I watched Family Ties whenever I was organised enough to remember that it was going to be on the telly, because there was no iPlayer or catch-up TV in those days, my friends, oh no – only a VHS player that no one could ever successfully set to record the correct programme.

The two films mentioned above now swell the ranks of my DVD collection and I revisited Teen Wolf very recently after seeing it mentioned on Twitter (of which, more later), and found that watching the film in my forties rather than my teenies was a very different kind of experience: for one thing, instead of thinking that all the ‘kids’ were astonishingly cool and well-dressed, I was horrified at the hideous batwing jumpers, the nasty too-tight jeans and the bad, bad denim jackets that the cast were proudly sporting. But hey – that was the eighties. More importantly, being freed from the red mist of teenage hormones meant that I could focus on the film’s narrative, and so, for perhaps the first time, I understood what a multi-faceted narrative it actually is. It’s a Bildungsroman, of course, a coming-of-age story, in this case for a young man. The film is positively dripping with symbolism at every corner and each symbol in itself is worked over and over so that it becomes maximally meaningful. In short, if Freud had seen Teen Wolf, he would have thought all his Christmases had come at once.

What follows is a discussion of the film’s metaphors, how these metaphors are presented, and – because repetition is my thing – how repetition and parallelism guide the viewer towards a particular understanding of these metaphors and, by extension, of the narrative as a whole.

There will be spoilers. But the film is almost thirty years old, so you ought to have seen it by now.

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The story is a simple one. High school student Scott Howard (Fox) notices that he is undergoing some physical changes – not the usual ones – and one night, when there is a full moon, he changes into a werewolf. His father, also a werewolf, tells Scott that the Wolf is a part of himself that he must accept and learn to deal with. Scott changes into the Wolf unintentionally during a basketball game and goes on to achieve the kind of popularity he had never enjoyed as plain Scott Howard. But being the Wolf comes with its own set of difficulties and Scott eventually rejects what the Wolf can offer him when he decides to play the basketball championship as himself. The game is won and Scott’s transition to manhood is complete. (I’ve capitalised ‘Wolf’ throughout because there is a very real sense in which the Wolf is a separate character: he is Scott’s alter ego, Hyde to his Jekyll, Batman to his Bruce Wayne, and he deserves a capital letter.)

teenwolf transformation scene

It should be fairly obvious even from the simple synopsis above that Scott’s transformation into the Wolf, and his subsequent absorption of the Wolf which allows him to become Scott again, is a metaphor for his transition from puberty through adolescence and into maturity. This is a male Bildungsroman, as I said before, and Teen Wolf has a great deal of ‘maleness’ about it, involving scene after scene of some kind of confrontation. The film opens and closes with young men engaged in competitive sport, and throughout the film a great deal of combat takes place on the basketball court in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Scott’s team makes the transition from losing to winning team, by way of indicating that Scott has fought his demons and emerged victorious. When Scott chooses to play the final game as himself instead of the Wolf, the viewer is presented with an exact replica of the opening scene: Scott, in slow-motion, bouncing the ball in preparation for a vital penalty shot. This is a neat and economical way of heightening the tension because when we first see this scene, Scott loses. The Wolf could win it – we know that – but can Scott do it? We’ve seen him lose before, and this time we know that much, much more is at stake – this is not just about the championship, this is Scott’s moment to prove himself. This is his initiation ceremony. This is the point when he asserts his right not to be the Wolf.

On a more literal, surface level, the most obvious confrontation – and the most physical – is that with Mick, the ‘Neanderthal’ twenty-year-old who is still at school because he has ‘done time’, and the boyfriend of Pamela, the object of Scott’s young male desire. That said, Scott runs up against almost all the other characters at one point or another – his father, Vice Principal Rusty Thorne, girlfriend-in-waiting Boof, the man from the liquor store, the whole basketball team – but the central confrontation is of course that between Scott and the Wolf, the hitherto unknown side of himself. Scott has to learn to control the Wolf, not to let it control him – and this is true of all of us during our formative teenage years. We all have to confront our own wolves at this stage in our lives and we all have to decide who we want to be. And of course, when you’re sixteen or seventeen, you just don’t know who you want to be. Moreover, you don’t know who other people want you to be, and a battle rages between the need to conform and to be part of a community, the desire to please others, and the absolute necessity of finding your own voice. ‘Everybody likes the Wolf,’ says Scott, but this is not entirely true, nor in the end is it entirely relevant. The point is whether or not Scott likes the Wolf.

In one reading of the film, Scott’s exploration of his burgeoning sexuality includes the possibility of his being homosexual, with this latent tendency being represented by the Wolf. This is rather an outlandish reading, but there is textual support for it in the script and also by way of precedent in numerous other texts. Many of the most popular teenage fictions feature vampires and/or werewolves, and their presence is almost always metaphorically sexual. For example, it has been noted elsewhere (Reading the Vampire Slayer, ed. Roz Kaveney) that the scene in which Buffy reveals to her mother Joyce that she is a vampire slayer is intentionally scripted to read like a daughter-to-mother coming-out scene: all you have to do is replace ‘slayer’ with ‘gay’ and there you have it. And Joyce’s response comes straight out of the same script: ‘Have you tried not being a slayer?’ This scene has its less subtle counterpart in Teen Wolf when Stiles’ response to Scott’s request for a listening ear is to assume that Scott is going to tell him that he’s gay:

STILES: ’Wait a minute, are you going to tell me you’re a fag?’
SCOTT: ’No, I’m not a fag…I’m a werewolf.’

It’s nowhere near as clever as the Buffy script, but it deals with the same idea: the presence of the Other (slayer or werewolf) which is mistaken for homosexuality. The night Scott transforms into the Wolf for the first time is the same night Stiles asks him ‘What’s it like coming out of the closet?’ after Scott has been shut away in a cloakroom with Boof as part of a party game. Scott returns home in some physical distress, and, locked in the bathroom, he ‘comes out of the closet’ when he transforms into the Wolf. The next morning, Mr Howard attempts to comfort his son by telling him that ‘Werewolves are people too.’ Again, the dialogue in this scene could easily be read with ‘the werewolf’ acting as a metaphor for homosexuality, and the Wolf polarises opinion in a way that could be translated into a first experience of homophobia directed at someone who has recently come out. The Wolf is almost universally popular, but there are those who reject Scott’s new persona: Rusty Thorne, Lewis, Boof, and especially Mick, who tells Scott to ‘Stick with your own kind, freak!’

It is tempting to accept this reading, but to do so one would have to interpret the film’s ending as a rejection of homosexuality in favour of a return to a more ‘acceptable’ way of life and an insipid relationship with the girl-next-door. While this is not entirely out of the question, I don’t think there’s enough textual evidence to support such a reading beyond making a tentative foray into the possibility of the Wolf’s being representative of a homosexual Other, as I have done here. On the whole, it is far more likely that the Wolf symbolises the increase in a young man of both sexual hunger and prowess; the eventual suppression of the Wolf becomes possible once Scott has completed his rite-of-passage in (presumably) losing his virginity to Pamela.

teenwolf pamela

Okay, so let’s take a closer look at Teen Wolf’s women. There isn’t really any room in this film for women. Pamela and Boof are both cyphers, non-characters, there simply to be symbols for the choices open to Scott and what he chooses to reject in himself – although, to be fair, this is also largely true of the male characters, as we’ll see later. Apart from Pamela and Boof, the only other female character is Scott’s mother, who is conspicuous by her absence. Her appearance in the narrative can be categorised in five different ways, as follows: firstly, of course, she is the woman who is no longer there. Scott is apparently being raised by his father alone. There is no woman in the home to act as a counterfoil to all this maleness. Scott’s mother is the woman who accepted, and became accustomed to, having a werewolf for a mate; she is also the woman who was fought over and won, thereby providing a parallel narrative for Scott’s own courting years in Mr Howard’s confrontation with Rusty Thorne. In Mick’s narrative, she is a woman who had her head blown off for stealing chickens; this latter is a ‘your mother’ type of taunt with which Mick goads Scott at the dance. Finally, Scott’s mother leaves a gap for Boof to fill. Scott’s parents were also childhood sweethearts, as Boof and Scott finally prove to be, and Boof is the successor to Scott’s mum as the werewolf’s mate. She begins to take on this role in her relationship with Mr Howard: Scott comes home one afternoon to find Boof ‘shooting hoops’ with his father. This is an obvious attempt on Boof’s part to ingratiate herself with Scott, but the whole scene has a distasteful hint of Oedipus ‘ick’ about it.

teenwolf scott and boof

Or, I don’t know, perhaps it’s just a scene that doesn’t work. Boof’s pursuit of Scott is so naked, and here she is saying ‘I’m a much better match for you than Pamela, because look how well I get on with your father!’ As if that mattered. See, I’m not sure whether it’s just me, but I think a big problem with this film is that we don’t like Boof. I’m not sure whether this is a question of the actor’s performance or the script with which she had to work, but to be honest – well, she’s a pain in the backside. She’s a nag. She’s humourless. She stomps off in a strop at least three times. She’s everything Scott is trying to escape at the beginning of the film: she’s average, she doesn’t mind him being average, she thinks his father is ‘a great guy’, she likes the town in which they live. Boof is also basketball – emphasised for us in the ‘shooting hoops’ scene just mentioned – whereas Pamela is the school play. We see Scott approach the basketball team coach in an early scene to talk to him about quitting the team. Scott doesn’t want to be on a losing team: he wants to be something special, something different, and all these connections are made in his conversation with Boof immediately following his chat with the coach. Scott’s frustration at the poor performance of his team quickly turns to a discussion of his perceived ‘averageness’ and the fact that Pamela won’t talk to him. Boof’s responses (before she flounces away in a huff) forge links which will remain in the minds of the viewer throughout: Boof at this stage is everything Scott would like to get away from.

teenwolf basketball

So, in wishing to dump the basketball team in favour of the school play, Scott is expressing a preference for Pamela over Boof. Scott can only appear in the school play as the Wolf, whereas he plays basketball in both his personae. When he appears onstage as Scott following the showdown with Mick at the dance, he explains to the bemused drama teacher that he wishes to play the role as himself, but this request is refused because ‘that wouldn’t be theatre’. No Wolf, no part. Scott walks offstage, rejecting both the play and, by implication, Pamela. The drama teacher’s association of the Wolf with theatre encourages the viewer to categorise the Wolf with that which is not real: Pamela, the Wolf, the play – it’s all show and no substance. Scott abandons the play to return to basketball, and by implication, Boof.

Pamela is Boof’s physical antithesis – she is blonde to Boof’s brunette – and she is cruel and selfish. She shamelessly plays Scott and Mick off against each other and her relationship with the drama teacher has its sexual undertones. I can’t trace which play it is that Pamela’s acting in, but there’s an awful lot of talk about ‘ravishing’. Pamela is Scott’s initiation into the adult world of sex and their dressing-room liaison ends with Scott/Wolf howling with pleasure. (This howl is heard – of course – by Rusty Thorne, the man thwarted in love by Scott’s father.) By contrast, there are two scenes in which Scott kisses Boof when they are alone together and in both instances, Scott is physically chastised afterwards. When they are locked in the cloakroom during the party, Scott’s growing sexual excitement causes a partial transformation and Boof slaps his face when Scott claws her back with his Wolf fingernails. Boof and Scott kiss briefly at the dance and Mick punches Scott when the two reappear. In the context of the film’s narrative, Scott’s final rejection of Pamela for Boof would appear to be on some level a rejection of sex altogether, because in choosing Boof, he is choosing to be punished, rather than rewarded, for any sexual acts he may instigate.

‘It doesn’t matter how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose. And even that doesn’t make all that much difference.’

Scott’s rejection of Pamela is in some respects a frustrated narrative: the boy gets the girl, but in the end he doesn’t want her. And Scott’s relationship with his coach is arguably another frustrated narrative. This is no Karate Kid scenario. The coach is one of many potential male role models with which Scott is presented, and on two occasions the coach is seen to give Scott advice, but his advice is either confused or irrelevant and when Scott refuses to play as the Wolf at the end, this is an acknowledgement on Scott’s part that his coach doesn’t know best and that he must trust to his own instincts. It has to be said though, that the scenes in which the coach doles out his useless advice are really very funny.

‘Let me give you a little advice. There’s three rules that I live by. Never get less than twelve hours’ sleep, never play cards with a guy who’s got the same first name as a city, and never go near a lady who’s got a tattoo of a dagger on her body. Now you stick with that, everything else is cream cheese.’

Other potential role models include Stiles, of course, and Scott briefly tries out ‘being’ Stiles when he ‘surfs’ as the Wolf on top of Stiles’ van (or ‘Wolfmobile’): a silly piece of showing-off for which he is almost instantly reprimanded by his father.

teenwolf stiles

Mick represents the aggression which would dominate Scott if he chose to remain as the Wolf, but after the fight at the dance, this is not an option for Scott any longer. The Wolf’s rage has frightened him as it once did Mr Howard many years ago in his confrontation with Rusty Thorne, and it is inevitable from this point that the role model Scott will adopt is his own father. In rejecting the Wolf, Scott repeats his father’s history. And just in case we are left in any doubt as to how Scott will cope without the Wolf, we are shown a scene in which Mr Howard demonstrates that he himself no longer needs to transform. When Scott’s father confronts Thorne for a second time at the dance in order to protect Scott, he does so as himself – not the Wolf – and yet the end result of this second interview is the same. All Mr Howard has to do is let out a low growl and Thorne wets himself in terror.

teenwolfdad

The film’s ending is in many ways problematic. Scott’s decision is touted as ‘the right thing’, but he is rejecting everything he craved at the film’s opening and settling for an ordinary life instead of an extraordinary one. Yes, everything within the context of the metaphor works out just fine, but there remains a sense that the viewer is being force-fed an ideology in which the individual’s capacity for difference and his or her potential for greatness must be suppressed in order to meet the needs and requirements of the community in which s/he lives. Scott’s a team player. The Wolf is not. But I suppose the counterweight to this argument lies in the fact that the Wolf’s achievements are empty: the theatre is only make-believe, Pamela is cold-hearted and vain, and his basketball victories are Pyrrhic in that they lose him the friendship of his team-mates.


I mentioned at the beginning of this post that my interest in this film had been rekindled when I saw it mentioned on Twitter. Now, I can’t remember all the details, but Teen Wolf was listed along with ten or eleven other films, all of which feature an extra doing something they shouldn’t be doing, or doing something daft which distracts from the main event. In the case of this film, there’s a female extra in the final scene who has left her fly undone, presumably to render those horrible too-tight eighties jeans more comfortable when sitting down, and she’s frantically fiddling with her zip while Scott is celebrating his victory. You can watch it here, but be warned that once you’ve seen it, you’ll never be able to watch the final scene again without seeing it.

There was a whole load of stupid talk on the Internet about this, with references to a ‘guy pleasuring himself’ and all that sort of thing. One commenter even wrote ‘you can see the tip but nothing else’. Well, actually no you can’t mate, because she’s a GIRL and all you can see is her knickers. Still, it shouldn’t have made it to the final cut…!

‘Strangers on a Train’: The Hitchcock/Highsmith Smack-Down!

strangers

*Please note: spoilers below*

Before I begin, I should point out that I’m not the sort of person who usually succumbs to apoplectic rage over the perceived imperfections of a film adaptation of a book. I was, in fact, immensely irritated by those Harry Potter fans who squawked ‘That’s not in the book!’ and then insisted on listing every single detail that the latest film had left out in order to fit an 800-page book into two-and-a-half onscreen hours. No, I don’t get worked up about this sort of thing because books and films are two different media, and if you really want The Film Of The Book, well, why not just read the book? The idea behind an adaptation is to create something based on the original, but it should be something that explores the text in a different format and perhaps ends up saying something new about it, encouraging the audience to go back to the book and read it again with new eyes. In short, there is NO POINT in simply filming the book. Faithful adaptations are all well and good, but I always think of them as a missed opportunity to say something new.

Having said all that, I HATED Hitchcock’s adaptation of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and I hated it so much that I have to write a post about it in order to get it off my chest. I know Hitchcock was an innovative and inspired director, and that he contributed a great deal to the art of filmmaking, but on the evidence of this film I’d have to say that as a reader of narratives, he was a bit of a duffer.

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Highsmith’s novel is a brilliant piece of exceptionally accomplished writing, made all the more astonishing by the fact that this was her first novel, published originally in 1950 when Highsmith was still only 29 years of age. Hitchcock’s film appeared the following year, and the film’s Wikipedia page notes that Hitchcock purchased the rights for only $7,500 after having been careful to keep his name out of the proceedings. Highsmith was understandably annoyed about having been cheated like this. Raymond Chandler produced a screenplay for Hitchcock based on the novel, but almost none of Chandler’s work made it into the final script: you can read his marvellously rude letter to Hitchcock here. (Chandler’s name remains on the credits, though, at the insistence of Warner Bros.)

Highsmith’s novel is based on a very simple premise: two strangers, Charles Anthony Bruno and Guy Haines, meet on a train. Bruno has an idea for the perfect murder: he will murder Guy’s wife Miriam, who is causing trouble over their divorce, and Guy will murder Bruno’s father, who is keeping Bruno on a too-tight rein. If both men are absent with alibis at the time of each murder, there is nothing to link them and their chances of getting away with it are therefore greatly increased. Guy is horrified by the idea, but Bruno goes ahead and murders Miriam while Guy is elsewhere, and Guy is eventually coerced into fulfilling his part of the bargain. Among the many themes of Highsmith’s novel is that of the double, or doppelgänger – the Hyde to one’s Jekyll, a darker side who enacts one’s secret desires, a theme that is brought out through liberal use of free indirect discourse and the ceaseless and seamless interweaving of voices. Hitchcock introduces the double idea at the beginning of his film by showing us Guy’s feet and Bruno’s feet in parallel scenes as they make for the train, but the idea is never pursued as thoroughly as it is in Highsmith’s novel – essentially because Guy has to be a Hollywood hero and isn’t allowed a dark side.

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Guy’s status as hero proves detrimental to the entire film, the biggest single problem being that a hero cannot be a murderer, so Guy does not gun down Bruno’s father as he does in the novel – he tries to warn him instead*. But the most terrifying thing about Highsmith’s novel is Bruno’s relentless pursuit of Guy, so in the end Guy is left with no choice but to carry out the deed.

Highsmith’s Guy Haines is an architect at the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant career, but Hitchcock’s Haines is a tennis player, already well-known and riding a tide of success. This switch of profession is an inexplicable decision on Hitchcock’s part, because Guy’s status as an architect is crucial to an understanding of his character as a sensitive and creative soul whose buildings are inspired by his faith. Highsmith underlines this by ‘quoting’ an article about Guy taken from an English architectural magazine, part of which is reproduced below:

Haines [has] set forth principles of grace and function to which he has steadfastly held, and through which his art has grown to its present stature. If we seek to define Haines’ peculiar genius, we must depend chiefly upon that elusive and aery term, ‘grace’, which until Haines has never distinguished modern architecture. It is Haines’ achievement to have made classic in our age his own concept of grace…

Note that the word ‘grace’ features three times in this very short paragraph, and this is surely important. The novel begins with a temptation scene – Bruno, bearing the mark of the first murderer Cain in the form of a boil in the middle of his forehead, outlines his idea for the double murder – and Highsmith’s story ends with a confession, in which Guy blurts out the truth to Miriam’s ex-lover, Owen Markman. Now, I’m not a religious person and I don’t pretend to understand these things, but my reading is that Guy is tempted and falls, but his confession, and the beautiful buildings he creates, lead him finally to a state of grace. With Guy as tennis player, all this is lost, and we’re left with Farley Granger’s knobbly knees in tennis shorts and some rather dodgy shooting of a match that Guy is trying to win as quickly as possible for reasons that are not in the least bit clear. There is one superb, and very famous, shot which comes out of this tangle, however: all heads are turning to watch the ball except for that of Bruno, whose eyes are fixed on Guy…

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And now for Bruno. Robert Walker puts in a marvellous turn as Hitchcock’s bad guy, but he is a cut-price two-dimensional version of Highsmith’s Charles Anthony Bruno. Hitchcock’s Bruno is a murderer who is inept enough to display his name for all to see in the form of a tasteless tie-pin:

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Bruno as Highsmith wrote him is young, rich, bored, an avid reader of detective novels (hence his fascination with the perfect murder), and he is terrifying. He is both stupid and an alcoholic and this combination means that he is extremely dangerous because he is unpredictable. His wealthy, cushioned life has made him arrogant. He thinks nothing of murdering Miriam – indeed, it is only a game to him – and he plots the killing of his own father so that he can have full and immediate access to the allowance his father metes out so carefully. The detective Gerard notes that Bruno hates women, and indeed, his latent homosexuality is as clear to the reader as is his Oedipus-like status: the only woman Bruno will tolerate is Elsie, his mother, who in Highsmith’s novel is an attractive, still fairly youthful woman. Hitchcock turns Elsie into a senile old baggage, thus depriving us yet again of an area of potential intellectual interest.

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However, I did find something that I liked about Hitchcock’s handling of the Bruno character. Bruno’s ‘bed-trick’, in which he pretends to be his father so he can confront Guy, was a point which sparked my interest, namely because I wondered when I was reading the novel whether it would turn out to be Bruno underneath the bedclothes. Given Bruno’s implied death wish and his adulation of Guy, I entertained the possibility that Bruno would consider it a great adventure to be shot dead by the man he clearly adores. But far more likely that Hitchcock wanted Bruno to call Guy’s bluff at this point so Bruno could direct his attention instead to trying to frame Guy for Miriam’s murder, because from this point onwards, the film departs completely from the narrative as set out in Highsmith’s novel and instead we get a lot of farting about with a lighter which Bruno is desperately trying to deposit as evidence of Guy’s presence at the scene of the crime. As if that would prove anything.

Hitchcock’s plot is ludicrous and scarcely credible. The events of Highsmith’s novel have been twisted beyond recognition simply so that the director of the film can stage set-pieces such as the fast and noisy destruction of the carousel at the end. And I hate the way Hitchcock directs women, how he reduces them. The Anne of Highsmith’s novel is an independent woman with her own successful career: Hitchcock turns Guy’s fiancée into the simpering daughter of a rich Senator, all ready to be passed from one man to another…

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…and the film introduces the character of Barbara, Anne’s sister, who plays Scooby Doo’s Thelma to Anne’s Daphne. Of course, the other important thing about Barbara is that she wears spectacles and Bruno’s reaction to the sight of her (because Miriam too, wore spectacles) miraculously informs Anne that he is the murderer:

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What utter, utter tosh. But here we come to the only other thing I liked about the film, and that was the way in which Miriam’s murder was filmed, reflected in the lenses of her spectacles which have fallen to the ground:

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This shot is really rather good, especially because it leads one to ask exactly who is doing the seeing. We watch the scene through the eyes of the spectacles, as it were: ironically, the spectacles are seeing something that Miriam can no longer see. The spectacles are an inanimate witness to Bruno’s crime.

While I’m on the subject of Hitchcock and women, I feel I have to say something about Miriam as victim. Most notable here is that while Highsmith’s Miriam suffers a miscarriage before she is murdered, Hitchcock’s Miriam is still pregnant when Bruno strangles her. So, for Hitchcock, a pregnant woman and the old man working the carousel are fair game, but Bruno’s rich father is out of bounds in order to protect Guy’s status as hero. That stinks. It just stinks.

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I’m reading Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley now. I hope Clément (1960) and Minghella (1999) did a better job of adapting this one for film, otherwise I really am in danger of turning into someone who says things like ‘That’s not in the book!’

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*Compare this with Hitchcock’s Rebecca – Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier, does not murder Rebecca as he does in du Maurier’s novel. If memory serves, Rebecca falls and fatally hits her head, so our hero can remain blameless.