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Thursday, June 12, 2003

Ethan Frome - Book Versus Movie

I think I enjoyed the book, Ethan Frome, written by Edith Wharton, much better than the movie. Patricia Arquette is one of my favorite actors and Liam Neeson is always good in whatever I have seen of him, but the story is tough to take in a movie form. It is not often that I go out to see a movie and want to leave the theatre in a sad mood. I guess I am always looking for the happy-ending. Indeed, that last line of the movie by Ruth Hale seems to try to give watchers hope that someday, everything will be all right for Ethan, but really it is an ineffectual little statement that does nothing at all. On the other hand, I enjoy books that make me cry. I find tragedy much easier to digest in a book form. Perhaps that is a narrow-minded view, but it is my preference. However, this is not my only reason for liking the book better, I feel that too much detail gets lost in movie versions and that the characters are not developed as much as they are in books.
There are many differences between the version written by Edith Wharton and the screenplay, written by Richard Nelson. The frame of the story changes, the narrator is not a minister who is told the entire story by his landlady Ruth. In the original story, he is an engineer, who gleaned bits of Ethan’s tragic story from many different sources and figured out the rest of the sad tale during his visit to the Frome farm. The movie version was a much simpler adaptation and does not take as much time to get into the flirtation between Ethan and Mattie. Moviegoers expect some action and even in this dreary, somber tale, the screenwriters are able to make it happen.
The nature of the movie did not allow us a glimpse of what was going on in Ethan Frome’s head. Only the dialogue and actions tell the story, leaving the watcher to complete the story in their own imaginations. Without reading the book first, I am not sure that I would have understood what exactly was going on. I felt that the scene in the store where Mrs. Hale was trying to remind Ethan of his’ wife’s sacrifices was comical. I just wanted to yell out at her, “woman! You go home to his house and take care of that woman! Then come talk to me about what he owes her.” This was a different encounter than the book version. The movie made this scene a judgmental one, Mrs. Hale saw Ethan buying Mattie a present was trying to make him feel bad. The book has takes on a completely different meaning,
“Beaming maternally on Ethan, she bent over to add: "I on'y just heard from Mr. Hale 'bout Zeena's going over to Bettsbridge to see that new doctor. I'm real sorry she's feeling so bad again! I hope he thinks he can do something for her. I don't know anybody round here's had more sickness than Zeena. I always tell Mr. Hale I don't know what she'd 'a' done if she hadn't 'a' had you to look after her; and I used to say the same thing 'bout your mother. You've had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome."
She gave him a last nod of sympathy while her son chirped to the horse; and Ethan, as she drove off, stood in the middle of the road and stared after the retreating sleigh. It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale.”
The fox and the poison were native only to the movie version, perhaps to give us an idea of how desperate the character of Mattie is or perhaps to make the story more exciting, it is hard to say. It does not help much because it makes you wonder why they had to smash into a tree at all, with the poison so handy.
Mattie in Wharton’s book is a much sunnier, optimistic character, she attempts to lighten Ethan’s load by leaving him the note “"Don't trouble, Ethan.” The Mattie in the movie is distinctly different, in her despair; she goes after the poison meant for the fox. She does not want to live as soon as she finds out that she must leave Ethan. The movie couple enjoys a more intimate relationship, we see Ethan going to Mattie in her bedroom, while in the book, and they only kiss in the kitchen.
The book offers a rounder view of Ethan than that of the movie, because we are privy to his inner dialogue. The movie shows an Ethan who had excellent prospects while the book mentions that he spent a brief time (a year) in vocational school. Ethan in the movie is less likable than in the book because he openly flirts with Mattie and because of their intimate relationship. The Ethan in the book, once he realizes that he will hurt people to get away with Mattie, makes the more noble choice. This make us sympathize with him The movie version shows Mattie as the decision maker whilst the book has Ethan making that crucial decision. The movie exposes Ethan not making any decisions at all really; except for the way he treats Mattie. The book reveals so much more of Ethan’s inner struggle that we are aware that he is trying to make decisions in spite of Zeena’s overbearing control.
Zeena’s role, acted by Joan Allen, was perhaps the best in the movie. She looked exactly as I expected her to when I was reading about her, only better. The way she ate the pie, while saying that she had no appetite, gave me the impression that her sickness was the result of hypochondria. Even though the book explains this and the movie does not, her portrayal filled in the missing blanks here. She is a nasty piece of work who appears to make the all the decisions for everyone involved. The one sour note I found was that I could not imagine Ethan falling in love with her or wanting to marry her in the first place. She looked awful from the start. The movie omitted the inner communication that explained Ethan’s fear of silence if Zeena departed. It leaves us with the unbelievable impression that he found her attractive enough to marry just because he did not want to be lonely. Loneliness is a less powerful emotion than fear any day and it just was not convincing. The glances between Zeena and Ethan were nothing like the looks between Ethan and Mattie.
Neeson plays the part of Ethan quite convincingly, he re-creates Ethan’s tortured walk so well that I was wincing with each step he took. Nevertheless, he was not morose enough during the flashback scenes, he appeared like a man on the make, instead of the miserable husband, stuck with a wife he doesn’t love, in the Wharton version. The “smash-up” in the movie leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination. We only have Mattie’s words that she “doesn’t want to ever leave this mountain” to base our assumptions on. The book leaves nothing to the imagination in this scene and again I have to wonder how much I would have understood if I had not read the book first. Her wishes were much clearer in the book. "Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me down again!" "Down where?" "The coast. Right off," she panted. "So 't we'll never come up any more." "Matt! What on earth do you mean?" She put her lips close against his ear to say: "Right into the big elm. You said you could. So 't we'd never have to leave each other any more."
The book illustrates Ethan paying more attention to Mattie after he gets a warning from Zeena that Mattie will leave them to marry someone, they are kindred spirits from the start, but Ethan’s passions are inflamed when he feels a threat to their relationship. In the movie, there is a lack of set-up so we only see his attraction to Mattie from the start. The book meanders around quite a bit before it gets to the part where Zeena is jealous of Mattie’s effect on Ethan. “It was a fact that since Mattie Silver's coming, he had taken to shaving every day; but his wife always seemed to be asleep when he left her side in the winter darkness, and he had stupidly assumed that she would not notice any change in his appearance. Once or twice in the past he had been faintly disquieted by Zenobia's way of letting things happen without seeming to remark them, and then, weeks afterward, in a casual phrase, revealing that she had all along taken her notes and drawn her inferences. Of late, however, there had been no room in his thoughts for such vague apprehensions. Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded into an insubstantial shade.”
Mattie is described as not very useful in the book, she can trim a hat, recite a bit and play a few tunes on the piano, but the movie depicts a Mattie that Ethan is blown away by. He admires her talents in a very steamy scene.
The movie gives us a Zeena who is a sick individual; we can feel some pity for her for a while. The book coats her in a more negative light, she is the reason they cannot move away, while the lack of offers on the farm are a problem, the narrator leaves us in no doubt that Zeena became sick on purpose in order to remain in a area where she enjoyed some status. She is the reason Ethan is miserable, not her sickness.
The accents in the movie were surprising to me, Even though I knew it was located in New England, when I am reading a book, I rarely think about the accents. The book had language that was indicative of strong accents, but they were secondary to what was going on with the characters. The movie, and Mattie’s particularly strong accent, distracted me a bit from the story, but I found it charming anyway.
The ending of the movie was not as good as the ending of the book, the book depicts a clear trade-off of roles between Zeena and Mattie, while the movie does not show this as strongly. Since the role-reversal is such an integral part of the story, the movie could have developed this better. I will probably always enjoy books over movie translations for this very reason. Too much important detail gets lost in the transformation to film.
The transferring of Ethan Frome to film was artfully done and the moral issue remains, but it is not as rich of a tale as the one told by Wharton. Too much is taken for granted by the director, they seem to believe that if they get it, we do also, but sadly, that is not the case. While each form is open to individual interpretation, books will probably always get us closer to the author’s original intentions. I will admit one notable exception, I could never had understood the game of “Quidditch” from Harry Potter without seeing it in the movie version.


Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome New York, New York: Penguin Putnam 2000
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000- (ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press.

Ethan Frome Dir. John Madden
Perf. Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette, Joan Allen
American Playhouse @ Theatrical Films and Miramax 1993

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