Winter’s Tale

14 Feb

Once upon a time, I made a list of four books that should never be made into movies.  I was right about the first one, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, which became a movie in 1981, with a stellar cast of elder actors (among them John Housemann, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Fred Astaire) and a script which totally missed the underlying secret of the book. 1987’s The Princess Bride and 1989’s Field of Dreams (from the novel Shoeless Joe) were, happily, wonderful movies (well, a wonderful movie and a very good one), making me 1-2.

The fourth book on the list was Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale.  Winter’s Tale (the novel) is a sweeping work of romantic magical realism, wherein a milk horse learns it can fly, a wall of clouds lurks just off shore from New York City, and a bridge builder attempts to build a bridge to heaven.  Its prose is rich and flowery, and its characters distinct and marvelous.  The novel became a bestseller when it was published in 1983, and received great critical acclaim, though “common” reviewers on Goodreads.com or Amazon are a bit more mixed.

Spanning the 20th Century, it tells the tale of Peter Lake, an aging thief in 1899, who is on the run from crime boss Pearly Soames.  While robbing a mansion which he mistakenly believes to be empty, Peter meets Beverly Penn, the beautiful teenaged heiress to a publishing fortune, who is destined to die too soon of consumption (tuberculosis).  Their story makes up the first third of the novel, at which point it abruptly jumps to the latter years of the 20th Century where it introduces a wide-ranging cast of characters in its middle third, the ties the beginning and end of the century together with the return of Peter Lake and Pearly Soames.

In Winter’s Tale the movie, the first two thirds of the movie tell the early-century story of Peter, Pearly, and Beverly, and is faithful to the book.  The visuals are stunning, and the story moves along nicely.  Colin Farrell is perfectly roguish as Peter, and Jessica Brown Findlay is luminous and lovely as Beverly, dealing with her death sentence of a disease with grace and humor.  Russell Crowe snarls and rages and Pearly, exuding a sense of rage barely contained beneath an exterior of propriety.  William Hurt is dignified, loving, and imperious as Beverly’s father. The final third of the movie, set in the present, features Jennifer Connelly as a single-mother report who helps an amnesiac Peter remember who he is and fulfill his destiny.

I thoroughly enjoyed Winter’s Tale for the first third of the movie.  There are a few things I would have done differently, but many of the images seemed plucked right from the book, and thanks to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Emily and Zooey) it all has a lush, somewhat dreamy look.  In his directorial debut, Academy Award winning writer Akiva Goldsman movies the story along at a nice pace, streamlining much of Helprin’s intricate character backstories, as one must do to make a two hour movie. But things fall apart when the movie shifts to the present day.  Since the menacing, magical cloud wall has been omitted, there has to be a reason for Pearly and Peter to still be alive in 2014, and the one Goldsman settles on, while yielding a couple of great cameo scenes for Will Smith, muddy the waters to the point where both the climactic battle between Peter and Pearly and the culmination of Peter’s life’s purpose are met with a resounding “is that it?”.

Winter’s Tale is not a resounding failure, as some critics have been making it out to be, but it certainly loses much of what joy and magic it has in the section set in the past when it makes the jump to the future.  Unfortunately, as I suspected back in the 80s, this may be as close to a good adaptation as can be made, within the space of 2 hours.

I give it 5 Cheeseburgers

 

for the record, it has always been my contention that the best format for a Winter’s Tale adaption would be a series of 3 2-hour television episodes.  Part one ends following the battle on the bridge, Part two ends with the return of Peter Lake.

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