From Novel to Film, pt. 33: The Comfort of Strangers

"My father was a very big man. And he wore a black mustache. When he grew older and it grew gray, he colored it with a pencil, the kind women use... mascara."

"This," writes Roger Ebert in his review of Paul Schrader's and Harold Pinter's 1990 adaptation of Ian McEwan's 1981 novel The Comfort of Strangers, "is at first glance a fairly insignificant phrase, idle chatter between strangers who meet in Venice. But the man who says it repeats it two more times, until it becomes clear that these precise words are some kind of a fetish for him, that they suggest depths familiar only to him."

It is never explicitly stated - in novel or film - what those depths are, though we do get both circumstantial and direct evidence of what they may be. But while the film has Christopher Walken deliver the lines multiple times the novel buries them in one long monologue early on, diluting the reader's ability to wrest the meaning Ebert does from them. This is the advantage of having so accomplished a dramatist as Harold Pinter adapt your novel, of course, but it also demonstrates how The Comfort of Strangers is better experienced as a film. As prose, it's a bit opaque (and worse, predictable); as fodder for an art film, lavishly photographed by Dante Spinotti and scored by Angelo Badalamenti, its mystery is more attractively conveyed 

Part of that can be attributed to just the visual beauty of Venice. You just need to point the camera, and the scenery takes care of itself.

Not so in the novel, as McEwan refuses to name the location as Venice. Why? He doesn't disguise the identity in description; despite not being named, it's still clearly Venice. By removing this odd decision of the author's, the film is able to compartmentalize setting and character - and subsequently move things along - in a way the prose cannot.

Intro Colin.
Intro Robert. (Stalking them.)
Taking them across the canal to his lair.
Intro Caroline. (Removed, slightly above, a dangerous prisoner in affluent surroundings.)
Colin beneath the themes that will prove his undoing, his back turned to the danger on all sides.
Ominous wave from the second floor?
The penultimate water taxi.

Additionally, here is a skewering of what is obviously the Piazza San Marco:

"To reach the hotel, it was necessary to walk across one of the great tourist attractions of the world, an immense wedge-shaped expanse of paving, enclosed on three sides by dignified arcaded buildings and dominated at its open end by a red brick clock tower, and beyond that a celebrated cathedral of white domes and glittering facade, a triumphant accretion, so it had often been described, of many centuries of civilization. (...) Everywhere pigeons banked, strutted and excreted, and each cafe orchestra paused uncertainly after the earnest, puny applause of its nearest customers. A dense mass of tourists surged across the brilliantly lit open ground, or wheeled off in small groups and dissolved into the monochrome patchwork of light and shade within the delicately colonnaded arcades." 

"Two thirds, perhaps, of the adult males carried cameras."

Not a dealbreaker, just confusing. Long story short: explicitly pinning the action down in Venice has advantages over leaving it unnamed. Let's get to The Plot. Mary and Colin are an English couple on holiday. 

Mary is divorced with two children; Colin is her partner of seven years.
Their relationship is passionate, but they are bored. With each other? With themselves? With civilization? All of the above?
One night, lost, they run into Robert, who takes them to what is later revealed to be his cafe, where he tells them a long and intense story about his background.

Robert invites them to his palatial house on the other side of the river (across from a view of the Isola de San Michele aka Cemetery Isle). They fall asleep and discover when they wake that their clothes have been removed, held hostage until they agree to stay for dinner.

Caroline, Robert's wife, confesses to Mary that she watched them while they slept. (Nothing to see here...)

While Caroline entertains Mary, Robert takes Colin into his study and extols the virtues of misogyny as the glue that holds civilization together, ("They talk of freedom and dream of captivity. They lie to themselves and confusion and unhappiness are everywhere.") Then he punches Robert hard in the gut. Meanwhile Mary discovers that Robert has several pictures of Colin, as if he has been stalking the couple since they arrived in Venice. 

Mary and Colin leave and stay in their hotel for days, making love and ordering room service. When they emerge on their last day in town, they are spotted by Caroline and stop by to say goodbye, whereupon Caroline reveals her back pain is the result of consistent and comprehensive abuse from her husband, which she has come to crave in spite of fearing for her life. 

For reasons undisclosed, she and Robert have decided to drug Mary and make her watch as they abuse and ultimately kill Colin.

Robert and Caroline disappear, and the police assure Mary that such crimes are common. She goes to identify Colin's body in the morgue.

"She was going to recount Caroline's story to Colin's corpse (...) tell him her theory, tentative at this stage, of course, which explained how the imagination, the sexual imagination, men's ancient dreams of hurting, and women's of being hurt, embodied and declared a powerful single organizing principle, which distorted all relations, all truth. But she explained nothing, for someone had arranged Colin's hair the wrong way. She combed it with her fingers and said nothing at all."

The End. This theory she mentions is intermittently alluded to throughout. Before they came to Venice, Mary was an actress in a women's group that imploded over the issue of whether or not to allow men in their troupe. She recalls how Colin thinks class dominance is the central fact of history vs. her own assertion that is patriarchy, etc. These themes - never all that illuminated, nor striking or original - coalesce (lazily, for this reader) in the murder and particularly in this morgue wrap-up at the end. 

It's not laziness so much as predictability; the "literary" tropes come one after another. These are characters that do not act or behave like normal people. Mary in particular is given to the kind of physical description and observations that only occur in "literary" fiction - "when they looked at each other, they looked into a misted mirror" etc. or long descriptions of her lover's body that one only ever reads in fiction meant for grad students. Or, as the New York Times puts it in its review and worth quoting at some length:

"This is a modern novel, in which it is ordained that intelligent and beautiful people behave stupidly because they aren't in touch with their demonic feelings. (...) Behind them is a hospital; in front of them, across the water, is an island that is a cemetery. This island really exists, but if it didn't, Mr. McEwen would have been obliged to invent it. They are still hungry, and they still can't find anything to eat. They can't even achieve a glass of water, even when they secure a table at one of the cafes in the Piazza San Marco. Never mind that there are always more tables than there are tourists in the Piazza San Marco; this is a novel of existential exacerbations, without a drop to drink.

"Robert, in a white suit, will find Colin and Mary famishing, and bring them back to his apartment, which would appear to be one level of a decaying Venetian palace, and Colin and Mary will meet Robert's wife Caroline, who can't walk upstairs and therefore declines to descend, and Robert will punch Colin in the stomach and Mary will notice that Robert has been taking photographs of Colin. Cameras are almost as important in The Comfort of Strangers as cemeteries and razor blades. We are told: ''There were cameras everywhere, suspended like aquarium fish against a watery background of limbs and clothes.'' Never mind any of this; in a pathological novel, a soul waits around to be stolen. "

"Mary at the end will form a theory, of course - men want to hurt, women seek to be punished - and miss the point. Theory doesn't hurt; murder is sexy."

As for the movie.

It follows most of the same beats of the novel, but Pinter embellishes the dialogue and adds a great epilogue, where Robert, caught by the police and interrogated, begins again his monologue about his father and mascara.

Ebert in his review aforelinked felt the film was ultimately not successful, that it lacked some payoff or explanation still due. I felt this, too, but having read the novel immediately prior to revisiting it (for the first time since the early 90s), the film is far more forthcoming than - and highly preferable to - the book. 

A lot of that is just the medium of film vs. that of prose, although both are only as limited (or as expansive) as the hands guiding it. For example, the film visually re-enforces the couple in isolation -

in self-absorption:

And in sensuality -

Most of which are a little too risque to include here.

simply through filming the story and with some judicious camera decisions by Schrader and Spinotti, both of whom excel at this sort of thing.


Rupert Everett as Colin.
Natasha Richardson as Mary.
Christopher Walken as Robert.
Helen Mirren as Caroline.

Ebert is correct in singling out Walken - with his effortless blend of menace and quirky charm - for praise. And therein lies perhaps the most grievous of the novel's mistakes enlarged onscreen: Robert as a character is nothing, just a cypher/ blunt instrument for the lit-fic conceits given to him. He is not believable, nor are any of the other characters' reactions to him. The reactions to him in the film are still a bit muted, but Walken's charisma paves over the suspension of disbelief and then some. He's still not a very believable character, but a) neither is Walken himself, and b) because of that, he doesn't have to be.

Final Verdict: Novel - Tough to gauge - perfectly fine for what it is (i.e. a lit-fic designed to deliver a theme, not to realistically bring characters or scenario to life) perhaps just not to my taste. Film - Mysterious and beautifully-filmed, memorable but not a masterpiece. Adaptation - a perfect adaptation, isolating the pertinent themes, enhancing what works, discarding what does not.


  1. I wonder how many people would read this and say to themselves, "Jesus Christ, is this really all white people have to worry about? Going to Venice and having complicated sex that leads to them getting killed by Christopher Walken?" Followed by an eye-roll and a shake of the head.

    I'm intrigued by the movie based purely on the cast. Seems like it's probably worthwhile for that and the visuals, if nothing else.

    I read a book of stories by McEwan early in college, and remember liking it alright. But not a bit of it stuck to me. I've got limited tolerance for writers who write this sort of thing. It's probably a flaw in my reading ability -- or interests -- more than it is a flaw in them as writers. But I think to some extent, this sort of literature is just as unbelievable as a superhero comic is. I like superhero comics and believe them to be worthwhile despite being mostly ridiculous; I suppose I ought to extend the same courtesy to novels about the passionate-yet-boring love lives of rich people.

    And so I do. I just tend to not want to actually read any of it.

    I don't mind reading ABOUT reading it on occasion, though, so thanks for spicing things up a bit!

    1. McEwan comes highly recommended. I'll just shrug this one off and dive into another of his somewhere down the line.

      Definitely worth seeing, though. Beautifully shot. Schrader and Dante and Venice and two beautiful leads - four, really - and how can you go wrong? And Pinter, to boot. An embarrassment of wins, if a bit on the artsy side. Like you say, tho, nothing wrong with that every now and again.

      I like the comparison to superhero comics. That softens me on the conceits of literary fiction considerably.

      I've a friend who is always defending horror films that go wildly into surrealism by saying that's what horror is: surrealist, like Dali, etc., and why pretend otherwise. That comment likewise softened me on stuff like Suspiria or other style-over-realism horror entries.

    2. I think fans of a particular genre are just inclined to accept a certain amount of illogic and stupidity in order to continue enjoying that genre. I'm no different: you put a spaceship in it, and I'll forgive a lot.

      The thing is, lit-fic is no different. Its fans tend to pretend that it IS different, and they tend to be awfully smug about doing so (it's part of being buzzed on wine); but they really aren't any different than people who claim "Ghosts of Mars" is underrated and worth revisiting.

      Which it is.

    3. I unreservedly endorse those remarks. Particularly re: "Ghosts of Mars." (audio insert - the incomprehensible rage-blather of the Martians)