I always feel nervous when I hear that a great novel is being made into a film. It’s a risky business as I don’t want the pleasure of the reading experience soured if the movie is unfaithful to the characters and ideas of the book. However, some of my favourite novels such as Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” and Christopher Isherwood’s “A Single Man” have artfully been made into very fine films. When I was invited to a preview screening of an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” I was intrigued because I only vaguely remembered this book. I read it back in 2011 when it won the Booker Prize. However, the details of the story were sketchy in my mind – especially because it’s such a short novel. So I reread it last weekend and was newly astounded by the power of this book. It says so much about the way we perceive personal and social history, how the past can take an idealized form from endlessly retold anecdotes and how fallible identity can feel when lost details of the past re-emerge. I found it especially interesting going back to this novel after having read Barnes’ most recent novel “The Noise of Time” which looks at the question of history and free will under social pressures from a different angle.
The novel is broken up into two sections that are told from the perspective of Tony Webster. He recalls his teenage school days, an early relationship with an enigmatic young woman named Veronica and a friendship with earnest fellow student Adrian. His memories surrounding them are safely encased in a subjective understanding of the past. The first section of the book self consciously questions the meaning of history and how we perceive it by recounting debates that happened in his classroom. Adrian poses the theory that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” This significant statement is repeated in the novel and plays out in the plot. Leaping forward in time, the novel’s second section shows Tony in his advanced middle age feeling secure in who he is and what happened in the past. But that’s all undone by his creeping uncertainty about his recollections and a missing document that was bequest to him. Suddenly his sense of self is crumbling amidst his attempts to reconnect with Veronica and desperately scrambling to understand the truth about the past.
Having just read the book, I felt wary about going to see this adaptation for two reasons. Firstly, it’s risky seeing a film straight after having read the book as it might feel dull seeing the same story played out on screen that you just experienced on paper. Secondly, because this novel is written from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, I couldn’t see how hazily remembered events could be shown in visual flashbacks without presenting them as what actually happened. Luckily, my worries proved to be totally unfounded because not only does the film of this novel faithfully interpret the story and overarching ideas of the book, but it made me think about the novel in a fascinating new way.
All the characters in Barnes’ novel feel slightly indistinct because you’re so embedded in Tony’s thought process. However, seeing these characters on-screen I could actually see how the actors added depth and complexity with subtle gestures and expressions. For instance, the character of Sarah (Veronica’s mother) played by Emily Mortimer comes across as much more energetic and flirtatious. Whereas Charlotte Rampling (who plays the elder version of Veronica) can switch her expression from steely to sinisterly amused with a slight twitch of her mouth. Similarly, seeing the elder version of the character of Tony performed by Jim Broadbent the viewer understands how prickly and unlikeable he appears. In the book, Tony came across to me as a slightly charming and benign presence. This is in sharp contrast to the younger version of Tony who is wonderfully played by Billy Howle who shows the character at a stage in his life when he was still a vulnerable and bolshy youth. Of course, these performances are giving an interpretation of the characters, but it made me think about the story and ideas of the book in an entirely different light.
The elder version of Tony recalls his past throughout various points in the movie and this elder version of himself gradually starts to actually enter this history. At other times actions are mirrored by the younger and older version of the character. This is done in a subtle way which adds emotional depth to Tony’s desperation to understand what actually happened and the pain of his nostalgia. Tony’s subjectivity is still reflected in the film because certain events play out in an ambiguous way. He’s never entirely sure the meaning of what some people said to him or the motives of their actions. This felt very true to life for me in the way that we endlessly mull over certain events of our life considering what happened from different angles until the facts themselves seem indistinct. It’s really moving in the film how Jim Broadbent shows Tony’s journey from a position of self-satisfied certainty and emotional-standoffishness to someone who is more sensitive to the ambiguities of his own past. The only element of the film which I didn’t feel worked as well was the slightly sentimental tone that the movie takes towards the end – something which felt crammed in to give a heart warming feel.
Overall, the filmmakers made a lot of clever choices and most text-to-film changes improved how the story worked visually. Also, there's a wonderful scene that takes place in Foyles on Charing Cross Road - always a treat for book lovers to see! After the screening I met with a group of book bloggers and writers to discuss how the film worked as a book adaptation. It was a really lively and interesting conversation as everyone was really engaged and excited by how well the book worked as a film. I was particularly struck by how the writer Isabel Costello mentioned how differently the novel affected her reading it a second time later in life. “The Sense of an Ending” is one of those novels which can be revisited continuously as it will take on a different resonance with accumulated experience. I think the same will be true for watching and re-watching this adaptation. It feels so rare that seeing the film of a great novel can actually enhance the reading experience, but the new movie of ‘The Sense of an Ending’ accomplishes this beautifully and made me eager to read this profound book again.