November 17, 2010
I just finished reading the fantastic 1958 novel The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. Often cited as a possible progenitor of "Mad Men," it chronicles the hardships and personal entanglements of working girls in 50s Manhattan. It sounds like fluffy chick lit, but instead it's a thoughtful and well-written exploration of how the gender roles and social mores of the time doomed women who strayed from the proper path. I knew before I started reading it that there had been a 1959 film adaptation, but as I read on I started to wonder what small percentage of the novel could be transferred to a 1950s screen.
Yes, folks, the Production Code - everybody's favorite Hollywood censorship doctrine and a subject of personal fascination - was still in full swing. In adapting a story focused primarily on the matters of infidelity, premarital sex, marital dissatisfaction, unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion, obsession, and serious critique of a woman's role in mid-century America, what could you preserve? Very little, if the synopses of the film are any indication. It glosses over everything that gives the novel weight - spouses are conveniently removed, the abortion becomes a miscarriage, sex becomes attempted sex, all moral ambiguity is eliminated and at the end of the day, it emphasizes that all women should just be wives and mothers. It's an adaptation of the book only so far as a ransom note comprised of magazine letters is an adaptation of that magazine. True, I haven't seen the film, but there's nothing really motivating me to do so.
Now, unsatisfactory film adaptations happen all the time. But they are the result of deliberate decisions, not mandatory excisions. The film was the way it was because the filmmakers literally had no choice. And that bums me out, because I feel that a faithful adaptation of the book would really be something special. Of course someone could always make another version, perhaps piggybacking on the success of "Mad Men," but the opportunity to tell the full story from the unique vantage point of the era in which it takes place is unfortunately gone.
The degree to which the Code interfered with a film's effectiveness was widely varied. The fact that any of James Cagney's gangsters had to die at the end of the film was an awkward add-on, but didn't change the fact that until that point he could be as gloriously sadistic and violent as he wanted to be. It was still a gangster picture that delivered all the proper thrills of the genre. But with something like The Best of Everything, the fabric of the story is fundamentally altered, and in trying to adapt a bestseller they neutered everything that made it so.
I know it's impossible, but it would be amazing to see a "de-Coded" version of The Best of Everything from its own time. So think hard and share your filmic fantasies: what films would you like to see de-Coded? (Reminder: the Code was in effect from 1934 until a slow death in the mid-60s.) And I realize that you can't miss what you never knew should have been there, so most of these cases of longing will happen in adaptations of some sort.