A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

13 02 2010

Last week I went to see A Single Man starring Colin Firth.  I had read the book in college (Gay and Lesbian Literature, an awesome, albeit depressing, class) and remembered I liked it.

However, I had forgotten most of the details of the plot. Which I’m sure lent itself to my enjoyment of the movie.  I always have a problem when I love a book and then feel a little stiffed by what the movie adaptation leaves out.

Oh, in case you’re thinking I’m going to spoil the movie, don’t worry. They changed so much that my talking about the book won’t do a thing. Calm down.

Anyway, I was digging through my books last night, bored, and found my copy of A Single Man.  It’s a short book and a quick read, and just as enjoyable as I remember.  But with the movie’s plot fresh in my mind, I kept waiting for certain things to happen.

Okay, I can’t help but make a direct comparison.  HERE BE SPOILERS:

The movie, and I’ll say it again, is very well done.  But the plot completely veers away from that of the book.  Both take place in the span of a day, but the main character, George, did not originally plan on killing himself.  That was the biggest part of the movie, the meticulousness with which George plans his own death, down to picking out his burial suit and leaving a note pinned to it directing that his tie be a Windsor knot.  In the book, George has a more violent streak (though he keeps it completely to himself) and, while still lost and grieving Jim, does not at all contemplate ending his own life.  Yes, George still dies at the end, that doesn’t change one bit.

What does this difference matter?  To me, it mattered a great deal —  it’s a crucial difference.  In the movie, George knows it’s his last day on earth, he’s planned it that way.  It makes him braver, less careful of consequences.  It’s such a smack in the end when he decides he wants to live and thrive, but then dies anyway.

In the book, however, George acts the exact same way, with all of the same actions just because.  Because he’s spent too much time in his own head, because at times he feels divided and he’s not always sure which version of him is in control. Because he really does enjoy interacting with his students and challenging them.  There’s nothing fatalistic about him or his actions.  He’s just that way.

And that’s why, in the end, I enjoyed the book just a little more.  George doesn’t need a reason for his actions.  It’s just such a careful examination of a day in his life.  Nothing special about it at all.  The movie blows it out of proportion, makes it so obvious that it’s his last day.  And while the movie is great, in comparison to the book it seems heavy-handed.

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