Some months ago I posted an essay that had been intended for a book on film adaptations that never seemed to happen. This is another from that set, dealing with the film version of The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe.
When you consider a film that is as faithful to its source material as ‘La mort en direct’ is to The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, it is worth looking at the few instances where the two differ. Not least because the film so wholeheartedly enters into the world of the novel that there are several instances where it is not immediately obvious what is going on.
D.G. Compton (in the film credits the novel is ascribed to ‘David Compton’, but his published work always appeared under the form ‘D.G. Compton’) was one of those British science fiction writers not associated with the ‘new wave’ who nevertheless flourished briefly during the late-60s and early-70s. His work was distinguished by a complex, multi-layered world-building, and by a humane characterisation more commonly associated with the mainstream of the time. That complexity and humanity are both in evidence in The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, which has some claim to be considered his finest novel.
The novel is set in a very near future when death, except in rare circumstances, has been abolished. Hence, anyone who is found to be suffering from a fatal illness immediately becomes a media celebrity. The story, in both the novel and the film, concerns Roddy, a TV cameraman who has had a camera implanted in his eye, and Katherine Mortenhoe, a middle-aged woman who learns that she only has a few months to live. In the novel, she immediately becomes the focus of so much media pestering as to make her life intolerable; in the film we see a handful of bedraggled journalists outside her home, but we also see her walking alone and unmolested through a park. The amount of media attention is so much less in the film that the dynamic of the story is changed. When, at roughly the mid-point of the novel, Katherine runs away it is clear that she is trying to escape all the people who will not leave her alone; when, at roughly the mid-point of the film, Katherine runs away, it is not immediately clear what she is trying to escape.
This change, though subtle, has two notable effects. The first is that the film, even more than the novel, becomes an indictment of the intrusiveness of ‘reality TV’, twenty years or more before we actually had such a term. This is made even more overt by the massive posters advertising ‘Death Watch’ that are encountered throughout the city and that are first seen even before Katherine is introduced. At one point, we, and Katherine, see her face appearing on one of these posters. In the novel, however, her relationship with the television programme is much more ambiguous. She initially rejects the approaches from the television company, then accepts them only to acquire the cash she needs for her escape. Since she then immediately runs away, we are left to assume that right up to the end of the novel she remains unaware that the programme is actually going out.
The second effect is that the focus of the film is less on the watched and more on the watcher. The novel alternates between Roddy’s story, told in first person and beginning with Roddy’s first sight of Katherine, and Katherine’s story told in third person. The balance is even between the two throughout the book. The film opens with Roddy having his eyes tested and the focus is more on him than on her, until quite late in the film when the balance does shift to Katherine. But the film adds a brief voice-over at the beginning and again at the end, which is spoken by Tracey, Roddy’s ex-wife, who is a less important figure in the novel; this also has the effect of making Roddy the main focus of the film.
At the same time, where the novel goes to some lengths to make it plain that death is a rarity in this world (hence the media fascination with Katherine Mortenhoe), in the film this is implied but not made explicit. The programme about her, therefore, can be seen as more straightforward voyeurism, an interpretation which the concentration on Roddy, the watcher, does little to dispel.
There are several other ways in which the film assumes, without either challenging or explaining, the world building of the novel. For instance, the novel reveals that the absence of death has brought consequent social changes, thus marriage has ceased to be a lifetime commitment and has become a fixed-term association. This has no part in the film, so Katherine’s marriage to the ineffectual Harry despite her obvious continued affection for her former husband, Gerald (whose name she retains), goes unexplained.
Other elements of the novel that the film incorporates without fully explaining are less significant, though still interesting. In the early parts of the novel a lot of attention is paid to Katherine’s career. She produces romantic novels, feeding plot elements and characters into a computer which then compiles the actual book. It is a strange mixture of the artistic and the mechanical, though we learn that her own particular input makes the books she produces especially successful. It is an easy step from this to accepting Katherine as someone who will write the romantic story of her own death. All that survives of this in the film, however, is one passing reference to her programming books, and a brief scene in which she feeds clearly pre-digested plot elements into a computer.
And the means of Katherine’s escape is provided by an outlaw commune that she visits alone and at some personal risk in order to acquire the clothes that will allow her to pass unnoticed as one of the homeless. In the film this is transformed into a colourful and essentially unthreatening hippy fair that she visits along with her husband and a driver who clearly doubles as her minder. Here, rather than put into practice a carefully-planned escape, she simply runs away in the confusion.
Given the way these novel elements are faithfully incorporated into the film, even if it means that what is a carefully built-up part of the world of the novel isn’t always fully explained within the film, the differences between the two become particularly apparent. Some of these differences are part of the look of the film. Although exteriors (filmed in and around Glasgow) are true to the run-down urban reality of the novel, interiors are often highly elaborate and decorative. The doctor’s office, a very functional space in the novel, becomes almost gothic in the film, more like a room in an old-fashioned, high-class hotel. And Katherine’s home is both large and richly furnished, very different from the rather poky flat she and her husband share in the novel. This last is actually problematic, since the implied financial status tends to negate Harry’s need for money that is one of the drivers of Katherine’s edgy relationship with the television company in the novel.
More differences occur in the second half of the story, after Roddy and Katherine have met. In both versions, the meeting occurs in the crypt of a church that provides accommodation for the homeless. It is here that we first recognise that the camera in Roddy’s eye means he cannot sleep and must never be in complete darkness, a realisation emphasised in the film when Roddy must spend a night in a cell. After the two make their way out of the city, however, the differences accumulate.
In the novel there is a curious episode when the two are picked up by a passing car which turns out to belong to a senior television executive who takes them to an orgy at his home. Though this episode reveals Katherine as a sexual being and Roddy as slightly prudish, at least where she is concerned, the episode feels out of place in the novel. It is as if Compton had simply inserted a nod to the free-love ethos of the time in which he wrote the novel without really believing it himself. This whole episode has simply been excised from the film, without any loss. The next morning, Roddy and Katherine get away from the TV executive by stealing his car; in the film the only reference to this episode comes when we suddenly learn that they have stolen a car. The car, of course, allows them to get well away from an urban landscape and out into open and unpopulated countryside.
Next in the novel the pair reach a small coastal town, where they are taken in by a well-ordered community of the homeless living rough on the beach. There is a suggestion that the leaders of the community recognise Katherine, but say nothing about it; but they are clearly accepted as a couple. In the film, in contrast, the two find an isolated shack in a wild valley; there is no interaction with any community, no risk of recognition, no-one looking at the two from outside.
It is at this point in the story that the most important incident, both in terms of plot and in terms of emotion, occurs. Roddy goes into town to do some shopping and in the evening stops into a pub where an episode of Death Watch is being shown on TV. He watches a scene in which over-weight, middle-aged Katherine washes herself unselfconsciously in a country stream. It is a scene that he considered lyrical, romantic, revealing her true beauty; but it is greeted in the pub by laughter and crude remarks. It is a moment that reveals to Roddy the fact that he is in love with Katherine and that he has betrayed her. He leaves the pub, walks onto the pier above the homeless community, and closes his eyes, deliberately shutting out the light and hence, agonisingly, blinding himself.
The incident is replicated in the film, but the watchers in the pub are silent, absorbed in and respectful of the drama on screen. The element of betrayal is thus downplayed; instead we get a sense of Roddy seeing Katherine from outside for the first time, though the idyllic scenes at their remote shack suggest they have already fallen in love with each other. Roddy then makes his way back to the remote valley where they have their shack, and only when he is near the shack does he throw away the small light he carries. Immediately, rather than waiting for blindness, he begins to scrabble around for the light; moments later, Katherine appears and joins the search, locating the light and shining it into his eyes just too late to save his sight. Her involvement in this scene raises awkward questions: does she know he needs the light to avoid going blind? In which case, does she know about the implanted camera? Although it is not spelled out, answering yes to either of these questions could suggest that she is rather more complicit in the filming than we have been led to believe.
Both novel and film come together again for the final episode. We discover that Katherine is not really dying, that was a deception by the television company to set up the programme, but she could now die without urgent treatment. As they rush in sudden urgency to find her, Katherine and the blind Roddy finally reach the home of her first husband, Gerald. In the film this is a beautiful country cottage filled with classical music and expensive furniture (the film depicts a distinctly higher social class than the novel). Both versions end tragically with the needless death of Katherine, though the film hints that Roddy’s sight might be restored, a reassurance absent from the novel. In overall structure and in the incidents that make up the story, ‘La morte en direct’ is an astonishingly faithful adaptation of The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, almost too faithful in that much that is explicit within the novel is only implicit in the film, and yet in the end the film seems to dodge the bleak tragedy of the novel.