I was almost put off going to see this biopic because of Mark Kermode’s review, which made it sound like nothing more than a series of crudely-drawn parallels between Tolkien’s life and his work. But I found the film far more subtle than that, perhaps because I already knew those parallels — the way the Fellowship of the Ring could be seen as owing something to Tolkien’s close friendships with his fellows in the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, for instance, which only ended with their deaths in the First World War, or the obvious influence of the war itself. The way that dark figures like dragons and Black Riders form from the smoke, fire and devastation of a First World War battlefield — as seen through a trench-fevered Tolkien’s eyes — wasn’t just a nice touch, I thought it was the whole point of the film.

(It even managed to convince me of one more parallel, though I don’t know how factually accurate it might be: as the fevered Tolkien searches the trenches for his friend, Geoffrey Smith, he’s made to seem like a ring-weary Frodo being supported by his Sam Gamgee-like batman, Private Sam Hodges, struggling through Mordor.)

I think part of the trouble any Tolkien biopic will have is that the image we (I, anyway) have of him is as an old, betweeded, pipe-smoking don, mumbling to himself in Elvish and very much not writing about women. It’s a point emphasised by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, where, once Tolkien is ensconced as a professor at Oxford about a third of the way into that book, Carpenter says: “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” And it’s the “nothing else really happened” Tolkien I tend to think of. The fact that Tolkien was, at one time, passionate about changing the world, and deeply in love with the woman he married — the fact that he was, at one time, a young man — seems difficult to grasp, so any film of his life can’t help but feel an exaggeration or romanticisation. (This film surely owes a lot to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, much more so, I’d think, than the Carpenter biography.)

But biopics have to work as stories at the same time as they’re serving as biographies, and Tolkien is an origin story, not a full biography. It’s about the experiences that led up to the writing of The Lord of the Rings — or, rather, The Hobbit, because it ends with him writing the famous opening sentence to that book. I think, overall, the film makes a good artistic point about the formation of Tolkien as a writer, and though by no means a definitive biopic — I really wanted to see Tolkien at the end of his life, bothered by hippies turning up on his lawn, brandishing copies of the Ballantine paperback whose cover he hated — it was certainly more than the TV movie style box-ticking exercise Mark Kermode implied.


A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

A High Wind in JamaicaPublished in 1929, A High Wind in Jamaica has that Gorey-esque quality of seeming like it might be a genuine old-time classic children’s book — in Humphrey Carpenter’s terms, it could be of the ‘Arcadian’ type of idealised childhood, its ‘secret garden’ a stint the Bas-Thorntons spend on a pirate ship — but beneath its light, storytelling air, it’s far darker than those old-time children’s classics ever were. Dickensian in tone, with Dickens’s love of the comic grotesque, both in over-the-top characterisation and the theatrical set-piece, there’s a subtle but powerful undercurrent building around the only rarely-explored inner life of its key character, ten-year-old Emily, and how she’s affected both by what happens to her and (perhaps more crucially) what she does, during her time with Captain Jonsen and his men.

The novel starts with the Bas-Thornton children living semi-wild on a rundown estate in Jamaica. It is the mid-1800s, after the emancipation of the slaves, and the sugar plantations are mostly abandoned and derelict. Then along comes a hurricane, taking the top off the Bas-Thorntons’ house. Their parents decide the children would be safer at school in England, and ship them off, only for them to be taken by pirates en route. The pirates at first don’t know what to do with the children. Captain Jonsen is hardly vicious enough to simply kill or maroon them, even when they take over his deck, and adopt some vital ship’s gear for use in various games (young Rachel keeps claiming things to be her baby-dolls); they may even be useful in his particular form of piracy, as a distraction to make a potential target ship think his is just a harmless passenger vessel, so he can get close enough to board. For a while, the children aren’t even aware they’re on a pirate ship. Totally lost in their own little worlds, they think this is simply another stage on their journey to England:

‘Margaret said,’ went on Rachel, ‘that time we were shut up on the other ship she heard one of the sailors calling out pirates had come on board.’

Emily had an inspiration. ‘No, you silly, he must have said pilots.’

‘What are pilots?’ asked Laura.

‘They Come On Board,’ explained Emily, lamely. ‘Don’t you remember that picture in the dining-room at home, called The Pilot Comes On Board?’

Hughes takes pains to present the children as anything but the clichéd little angels of most Victorian fiction: these are utterly self-involved, given to bursts of fondness or indifference, brushing against the adult world only briefly, like whales surfacing to breathe:

‘How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?’

Signet_HighWindThe children and the pirates co-exist mostly (at first) by ignoring one another. The pirates seem, at times, to look fondly on the children in their innocence and playfulness; the children try to ignore all clues that the pirates may be pirates — apart from thirteen year old Margaret, the eldest, who instantly knows what’s in store for her from these male criminals. The other, younger, children don’t understand her terror and think she’s being silly. But into this seemingly comic, meandering narrative, hints of a real darkness come through: accidents (one fatal, one near-fatal), then, one drunken night, the pirates come for Margaret — they may even be coming for ten-year-old Emily, too, but she bites Captain Jonsen’s thumb, and this seems to remind him she’s still a child, or perhaps makes him realise she’s too wild to risk, so she doesn’t suffer the more fatalistic Margaret’s (un-mentioned) fate. The journey continues, just as light in tone, just as twisted in implied detail.

It’s only at the end, with the children returned to civilisation, when the adults in London try to prise the truth from the children’s mix of outright fantasy and downright silence, that you get a sense of the trauma they may be suffering beneath their outward normalcy. As the lawyer Mathias says near the end:

‘It’s bad enough having a child in the [witness] box anyway… You can never count on them. They say what they think you want them to say. And then they say what they think the opposing counsel wants them to say too…’

At the end, we’re left with a sense that this adventure is a formative one for the children, but not in any clearly-defined way. The children have brushed against terrors and adventures, yes, but have also spent a lot of time just being themselves — undoubtedly in strange circumstances, but to a child, as Hughes points out, all circumstances are strange, it’s all new. Emily, stocking up on experiences, thinks, at first, it’s enough to have experienced a genuine earthquake right at the start of the novel; her time with Captain Jonsen, with whom she even begins to develop the sort of relationship she never had with her rather distant parents, is too much an undigestible and contradictory mass for her to call it any one thing (as Hughes says, ‘Children have little faculty of distinguishing between disaster and the ordinary course of their lives’); and the one deed she does which nobody guesses (its one witness, Margaret, is too traumatised by her own experiences to talk about it, or anything else), all go towards the making of her as a person, in ways too complex to be simply stated: Hughes’s very silence on the matter speaks far more eloquently.

HighWind_filmcoverThroughout, A High Wind in Jamaica has been subtly undermining its own slightly distant tone, building this sense of an unspeakable tension, a hidden trauma, that is only to be dealt with by not speaking of it, except near the end, when the image of Emily, self-contained once more after a single, brief outburst of emotion in court (easily overlooked by all the adults present), is what lingers with me now the book’s read.

A High Wind in Jamaica was made into a surprisingly faithful film in 1965, with Anthony Quinn as the pirate captain (not Jonsen here, but Chavez, as no-one would believe Quinn was Danish). Somehow, the Hollywood sheen (though it’s a UK film) works just as well as Hughes’s light, Dickensian prose style to take the edge off the awful events, and the impassivity of Deborah Baxter as Emily perfectly captures her child-like impenetrability right up to that tell-tale break-down in court.


Marianne Dreams and Paperhouse

Marianne Dreams, from Faber & FaberCatherine Storr’s 1958 novel Marianne Dreams contains a perfect example of what Humphrey Carpenter calls the “Secret Garden”, found in so many classic kids’ books from Alice in Wonderland onwards — those Arcadian pocket-worlds that encapsulate an idealised childhood, part fantastic imagination, part golden-tinged nostalgia. In Storr’s book, the “Secret Garden” is a dream world 10-year-old Marianne creates through drawings made in her waking life. Bed-bound for weeks after an unspecified illness, she finds a special pencil (“one of those pencils that are simply asking to be written or drawn with”), thereafter referred to as The Pencil, in her grandmother’s button box. With it, she draws a standard child-style house, and when she sleeps, dreams of walking up to this very house, but being unable to get in. When she wakes, she adds a knocker to the door, and, for someone to answer it, a face at an upper window. Both details have been added to the house when she next dreams, but the boy at the window can’t answer her knock because the house has no stairs inside and (something he doesn’t admit immediately) he can’t walk. So Marianne starts working on interior drawings, too. In her waking life, because she can’t attend school till she’s well again, she’s being taught by a governess, who mentions another home-visit pupil, a boy called Mark whose illness has left him too weak to walk. When Marianne learns the boy in the dream-house is also called Mark, she realises her dream world isn’t entirely her own.

Marianne in the dream-world. Illustration by Marjorie-Ann Watts

Marianne in the dream world. Illustration by Marjorie-Ann Watts

In the dream world, though, the two children don’t exactly hit it off. Both are tetchy from being bed-bound for so long, and Mark is resentful of the idea he might be living in a world Marianne has created. After a particularly heated spat, she punishes the dream-Mark by scribbling him out (though this only puts bars over his window) and, worse, by adding a single, watching eye to each of the boulders she drew outside the house. When she next dreams, she finds Mark terrified of “THEM”, the watching rock-creatures crowding the house. Regretting her anger, but unable to undo it (what she draws with The Pencil can’t be erased), the story comes to be about Marianne encouraging Mark to regain the physical strength and will to walk so they can escape the house and the watching, threatening presences.

Marianne and Mark. Illustration by Marjorie-Ann Watts

Marianne and Mark. Illustration by Marjorie-Ann Watts

Aside from its dream world fitting neatly into Humphrey Carpenter’s idea of the “Secret Garden”, Marianne Dreams has other similarities to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel from which Carpenter got the name. In Burnett’s book, the slightly spoiled 10-year-old Mary Lennox, orphaned and sent to live with a reclusive uncle, discovers an abandoned, walled rose garden and in it comes to not only befriend her withdrawn and seemingly crippled cousin Colin (who, like Mark, can’t, or won’t, walk), but to engage in a wholesale healing of the family: Colin of belief in his physical frailty, herself of her spoiled nature, and her uncle of both his extreme grief over the death of his wife and his estrangement from his son. The main difference between the two novels is that, while Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden is basically working at healing the adult world (where Uncle Archibald’s mourning for his wife is the cause of all the other problems) in Marianne Dreams the focus is entirely on the children, not just in recovering from their illnesses, but in their working together to overcome the self-centredness which their long periods of convalescence have led to. There’s a feeling that they’re taking a step away from the dependence of childhood towards taking a fuller responsibility for their own lives.

Vikki Chambers as Marianne in Escape into Night

Storr’s book has been adapted a few times. The author turned it into an opera libretto in 1999. In 1972 it was adapted for television as Escape into Night (made in colour, but only surviving in black & white). This six-part series stuck faithfully to the book — perhaps too faithfully, as the story of Marianne’s coming to understand the relationship between her drawings and the dream world inevitably leads to a lot of similar-seeming scenes, though perhaps I only feel this because I watched them back-to-back — but it also comes across as slightly darker, as, somehow, showing the bizarre one-eyed stones surrounding the house makes them that much creepier. My first encounter with the story, though, was in a very different form, the 1988 film Paperhouse.

Charlotte Burke as Anna in Paperhouse

I can’t think of many children’s books which, when adapted, turn into films for adults — and I wonder if that was always the intent for Paperhouse (rated 15 in the UK), because, though it ups the scares of Catherine Storr’s novel, it doesn’t do the usual horror cliché of turning childhood itself into a scary world — there’s no tinkly toy piano music, or ghostly nursery rhymes echoing down empty corridors — so it’s still a story that’s for children rather than being about them. In fact, apart from the level of scares (always a difficult thing to judge), I think it would actually be a good film for young adolescents, as it’s very much about their experience — about the first tentative moves towards forging deeper emotional attachments away from mum & dad, and about the tug-of-war between growing up and remaining a child. (Now I come to think of it, the two main characters’ lingering in bed after their illnesses could well be a metaphor for lingering in a state of dependent childhood, putting off the first steps into independence and adulthood.)

Anna and Marc (Elliott Spiers)

Marianne from Storr’s novel is now Anna, a girl very much on the verge of adolescence. One moment she’s bunking off school to try on makeup and ask her friend about snogging (“Like kissing a vacuum cleaner”), the next she’s playing hide-and-seek. In contrast to the book (where the mother is pretty much a cipher), in the film, Anna’s relationship with her mother is strained by some very teenage tantrums. The real transformation from novel to film, though, is the father. In the novel, though he’s living at home, the father is all but absent — he pops into the story only briefly, to do those things a standard father of the 1950s was expected to do, i.e., authorise a few key decisions and knock in a nail. In Escape into Night, his irrelevance to the plot is smoothed over by having him working abroad. In Paperhouse, not only is he working abroad, but Anna is torn between feeling abandoned by him and being grateful he’s not there because of how he scares her sometimes when he drinks. In the film’s dream world, the stones-with-eyes (“THEM”) central to the novel’s sense of threat are replaced by a blinded father figure wielding a hammer. (This, more than anything, must be what makes it a 15 certificate, the way it turns the threat into a very real, domestic one, rather than a generalised, fantasy version of anxiety.)

All this brings a muted aspect of the novel to the fore. Anna’s ambivalence about her father is an ambivalence about males in general. Sitting up in bed after a checkup from the doctor (here, a woman — Anna’s world, including teachers and friends, is almost entirely female), she says, “I don’t like boys,” then immediately adds one at the window of the house she’s drawing, as though her unconscious has other things to say on the matter. Far more powerful than the horror element of the film is the sense that Anna is learning to transfer the complex feelings she has for her father to a more fitting male figure of her own age. Paperhouse’s scares and dream world shocks can seem a bit over the top — as can Anna’s teenage histrionics, though “OTT” may well be the definition of teenage histrionics — but the film ends with a real sense of combined loss and gain, all because of how Anna has matured from a self-centred child to someone who can start to have fuller, more mature relationships.

Catherine Storr was, at the time she wrote Marianne Dreams, married to Anthony Storr, author of some of my favourite books about psychology — his The Dynamics of Creation (1972) and Solitude (1988) are both very readable and interesting delves into the complexities of two subjects Marianne Dreams also touches on: creativity (Marianne, in the novel, is not great at drawing, and her frustrations at how her lack of skill has a real effect on the dream world make up one of the novel’s strands), and the pleasures and pains of being alone.