Sunday, October 23, 2011

COOL FLICKS: Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Séance on a Wet Afternoon
Written & directed by Bryan Forbes
Cinematography by Gerry Turpin
Based on the novel by Mark McShane
Starring: Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough, Mark Eden, Nanette Newman, Patrick Magee and Judith Donner

"You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were... ordinary. Like you. Dead ordinary. Ordinary and dead like all the others." - Myra Savage as portrayed by Kim Stanley

As promised here is a review on the film version of Mark McShane's book. It is a perfect example of a filmmaker adapting a novel for his own ends. The story is remarkably different from the book and casts the main character, Myra Savage, in a completely new light. Added to that is Bryan Forbes (who wrote the adapted screenplay and directed the movie) decision to transform Bill, her husband, into a man who well aware that Myra is deeply disturbed. But ultimately the major change, and the one that alters nearly everything in the original story, is the creation of a completely new character: Arthur, their dead son.

In McShane's novel it is clearly stated that Myra is not very fond of children and that the two of them have been a childless married couple. Kim Stanley's Myra, on the other hand, is a woman who has never recovered from the death of her son. She is in constant contact with him through her séances and uses Arthur as her spirit guide. It is Arthur, she reminds Bill, who has told her that the way to fame and fortune is through the kidnapping plan. Stanley from the very first scene captures the essence of this new vision of Myra as a utterly destroyed mother who has suffered irrevocable loss. There is not a minute where the viewer does not think we are watching a desperate and pitiful woman who may be teetering on the brink of sanity and ready to completely plunge into a world of her own creation. Like McShane's Myra she refuses to recognize Arthur's plan as anything but a means to an end. She is not a criminal, she is "borrowing" the child they kidnap. They won't keep the ransom money, they will return every last pound along with the girl safe and unharmed. All will be well. But, of course, nothing goes well at all.

Another major difference is that I never believed that Myra's psychic gift in the movie was genuine. In the book we are told she has an eerie power from a very young age and that it seems to be waning in her middle age. In the film Stanley's powerful performance that wavers between a weird ethereal half-mad oracle and a hellish shrew akin to Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had me believing she never was a true psychic. Her desperate clinging to the memory of Arthur allowed her to step into a world of make believe and she uses the idea of being a medium to keep him alive. In this regard Myra has more than a little in common with Albee's Martha. Her voice is always light and airy when talking of Arthur and the Plan, then suddenly she will turn on her husband, her voice drops several octaves and she becomes a stern and mocking termagant. Arthur is not only her spirit guide but he has become her refuge and love object. Bill has lost her love and, no longer her husband, is relegated to little more than her servant.

Likewise the differences between Bill in the book and Bill in the film are drastic. Richard Attenborough shows us the devotion and love for his wife as McShane created Bill, but he is less the fearful husband and more of a cautious and watchful guardian, ever protective of his wife's delicate mental condition. Attenborough's Bill knows that Myra is headed for a complete mental breakdown yet he indulges her. There is, however, a scene where he confronts Myra about the truth of their son's death in which he becomes the truly strong man firmly rooted in reality that McShane's Bill could never be. Attenborough is magnetic and forceful in that scene and Stanley crumples and remains steadfastly in denial even when the truth is spelled out for her.

There is one more crucial difference - one that I feel is the major flaw with Forbes' adaptation. For fear of ruining both the book and the movie I cannot really mention it specifically. I will, however, say that it has to do with the fate of the little girl (renamed Amanda for some inexplicable reason). In the book her fate is an accident, in the film a deliberate act. Although Forbes may think his major change elevates the tragic level of the movie I think it was a huge mistake. It lessens the power of the ending and turns both of them into willful, cold-blooded criminals.

There is no denying that Forbes has created a film of disturbing menace and told a creepy story of what happens when love goes terribly wrong. Yet by completely removing the genuine supernatural aspects of the film, by altering Myra's motives and adding a back story that utterly transforms her into a different Myra, I think the story really does lose much of its intended effect. The Myra of Forbes' movie is a pathetic figure and you don't really want her to succeed at all. She is cruel to her husband, indifferent to her charge, and living in a world of the past. Mark McShane's original Myra is just as driven and ambitious but she is rooted in the present. You want her to regain her place in what little life she has left. Her character may also be a sad figure but you want her to get away with her crime. The ending of the book made me gasp in awe and truly affected me. The ending in the film is sadly predictable and left me numb. That proves that by employing the supernatural in a work of fiction there is the possibility for the author to move the reader. It's a shame that Forbes could not see this.

In looking for movie stills to help illustrate this post, I learned that Séance on a Wet Afternoon has been adapted yet again, this time as an opera. Stephen Schwartz, known primarily for his work in 1970s musical theater (Godspell and Pippin) and now represented on Broadway with the hugely popular Wicked, created an opera of the Bryan Forbes film. I guess it comes as no surprise that Schwartz didn't even bother to read the original novel. Had he chosen to make the book into an opera he would've been rewarded with something much more powerful. Though the premiere with  Opera Santa Barbara was a modest success, the same production transferred to the NY City Opera received a lukewarm review.


  1. Hi John, it's fascinating that you mention the similarities to the Albee play because I had exactly the same reaction - this for me was further reinforced when I read that Forbes considered changing the couple to a pair of men, which is a common reading of the dynamic in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? of course. Really excellent post on the film and its relation to the original text.


  2. Very interesting. Seen the film, have not read the book, probably should read the book, it seems! The film is a downer, but the two leads are quite good (Attenborough deserved an OS car nomination too).

  3. Drat, I've had to skim through this as I've never seen the film nor read the book. They're both going on my lists now, though. Thanks!

    Happy reading!

  4. I remember seeing the movie ages ago and being quite taken with it. But now I have to read the book for sure.