Regenerating the war movie?: Pat Barker's Regeneration according to
1 January 2002
Volume 30, Issue 2; ISSN: 0090-4260
Copyright (c) 2002 ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights reserved. Copyright Literature/Film Quarterly 2002
Regeneration opens the eponymous World War I trilogy by English novelist Pat Barker.1 Gillies Mackinnon's film adaptation (1997) centers on this volume, using events from the third volume The Ghost Road-the deaths of two main characters-to achieve a proper sense of closure. Here lies the main hindrance the film faces: while Barker uses three rather long books to reach the cathartic end of her trilogy, Mackinnon forces his audience to march at a more brisk pace toward a similar emotional effect which, given the limited length of his film, he fails to fully achieve. "What is lost in the film," Stella Bruzzi writes, "is the meticulousness of Barker's book" (52). Actually, as is often the case in British film adaptations, the spirit if not the detail of the book is perfectly captured at the expense of the full cohesion of the film, reduced to being an elegant illustration of its literary source rather than an independent work of art.
Regeneration is not a failed film, though both positive and negative reviews have noted its failure to accomplish its "lofty intentions" (Leong). Regeneration is, simply, an over-ambitious adaptation of an already ambitious source respected by the adapter in excess. The charm of Mackinnon's film lies, therefore, in its idiosyncrasy, conditioned in its turn by Mackinnon's fidelity to his literary source rather than to the genre of the war film. But this, precisely, is the crucial factor that may alienate film audiences little interested in war literature. Thus, the failure of Regeneration in the USA was conditioned by the coincidence of its release with Spielberg's dramatic Saving Private Ryan.2 Given the choice between a quality British literary adaptation and a quality Hollywood film, American audiences preferred the latter.
Barker's approach to World War I is relatively original. Unlike most war narratives, hers deals with the healing of the psychological wounds caused by warfare rather than with combat. Regeneration describes the condition of British officers suffering from shell-shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Barker's focus is on real-life events that took place in 1917: the stay at the military psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart, Scotland, of officer-poets Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, placed under the care of the reputed specialist Dr. Rivers. Without being quite a choral work, Barker's novel has the rare quality of placing its minor characters at the same level as the main ones when it comes to an assessment of the mental and bodily pain the war inflicted on them, thus creating a sense of collective experience. Unfortunately, when transferred onto the screen, those parallel plots feel piled on top of each other, gasping for air as the main plot, narrating the troubled relationship between Sassoon and Rivers, unfolds. In contrast, Sassoon and Owen take more screen time than their counterpart's pages in the book, perhaps in the belief that audiences would be attracted, above all, by the romantic lure of their names.
Novel and film pay homage to Dr. Rivers's sensitivity and to the effectiveness of the Freudian methods he used to help his harassed patients. But both also question the uses of psychiatry to manipulate the officers' resistance against the war. Dr. Rivers's task is to heal perfectly sensible young men who protest through their bodies and minds against the horrors of the war only to return them to combat for the sake of Britain's absurd war policies. As Sassoon's case shows, men like Rivers were forced to contribute to a machinery of war that had little to do with medicine, but much with the repression of resistance. Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart following his issuing his famous "A Soldier's Declaration" in 1917, a text in which he denounced the capricious destruction of human life at the trenches and the unsoundness of the military strategies followed there. The military authorities and his good friend, the poet Robert Graves, found it more convenient to entrust Sassoon to the care of Dr. Rivers than to discuss his opinions publicly. In this way they avoided the potential scandal and the disclosure of unpleasant truths about the war kept so far hidden from the general public. Rivers gently but relentlessly led Sassoon back to the front, as he does in the novel and the film. His strategy was to respect Sassoon's views while instilling in him the need to respond to his upper-class, masculine sense of duty which, as an officer, implied for him taking care of his men-mainly working-class volunteers-in the trenches.
Regeneration-novel and film-participates, thus, in the post-modern vogue for the mixture of fiction with real-life characters (Sassoon, Owen, Rivers) and events. It is also heavily dependent on the autobiographical genre inspired by war that saw its peak around the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Hollywood was also showing the war's real face through films like The Big Parade (1925) or All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, from the novel by Eric Maria Remarque). Sassoon was not only a poet but, together with Graves and Edmund Blunden, also the author of one of the most important war memoirs.3 In her book, Barker reinterprets and contextualizes Sassoon's and Owen's use of poetry as an emotional prop to make sense of the reality of war while she celebrates Rivers's compassionate stance toward his men. But. aware that this could be a narrow scope to narrate the terrible effects of war, she contrasts their experience with that of fictional characters representing some of the men ignored by the texts of the war veterans. The magnetic presence of working-class officer Billy Prior responds to this need. Drastically diminished in the film, Prior's excursion from his native Salford into upper-class territory occupies practically a half of Barker's trilogy. This is the aspect that makes Barker's work most innovative as regards the British literature of war and also the aspect most sorely missed in Mackinnon's adaptation.
As Barker herself observes (Sinker 24), she was intrigued. above all, by the figure of the "temporary gentleman," a term used during the war to classify low middle-class, like Owen, or working-class men, like Prior, who had made it through the ranks joining the officers' exclusive club for the remainder of the war. "There were very few highly intelligent working-class people in the fiction of that time, though I'm sure they existed in reality," Barker says. "His perspective is our perspective because it's the perspective of the outsider-in class, in sexuality and in temperament" (Sinker 24). Leaving out much of Billy's social background, the film makes little sense of his essential ambiguity, manifested especially in a bisexuality the film does not reflect, either.4 Andrew Kelly observes that "as with other British films about the War, Regeneration has a fundamental problem. For British cinema the War is always an officer's war" (25). This is radically at odds with the spirit of the trilogy, though not so much with that of its first volume, for, as happens, Billy Prior's presence grew in the trilogy as Barker wrote on and was not an essential factor from the start. By focusing on the first volume, the film fails to take the step Andrew Kelly expected and that Barker herself had already taken for literature.
Barker's trilogy invites readers to consider the position of the woman writer narrating a war which "was not simply a 'crisis' of masculinity- rather, it made visible-and intensified-differences within masculinity in this period" (Tate 96) and not only those of class. Claire Tylee shows her perplexity in reference to World War I novels written by women in recent decades wondering why "women's imagination should rely on cultural myths based on men's experience" (14) and, what is more, as Barker does, on the format of the war autobiography written by men. This may be answered partly by bringing up Jean Bethke Elshtain's notion of the "reluctant warrior," the combatant who "constructs himself as one who places highest value not on killing but on dying-dying for others, to protect them, sacrificing himself so that others might live" (1987). This would correspond to the position of Sassoon and Owen. Clearly, the anti-patriarchal connotations of the "reluctant warrior" have much to offer as subject to the woman writer taking part in the feminist unmasking of patriarchy. Arguably, Barker's interest in masculinity points in this direction. This factor is, of course, masked by the film, for Mackinnon cannot assume the position of the woman writer directly. Being directed by a man, the film somewhat de-genders-dilutes-Barker's position as a woman writer narrating a crisis in masculinity. This must not be taken as a trivial feminist remark, for, as Carol J. Adams writes, "during the Great War the chasm between the soldier at war and the woman spectator was intentionally widened by soldier-- writers who condescendingly dismissed-for lack of experience at the front-any writings by noncombatants" (250). Sassoon and Owen were among the most patronizing of these soldier-writers. It is, therefore, quite ironic that they have now become the subject of work by a woman writer.
Barker, in any case, never falls in the trap of patronizing the men's suffering. The film reflects quite well her compassion and their pain, considering as the novel does the paradoxes affecting masculinity during World War I. Chaste homoeroticism-rather than homosexuality-was "as it were, licensed" (Fussell 282) in the womanless world of the trenches, supposedly inhabited by single-minded warriors sustained by a narrow concept of militaristic masculinity. This license explains the growing affection between Owen and Sassoon, and possibly also Rivers's for his patients. His empathy is so remarkable that he falls under the strain of caring for them, lapsing for a while into the same shell-shock symptoms they show. The main paradox in the men's ordeal lies, precisely, in the contrast between the active image of the ultra-masculine warrior and the passivity enforced on the static combatant in the trenches. His crisis
reinforced Rivers's view that it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition. That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways. Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace. (222)
Yet, the compassion shown toward the de-masculinized officers in this predicament does not extend to the "tommy." And, despite his class origins, Billy can never be said to be a "tommy" in the sense of siding with the ordinary man in the trenches. Barker narrates a war of intense isolation for men; a war in which men like Billy are not only isolated from their upper-class war comrades, but also from the women they love. Both the novel and the film fail notoriously to integrate the relationship between Billy and his girlfriend, munitions worker Sarah Lumb, within the psychological process the men underwent, The static shot of Billy and Sarah in bed just before he returns to the front fails to transmit Billy's need of her as a refuge rather than just a sex partner or, simply, a romantic interest. In the novel, Barker seems also to shy away from Sarah's sense of anticipated bereavement, perhaps afraid that the fabric of her novel would be badly affected by the intrusion of feminine feeling into the highly masculinized world of the soldier. Sarah's neglected tragedy-she has already lost a fiancee in the battle of Loos-is an essential part of the still silenced working-class during World War I. Eighty years after the war, the silence surrounding the British "tommy" has not been broken yet. Barker's work timidly points the way out of this quandary, but Mackinnon's version simply skims over the issue. Both film and novel push romance toward the homoerotic relationship between the officer-poets and their doctor.
Poetry is presented in the film as therapy for those Freud could not reach. Being in no real need of a doctor, Sassoon has little use for Rivers's Freudian talking cures. They are shown to be only moderately effective with the most intelligent men for, after all, Billy recovers his voice spontaneously and remembers his trauma only through hypnosis. As for Owen, he is "cured," if at all, by Sassoon's teaching him to bring out his anguish about the war in the poems. Owen clearly awakens to his wonderful capacity as a poet thanks to his worship of Sassoon but also thanks to Sassoon's generous advice, itself a side effect of Rivers's appeal to Sassoon's love of men. Poetry is, of course, the voicing of the complaints Rivers is trying to suppress; it is also the reverse of the violent therapy, based on electro-shocks, that the abusive Dr. Yealland uses to cure his patients' mutism. This is the more impressive in the film, where it is visualized in all its graphic violence.
It is certainly from the poetry of war that we derive many of our images of World War I, especially because the major World War I films-many silent, black and white "oldies"-- are less and less present in the collective memory. The literary aura of the war makes Regeneration dependent on the audience's familiarity with Sassoon's and Owen's poems. Some of them are somewhat awkwardly included in the film; Owen's "Dulce et Decorum" closes the film, making it ideal for discussion in literature courses. Hopefully, the film will tempt many viewers to read the poems, the memoirs, and the novels. But to most, Sassoon and Owen will remain obscure figures, soldiers as anonymous as Billy Prior-as fictional as him. The presence of Sassoon and Owen might even be an important handicap for the film's distribution in non-English-speaking countries where they are little known, if at all, as poets.5 Not to mention the fact that in the cultural moment of the 1990s, heavily inclined toward the aural-visual, films about writers are not likely to make a great impact.
In a sense, Pat Barker's novel is already an adaptation, for it transfers real-life events and characters onto the framework of literary fiction. Her poets are heavily indebted to Barker's admiration of their texts. Mackinnon's soldier-poets are, thus, twice filtered from reality. The film manages this aspect very well, conferring to Sassoon and Owen-and also to Rivers-consistence and credibility. It is obviously impossible to know how close they are to their real-life counterparts but they seem to be at a good starting point for further exploration into their lives and the war. The particularity of Barker's and Mackinnon's Regeneration is that both point backwards at their own sources, simultaneously inviting their public to move forward towards other related texts. This rich intertextuality-the fact that Regeneration is placed at an intersection rather than at the end of the road-is the most enticing aspect of both film and novel and their strongest mutual link.
It is also their main problem, for the intertextuality works well in reference to other written texts, but much more poorly as regards other films. This dissociation from the genre of the war film makes Regeneration, the film, appear to be too formal, too restrained in comparison to the highly visual drama of, for instance, Saving Private Ryan. Films cannot be judged independently from their context and, clearly, the critical status of Regeneration was badly affected, at least in the USA, by the coincidence of its release with that of Saving Private Ryan. Significantly, while American reviewers hardly referred to Barker's novel or war poetry when judging Regeneration, British reviewers focused mainly on how the film compared to its source. Many American reviewers implicitly or explicitly measured Regeneration by the standard set by Spielberg's film. Despite praising the high quality of the acting, the locations and the photography in Mackinnon's film, they found Regeneration "pale somewhat in comparison to its more spectacular Hollywood counterpart" (Marlin), especially as regards the depiction of bodily destruction. Some reviewers, however, defended Mackinnon's sublety, condemning Spielberg's expensive sense of spectacle. A few argued that their methods are different but equally valid to transmit a very similar message: rather than being simply anti-war pamphlets, both films take "a frank look at the human cost of any battle" (Berardinelli).
This is significant because, while the novel belongs to a long tradition of literary texts about World War I, the comparison with Spielberg's work-a World War II film-- decontextualizes Mackinnon's film. Actually, this decontextualization might be also related to the fact that World War I has not generated important films for almost two decades, if we take Aces High (1977, UK, from the play by R.C. Sheriff Journey's End) or The Return of the Soldier (1981, UK, from the novel by Rebecca West) as points of reference. And these are British films that may be little known to American audiences and reviewers. On the other hand, the particular essence of World War I-a war of attrition based on the immobility of the troops encased in the trenches-calls for narratives of quiet introspection like
Regeneration. Making literature out of introspection is quite habitual; in fact, practically all literary fiction today is introspection, including Barker's novels. When it comes to films, the problem is that Hollywood does not favor introspection, preferring instead spectacle. This leads to the conclusion that Mackinnon's adaptation of Barker's Regeneration can only be truly appreciated by audiences more inclined toward literary fiction than toward popular Hollywood movies. These narrative models-Mackinnon's, Spielberg's-are not exclusive, but, just because Hollywood is a powerful machinery, it is quite safe to conclude that the heightened drama of films like Saving Private Ryan will have a greater influence on the war movie of the future than the subtle poetry of Regeneration. The fate of Regeneration also shows that the success of film adaptations is often conditioned by factors totally unrelated to the quality of the adaptation itself.
Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain
1 The trilogy comprises Regeneration ( 1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995, Booker Prize winner), which might be soon filmed (Sinker 1997). Barker herself wrote the screenplay for Stanley and Iris (1989), the first adaptation of her work, from her novel Union Street (1982).
2 Regeneration was released in the UK on 21 November 1997 and on 14 August 1998 in the US, coinciding with the 80th anniversary of the end of World War I. Saving Private Ryan was released on 24 July 1998 in the US.
3 His trilogy The Memoirs of George Sherston (his fictional counterpart)-Memoirs ofa Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston's Progress (1936)-covers the period 1895-1918.
4 Rivers's tortured personality also suffers from the film's compression. In fact, as the trilogy advances, the relationship between Billy and Rivers deepens, rightly reminding the reader of that between patient and doctor in Good Will Hunting (1997), as Anthony Leong notes in his review of Regeneration.
5 This was the case in Spain, where Regenration failed to attract any reviews. Here the film was releases in just a few cinemas, not even reaching major cities like Barcelona.
Flim: Regeneration. UK/CAN. 1997.
Rafford Films Limited/Norstar Entertainment Inc./BBC Films/ The Scottish Arts Council Lottery Fund Production. With participation by Telefilm Canada, Scottish Film production Fund, Glasgow Film Fund. Dir. Gillies Mackinnon. Prod. Allan Scott and Peter R. Simpson. Scr. Allan Scott, based on the novel by Pat Barker. With Jonathan Pryce (Dr. Rivers), James Wilby (Sigfried Sassoon), Johnny Lee Miller (Billy Prior), Stuart Bunce (Wilfred Owen), Tanya Allen (Sarah), and John Neville (Dr. Yealland).
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