The Wives of Bath’s New Prologue: About the Process of Making the Book into a Film

Writers often dream of their novel being made into a successful film. But a (a sad, little sinking feeling) overcame me the moment I heard the screenwriter wanted to set the film version of The Wives of Bath in the present. This would mean jettisoning the time period of my novel about a murder at a girls’ boarding school. Its tale of a friendship triangle between three girls reflects some aspects of my own experience, as a boarder at Havergal College in Toronto in the early 1960s, so this period was nostalgic for me. It was a transition era before the protest generation – dominated by President Kennedy and the Peace Corps, lingering sexual taboos and rigid definitions of what it meant to be male and female. The ideas associated with this period were central to the novel. Hence my sense of loss. Could I bear to let someone else change my story? But the screenwriter, Judith Thompson, one of Canada’s best-known playwrights, thought these ideas could carry over into the present. She didn’t grow up in the 1960s and preferred to use a contemporary idiom.My background in the theatre meant I already knew that adaptations of novels were not adaptations at all but translations, and with a very few exceptions, most theatre performances and films will suffer if the director tries to duplicate the book. Likely all of us have gone through the experience of going to the film of a well-loved book and coming away disappointed. Surprisingly, these films are often the result of a director trying to stay slavishly true to the novelist’s vision. Directors risk turning a novel into a lifeless film unless they are free to create their own interpretation of a book. I’d learned this in the 1970s collaborating on theatre pieces with Toronto choreographers. Time after time, I was told my word-based notions wouldn’t read on the stage. Time after time, the choreographers were right, and I learned to trust those with theater experience.Using language skillfully is not only the novelist’s most (powerful tool, it’s the central tool) and the matrix of the story. Novelists have to create the effects, including making a character, through dialogue and descriptive passages. Plays depend, in part, on verbal play for their dramatic impact while films are not a linguistic medium at all. Dialogue aside, language in screenplays is used to point to the right kind of imagery. This is humbling, but essential for a novelist to understand! So I uttered a bittersweet sigh and gave Judith the go-ahead with the modern setting. Later, reading Judith’s original screenplay, I was delighted by her interpretation of the boarding school triangle although superficially her script looked vastly different from my novel. For one thing, Judith’s characters now spoke modern slang. And there were other changes. One of the girls cultist worship of King Kong as a symbol of masculine power had been exchanged for the love of a falcon, kept secretly on the school grounds; the boarding school of Bath Ladies College was now liberal; and Mouse, the narrator, had lost the hump that might have made her look a little grotesque on the big screen.Still, I was pleased to see how closely Judith kept to the emotional ground of the story and to its three characters. Intact were Paulie Sykes, the boarding school rebel who wants to pass as a boy; the kind and beautiful Tory Quinn, who struggles with Paulie’s idealizing love; and Mouse Bradford, the timid new boarder. She’d made Paulie, Tory and Mouse come alive through believable screen dialogue and skillful interpretations of the emotionally important scenes in the novel.

For instance, in the novel, Mouse has a dream in which she is unable to help her dead mother when one of the vengeful boarding school matrons shears off their mother’s golden (hair) in a tower room and pours oil on her mother’s frilled blouse. In the screenplay, the three girls read, out loud to one another, letters they they’ve written to their mothers. Tory confesses she’s addicted to her mother’s love as she is to chocolate; Mouse worries that she can’t remember her mother’s face now that she’s dead; and Paulie asks her mother, a teen prostitute who gave her up for adoption – to meet her for a beer on the same street where, Paulie writes, “you sell your ass.” This is a funny and profound scene because the audience sees not only Mouse’s vulnerability but the vulnerability of the other two and the way all their fates are inextricably affected by their mother’s personalities and expectations.

A mother is, for better or worse, a girl’s first role model. And for me, the core of the novel revolves around the struggle of the three girls to come to terms with what they feel is an unheroic identity, namely, growing up female. In the novel, Mouse is confused by the two female choices in the early 1960s. On the one hand, Mouse sees the mothers of the boarders who meet feminine standards of the day, but lack real power or authority. On the other, she encounters the teachers and matrons of the boarding school who remind her of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath because they are the only women she has met who live by their own rules. Yet even their power is limited, and Mouse concludes near the end of the novel: “We were all Wives of Bath – from the teachers who terrorized us with their bells and gatings.But no matter how hard any of us struggled. Bath Ladies College was only a fiefdom in the kingdom of men.”

In Judith’s script, set in the 1990s, the teachers and matrons are kinder and less marginalized than their counterparts in the novel. They actually seem to like the girls and identify with them, although they are just as helpless as older women were in the novel to prevent Paulie’s self-destructive and violent descent. In the early days of the filmmaking, Judith and I on occasion read our version of the same scene from the novel and screenplay at literary festivals. Inevitably, I was struck by how little she needed to say to evoke a character. For instance, once after I read the novel’s opening pages (in which Mouse explains to the reader who she is and then sets up Paulie’s crime as “a bizarre, Napoleonic act of self-assertion”), Judith brought down the house – theatrically speaking – with her terser version in Paulie’s voice, “I killed him for his dick.”

The film of The Wives of Bath changed both directors and production companies twice before the option to make the film was given to the award-winning independent director Lea Pool and Montreal producers Cite-Amerique, who premiered the film to great acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival in 2001. Half a decade after I agreed to a present-day setting, I was lucky enough to see Lea Pool’s film Emporte-moi. When Cite-Amerique came in with an offer that included matching the talent of Lea Pool with Judith Thompson’s original screenplay, I accepted readily.

If Judith understood how to make the passion of teenage girls live in scenes and dialogue, Pool, in her turn, appreciated the Sapphic quality of their teenage love. However, as Pool (told) and audience member at Sundance, she never saw the novel or her film as a lesbian coming-out story. For her, it is a story of adolescent love at a time in girls’ lives when they are unaware of sophisticated political and sexual preferences. This was very much how I saw the story too.

The representation of adult sexuality in Lost and Delirious, as the film was eventually called, is openly celebratory, unlike the alienated sex scenes ion the novel which reflect the repressions of the early 1960s when boarders were so embarrassed by their bodies that they undressed in washroom cubicles or took their uniforms off under their nightgowns. Consider the scene in the novel when Mouse spies on a fellow boarder, Ismay Thom, struggling into her merry widow. “She appeared to be stuck in the tight, elasticized material, which squeezed her blubbery thighs together like breasts. A gross kind of leg cleavage you could say.” The sexuality on the novel has little n common with the stunning sex-positive scenes that had film critic Roger Ebert remarking on a Chicago Sun-Times review (January 2001) that, “You’re absorbed from beginning to end because the character are enormously interesting and likable. And because they are gorgeous. And because you could hear a pin drop in the 1,400-seat Eccles Center during the sex scenes which are not explicit, but are erotic.” Despite the beautiful sex scenes in Pool’s film, the actors nevertheless express the girls’ frustration with their female roles, and their need to make what is perceived as unheroic, heroic. In the film, the girls discuss Lady Macbeth in a class (a scene that is not in the novel) in a way that underscores, comically and movingly, how young women can see femininity as something weak and passive.

I was inspired to base the conclusion of The Wives of Bath on a heinous crime that took place in Toronto in 1978. A seventeen-year-old girl, who regularly passed herself off as a male gas jockey, murdered an elderly Toronto taxi driver. Dressed as a girl, she lured him to her room on the pretext that she needed his help with some luggage. Then she killed him with a baseball bat, cut off his genitals and pasted them on her body with Krazy Glue. In this woeful garb, she presented herself to her girlfriend’s father, who had accused her of not being a real man.

Although you will not see this real crime portrayed in Pool’s brilliant film, you will see something equally surprising and stirring in its place. When I found out late in the production of the film that Pool had left out the novel’s ending, I suspected the producers of watering down the story for commercial reasons. As the credits came up, and my film agent Tina Horwitz, and I staggered happily from our seats, I realized that I was relieved that Pool had chosen another ending. The crime in the novel was a device to reflect on the character’s thoughts and feelings about themselves as girls, but (Lea) Pool’s camera didn’t need the crime to convey these same things. To stick with my ending might have tipped her powerful drama over into the genre of film horror because cinematic effects are so much more visceral and immediate than words on a page. To portray something so horrific in the film might have interfered with the audience’s ability to stay with the story.

It’s rare for novelist to be shamelessly satisfied with their book’s journey into film. However, I feel as if my story about boarding school girls has passed through the imaginations of three women sitting around a campfire, each one adding their unique knowledge to my tale of female rebellion and adolescent love. Writers and readers should never hold it against a film if the film isn’t exactly like the book it was based on. The question is – is it a good movie? That, in the end, is the film’s truest service to a work of literature.

Susan Swan
New York, 2001