Made in Britain Special: Book to Movie- The Cement Garden
Before I start, I’d like to thank Xi for the use of his excellent Book to Movie idea. Given the content of this mega-review, I’ll return it only slightly soiled.
Ian McEwan’s novella The Cement Garden was a novel that I read at school, and stuck with me for much longer afterwards. A haunting dreamlike novel, with a consummately unreliable narrator, it is both celebrated and reviled in equal measure. Having said that, I never for the life of me thought that anyone would be nuts enough, given it’s intensely controversial subject matter, to even attempt to adapt it for the screen. Yet in 1993 Andrew Birkin (remember that last name, it’ll be important later) took a stab at it, and turned in a haunting, lyrical, sombre little film that wasn’t afraid to look at the inherent unpleasantness of the novel’s plot.
OK, here we go. Buckle up, this one’s stormy.
The plot is virtually identical in both novel and film, and there are major spoilers below, as it’s impossible to talk about either the book or the film without addressing the driving force of the plot.
In 1978 McEwan was an almost completely unheard of British Author. The Cement Garden was his first full length book, and, for a debut, stirred up a huge controversy. Followed by The Comfort of Strangers, another intensely uncomfortable novel, the Cement Garden set a high standard of both perversion and style that his career has mostly met. While Comfort dealt with Sado-Masochism and was startlingly unpleasant, it really doesn’t hold a candle to the preceding novel, which is both far more sordid and a far superior read. Incidentally, I’ve just discovered that Paul Schrader directed an adaptation of Comfort in 1991 and I shall be looking this up forthwith. Stylistically though, The Cement Garden doesn’t feel as visceral as many later books, and that’s in part due to the narration and the almost hallucinatory quality that the novel holds.
It’s a long hot summer in the 70’s. Our family, consisting of Mother, Father, Jack (15 years old at the start of the novel), Julie (17), Sue (13) and Tom (6) are in serious difficulties. The kids have a relationship that could best be described as unhealthy, with Jack and Julie playing “doctor” with a naked Sue, and Father and Mother are somewhat distant. Father makes the decision to pave over the garden outside, and in the midst of this croaks. Mother follows soon after and the four children make the disastrous mistake of burying her in the cellar, in an attempt to keep the family together.
The relationship between Jack and Julie grows stranger and stranger. They are effectively surrogate parents for the two younger kids, although Sue is maturing fast in the book, particularly sexually, and as such start to develop a closeness that is, to put it mildly, unhealthy. The seeds of this were admittedly sown in the early chapter of the novel, but even a blind man can see where this is going. Julie upsets the natural order in the house by introducing a boyfriend to Jack’s consternation. In the meantime, Tom is suffering from severe identity issues, and the two sisters insist on dressing him as a girl as well- possibly because he misses his mother, but more likely due to the problems with Jack that I’ll come to in a moment. The novel culminates with Jack and Julie consummating their relationship, and the boyfriend revealing all to the authorities. Basically, kids, stick to fucking Scrabble.
This, on the page, isn’t as icky as it sounds. McEwan conjures up a dreamy atmosphere through having Jack narrate. Jack appears to be simple, I’d almost go as far as him rating somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and as such his version of events is sugar-coated. There’s a strange matter-of-factness to his account, as if he doesn’t want to pass judgement on himself or his beloved sister, coupled with the nicest possible interpretation of events that he can give. Jack is, at the very least, developmentally retarded. He has a child-like quality and utterly lacks even a basic adult understanding. To compound matters, he’s starting to become sexually aware, and the isolation of the family turns him towards his only real available outlet: Julie. As an easy example of his sheer lack of understanding, the climactic incest sequence takes place after he manages to sunburn himself and resorts to sleeping in a cot.
Julie, on the other hand, is more of a difficult character. She knows damned well that what she is doing is wrong, and she is the member of the family with the most interaction with the outside world. I’ve read this book several times, and to this day I cannot work out what she thinks she’s playing at. Partially this is because my mind rebels against the subject matter, and I’ve no real desire to understand her, and partly it is because Jack doesn’t understand her either, and as he’s our conduit into the story her motives are at best confused. If I were to take a stab at it, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the novel, and the surrogate parental role that she’s acting out has warped her perception of right and wrong. Although this is, at best, a guess.
Overall, this is a deeply unsettling and grimy read. It is hailed as a classic of modern English literature by some, and reviled as being close to scat porn by others. Me, I lie somewhere in the middle, as there’s no doubt that this is a skilfully constructed and morally ambiguous book, yet it’s also an unpleasant and unengaging read for the most part. If you want to read McEwan, then there are many other books out there that I would recommend before this one. Although curiousity keeps drawing me back, and I hope every time to try to untangle the riddle of why?
I always fail mind, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it again in a few years. I’m going to approve it, just, because it is a finely crafted and extremely well written book, and although the subject matter is intensely uncomfortable, it never feels overly gratuitous and sordid.
Which brings me on to the film. Given that this is a film about incest, and given the plot and tone of the novel, why would you attempt to adapt it to the screen. The novel doesn’t have a great message, and it is so slight that I’m not sure it quite warrants a full run time. However, in 1993, director Andrew Birkin did attempt it, with somewhat mixed results.
Frequently hailed as a classic, The Cement Garden makes several important changes to the plot of the book, and more importantly to the character of Jack. Firstly, the early “doctor” scene is gone, although it is referred to by the two characters. Instead of this, Jack (Andrew Robertson) is a surly and unlikable arsehole with questionable personal hygiene. Even if the question is “Why don’t you go and wash you horrible little bastard?”. He’s also heavily into the self abuse, and in probably the best scene of the film his onanism is intercut with his father’s heart attack with the death coinciding with Jack’s climax: “Le Petit Mort” indeed.
Julie is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and she’s not quite a tom boy despite the short hair, and thus spends significant time in the film sexually taunting Jack. The other two kids are played by Birkin’s son, Ned, and Alice Coulthard as Sue. Sue is almost completely marginalised by the film, which is a shame, but the Tom cross-dressing story remains intact, which is more of a pity, because Ned is downright awful. In contrast to the two younger kids, Gainsbourg and Robertson are both good.
Birkin has managed to keep the dreamy atmosphere of the novel intact, for the most part, but fuck knows what he was playing at with the dancing naked in the rain sequence. However, the film’s greatest asset is its location. Shot in a cinder block house that reeks of deprivation in the midst of an urban wasteland, the setting itself provides a crushing sense of claustrophobia and squalor. It’s a superb example of the right location found for a small budget film.
There are significant problems with this as both a film in its own right and as an adaptation of the novel. I’ll deal with the latter first. Birkin, who also adapted it, made the disastrous decision to alter Jack’s personality from the book. He’s no longer of questionable intellect, and instead is little more than an unpleasant and grotty little pervert. By doing this, he rips away a layer of ambiguity from the book, and to juxtapose sexualised shots of Gainsbourg (she was in her 20’s so it’s not as bad as it could have been) with him masturbating is a ginormous miss-step. This makes the film seem more unpleasant than the novel, although it obviously isn’t, and as such makes it an uneasy adaptation.
Then, and this is the big problem for me that I can’t get over, there’s the casting of the film itself. This is a film about sexual confusion that culminates in an intensely dodgy sequence with the elder brother naked in a cot with the younger brother before full on incest with the sister. So what in the name of Satan’s arse was Birkin doing casting his son and his niece in key parts (Gainsbourg is Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter)? As soon as you know this fact, any artistic merit to the film becomes questionable- there’s something intensely sordid about the camera angle between her legs when she’s doing the handstand, let alone the “tickled to orgasm” scene early on. And that’s before I even get on to the fact that he chose to shoot a much younger close family member totally naked for an incestuous sex scene. This is, as mentioned, intensely dodgy, and knowing this before watching the film makes it an unpleasant and disgusting watch.
Overall, this is in many respects a beautiful and extremely well shot art movie. Yet it isn’t one that I recommend. As good as the performances are, with Gainsbourg in particular being superb, the casting gives the whole film an unpleasant feel, and while there is plenty to applaud here, it’s just too fucking grimy for me. There are a variety of incest movies out there, notably Spanking the Monkey, but for the life of me I can’t think of a reason for them to exist. There are also many Child Abandonment films out there, and if you want to see one of those, then I suggest the harrowing Japanese misery porn fest Nobody Knows. While not shit, it’s not exactly great, and so I don’t approve it. The Cement Garden can have a “meh”.
The reason I borrowed Book to film from Xi for this was that I couldn’t legitimately believe that anyone thought an adaptation of this novel was a good idea at the time. This is the second time I’ve seen it, but the first with the knowledge of who the cast members were, and in retrospect, I can’t believe anyone thought that was a good idea either.
As an attempt to adapt a difficult and sordid novel, the film makes as good a stab as probably can be done, yet, it strikes me as an utterly pointless affair. There’s no great message here, no powerful theme, and what we have is an extremely pretty and lovingly crafted empty vessel. However when you throw in the cast member, it becomes slightly more sinister, and as such is much less palatable than it was before.
I can’t say in all honesty that I think The Cement Garden is a fantastic book, but nor is it a bad one, and I can’t say that the adaptation it got is a bad film. However, it isn’t a film that I’ll ever watch again, and it isn’t a book that really stands up to scrutiny. Maybe this is the essential problem: the book is slight, and at the end of the day simply does not warrant an adaptation. When there’s nothing to say, we don’t need telling twice.
Until next time,