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Books on Film: The Remains of the Day

the-remains-of-the-dayTIFF presents Books on Film: The Remains of the Day

Novel written by Kazuo Ishiguro

Screenplay written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Directed by James Ivory

Kazuo Ishiguro’s THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is one of the finest novels ever written. There is no hyperbole in that statement; it is just a fact. The novel, written in the first person, follows Stevens, a butler on his way to visit an old coworker, Miss Kenton. Throughout his three-day journey, Stevens recalls moments from his long career as a butler working for Lord Darlington. Within these recollections, Stevens often returns to the meaning of dignity, and what it means to be a good butler.

For the second film in TIFF’s Books on Film series, the author was on hand to discuss the film. Before the screening, Ishiguro stressed to the audience that they should watch the film as a separate being. He remarked that adaptation is a process, and that those who love his book should not be watching the film with the book in mind. I personally was very happy to hear Ishiguro say this, as I really cannot stand when someone dislikes an adaptation for being different than the source material. Ishiguro also told audiences that the film was originally supposed to be directed by Mike Nichols, and star Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. This comment might have best been saved for after the screening, as I couldn’t help but think of Streep in the role played by Emma Thompson throughout the film.

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After Ishiguro’s comments, I expected the film to be very different from the book, but this was not the case. Besides a couple of character changes, the most important parts of the novel are intact. Director James Ivory manages to work in Stevens’ flashbacks in a way that never feels awkward, which was something I feared going into the film. Anthony Hopkins is fantastic as Stevens, as is Emma Thompson playing opposite him as Miss Kenton. I thought that the film would use narration, seeing as how the book is written almost like a diary. Instead, the film abandons Stevens’ inner thoughts, and relies on the talents of Hopkins to show how what Stevens is thinking and feeling.

“I went into this novel thinking about two things, and I thought the figure of the butler could fulfill both of them,” Ishiguro remarked in the post screening discussion. He continued, “The first is the fear of the emotions. [The butler] could stand for this part of all of us that’s afraid to get engaged. Afraid to open ourselves to love and to the possibilities of being loved.”  Ishiguro is referring to the unexplored romantic relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton. This relationship is what moves the narrative forward, and also serves as the catalyst for the most erotic scene in the book/film. This scene features no sex, no nudity, and barely any touching, yet it is one of the most sexual sequences ever written or filmed. The scene takes place in Stevens’ private study, where Stevens is reading a book. Miss Kenton intrudes, and demands to see what Stevens is reading. She approaches him and pries his fingers off the book. It doesn’t sound sexual in my writing, but look at Ishiguro’s and you’ll know what I mean.

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Remarking on the differences between the book and the film, Ishiguro quotes his old agent, the late Deborah Rogers, who said, “Your book is about self-denial, the film is about emotional repression.” This dissimilarity is perhaps caused by the loss of Stevens’ narration. Without the first person narrative we are not able to hear Stevens’ own words, therefore we cannot hear him think as if he is not in love with Miss Kenton. In the film, it seems clear that Stevens is in love with Miss Kenton, yet he refuses to act on it; perhaps to sustain his “dignity”.

As Ishiguro remarked, the act of adaptation is an art form in itself. The filmed version of THE REMAINS OF THE DAY may have slight alterations, but that does not take away from it being an excellent film. The pacing of both works may not suit some readers/viewers, but those willing to dedicate their concentration will be treated to one of the most heartbreaking stories of our time (also not hyperbole).

Books on Film continues at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on April 13 with Lone Scherfig’s AN EDUCATION, written by Nick Hornby and adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir. Barber will be on hand to discuss. For more information, please visit tiff.net.