Peter O' Toole plus shaggy dog - Dean Spanley
Tue, 13 Jan 2009
Our regular reviewer Trevor Johnston continues his monthly series dissecting movies to see how the scripts make them work, with a look at Dean Spanley, drawn from a droll 1930’s novella that seems wildly unsuitable for adaptation.
There’s an argument to suggest that a certain seventysomething Scot could well be Britain’s greatest living screenwriter. Much is made of pre-Star Wars 70s Hollywood as a kind of celluloid golden age, and Alan Sharp was there in the thick of it, working with the very best, generating the sort of track record few British screenwriters are likely to match. He wrote Night Moves, a private-eye story for director Arthur Penn, whose miasmic uncertainties seemingly exemplify the era better than any other movie. For director Robert Aldrich, there was Ulzana’s Raid, a tough pursuit western with palpable echoes of the Vietnam experience. The Hired Hand was another fine frontier tale, though it’s only in recent years that Peter Fonda’s homestead romance has really gotten its critical due. He even adapted Robert Ludlum’s The Osterman Weekend for Sam Peckinpah’s final film, a paranoid thriller making much play with video technology (or what passed for it in 1982). These films are well worth your time tracking down, though of Sharp’s more recent work – his focus has shifted to US TV in recent decades – his script for Rob Roy, raising the old-fashioned swashbuckler to new levels of emotional intensity, is also a stand-out.
It turns out that the great man is now based in New Zealand, which helps explain why his latest offering is the NZ-UK co-production Dean Spanley, an adaptation of a 1937 novella ‘My Talks with Dean Spanley’ by one Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, rather more conveniently known as Lord Dunsany. A wonderfully eccentric story in which an Edwardian clergyman’s recollections of his former life as a dog help an old gentleman come to terms with the loss of his son in the Boer War, the film’s remarkable for many reasons, not least the fact that it’s so different from anything Sharp’s ever written before. For a screenwriter who’s often meshed moral conundrums with the cinematic genre expectations of westerns or detective fare, this seems almost defiantly ‘literary’ by contrast. Dialogue-led, it positively revels in its ornate English and affords ample opportunities for a splendid cast (Peter O’Toole as Fisk Senior, Jeremy Northam as our Narrator, Fisk Junior, and Sam Neill as Dean) to expound at length – without ever outstaying its welcome.
If you read the original story before seeing the film (a task made easier by a handsome new Harper Collins edition which combines it with Sharp’s screenplay and making-of notes from writer, producer and director – which you have a chance to win if you scroll to the bottom of this review), then see the film, what’s striking is that Sharp has not so much effected an adaptation as a reinvention. Dunsany’s wry comedy is, as the title suggests, the record of a series of dinner table chats between the Narrator and the eponymous Dean, in which plying the old boy with rare Hungarian dessert wine loosens his tongue so he recalls his previous dog years. All very droll, but deeply unsuited to film adaptation because…
- It’s basically all dialogue and interiors, with a cast of three principals, and seemingly more of a radio play than a movie.
-The Narrator doesn’t really have much motivation to get Spanley to talk, so there’s little at stake whether he reveals the mysteries of reincarnation or not.
-The ending is a classic Shaggy Dog groaner, witty precisely because it withholds its secrets, but a literary conceit which won’t translate to celluloid.
Jeremy Northam and Peter O' Toole as father and sonActually, Sharp’s initial go at an screen adaptation, written more for his own pleasure it seems than anything else, was faithful to Dunsany and a mere 50 pages long. It was only later that he approached the task with the realisation that he was going to have to add several layers to what was already there. The results are certainly an encouragement to any would-be screenwriter to think out of the box when it comes to adapting material which seems an unlikely fit for the cinema. Faced with the task of providing motivation, stakes and a resolution to a story which, for all its whimsical charms, was rather bereft of them, Sharp’s solutions are a model of intelligence and practicality.
Opening out the story with a significant new character: There’s a new antagonist, the Narrator’s crotchety old father, who’s set in his ways, and bitterly fatalistic about the loss of his other son (the Narrator’s sibling) in the Boer War – clearly he’s a man who’s locked in his emotions and hasn’t confronted his grief.
Creating motivation for the protagonist: The Narrator initially takes his dad to a lecture on reincarnation as a way of passing an afternoon, but this masks an underlying need to deal with his brother’s loss as well. So, a chance encounter with Dean Spanley and the subsequent discovery that he talks about his past life as a dog when he’s been plied with Imperial Tokay, leads to the possibility of new knowledge of life beyond life which could help with the grieving family’s healing process.
Bringing raised stakes to the drama: Both the Narrator and his father are locked in a routine, and that goes for their lack of emotional communication too. The old boy is a miserable old so-and-so, and he’s not getting any younger, so time is running out for both father and son to be able to express what they mean to each other and grieve together for their loss.
Generating tension through obstacles in the way: Since the father is such an ornery type (as only Peter O’Toole on top form knows how), the prospect of him taking the Dean’s testimony at all seriously is remote indeed. Actually, even getting that far seems unlikely, because Imperial Tokay is an expensive rarity beyond the reach of ordinary folks, and without it the Dean doesn’t dish…
Shaping a resolution which ties it all together: Sharp’s new twist in the tale is that the dog whose life Spanley remembers was actually the father’s treasured childhood pet – who went missing one day and never came back, prompting a gaping sense of loss for the young boy. Thus, Spanley’s climactic revelation of a doggy adventure culminating in his former canine self being shot by a farmer brings the O’Toole character closure on what had become of his beloved spaniel Wag – thus opening him up emotionally so he can at last confront the death of his son in the war. This in turn facilitates a new closeness and affection between the old man and the Narrator, thus bringing events to a satisfyingly positive close, exemplifying the controlling idea that open hearts beat closed minds.
In a piece he wrote to accompany the film’s newly published screenplay, Sharp himself expressed his own misgivings that the combination of whimsy and pathos in his expanded version of the story just wouldn’t fit together, that audiences might buy the eccentric dog tales but it would be too much of a gear-change to then expect them to share the father’s moment of emotional catharsis. Well, he needn’t have worried, since O’Toole’s sheer mastery as a performer pretty much takes the audience anywhere he wants to go, and Sharp’s writing prepares every step of the way. It has to be said though, that the key frisson in the film isn’t in the script. It was editor Chris Plummer’s instinct that a shot of the departed son would be needed, and its placement in the climactic sequence is just perfect. As the audience realises that the story of the dog and the story of the family’s loss are coming together, we see a single shot of the lost son as a sort of epiphanic affirmation of the viewer’s emotional instincts. It’s only afterwards that a teary-eyed O’Toole admits that he’d just been thinking of his boy, yet by ordering the shots in this way, trusting to the viewer’s perceptiveness, that the story hits home with maximum impact. All of which Sharp has expertly foreshadowed, of course, with a double-framing device in the very opening moments, where the Narrator affirms that ‘it’s never too late to meet one’s father’ and we also see a young boy waiting and waiting in some distress for a dog which never returns…
Of course, it has to be said that for audiences weaned on the latest CGI explosionfest all of this might seem a trifle low-key, but the film works on its own terms because it creates a world in which neatly turned English phrases are a way of life. Indeed, what’s especially delightful is the way Sharp actively uses words and word-association to move the plot along. Early on, the father talks about ‘stepping out of the anteroom of eternity’ (dying, in other words), only for the Swami who’s lecturing on reincarnation to use exactly the same phrase, thus connecting the bereaved parent with the notion of what the Swami calls ‘the ground of being in which we are all embedded’. A little later, for instance, when the Narrator’s trying to source Imperial Tokay, a snooty wine merchant uses the word ‘conveyancing’ – which is exactly what’s written on the card provided by the colonial ‘fixer’ JJ Wrather, whose subsequent resourcefulness helps the Narrator out of a potentially plot-stopping supply problem.
All this contributes to an environment where listening is the key, but the script’s confidence in the continuing charm of Dunsany’s delightfully pitched canine recollections sustains it. Certainly not something to be attempted lightly by the less experienced writer, but the film even gets away with an 18-page dialogue scene, where the Dean’s revelations point the father to the crucial moment of emotional release. A good story is a good story after all – remember Robert Shaw’s long monologue in Jaws about the sinking of the Indianapolis and the shark-inspired carnage which followed? – and Dean Spanley, unfashionable or nay, is another exquisitely shaped reminder of that trusty truism.
Hints and Tips
If you want to draw attention to a word or an idea, be sure to mention it twice in a relatively short timeframe, since that’s the only way the viewer will realise you’re trying to tell them something.
Don’t be afraid to use secondary characters to deliver key plot points or offer important comment on the key players – in Dean Spanley the long-suffering housekeeper Mrs Brimley serves the purpose of being able to broach emotional subject matter which is off limits for the repressed Narrator and his grumpy old dad.
Adaptation is usually a matter of cutting, but novellas or short stories which don’t quite have enough material to support an entire feature can provide a valuable starting point from which you can expand – and searching for out-of-copyright material can obviously ease the whole financial issue of rights ownership.
©Trevor Johnston/The Script Factory 2008
If you'd like to discuss this review with Trevor Johnston you can email him at email@example.com - and to read other reviews by Trevor click here.
The novel, My Talks With Dean Spanley, was first published in 1936. Publishers Harper Collins have just released a special edition which includes Lord Dunsany's witty and inventive original novel, as well as Alan Sharp's hilarious screenplay, plus photos and interviews with the filmmakers.
We have one copy to give away to the first person we randomly pick out of the in-box who can tell us who directed the new film version of Dean Spanley. Answers in an email please to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday 12 January 2009 – and please put Dean Spanley in the subject field.