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Save the Drama for Your Mama

Sons and Lovers gave author D.H. Lawrence a chance to work out all his Oedipal issues. Too bad the film adaptations have been less than enlightening.

Sons & Lovers

Director: Stephen Whittaker
Cast: Sarah Lancashire, Hugo Speer, James Murray (XIII), Rupert Evans (II), Esther Hall
Distributor: Koch
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2003

There’s been a lot in the media lately about Britney Spears and her less-than-perfect mothering skills. Human nature dictates that most of us like to read about people who are broken in some way because it makes us feel better about ourselves. I say leave Britney alone and grab a book, instead.

If it’s an unhealthy mother-son relationship you’re after, look no further than D.H. Lawrence’s third novel, Sons and Lovers. An Oedipus complex, an overbearing matriarch, alcoholism, and an abusive husband: the book is full of dysfunction and drama, and bound to make you feel better about your own domestic situation.

Largely autobiographical, the book centers on main character Paul Morel, the third of four children brought up in a modest Lancashire household by a hard drinking, coal miner father and his manipulative, domineering spouse. Disappointed by her marriage to such an absent and abusive man, Mrs. Morel focuses instead on her children, particularly her eldest son William. After William’s untimely death, she turns her attention to little Paul and ultimately becomes so fixated on him that she threatens to consume him. As he gets older, his mother’s preoccupation eventually alienates him from two love interests – the wholesome Miriam Leivers and the sexy (and married) Clara Dawes.

Paul’s love triangle, or square if you will, with these three women becomes the device that moves the plot forward, but the main engine that drives the book is the frighteningly flawed relationship Paul has with this mother. Paul is so deluded into reciprocating the unhealthy obsession she has with him that he eventually pushes away Miriam, the one girl who, throughout the book, loves him unconditionally. Reading about a young man so dangerously tied to his mother is unsettling, especially since the story is based on Lawrence’s own life. When Mrs. Morel eventually falls fatally ill, it’s almost a relief because as the reader, you hope that this will free Paul from the chains that have tied him to his mother all his life.

When Lawrence’s actual mother, Lydia, (Gertrude in the book) fell ill, Lawrence was inspired to begin the book, which he originally titled “Paul Morel”. He later changed the title to the all-encompassing Sons and Lovers due to the advice of his editor, Edward Garnett. In fact, the book was so stripped down by Garnett when it was first published in 1913 that it is rumored there were 80 passages removed from what Lawrence had originally written. Apparently Garnett felt that there wasn’t enough focus on Paul as the lead character and that there was too much emphasis on his older brother William. In addition, the sex scenes were considered a bit to racy for the time. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Cambridge University Press edition was released containing the original prose that Lawrence had meant to include.

In 2003, a British television adaptation directed by Stephen Wittaker aired on ITV in the UK. Broadcast over two nights, the series included the originally intended sex scenes. Unfortunately, those racy moments were the only thing that might have kept some people watching. While the English countryside is gorgeous (it was filmed on the Isle of Man) and some of the acting is good, the whole production is too drawn out and oftentimes boring.

Sarah Lancashire plays Mrs. Morel and does a good job of making the viewer loathe her. Like the character in the book, she embraces the “woe is me” attitude and spends a lot of camera time frowning and sighing. But unlike the woman in the book, she is completely unsympathetic. In the novel, we get a lot more of the early relationship between Gertrude and Walter and the horrible abuse Gertrude endures. Strangely, as the years supposedly pass by, she appears no worse for the wear while her husband and children age appropriately.

Hugo Speer plays Walter Morel and is much more handsome than I imagined as I read the novel. He’s also more sympathetic than his literary counterpart. While he is abusive when drunk (just like the man in the book), he’s not nearly as nasty. Maybe I felt sorry for him because I got to actually see him cast aside by his family and walking around with a limp and a cane.

The Brad Pitt-ish Rupert Evans plays the adult Paul Morel and does a decent job of portraying the story’s hero. His love interest, Miriam, is played by Lyndsey Marshal who is perfectly cast as the girl with the “warm coloring.” However, his other love interest, Clara Dawes, played by the delicate brunette Esther Hall, looks much different than the “rather striking. . . blonde, with a sullen expression, and a defiant carriage” in the novel. James Murray is excellent as the handsome, strapping William, and younger sister Annie (played by Keeley Forsyth) makes infrequent appearances. Youngest brother Arthur is absent from the TV adaptation entirely, but this isn’t that inexcusable since he isn’t all that present in the book either.

Like most film adaptations of literary works, Sons and Lovers had to make the transition from an internal, intangible experience into an external, visual one. And like most cinematic attempts, Sons and Lovers fails to successfully navigate that leap. The beauty of the book lies in its language. The lush, descriptions of nature and the characters’ sharp perceptions and insights are lost in the cinematic version.

Case in point: one of my favorite passages in the book occurs after Walter throws a very pregnant Gertrude out of the house. As she wanders outside in the night, she has an otherworldly experience that gives her strength to bear her unhappy circumstances:

She became aware of something about her. With an effort she roused herself to see what it was that penetrated her consciousness. The tall white lilies were reeling in the moonlight, and the air was charged with their perfume, as with a presence.

In the TV version, we get only a glimpse of Mrs. Morel wandering out of the house and nothing of the white littlies “reeling in the moonlight.” Similarly, later in the book, she has another epiphany when she realizes for the first time how much she adores Paul, then just a baby. Unfortunately, this scene is completely missing in the television series:

She had dreaded this baby like a catastrophe, because of her feeling for her husband . . . And now she felt as if the navel string that had connected its frail little body with hers had not been broken. A wave of hot love went over her to the infant . . .Once more she was aware of the sun lying red on the rim of the hill opposite. . . She thrust the infant forward to the crimson, throbbing sun, almost with relief. She saw him lift his little fist.
Nature plays a very big role in the book but is only given minimal airtime in the television adaptation. Flowers, in particular, are used in the book as a symbol of sexuality, and the characters experience transcendence while out in their natural surroundings. It’s a shame that the TV series, in comparison, barely touches on these elements.

Having said all of that, I wouldn’t call Witakker’s adaptation entirely bad. Despite it being too long-winded at times, I actually enjoyed it as its own entity. Then again, I’m a sucker for anything that takes place in turn-of-the-century England. But like most movie or television adaptations of books, I couldn’t help but compare Sons and Lovers to the original work. And as it usually happens, the book came out on top. The story needs the internal consciousness that the book delivers to balance out and justify most of its histrionics. Unfortunately, in the TV series we only get a mother lode of drama.

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