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Ullmann overshadows Literature in Cinema

The package discussing cinema and literature has suffered more because the media has paid more attention to the Norwegian screen legend Liv Ullmann rather than the films she is representing, says Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Oct 18, 2003 16:56 IST

Cinema and Literature, one of the more striking sidebar sections of the ongoing 34th International Film Festival of India, certainly deserved a better deal. The package of eight films has suffered a tad probably because the media limelight on the presence of Norwegian screen legend Liv Ullmann has completely overshadowed the classic film adaptations of literary masterpieces that she is representing at the annual event.

Two of the feature films in the 'Cinema and Literature' section, made up of films contributed by Norway, have been directed by Ullmann herself – Kristin Lavransdatter, based on a trilogy of the same name by the Nobel Prize-winning Sigrid Undset, and Sophie’s World, a four-hour-plus adaptation of the famed William Styron novel.

The book-to-film package also includes three wonderful documentaries – Liv Ullmann – Scenes from a Life, a biographical film with a voiceover by Woody Allen, A Portrait of Sigrid Undset, a film that explores the links between the litterateur’s life and her literary output, and The Enigma, which delves into the life and accomplishments of Knut Hamsun, perhaps the greatest Norwegian literary figure since Henrik Ibsen.

But for the cognoscenti, the real gems in the Cinema and Literature section are the three adaptations of Knut Hamsun novels, including the outstanding Sult (Hunger), made by Henning Carlsen. The novel, about an aspiring but struggling writer supremely confident of his talent despite all the odds he is up against, tracked Hamsun’s own life, and Carlsen’s masterly black and white screen adaptation fetched Per Oscarsson the Best Actor prize in Cannes in 1966.

As veteran British film critic Derek Malcolm has recorded, "the film became a landmark of Scandinavian cinema, and a difficult act to follow, which is why Carlsen has never tried to do so until now."

The latest adaptation of a Hamsun novel, Two Green Feathers, directed once again by Carlsen in 1995, is really the centerpiece of the package. This is the fourth time that Pan, the novel on which Two Green Feathers is based, has been turned into a film but never before has the transition been achieved with the degree of precision that Carlsen brings to bear upon his work.

According to the celebrated director himself, Pan has often been misinterpreted as "one of the most beautiful love stories in world literature". Carlsen’s approach is obviously different: he captures the "poetic surface" of the tale and contrasts the "genuine cruelty" inherent in the story with the strong romantic spirit of the narrative.

Two Green Feathers is as good a demonstration as one can hope to see of how to transport a book to film. The love story of Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, who lives as an outsider in small fishing community in northern Norway, and Edvarda, daughter of a local tradesman, is informed with an air of irony that lifts the narrative well above the usually insurmountable constraints of the genre.
It might perhaps help to compare Two Green Feathers with Short is the Summer, the 1962 filmed version of Pan, directed by Bjarne Henning-Jensen. The latest adaptation of the novel has an edge that is typical of the Nervous ‘90s, while Short is the Summer remained largely faithful to the written text – a testimony to the fact that a screen adaptation of a literary work does assume, often imperceptibly, the mood of the era it is made in.

That is perhaps why the 'Cinema and Literature' package speaks as much about the limitations or strengths of literary adaptations as it does of the power of images to lend new life to written words. So, here is an appeal: celebrate Liv Ullmann despite the fact that the Lifetime Achievement Award conferred on her might have come a few years too soon, but do not miss the rest of the films that constitute the Cinema and Literature section. They add up to a veritable goldmine.

First Published: Oct 17, 2003 11:36 IST