Film and TV

Subverting the Bard

Every film adaptation of a pre-existing work has its own unique set of problems; in the case of Jocelyn Moorhouse's A Thousand Acres, the problem is compounded. Not only was Jane Smiley's 1991 novel a Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller with a large number of (presumably) devoted fans, but the book was in turn a self-conscious reworking of King Lear--a play with a larger number of (presumably) more devoted fans.

It might not be fair to directly compare either Smiley's text or Moorhouse's movie with Shakespeare--either work should be qualitatively assessed on its own, without excessive regard to "faithfulness"--but the way in which this modernization invokes Lear invites, even makes inevitable, such comparisons. That is, Smiley isn't just reusing the idea of a father whose bequest of land leads to problems with his three daughters; she retains so many specifics of Lear and so many coy references that the reader has to view the book not merely as a borrowing of selected elements but as a direct commentary on the original text.

For instance, the names are coded equivalents of Shakespeare's: Lear has been changed to Larry, while Goneril, Regan and Cordelia have become Ginny, Rose and Caroline. The political alliances of the play have been reproduced as financial alliances. The storm, at least, is still a storm.

Even more telling, the nature of Smiley's divergences from Shakespeare suggests a feminist--or maybe post-feminist?--re-evaluation of a tale that's a crucial part of the Western canon. She seems to be interested in reclaiming it from (let's call it) the male-controlled cultural tradition...or, at least, in suggesting an alternative reading, a different side of the same story, from the standpoint of daughters rebelling against a grotesque patriarchy rather than through the eyes of the spurned patriarch. The changes made for the film adaptation only reinforce this notion.

In the movie, Jason Robards plays Larry Cook, a hardworking, well-to-do Iowa farmer who has built up the thousand-acre spread he inherited from his father and his grandfather. He has three daughters: conciliatory Ginny (Jessica Lange), the oldest, lives with her husband, Ty (Keith Carradine), down the road from Pop; sharp-tongued Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer) also lives on the grounds with husband Pete (Kevin Anderson) and two daughters; and Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a lawyer in Des Moines.

One day Larry announces that he's retiring and splitting up the farm among the three girls: Ginny is agreeable, and Rose downright enthusiastic. But Caroline, who has escaped farm life, isn't sure she's interested. Her reaction deeply offends Larry, who disowns her, both materially and emotionally. Ginny, ever the mediator, tries to reconcile them, to no avail.

Ginny, Rose, Ty and Pete begin an ambitious expansion of the farm, but Larry, who immediately regrets his retirement, becomes resentful of his self-imposed impotence, sinking into drink and madness. After an ugly confrontation with his two older daughters, he teams up with Caroline to combat what he sees as his betrayal by a pair of usurpers.

So far, this is, of course, quite exactly the plot of Lear.
Still, the story is being narrated by Ginny. As the oldest in a motherless family, she has always been the one to smooth over conflicts. But at this point, she is knocked over by a revelation that completely changes her. (Because of the Lear parallels, this revelation--which has no correlative in the play--also shocks the audience. Had we not been led to expect a blow-by-blow updating of Shakespeare, we would have guessed it much earlier.)

Suddenly, it becomes clear how and why Smiley and Moorhouse have diverged from the original. All along, we have been getting the equivalent of Goneril's take on events; but until this point, Ginny, our Goneril, has been a self-deceived nincompoop. (She later describes herself as having been a "ninny.") Her take has been fairly close to the traditional view of the story. Now she realizes what she has always denied: Larry is simply a monster, the embodiment of everything bad about men and fathers. The logical conclusion is that Shakespeare, being a male, and Western literary interpretation, being male-dominated, have inevitably given us either an untrue or a horribly one-sided reading of the story. Our sympathies have been aligned primarily with Cordelia and secondarily with Lear against the conniving Goneril and Regan.

As injustice upon injustice is heaped on our heroines, the local townspeople, presumably ignorant of the worst of Larry's behavior, all side with him. The assumption is that, as a hardworking pillar of the community--and pillars are, let's face it, male by definition--he must be in the right. The townspeople are, in fact, stand-ins for viewers of Lear: They represent the audience that, deprived of the female side of the story, has always taken Goneril and Regan as villains.

Whereas in Shakespeare, Lear considers Cordelia the worse-than-a-serpent's-tooth child who betrays a father, here Caroline's betrayal is against her ersatz mothers, Ginny and Rose. It is her very fealty to the awful Larry that marks her as the thankless child.

Smiley's reworking of the story had its flaws: The nature of Larry's evil was too over-the-top. But at least she balanced the picture better than Moorhouse. Of the three most important changes from the book, two significantly alter the story's moral equilibrium. Ginny's one statement of understanding toward Larry has been deleted, as has her own worst behavior. The effect is to narrow and lessen the story's humanity. If Lear was proud and foolish, Smiley's Larry was reprehensible but at least human, while Moorhouse's is simply evil incarnate.

To be fair, there lurks, in both book and movie, the possibility of a certain ambiguity. We never actually see, in any meaningful way, Larry's most terrible sins; we have only Ginny and Rose's accounts of them. The option exists that we are being deliberately shown not a revised view of Lear but an equally one-sided perspective, exactly as incomplete and unreliable as Shakespeare's. If such a subversion was intended, however, it's deeply hidden.

The film's effectiveness is compromised by the heavy-handedness of the characterizations; Smiley probably deserves better. And despite a few fine performances, notably from Robards and Pfeiffer, there are other missteps: Voiceover is always a risky device, but, in this case, the final few lines are mawkish crap invented specifically for the film and a good deal more unjustifiably hopeful than anything to be found in the book. Worse yet, this ending evokes recollections of The Prince of Tides, which, whatever its flaws, dealt with similar issues with a good deal more insight.

A Thousand Acres.
Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Screenplay by Laura Jones; based on the novel by Jane Smiley. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Colin Firth and Keith Carradine.

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Andy Klein