I submit to you, dear reader, a bookmark for Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man, featuring the revolver Tom Ford placed in the protagonist’s hands in Ford’s film adaptation. A revolver that never appeared in the original book.
Ford’s beautifully shot film makes many audacious changes to Isherwood’s 1962 novel. Most of these changes serve to beautify. The protagonist’s home, for instance, which Isherwood describes as a cave suitable for a crazy old man, is transformed by Ford into an architectural gem. The most disturbing of the changes may be the transformation of Asian, Latino, and Black characters into white, white and white characters, respectively. Overall the movie revels in the beauty of the period, and its consumer objects, which Isherwood’s narrator rails bitterly against. But Ford does more than just make it pretty in a way that seems to contradict the novel’s style, he goes to far as to turn the protagonist suicidal. In the film, George packs a revolver. Isherwood’s George never contemplates suicide, whereas Ford’s film structures itself around his suicide: George puts all his affairs in order, laying out documents and even the suit for his funeral out for himself. In a long scene he enacts various methods of shooting himself in the head–on the bed, in the shower, in a sleeping bag. Just when he seems to have come up with a satisfactorily clean and dignified method, the phone rings, and he postpones. In contrast, the original novel is a simple day-in-the-life narrative: George wakes up, remembers that his lover has died, goes to the bathroom, looks out the window, drives to class, teaches class, visits a friend, goes to a bar, goes skinny dipping with a student, then takes him home. If there is an arc, it is his movement from grumpiness to lustiness. It isn’t hard to imagine a scriptwriters meeting in which Tom Ford discusses the changes he wants to make to David Scearce’s original script.
“Will people stay interested if they lover dies at the beginning of the movie? How about the partner dies at the end?”
“It would be an almost complete rewrite.”
“How about we set it during the Cuban Missle Crisis?”
“Okay, we’re just brainstorming, no wrong ideas, let’s keep going.”
“He gets mugged? No, gay-bashed.”
“Or he wants to kill himself.”
“He wants to kill himself! He’s going to blow his head off. The audience waits in a state of dreadful anticipation.”
“Make sure the gun is pretty.”
“Of course. We’ll find one with a bejewelled hammer.”
But is there any justification for this choice? Yes, and no.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Isherwood denied that he was George. They live in the same place, have the same job, like the same books, and both have a thing for much younger men, but no, he says, “It isn’t me at all.” George is strong; despite the loss of his lover, despite that as an gay man he is denied access to living the good life as portrayed in magazines, despite the bitterness and hatred that colours everything he sees, despite his aging and the breaking down of his own body, he fights, fights “like a badger”. Isherwood declares, “If I were in George’s place, I would think about killing myself because I’m less than George. George is heroic.”
In other words, Tom Ford has made George more like Isherwood himself, and less like what the author intended. The character has become more frail, perhaps more realistic, but in so doing takes the character further away from Isherwood’s conception of what a fictional character should be: extraordinary and singular, as opposed to complex and realistic in a well-rounded sort of way, which would be boring.
The gun is not merely a plot device then, though that may be its primary function. It’s also transformative. And so I offer this visual pun: a bookmark featuring the handgun from Tom Ford’s film, meant for use in Isherwood’s novel. But I suppose the bookmark could work in any novel–what would the significance be if the protagonist, faced with his or her struggle, chose to commit suicide? And how heroic are they, considering that they do not. Or maybe it might come in handy anytime a weighty and plotless literary novel needs an artificial injection of tension.
Here is a two-sided version of the bookmark:
Your homework, dear reader, is to create a bookmark. It should feature something which was featured in a film based on that book, but was absent from the book itself. It may be something you feel the book should have had, or something you are relieved it did not have.
As always, for an alternative assignment, feel free to submit anything on either the film or the book discussed above.