In 1949, Malcolm Lowry (author of Under The Volcano) decided to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night for cinema. He received no money for it, very little encouragement while he was writing it, a few impressed comments once it was done, but the piece ended up in a drawer, deeper than Lunar Caustic, deeper than Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, deeper than Dark As The Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid and all the rest of his mostly-posthumous oeuvre. The Cinema of Malcolm Lowry (edited by Miguel Mota and Paul Tiessen) includes the majority of the “screenplay”, extensive notes and an informative introduction, which ultimately concludes that everyone who read Lowry’s Tender Is The Night felt the same way: it’s oddly compelling, a joy to read, a fascinating insight into the way one novelist sees another and how a writer of prose views cinema, but the whole thing is unfilmable and not a screen play.
Possibly for reasons of copyright, the editors cut many sections of the manuscript, only including what they described as “the Lowry text” – the work that was, in their eyes, uniquely his. (Or, to be more accurate, uniquely his and his wife’s, Margerie Bonner/Lowry*.) Lowry wanted to move into cinema because there was money in it and because he’d just released a novel to huge, global, critical acclaim and wanted wider success. He and his wife burrowed themselves away for about a year, reading and re-reading Fitzgerald, researching cinema, watching what they could in Vancouver, remembering films they’d seen, listening to music, thinking about France and conveying an impression of what a film of Tender Is The Night could look like. What resulted is not what the Lowrys hoped for, but instead something that is fascinating in its own right. Their treatment is written as if the description of a motion picture, not a paper document from which one could be filmed.
Lowry’s “script” offers some dialogue, but mainly it is description, it is suggestions for jump cuts and for shots of such length and complexity they would have been impractical in the 1950s. Lowry imagines a film that would have been full of reading, too – letters and signs and adverts and telegrams, visible on the screen. This published version cuts (I think) about half of Lowry’s actual text, and this book took a long time to read: it is far too long for a film. Well, it isn’t a film, it is an accidental postmodern novel. This is Lowry and his wife describing in the wrong language, presenting in the wrong style and editing to the wrong length, an annotated description of a film they’ve made up. They’ve specified the music that should be included, the number of people who should be on beaches, the size of ships that should be used, the numerous international locations, the makes of car, the clothing, the drinks, the facial hair…
The film described seems real, in a way, it seems like something solid and certain within the minds of the two people writing it up, describing it. They offer commentary on their choices of music, on cinematic technique; they discuss the risk of anachronisms, writing something set 25 years earlier; they consider musicians and composers, fonts and language, the titles of the books the young Dick Diver published…
The story is the same as the novel, only Nicole Warren didn’t have sex with her father – Lowry believed incest wouldn’t be allowed past a Hollywood censor, so replaced it with Nicole causing the death of her father whilst she was driving. This almost worked, though is much less powerful than Fitzgerald’s original reveal. A few minor things are changed, some characters cut, and there is a pointless death scene for Dick in a shipwreck at the end**. But the people and the places and the themes (other than incest) remain the same.
The Cinema of Malcolm Lowry is an odd read, and I feel would have benefitted from the inclusion of more of Lowry’s notes, which were always interesting. The film he describes sounds wonderful, and the way he writes is, as expected, often beautiful… The sections expanded far beyond their place in Fitzgerald’s novel are the most powerful, particularly Dick’s visit to his father’s grave. Here, this becomes an aching trip through the speakeasies of Prohibition-era New York, which is great. Lowry is at his best when his material is his own.
Malcolm Lowry’s Tender Is The Night is a noble effort and a fascinating document for anyone with a passing interest in what interested Lowry (which is probably about 30 of us globally), it is also a smashing idea for an experimental novel – a description of a film that does not exist.
Find a copy in a library, if you’re intrigued. Though I realise that most people won’t be.
* Although to some extent Lowry’s wife helped with all of his work other than Ultramarine, the level of collaboration on Tender Is The Night is not as clear-cut as elsewhere. Usually she acted as editor, but in many authorial notes that accompanied the manuscript (not all included in this volume) it is implied she was co-creator. Or co-adapter.
** In the novel, Dick Diver returns to America from Europe and has a middling rest of his life. Lowry kills him on the way, somehow not quite realising that mediocrity is a greater tragedy than death. And believe me, I know what I’m talking about…