<< Front page Arts March 19, 2004

Pop Culture Digest

Pearl Earring makes leap from page to screen
By Stephanie Beasley

Never compare the film with the book. This is the golden rule anytime you view the film adaptation of a book that you love. However, we almost always forget this. Any of us who griped about how the battle for control of the Shire was cut from the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King or wondered why certain key heroes like the Beast were missing from the X-Men movie knows what it feels like to have a beloved story changed for the purpose of making it more suitable for the box office.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a film based on the novel of the same title by Oberlin alumna Tracy Chevalier. The book centers on the story of Griet, a young girl in 17th -century Holland. Because of her father’s physical handicap, she must work as a servant in the household of Johannes Vermeer, an acclaimed painter. While there, Griet and Vermeer develop a relationship that stretches the boundaries of their roles as master and servant based on mutual admiration and perhaps love. The novel is a beautiful and intriguing portrayal of what may have inspired Vermeer’s famous portrait of Girl with Pearl Earring. Undoubtedly Chevalier’s story has led to much public speculation about the painting and garnered attention to the life of Vermeer.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, the film, directed by Peter Webber, exudes colors as rich as those that appeared in Vermeer’s paintings. It contains very strong performances by a cast that includes notable actors like Colin Firth as Vermeer and newcomers like Scarlett Johannson who, like Griet, speaks volumes with her wonderfully wide eyes. Chevalier herself praised the production of the film on her web site, stating that after seeing the film she immediately wanted to see it again. In another section of that article, she also contends that although scenes and subplots were cut from the film “the important scenes are intact and some subtle reshuffling of scene order has made the storyline even stronger.” But is this actually the case?

In the opening of the novel Griet is introduced to the artist and his wife when they visit to give her the once-over. Griet does not yet know who they are or that she will soon work for them. During this visit, Vermeer seems to take special interest in the manner in which Griet cuts and separates by color the vegetables for the family’s soup. This scene is vital in light of the relationship that Vermeer and Griet build, yet in the film the dialogue disappears and the scene is so brief that it leaves no impression on the audience. In fact, it almost seems irrelevant to the overall plot of the film.

The inclusion of voice-overs to the film would have likely alleviated the dilemma, though Chevalier would disagree with this notion. She was impressed that the screenwriter of the film translated the film without voice-overs. She believes they are: “sloppy, unimaginative way of presenting someone’s point of view.” This may be the case for voice-overs for most films but in films like Girl where thoughts are so important, the omission is felt. The result is that Griet appears weaker in the film than the novel, which is appropriate given her role as a victim, largely under the thumb of the male characters of the film.

The on-screen Griet, unlike her literary counterpart, is constantly under threat. One almost always feels that Griet is endangered. From the temptation that she presents to Vermeer to the animal lust that she inspires in Van Ruijven (played by the talented Tom Wilkinson), she is ceaselessly avoiding or running from some man in the film. Even her love interest, Pieter, is viewed as a menace because he desires from Griet something that she is not ready to give: herself.

It is clear that in many ways this victimization is a purposeful way of intriguing and enticing the audience. The very fact that the poster of the film is an image of Johannson reprising the pose of the girl in Vermeer’s painting while Firth is lustily breathing into her ear sums up what the producers of the film were trying to emphasize about Chevalier’s work. Today’s moviegoers crave sexual innuendoes and suspense in films, so why not keep them guessing as to whether or not Vermeer and Griet’s sexual tension is ever realized?

The characters and events treated as minor in the film shed light onto her family situation and personal life in the novel. For example, in the novel, Griet’s younger sister, Agnes, plays a major role. Griet’s resentment towards the fact that she cannot be with her family is exposed at Agnes’s illness and subsequent death. Griet’s brother Frans does appear in the film; however, his role is limited. The literary work portrays Frans also supporting the family with his factory job and so he sympathizes with Griet’s predicament. They commiserate over the burden of hard labor and the agony of being in love with some one as unattainable. In Chevalier’s work, Frans is essential in his sister’s struggle to maintain a sense of self. Unfortunately it is unclear why he and other characters do not appear in the film.

The fashion in which Griet was transformed for the big screen is where the major blunder is found. In the novel we have the privilege of entering the mind of Griet. One learns that behind her silence, she keeps many thoughts to herself; she is an excellent judge of character and knows how to navigate herself well in the Vermeer household. Without any access to Griet’s reasoning in the film one is forced to build an analysis of her character through her actions which, as stated previously, do not truly reflect her thoughts.

However, no blame can be placed on the producers, directors or writers of the film adaptation of Girl. Indeed, it is difficult to transform and transport the qualities of a literary work which appeals to the imagination of the reader with words into a movie that will attempt to bring these images to life while still being entertaining. Chevalier understood this dilemma as someone endeavoring to imitate with words the style and structure of a painting. She states, “I wanted [it] to be a simple story, simply told and to imitate with words what Vermeer was doing with paint.”

In crafting her novel, Chevalier strove to apply the technique of transforming one type of artistic genre to fit another. This is also what director Peter Webber and his production team did in creating this film. Though there are some flaws and oversights in the final product, overall it still maintains the general ideas of the original work. What more can be expected?


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