It’s not very often that I watch a film adaptation after just reading the book, so I normally don’t get as good a sense of just how much is changed. I mean, yes, I have an idea but it’s never quite as vivid as it was this week. I watched The Remains of the Day the evening after I’d finished reading the book. That’s pretty damn fresh in my mind. As such, I was probably a little more annoyed by the changes made to the original story. Well, after you’ve read something as perfect as Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, how can a film adaptation ever be as good? Still, I knew that I couldn’t let this get in the way too much. I don’t want to be one of those book fans who always pretend the book is massively better than the film.
When it comes to a book like The Remains of the Day it’s always going to be hard to capture the original feeling on film. Mainly because it’s such an insular novel. So much of what makes the book so good is based on the inner thoughts of Stevens, the narrator. It was also going to be tricky due to how British the book ends up being. It creates such a specific and archaic type of Englishness that any film adaptation could be too stiff and emotionless. Something that would be devastating because of how much emotion is actually hidden within the book. Of course, when it comes to recreating a specific type of Englishness, you can feel safe that Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala will be able to do it justice.
Their first major success for this adaptation is the cast. I mean, take a look. It’s like one long and lovely role call of 90s Britain’s best and brightest actors. Anthony Hopkins is perfectly cast as our protagonist with Emma Thompson providing a great counterpoint a the object of his affection. The pair work incredibly well together and Hopkins brings more of an anger and stubbornness to his role than the book version of Mr Stevens. Thompson, for her part, plays the housekeeper with more than enough edge to match him. It’s a shame that this was such a good year for film otherwise the pair could easily have been recognised at the Oscars that year. Then there’s the supporting cast with actors like James Fox, Christopher Reeve, Lena Headey. It’s just an endless supply of great talent in one place.
In terms of the actual story, the film is pretty faithful to the book. Yes, it makes a few changes for time and ease. For instance, Steven’s American employee is actually Congressman Jack Lewis who visited Darlington Hall for the big conference in the 1930s. Things that this only serve to cause less confusion and decrease the need for endless exposition. We also see much less of Stevens on his actual car journey but, again, that is simply a time thing. It’s a bit of shame because the novel manages to mirror the two storylines so brilliantly. Yet, I understand that it couldn’t have worked in a film’s runtime. The point of the film, as it should be, is Mr Stevens himself and his key relationships. We still get to understand how he interacts with Lord Darlington, Miss Kenton, and his father.
There are a couple of irritations though. For one thing, the way the film tries to excuse and make light of Lord Darlington’s connections with Nazis. Throughout the novel, Stevens tries to stick up for his former employer but it is clear to the reader that he wasn’t as innocent as his butler would have liked. Instead of being the foolish and opportunistic man of the book, Lord Darlington here is simply someone who accidentally got caught up with the wrong crowd. He is shown to have too much regret which doesn’t give Stevens his moment of regret at remaining so faithful to the wrong man. What is worse than this, of course, is the ending. The novel’s ending is one of the greatest literary endings of recent years and I think it has been unjustly adapted here. The book offers hope as well as breaking your heart. The film removes a vital interaction which allows Stevens to take control of his future. Instead, we are left bereft and adrift.
Although, I can’t really say it ruins the film. It’s been nearly 30 years since this film came out and it still holds up. The two stars are wonderful and really help bring these characters to life. The film itself is beautiful and evokes the same feeling that the novel does. Yes, it’s a very English film but that’s what it needed to be. It still feels as full of life as Ishiguro’s novel and has as much humanity as the source material.