Arts & Culture

The Adaptation of Mordecai Richler

More than thirty years after publication, St. Urbain’s Horseman finally hits the screen

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• 2,310 words

To savage the age, Richler cut straight into its pop heart: the movie industry. Cocksure rips the fantasies peddled by the producers of visual trash. When the ultimate junk dealer, the character known as Star Maker, a transsexual movie mogul who cannibalizes body parts to prolong his life, is told to go have sex with himself, he decides that this is a terrific idea. Pregnant from his own seed, he is asked if he/she should perhaps get married. “But, my dear child,” Star Maker answers, “I love only me.” The book was both a scandal and a success when it appeared in 1968 — the author’s first bestseller. Offers of options to carve a film from the grotesquery — a movie that would be yet another form of autoeroticism — poured in.

Richler knew the world he was satirizing, having observed and worked in it since shortly after his arrival in England. From a lowly reader for a studio who had made a quick study of the craft by buying a collection of screenplays by Graham Greene, he advanced to doctoring existing scripts, including a makeover of the landmark 1959 film Room at the Top. From the start the young writer was adept and unpretentious, holding few illusions about any relationship between movies and art. “Even under the most ideal circumstances,” he wrote in an essay from the period, “film is not a writer’s medium.”

His graduation to full scripts came soon after, and Richler worked on projects ranging from thrillers to comedies to Life at the Top, the 1965 sequel to Room. His friend and fellow Canadian Ted Kotcheff directed that movie, based, like its predecessor, on a novel by John Braine. Around the time he disgorged Cocksure, Richler was writing an adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War that never got made.

Movies, in short, mattered to Mordecai Richler, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that a cheque for a few weeks’ work on a film generally surpassed the advances garnered for a novel that took years to write. His own books had come close to being filmed before, in particular 1959’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and a fellow expat, Norman Jewison, was soon to option his 1963 satire, The Incomparable Atuk. All six of the novels Richler had written, briskly plotted and driven by dialogue, were certainly filmable.

Then came St. Urbain’s Horseman. Though ostensibly another Richler fiction about making movies in London — the protagonist, Jake Hersh, is a Canadian director living in the English capital — the novel was distinct. Longer than anything he had written before, as well as more elaborately constructed, St. Urbain’s Horseman introduced the stylistic signature of the author’s major period: contrapuntal storytelling, the present and past in exchange. Hersh’s upbringing in Montreal’s old Jewish neighbourhood, his emergence from a New World shtetl of family and faith, along with his misspent youth as an aspiring artist and lover, vie for space with the details of his present life, including the crisis that forms the dramatic spine — his trial at the Old Bailey courthouse in London on sex-crime charges.

The texture of the book was no less revelatory. Richler’s prose, always funny and smart, had deepened. Better, it had widened out to embrace volatile and often conflicting moods. Curiously, Jake Hersh’s obsession with his cousin Joey, the “Horseman” of the title — a shadowy figure who he is convinced is fighting Nazis and serving as a Golem-like protector of Jews — isn’t the source of the novel’s often unsettling energy. As with any satirist — a moralist by definition — the source is human society and the human animal itself, a creature of inherent contradictions, many unsightly. Scatology, bodily dysfunction, the remorseless imperatives of sex and ambition, the ugly strut of the male on the make, are as intrinsic to the prose as verbs and nouns.

St. Urbain’s Horseman would be a challenge to put on screen, despite the fact that the book included excerpts from a jokey script featuring a dominatrix Mary Poppins flogging General “Monty” Montgomery and that the plot hinges on a scoundrel posing as a director who “screen-tests” a German nanny on the proverbial casting couch. A critical and commercial hit that received a Booker Prize nomination in England and a Governor General’s Award in Canada, the novel immediately attracted producers. Alan J. Pakula, whose film Klute was about to win an Academy Award, purchased the option, and Richler agreed to do the script.

Two years and a dozen drafts later, however, the project stalled. Richler, meanwhile, had at last caught a cinematic break when the financing came together for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. He rewrote an existing script for Kotcheff, who would direct. A twenty-six-year-old American actor named Richard Dreyfus was cast as Duddy, and a crew started shooting in the same Montreal streets where the author was born and raised. Film crews would haunt the neighbourhood again in the upcoming decade, thanks to versions of Richler’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang and Joshua Then and Now, directed once more by Ted Kotcheff from a script by the author. The relative ease of getting Joshua made in 1984 was the result, in part, of wonky Hollywood-style logic: Kotcheff had lately directed a hit film called Rambo: First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone.

But for St. Urbain’s Horseman there would be no such luck. It wasn’t until January 2001, six months before his death at the age of seventy, that Mordecai Richler learned that his lawyer and friend Michael Levine had re-optioned the novel to a Canadian producer, thirty years after its publication.

The three-hour miniseries St. Urbain’s Horseman, directed by Peter Moss from a script credited to three writers, airs over two nights in September on cbc. Working from a budget of $7.4 million and shot entirely in Montreal, with black cabs and red telephone booths rendering street corners a faux-London circa 1966, the film is obliged to make tough calls about what it has the leisure and cash to shoot. Large chunks of the novel are abandoned to firm up the story’s foundations. Pillars include the teen Jake’s myth-forging encounters with his cousin Joey, his wooing and wedding of his great love, Nancy Croft, and his foolish attraction to the nefarious Harry Stein, an error that ends with them both on trial.

Though these decisions obliged cutting several trenchant scenes, including a baseball game on London’s Hampstead Heath between film executives, the trimming allows for a clean narrative and a manageable cast. One hundred and eighty minutes of movie may seem plenty, but St. Urbain’s Horseman could use twice the time. If the screenwriters needed guidance or consolation for their cuts, they had only to glance through the drafts of Richler’s own scripts, available in his archives at the University of Calgary.

In one set of notes to his producers, Richler jokes that this latest draft will be between fifty and 150 pages in length, a difference of nearly two hours. He planned to include no fewer than seventy-four scenes from the novel, along with a voice-over that would, by amplifying Jake Hersh’s complex character, especially his fantasies and fears, hint at the tone of the prose.

Montreal’s Galafilm, which produced the miniseries, and Peter Moss also put much thought into what they could extract from their source material. They disavow the book’s shifting storytelling mode, grouping the Montreal material together after an opening that lays out Jake’s legal dilemma in London. Giving thirty minutes to St. Urbain Street, the most celebrated urban landscape in Canadian literature, was surely an easy call. It is a delight to see Richler’s nostalgia for the sights, smells, and tastes of his vanished village rendered visual. The same is true of the minor comedic characters that crowd his novels. Veteran actors Elliott Gould and Andrea Martin dutifully own their moments, often mouthing dialogue lifted straight from the novel, while Michael Riley comes close to stealing the show as the darkly amoral Stein.

Staying close, perhaps, to the axiom that since film adaptations can do justice to a novel’s story and characters, they shouldn’t be shy about doing so to the max, Moss opts for high gloss in his leads. David Julian Hirsh, who plays Jake, and the British actress Selina Giles, who plays Nancy, are both beautiful people. She is meant to be; he, less so. Happily, Hirsh is an adroit actor and dulls his sheen with enough bite and uncertainty to make it plausible that his character would commit such errors. Moss directs their romance with economy and charm, and though the film is consumed in its final hour with the trial, it still manages to suggest a love and a life together under strain. Add to those complexities an effort to explore the elusive horseman motif — did Richler mean it to represent the Jewish imagination haunted by the Holocaust? Or is it an emblem of Jake’s unease with how history seemed to bypass his generation? — and you have an honourable attempt to film a sprawling novel.

More than any dropped scenes, what is missing from Peter Moss’s film is, in effect, Mordecai Richler’s voice. This is no surprise. Reading a literary novel isn’t akin to permitting a stranger into your head. It is more like first inviting him or her inside and then forgetting you have a chattering guest. This melding of the voice of the writer and the reader can be difficult, especially with novels that make no obvious effort to include you in the monologue. But once it is complete, the journey through the narrative is intense and intimate, the more so for the effort involved. That Richler’s voice, for all its fearsome wit and bracing moral intelligence, isn’t especially intimidating doesn’t ensure that it will translate easily onto screen.

Then there is the matter of how we experience novels versus films. A book is usually read in segments, a half-hour here and there, with time in between to succumb to the dream of it. Authorial asides, marginal scenes and minor characters, even flights of prose, don’t seem intrusive when encountered in this manner. Quite the opposite: these passages, suggestive of a pleasingly meandering dialogue, often cement an intense encounter with that intimate voice.

Films, by contrast, besides having their own storytelling methods to establish and reveries to share, are under severe time pressures. They have around two hours to make their magic work, or else. While Elia Kazan’s response to the problem of adapting John Steinbeck’s East of Eden remains extreme — the director wound up filming just over a quarter of the book — filmmakers are not necessarily being insensitive or boorish when they start trimming away at the text. They may just be trying to put on screen what the screen can comfortably manage.

One truism of the movie industry is that genre books, lacking that formidable voice, are easier to adapt. Directors get the plot and characters they need to construct a visual narrative and are spared having to compete with the author for, in a sense, creative control. Books and films may be the two great storytelling mediums, but when brought together, someone still has to be in charge. Since movies made from literary novels generally can’t translate the voice regardless, why bother trying?

The results tend to be adaptations that seem to fail to “get” the novel. Everyone has a list of exceptions, and they are all small cinematic miracles. But for each improbable transference there are a few partial connects and a dozen outright broken lines. John Le Carré once complained that having one of his books turned into a film was like seeing an ox turned into bouillon cubes.

This is unfair, no doubt, to the movies themselves, especially those that concentrate on capturing the emotional essence of the novel — the most, perhaps, that can be expected. As well, directors love trying to adapt literary works, and movie watchers love viewing films based on books that have meant much to them. In a 2006 Guardian poll of the fifty greatest movie adaptations, some thirty-five of the source texts could be considered literary in nature, with To Kill a Mockingbird and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest topping the list. Over the next year, Canadian readers will get to watch not only Mordecai Richler on television, but also Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy. Big-screen versions of Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces and Matt Cohen’s Emotional Arithmetic both premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The failure to get the movie of St. Urbain’s Horseman off the ground in the early 1970s had no effect on Richler’s decision to stick with the template he had created for the novel. Joshua Then and Now, Solomon Gursky Was Here, and Barney’s Version display the same qualities, and while they make for sophisticated, rewarding books, none is a likely candidate to be one of those miracles. (Joshua was a partial connect, at best, despite a cast that included James Woods and Alan Arkin.)

Richler understood that what made literary fiction unique is nearly impossible to transcribe onto celluloid. But he also knew from his efforts with Room at the Top and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz that occasionally the result was still pretty terrific. So he got involved when opportunity allowed, doing the writing and cashing the cheques and probably keeping his hopes low. Then he returned to his real work, the work he was born to do, and tried like any serious novelist to block out everything else, including the admittedly loud background noise of books being optioned and scripts commissioned and movies maybe, just maybe, getting made.

Charles Foran teaches the contemporary Irish novel at the University of Toronto. His new book, Planet Lolita, comes out in May.