II. The enigma of Captain John
III. Alterations to the family composition
IV. The Indians and their depiction
Rumer Godden’s novel from 19461, written in what is now Bangladesh just some months before the partition, is a reflection not only about childhood and the transition to adulthood, but about the inevitability of change, just as unstoppable as the masses of water flowing down a river, ever onwards to the sea.
Yet the 1951 movie picture directed by Jean Renoir, in which Godden is credited for the screenplay alongside Renoir2, shows some striking differences between novel and picture. The most obvious is the appearance of Americans in the movie, whereas in the novel, the only non imperial personae are some Greeks learning the basics of the jute trade3. For instance, there’s now a second John4, a widower with an half-Indian daughter, and the Captain John character, his American cousin.
The original Captain John was obviously British, and a cripple with a “stiff grey face”5, grievously wounded in some war. It’s actually unclear which one, although the reference to torture in a prison camp probably refers to the Japanese, and therefore WWII, since Imperial Japan and the British Empire where allied in WWI. Furthermore, the US Version of Captain John does not appear to be really crippled or suffering from long term injury, he’s good looking and slightly hampered at best6, except for the scene where he actually breaks down after trying to jump. Ironically, the actor really lost his leg in war and had a prosthetic limb7.
The composition of the core family is slightly altered too. The father is notably absent in most of the novel8, except for the scene where he is supposed to punish Harriet for withholding information about the poison snake in the garden, and hurts her the most by simply turning away, whereas in the picture he’s quite often together with his kids. The presumably older sister Bea appears in just a few scenes in the movie as Elisabeth, and does not say anything worthwhile, while she is one the central characters in the novel, acting as some sort of role model for Harriet( probably like her real sister Jon Godden), one step further ahead on the way to adulthood. The twins of the movie don’t exist in the novel, nor a Mr John, nor his Melanie, nor the young Indian boy Kanu playing with Bogey. Except for the regular appearance of Valerie, the rich girl from across the river, the family lives rather isolated from the events outside, behind their walls, guarded by a Sikh gatekeeper. The Sikh gatekeeper remains pretty much the same in both versions, except for explicitly stating in the movie9, that he was a former soldier in the Punjab, probably a reference to the mass exodus of the Sikhs out of Pakistan during the partition.
Another striking and probably the most important difference is the appearance of certain Indians as equals in the movie, having been filmed in India 4 years after the declaration of independence, as it is stated in the opening credits, rather naturally, whereas in the novel, the British family has no close friends among the indigenous population, just servants and retainers. The family lives in their walled compound close to the river and the jute works, along with a “white”, a “red” and a “little”house, where other western assistants reside, in what was originally an European cantonment with their own separate cemetery10. While they do have contact to the Indian Babus11 and their families, it does not seem to be very close or cordial. The family from the novel is pretty much living like the ruling class above their subjects, even if they are not the wealthiest British people around, that’s is probably reserved for the family of Valerie12. The Westerners in the movie are not the ruling class anymore, but just richer than most locals.
II. The enigma of Captain John
The Captain is quite an ominous figure in both versions of the story. It remains largely unclear where he really comes from, except from simply stating that he’s American and lost a leg in war13, it’s not even clear where the rank comes from, be it an army company, a ship, or just an honorary title.
The conversation between the womenfolk in that scene is actually quite silly, especially the quip from Nan, that he’s receiving a pension in Dollar, an obvious bow to the new economic superpower, which eclipsed the ailing British Empire already. Judging from the interview with Martin Scorsese on the DVD extras, the movie actually was intended to be done for the US market with big time Hollywood stars like Marlon Brando playing the Captain, but Renoir fell out of favor, so he had to make do with what actors he could afford.
The banter between Valerie and Harriet comparing war wounds, “a leg’s worse than an eye”, and “an eye’s worse than a leg14” is baffling when one considers how badly wounded some of the cast came out of the war. Breen really had a prosthetic leg and Esmond Knight, the father, lost an eye and most of his eyesight when the battleship Bismarck sank the battlecruiser HMS Hood and crippled the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, on which Knight was serving15. Or my generation simply isn't as accustomed to war veterans with missing limbs as people where in the fifties, despite 14 years “War on Terror”.
The movie Captain John certainly diverges from the picture being drawn in the novel, in a sense, that he’s much more attractive. He certainly has no “stiff grey face”16, quite the contrary, without the limp he’d pass for a typical Hollywood star of the 50ths.
The original Captain John on the other hand, made a much darker impression, especially on Harriet. As mentioned earlier, it is not clear where Captain John was wounded, although the movie character almost certainly refers to WWII in Asia.
The novel character was probably wounded there too, or else the inference of torture in a prison camp makes would make little sense17, since British prisoners of war, especially officers, we’re commonly treated exceedingly well in German prison camps compared to other nations18, even more so in WWI. Prisoners of the Japanese on the other hand had often been exposed to torture, since according to their Bushido warrior code, soldiers, and officers even more so, were expected to either die fighting or commit suicide, and those that did surrender were despised as cowards without honour. The Japanese officers guarding over them in turn, regarded that as some form of penal duty, and usually vented their frustration on their captives and their own soldiers19.
This brings up another question, regarding the timeline of the book. As Rumer Godden herself states in the preface of the book, the story is in many ways autobiographic, especially concerning the setting in Narayanganj, East Bengal, now Bangladesh20. While the movie was filmed in West Bengal, probably for commercial reasons, the big walled family house described in the book was her own childhood home, described in detail, even the cork tree in the garden was real.
She had no brother, just sisters, but the part of bogey was acted by her sister Nancy’s son R.R. Foster, according to International Movie Data Base21.
As was custom of the time, she was sent back to England for schooling along with her older sister Jon Godden, but courtesy to the outbreak of WWI, the kids were shipped back to the relative safety of India for the remainder of the war.
Judging from the relative lack of technology, no radio, no phones, few cars, the story is supposed to be playing out in those years from 1914 to 1920, which would turn Captain John into an unhistorical figure, considering the deliberations above.
Besides that, it is not really logical, that a man suffering from ill healing wounds received in the war, would seek the humid climate of East Bengal for recuperation. It’s probably the worst climate to recuperate for any European. The novel states, that he was trying to “pick up again the threads of living and of earning his living”22. But what he had to do with the jute industry, remains as nebulous as the rest of his biography. The movie Captain on the other hand was simply a visiting guest, running “away from the pity” of his brethren23, seeking to balance himself anew.
One of the central themes of the book, repeated several times, starting at page 3 and ending on page 161, close to the end of the book, is the reiteration of love and war; “It is strange that the first Latin declension and conjunction should be of love and war” and “ it is always love and war”, referring to some singing Indians.
It is quite clear that the character serves as a catalyst for Harriet’s “rite of passage” to adulthood. And it is certainly no coincidence, that he arrives on the day of Diwali, which marks the onset of winter and new years eve in northern India24, and leaves exactly at the end of the winter season, as stated on page 162, followed by a poem of Harried saying “The day ends. The end begins”on page 164.
Captain John serves further as some kind of surrogate father for Harriet, carefully nudging her into a career as a writer and poet, while her father is either absent or uncaring. Since Rumer Godden’s real father worked for the Bengal Steamship Company, he probably was away on duty most of the time. It’s quite obvious, that she had a rather strained relationship to her parents after being sent to England at the age of 6 and again at 13, right after the war25. Therefore, it is justified to view Captain John as a Deus ex machina character, the proverbial bringer of change, who brings darkness into what Germans would call Heile Welt, since it was him who gave the whistle to Bogey, which ultimately killed him26.
III. Alterations to the family composition
The movie family has some differences to the book version, some of them obvious, others more subtle. The most obvious change is, that there are actually two families now, that of Harriet and that of John, while Valerie, who originates from a third family across the river, is a semi-permanent guest to the former.
As stated earlier, several characters from the movie did not appear in the novel, in essence the whole Indian-themed cast, John the widower of an Indian woman, his daughter Melanie, Anil, the guy from the Indian upper class, and Bogey’s friend Kanu27. Nan and the gatekeeper Ram Prasad Singh remain much the same.
Valerie, performed by Adrienne Corri, is compressing the roles of Valerie from the book and the older sister Bea into one role, while Elisabeth in the movie is just an extra, much like Victoria. The real Godden family had 4 daughters, with Jon and Rumer being the elder ones, while the novel family has 3 daughters and one boy, and the movie family even 4 daughters and one boy. So much for the obvious changes, much of them were probably just due to circumstance, since most of the kids in the cast were non actors from around West Bengal.
1Godden, River, Virago Edition for Kindle Reader
2Renoir, River, opening credits 0.01-2
3Godden, River, P. 18
4 Shields, Arthur cf. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0793168/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cl_t3, retrieved on 3.6.15 ; The actor was born in Dublin, but lived his professional life as an actor in the US.
5Godden, River, P. 11
6Renoir, River, 12-25 and 54-56
7Breen, E.Thomas, cf. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0106770/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cl_t5, retrieved on 3.7.15 and according to Martin Scorsese on the DVD supplement, 6-7
8Godden, River, P. 21, P. 133
9Renoir, River, 8
10Godden, River, P. 18
11Thanks to a certain Gangsta Rapper named Haftbefehl, the term has found its way into the German language too, although in a more shady sense
12Godden, River, P. 86
13Renoir, River, 9-12
15Kight, Esmond, cf. http://www.esmondknight.org.uk/hislife08.htm, retrieved 3.9.15
16Godden, River, P. 11
17Godden, River, P. 11
18The most well known anecdotal evidence about this is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade, p.80-130. One of the few exceptions to the rule was the treatment of the survivors of the equally well known Great Escape, 50 of whom were put to summary execution by the SS. cf. Brickhill, Paul: The Great Escape.
19Most famous example is the treatment of Gen. Wainwright, the highest ranking pow in Japanese custody, alongside Brit. Lt.Gen. Percival. He nearly starved to death, weighing just 120 pd. being nearly 7 feet tall when he was freed. cf. Craig, William: The Fall of Japan, chapter Lazarus.
20Also known as the Dundee of Bangladesh, because of her sprawling jute industry, cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narayanganj, retrieved 3.10.15
21Trivia, cf. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043972/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv, retrieved 3.10.15
22Godden, River, P. 10
23Renoir, River, 27-29
24Diwali, cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diwali, retrieved 3.9.15
25Guttridge, Peter, Obituary: Rumer Godden, The Independent, 11.11.1998, cf. www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-rumer-godden-1184108.html, ret. on 3.10.15
26Godden, River, P. 91
27Full cast cf. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043972/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast, ret. on 3.10.15