Big expectations not met by film adaptation

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I found Julie Sherry over generous in her review of the film adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s iconic novel Sunset Song (December SR).

Julie is right to describe the novel as crushingly beautiful. Any adaptation has some pretty big expectations to live up to. Sadly, this film is a wasted opportunity.

Gibbon’s original novel describes protagonist Chris Guthrie’s desire to become a school teacher and how this desire is tempered by “the call of the land”. Such was the power of a female protagonist and such was the novel’s visceral depiction of childbirth, many erroneously suspected Gibbon to be a pseudonym of a female writer.

Sunset Song, more than anything else, is an elegy to the passing of the peasantry of north east Scotland at the dawn of the 20th century. In an early scene in the film the brutalised and brutal patriarch John Guthrie, in a standout performance by Peter Mullan, tries out a new horse driven combine harvester. The machine reaps more wheat than Chris and her brother Will can deal with by themselves. This necessitates Guthrie’s hiring of an itinerant “tinker” to help with the harvest, marking Guthrie’s transition from traditional peasant smallholder to employer.

In the novel the character Chae is devastated to discover that the landowner has felled the woods for the war effort. The trees had been planted several generations before to protect the fields from the fierce winds blowing in from the North Sea. Without the protection of the woods, small scale agriculture is finished. Chae realises that rapacious capitalism is rending apart the old ways of the “common folk”. Perplexingly, this key passage is omitted from the film.

In the novel Chae is an unapologetic, though ill-defined, socialist. He articulates his hatred of Tories and his deep affection for the “common folk”. The film strips Chae of his political beliefs. He makes a single incongruous reference to socialism that ventriloquises the apologia for war of the Second International. His character is thus reduced to a crude cipher.

We can only hope that BBC Scotland either repeat or release on DVD the wonderful 1971 TV adaptation; a far superior version to this disappointing film.