“Good afternoon, Miss McKenna. I’ve just come 68 years, may I please speak to you?”
One more time, the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I will add another of our duo posts in the series we started way, way back in 2010. For this one, we took on a novel/film pairing that could well be the definition of romance, at least for the 80s and going forward. As usual, the wordy one will look at the text of a famed novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at the 1975 source novel from a writer my blogging buddy Bryce Wilson says in his recent post “… does not inspire mere respect in his fellow authors but something very much like love”, Richard Matheson. His novel Bid Time Return served the 1980 film adaptation of Somewhere in Time. As part of the movie tie-in, publishers re-titled subsequent book editions to that of the film. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: A young aspiring college playwright, greeting his play’s opening one night in 1972, is approached by a mysterious elderly woman. Her words to the young Richard Collier, “Come back to me.”, dismay him in a way he cannot comprehend. Eight years later in Chicago, the prosperous dramatist is at an impasse — stuck with writer’s block, which parallels his own bogged love life. In an attempt to recapture whatever magic he thought he knew, Richard returns to the college town of his youth and checks into the mainstay Grand Hotel. There, frustrated and traipsing about, he finds an old picture of a beautiful woman in the historical section of the old lodge which enthralls him beyond measure. It is the renowned stage actress of yesteryear, one Elise McKenna. The mystery that was her life, one hinted in books and periodicals of the time the playwright researches, will become a loving obsession for Richard like no other in the present, or the past. Where it will take him, and the effects upon the two separated by time, is the gist of the story.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“Is it you? Is it?” ~ Elise McKenna’s question to Richard upon their first meeting.
Where to begin with this one? I guess since the story is one that involves time travel, the past is best. Simply put, Richard Matheson remains one of the preeminent writers of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy for the latter part of the 20th century (across the mediums of TV, film, novels, and short stories). Like another famed author, Harlan Ellison, the imaginings, and concepts of his stories have influenced generations of scribes, regardless the genre they work in. I think I’ve been most surprised by the broadness of the work Matheson has produced. I knew and experienced many of his Twilight Zone episodes and sci-fi classics like The Incredible Shrinking Man growing up. However, it’s been only in the last few terms that I’ve learned of his western novels (Journal of the Gun Years, The Gunfight, The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok and Shadow on the Sun) and his stories of ethereal attachment (Bid Time Return and What Dreams May Come). And surely in the case of Somewhere in Time, whoever has watched the work recognizes the unabashedly romantic nature of the film (to their happiness or dismay).
The film, now regarded as something of a cult classic, will either work for you, or it won’t. My wife refers to the picture, directed by Jeannot Szwarc, as the definition of goopy (see gooey). I can’t argue that with her (nor would I… being the happily married man that I am). Some have referred to it as silly and overly earnest in the telling of its tale of true, fated, and ultimately enduring love. Check and double-check. Yet, its story of a young man (Christopher Reeves, freshly coming off his Superman film[s] début) falling in love with a deceased actress of a bygone era (Jane Seymour, never more beautiful), by way of discovering a wistful old picture, somehow does work for a great many of its admirers. And it has a loyal fan base, indeed. While I’m not a card-carrying member, I guess I have to admit to still enjoying the film. Though, let it be stated for the record I saw this upon its release to movie theaters (I can’t remember where, go figure…). A rather empty one, at that. Noticeably, it did not get the best of reviews and under performed at the box office when it premiered. Thus, this film continued my penchant for catching flops that eventually became popular.
Nevertheless, if you’re a sucker for such fare (and it’s not my normal métier), the pitch this one throws is right in the heart’s wheelhouse (the baseball metaphor is for the benefit of my duo post partner). I believe there are a couple of reasons it’s resuscitated itself in the decades since its box office floundering and nurtured a devoted following. First, Richard Matheson himself adapted his book for the film (something not for the faint of heart, even if he does have screenwriting experience). Plus, he skillfully jettisoned aspects of the story that may or may not have worked in the novel (in building character and situations) that clearly would have mired the story on film. Relocating the story, too, from California’s Hotel Del Coronado to Michigan’s Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island also brought it to a distinct place and moment (one now forever frozen in time on celluloid for devotees). And it’s those last two aspects that really distilled the narrative to its lovelorn essence.
Second, director Szwarc and cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky brought crucial ingredients to this adaptation (one that didn’t have a large budget). Both helped to shape key scenes in the movie. They deftly and visually emphasized details that I’d best describe as presenting, uniquely, a man’s lovestruck perspective. That facet alone doubtless tells you that a male wrote this story. It’s at times a little heavy-handed, but what the hell. “The heart wants what the heart wants.” [“Eewww!”, says my wife when she recognizes who said that] Here are three of those instances that hopefully prove my point:
- Elise’s presentation in the Hall of History – the camera moves from the audience viewing Richard directly to then following his line of sight as he’s lured toward her portrait — one that is seen at a distance so that his (and the audience’s) eye is drawn to it (a motif repeated throughout the movie).
- Elise’s introduction by the lake shore – again, it’s the long shot that first gathers the audience’s attention (corresponding to Collier’s own timing) by way of a closing window-shade. It offers a point of reflection (along with the music cue) to the far away silhouette of the subject he’s desperately seeking.
- Elise’s first re-appearance – as the crestfallen Richard, mourning the departure of the woman he’s fated to love, slumps on the hotel’s veranda, she enters the frame far in the background and has the perceivable impression of her walking back to him (at heart-level, I might add — these guys didn’t miss a trick).
Man, does this sound schmaltzy as all get out as I write this! And it is. There’s no doubt whatsoever. But, it is that same earnest, heart-on-its-sleeve manner that has endeared it over the years to the film’s followers. Lastly, I don’t believe the movie would ever reach the notes it hits with viewers if not for John Barry‘s accompanying score (credit goes to Ms. Seymour as she suggested and got him to do it under the film’s small allowance). His core melody echoes throughout the picture and has to be one of his most recognizable and sentimental orchestral pieces he’s penned for a soundtrack. As well, the authoritative composer (the OO7 films and others wouldn’t have been as memorable without him) surely was responsible for changing the classical song centered in the novel (Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony Adagio) to the perhaps more recognized and reachable Rhapsody from Paganini by Rachmaninoff. All of it registers in a way that only promotes the emotional keynote in Matheson’s story.
Somewhere in Time remains a tender cinematic adaptation of an unexpectedly passionate story by Richard Matheson (the idea of which came from the author finding the portrait of a famed stage actress in Piper’s Opera House in Nevada while traveling). For sure it is one of the high points in director Jeannot Szwarc’s modest career. The movie is nothing more than it claims to be: an unashamed love story. The author himself has said about it (and bookend the second novel):
“Somewhere in Time is the story of a love which transcends time, What Dreams May Come is the story of a love which transcends death…. I feel that they represent the best writing I have done in the novel form.”
Its standpoint of time travel does make it noteworthy, though (deploying a method author Jack Finney used first in his 1970 novel, Time and Again). As a rule, I don’t read romance novels (I caught myself almost writing bodice-ripper novels, but my associate Rachel made an effective point about such moniker use in a very good post from last year). And I don’t count the film’s source novel as one, either. Still, I’ll admit having been moved by this book and film, even after all these years. Like Starship Troopers (what a connection, huh?), the film doesn’t gather indifference. There’s little middle ground for beholders. Sure it has one glaring plot-hole (the conundrum of the pocket watch), but who cares? Whether or not the film works for the viewer (I can see those of you rolling your eyes out there), it has been influential. “What?!?”, say some of you. Well, ponder this: do you think SiT‘s last scene, the one where Richard Collier meets up with Elise McKenna after his death, didn’t have sway 17 years later with James Cameron and his script for 1997’s Titanic film and its finale? I’d answer:
“Yes.” ~ Richard Collier’s response to Elise’s question.