A Samual Goldwyn Company Production of a United British Artists/Britannic production.
Starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley.
Screenplay by Harold Pinter
Directed by John Irvin
Produced by Richard Johnson
Running time: 96 mins.
What's lost in the transition to film is Mr. Hoban's narrative voice, and the droll, bittersweet reflections of the two main characters, which provide most of the novel's substance. The characters' motivations are mostly internalized; we watch them and infer their inner lives rather than hearing them think aloud. It's a bit like watching a film version of a Milan Kundera novel; you wonder, where did all of those marvelous observations go?
And yet. The story is strong enough to be compelling in its own right, and even without William and Neaera's ponderings, the film is surprisingly beautiful. Harold Pinter's screenplay is graceful and eloquent; Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson turn in performances every bit as skillful and affecting as you'd expect.
All in all, while it's no substitute for reading the novel, it is a lovely companion piece and a brilliant bit of filmmaking in its own right.
One can't help wondering what screenwriter Harold Pinter made of this passage, on p. 57 of the book: "It was the sort of situation that would be ever so charming and warmly human in a film with Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith but that sort of film is only charming because they leave out so many details, and real life is all the details they leave out."
(Which, by the way, foreshadows Pilgermann's crucial observation that "a story is what remains when you leave out most of the action.")
Harold Pinter puts in a cameo appearance in the film; he's the man in the bookshop who asks William if there's a sequel to the novel he's holding. Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George) also has a small bit as Neaera's publisher.
"...The chief pleasure of the film lies in the way Harold Pinter's straightforward script and John Irvin's nicely distanced, unemphatic direction avoid all of the obvious sentimental pitfalls. This one earns its charm by rolling back the rhetoric and sticking close to the texture of daily life: the plot payoffs, when they come, seem much more triumphant and honest in this restrained context."
--Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
"Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley are in top form."
"Deliciously original...witty...decidedly offbeat."
Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home page).
Turtle Diary: the novel (1973)