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Winter's Tale - Film Review: Using 1/4 of a Novel Ruined the Journey

Lars HindsleyBy Lars Hindsley Tue 11 Feb 2014 4:43 AM EST | 4311 Views
Two Dangers

(DL) – This review is spoiler free yet detailed oriented. It is influenced by having previously read the 1983 novel Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin.

If you have not read the book, use this review as a reason to either bypass the film initially and read the book first, or to understand that the screenplay is a huge departure from the intended story. 

The novel Winter's Tale is a romance with a supernatural overtone bathed in a tribute to New York City if the city could always remain in a mystical state. The book is sometimes verbose, often funny, and heartfelt in it's depiction of love. The movie insults your intellect by ignoring the vast symbolism used in the book. Example: Time Travel - In the novel certain characters have not aged through time, while the movie implies time travel as they are supernatural beings. It's NOT so. Here is exactly where the director really fowled the film. Deviating from the author's intent, turning the story into a devil's agents interplay is awkward and out of place. The devil is NEVER once mentioned or implied in the original story. Yes, some devices are necessary in film to help the audience, but the character Pearly Soames purpose as a protagonist in the film is reduced to silly. Furthermore Pearly's reason for chasing Peter (in the novel) had nothing to do with Peter's love for Beverly. Pearly never met Beverly in the novel.  In fact, in the novel, Beverly had the mystical ability to subdue Pearly and all his men when she was in the company of Peter Lake. She literally could protect Peter. In the film, this trait and theme is abandoned. Here is one more non-spoiler as it too won't be found in the film. Pearly's purpose for chasing Peter Lake began the moment he forced Peter Lake into his employ and Peter later turned a huge heist against Pearly. Pearly's gang was decimated for a time. From that day forward, Pearly's will to kill Peter grew in every chase that left him empty handed.

Jessica Brown Findlay & Collin Farrell

Being sold as a straight up romance or love story is almost a mistake because the story of Peter Lake's universe is more than Beverly Penn. The film makes a flimsy effort in trying to encompass the much larger story surrounding their love affair. Where time travel was painted too clearly to the movie goer, the backstory of Peter Lake's horse Athansor is lost. The interplay of other characters in the story could have done a lot for this movie. The wildly funny malapropian newspaper editor named Craig Binky is nowhere to be found, along with a host of others. Characters such as Virginia Gamely were altered ridiculously. Virginia was from the Lake of the Coherees in the novel. In the film, she is just another New Yorker. The lack of the larger story is where the film falls apart. The director's vain effort to include the other threaded stories inside the book are convoluted.

Unless you have no other romantic film options for Valentine's Day, it's best you read the masterwork of Mark Helprin (despite his sometimes wordy and redundant descriptions of nature) and experience Winter's Tale the movie at a later date. In the novel you get a taste of what the turn of the century 1900's Manhattan could have been like, while the film is a story with too many references and not enough depth to invest you in its characters. If you are looking for a tear-jerker that's the only reason to part with money and take your Valentine to this movie. 

Have you read the book and hoping to find elements such as the Cloud Wall, Rainbow Bridge, the Marshmen, Anarindas, Hardesty Marratta, Mootfowl, Jackson Mead, Cecil Mature (in name only), and numerous other key characters? This is not an adaptation of Winter's Tale by Mark Heplrin but screenplay written by director Akiva Goldsman that should have not been titled Winter's Tale.
Wanted: Peter Lake
Some could argue this Winter's Tale is an uncomplicated version of the book which focuses much closer on the love affair between two people from unequal backgrounds than the various supernatural elements in the novel.  Simplifying the story in such a way destroyed what this could have been. 

What the film accurately depicts is that Peter and Belverly's unexpected love takes place in the middle of each lover's own troubles. As a screen couple, Collin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) work, but the chemistry isn't there. Collin Farrell in the lead comes up big, while Jessica Brown Findlay is a beautiful lady, as Peter Lake's love interest she comes off unfulfilling in chemistry. What is strange is she does encompass what a reader would envision as Beverly Penn. Overall Findlay's articulate speech is pointed but she feels a bit hollow.
There at two audiences for Winter's Tale. Aficionados of Mark Helprin's 1983 New York Time's Best Seller, and your typical movie enthusiast interested in a romance. In most cases, one or the other is let down. Here, both receive equal fare of distaste.   

You may feel it's unfair to compare a film to a book. But it's inevitable when a movie is an adaptation. 

Rest assured Winter's Tale the movie is evaluated on its own merit despite knowing many of the characters and sub-plots in the book are omitted. We get two new characters in the film to balance the loss of beloved characters such as Craig Binky. Substitutions in film from books must be made all the time and are to be expected. But they should only be changes that do not detract from the path the author took the reader on in the printed version. When you do, you risk veering so far off course in a screenplay that it not only misrepresents the story's intent, it can fail as a story. 

Take for instance dialogue from the book. The only dialogue from the novel that survives is a serious conversation with inadvertent humor between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn's father Isaac Penn. It's your typical, "What are your intentions with my daughter," conversation that breathes real life into these characters on screen.  Using less than one percent of a books actual dialogue hardly deserves being called a movie adaptation.

When you use the same title as a book for a movie it's wise to make an honest adaptation, otherwise change the name of the movie from the book entirely to avoid comparisons entirely. Then follow the guide of placing in the credits, "based on the story Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin." Director Akiva Goldsman (also wrote the screenplay) zig-zagged across both these traditional paths and the story suffered in his mash-up. Change a characters hair color, but don't change their role or destiny.

Here are few spoiler free changes that book readers will want to know.

Lake of the Coherees is no longer a village but a single location.

Virginia Gamely has no relations, nor is she from Lake of the Coherees.

You won't see Peter Lake throw Short Tails.

Beverly's ability to subdue and protect Peter is removed.

In this case Winter's Tale isn't even a director's interpretation. The book weaves a subtle supernatural element that may be so vague that the director wanted to spell it out to moviegoers. In doing so, he dumbs down the original story to the point it insults the audience, holding their hand and telling them what to think as opposed to letting the moviegoer figure things out.

Winter' s Tale is being released as a Valentine's Day romance film for couples. Let's examine it as such with no bias from having read an entirely different version in the novel. As this writer is fond of romance and is writing his own novel with a huge romantic thread, consider the concept of love as well understood. 

It's an epic tale weaving a mystical post Victorian age Manhattan with a contemporary version that lacks soul. We bounce back and forth over the 100 year time span in the first five minutes of film. Collin Farrell is Peter Lake, the future Peter you are introduced to has lost memory of his past self. This is unclear in a flashback to his life in the turn of the century 1900 New York.

The flashback you get has a huge continuity error. The flashback would have you believe Peter Lake knew his infant childhood, yet no one could pass his story onto him. We find a young couple from Europe being rejected entry into New York due to the mother's illness of 'consumption' (terminal stage of tuberculosis). In a move reminiscent of Moses in the bible being given up by his mother, Peter Lake's parents drop him overboard their ship before it returns to Europe in a small hollowed out replica sailboat.

In the book you receive an entire back story to Peter Lake's life, investing you in his endearing innocence and kindness in spite of his hardships. That character arc is absent in the film, making it somewhat difficult to appreciate the man he becomes when he meets his star crossed lover, Beverly Penn.
Peter Lakes Vision

Again, no spoiler here. The manner in how Peter and Beverly meet won't be divulged in this review. How they meet and how that meeting evolves is much different in the original words.  But that's to be expected, the movie has a only a couple hours to compress a lot of detail.

Where the director attempts to either pay homage to points in the book or integrate key motivational concerns they become convoluted by the drastic additions he made to the overall story. 

Yet as you are also immediately introduced to the antagonist, Pearly Soames (Russel Crowe), there is a huge alternation to how he and Peter Lake arrived at their differences. Once again, BASED ON would have saved this film from harsh reviews and regardless if that was done or not the story just feels forced and flimsy. The motivation of why Pearly Soames wants to kill Peter Lake is left out of the movie entirely. The only clue you get as a movie goer is that Peter Lake was taken under Pearly's wing and Peter one day turned on him. 

Winter's Tale is condensed, filtered and sanitized of it's soul. Even without having read the novel, evidence of awkward changes for the screenplay dumb down the original subtle supernatural theme which was ironically as clear in it's message as it was abstract in it's delivery.

Yes – once again it has to be said this is no spoiler, but for those that read the book – the addition of Pearly Soames interplay with Lucifer is forced to a point that it doesn't fit into the rest of the story. Perhaps it's because it never was part of the book. Leaving it out altogether would have improved the movie. In the director's attempt to pay tribute to every player and subplot left out, he accomplishes the opposite. Forced guidance such as spelling out that Pearly Soames is a demon disrespects the audiences intellect. This was never implied in the book, it's addition in the movie does not work at all.

You can assert that this is a biased review based on the comparisons to the book but these are not comparisons but rather contrasts that explain the clunkyness of the film which hurt the movie.  Again the addition of Pearly Soames discussions with Lucifer feel out of place even to anyone that has not seen the story before.

As a romance film there are heartfelt moments and the chemistry between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn does have enough strength to bring a tear to some audience members. Collin Farrell's soft humanity is felt quite often too. Yet, except for a candid conversation among the two men Peter Lake and Isaac Penn which draws an intellectual laugh, there is no humor to break up the tension in the film. Yes, the contrast of the book is once again worth noting. The book had meaningful characters which were lost in the movie. They were not a direct part of the love story, and as such were eliminated. Eliminating so many great elements of the original story killed the journey Peter Lake would take you through. The cinematography alone in Winter's Tale was not enough to paint the fantastic picture of the magical New York City the author intended as a character in the story. Without that fabric the mystical world Peter Lake and Beverly Penn exist is absent. 

Can the director be blamed for this miss? Yes. It's not a near miss, it's far off the mark. The saving grace is that Winter's Tale did not go entirely Hollywood ending. And yet it did.  Again to avoid spoilers it's well known that in the book has a more of a Casablanca-esque anti-conventional ending. The novel's ending tied up the many subplots while avoiding clichés. The film goes straight for the clichés as if some producers felt the only way this story would sell is if we obey the rule of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back in the end. The outcome of almost every character in the book was opposite in the film. It can't be emphasized enough, the story took the story  followed it through and made every character different with different ends in their lives. The winning formula wasn't followed. Winter's Tale is a complex supernatural love story with too many important characters to have fit into a short two or three hour film. It's not written in a manner that would translate into a part one and part two series either. Perhaps it's best medium will one day be a mini-series a network can allow to play out over five to eight episodes. It's often said that the journey is the reward and the story of Winter's Tale is a long journey that cannot be condensed. In this case, spotlighting one part of the journey is not fullfulling either. 

Let's just make one thing clear to anyone that has neither read the book nor seen the movie. The love story in this film takes place in the first quarter of the novel. There are three remaining quarters to the story that thread the love story of Peter Lake and Beverly Penn into the overall journey, but their story is told early and ends early. Well, that's not entirely true. And yet it is. Now for all those clues and a tease, don't you just wonder what a book that has three quarters more to say – has to say?  

Cast: Peter Lake / Collin Farrell, Beverly Penn / Jessica Brown Findlay, Virginia Gamely / Jennifer Connelly, Pearly Soames / Russell Crowe
Director: Akiva Goldsman
Author: Mark Helprin
Writer: Akiva Goldsman
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 118 minutes

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