tongue-tied lightning

The Swimmer (Perry, 1968)
February 5, 2009, 10:49 PM
Filed under: film


This is probably a case where I am too close to the source material to objectively judge the adaptation.  The Swimmer by John Cheever has been my favorite short story since I read it, oh, probably 5 years ago now.  There is one fundamental change in the film that may seem quite minor on the surface, yet nevertheless lessens the stories impact.  But we’ll get to that later.

The film and story both concern Ned Merrill (played by Burt Lancaster), an aging upper-class suburbanite, who one day realizes he can swim home through a succession of his neighbors pools.  Over the course of one afternoon both the seasons seem to change and his neighbors grow colder towards him until he arrives at his home, locked, empty and with his family nowhere to be found.

The film elaborates a bit on the story, adding a sequence with one of his neighbors daughters and one with a neighbor boy selling lemonade and swimming through and empty pool alongside him.  Both add rather than take away from the story, both are very touching episodes.  It is during the latter sequence that Ned utters a line that I think sums up the differences between the film and the story.  “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.”

In the film, Ned seems to be deceiving himself, blocking out something unfortunate that happened and pretending his life is as it was before.  In the story this reading isn’t possible, because while his wife has certainly left him by the end, she is present at the first pool party when he hatches his plan.  It adds a surreal edge to the story and possibly lends more empathy to Ned when he arrives to find his abandoned home, because we know when he set out on his journey his loving family was still in tact.  In the film, it’s just him coming to terms with his self-deception.  To me, the former is more thought provoking and the latter, while still effective, is a bit more straight-forward.  To come back to the quote, in the story it doesn’t seem possible Ned is making-believe, where that is almost certainly what is going on in the film.

The majority of the film was directed by Frank Perry, he left at the end due to creative differences and the final scene was directed by Sydney Pollack.  I can’t wonder if he wanted to play the ending down a bit, as it’s current incarnation is quite heavyhanded.  I’m thinking specifically of a shot where when faced with his empty rundown tennis court the camera pans back and forth and we hear his daughters playing tennis over the soundtrack.   If the film has done it’s job (and it had) we would realize that’s what’s going through his head without the cue.  It’s simply a case of the director (perhaps the studio in this case?) not trusting the audience.

I have never seen a Perry film before, and he definitley has an eye for interesting visuals.  He does many things during Neds “portages” between pools, playing with the light and the focus, adding to the films ambience.  During the pool scenes, and in particular the parties Ned stumbles across, he captures a 60s feel, adding to the subtext regarding suburban materialism.

For the most part I like what he’s done with the film, though I feel it lacks the mystery and intrigue present in Cheever’s short story.  It possibly has more to say about the fronts people put on, especially in suburbia in the 50s and 60s. Perhaps by removing his wife from the beginning and adding the quote with the little boy that was his intent.  Still, I can’t help but feel it takes something away from Cheever’s masterpiece.

Read it here.


1 Comment so far
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I think you might like Summer of 42. Check it out.

Comment by Viv

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