Tuesday, August 18, 2009

There Goes Mingy Stingy

I had a fine evening, and quite enjoyed watching the BBC's film production of George Eliot's Silas Marner, starring Ben Kingsley in the lead role of the "pallid undersized" man. Kingsley's performance is excellent, quiet but intense. Kingsley characterizes Silas as a fundamentally honest man, one whose responses to his changing circumstances are not withheld from those around him in the slightest. It's a character trait that quickly establishes more empathy for Silas than we might think (specially with the preconceptions we might have derived from references in pop culture, etc – more on that below). Only when Silas keeps his emotions from his inner self does Kingsley appear to conceal them from us also, and it works beautifully. The production value (from 1985) is not very high and could use some updating (like a 5.1 soundtrack to better modulate Carl Davis' score), and Giles Foster's direction is at times a little muddled, not as effective as the performances of his cast. Eliot's plot is fundamentally melodramatic, but the narrative in which the plot lives is rich with spirituality and ethics, sociology and philosophy.

My first encounter with Silas' story probably came at the age of eleven or twelve, when I heard The Who's song "Silas Stingy" from the classic The Who Sell Out. Still a catchy, clever tune (not like we're flooded with pop songs condensing 19th century literature) but it seems, in retrospect, that The Who went for the obvious and dramatic, and missed out on Silas' fundamental journey, of which his miserly stage is merely one intermediate phase.

Back on April 4th and 5th I watched the BBC's eight-part miniseries adaptation of Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, a far less satisfying affair, both because of the aesthetic nature of the work and the quality of the production (not bad, but uniformly non-stellar). That was my first contact with Eliot, and I was a little put off by it, specially after thumbing through the doorstop novel.

I'm glad that didn't stop me from engaging with Silas Marner; it's far shorter, but says (at least to me) a lot more, and better. I look forward to reading it over the next few days.

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