As I’ve said before, writers (particularly novelists) can learn much from film.
One of the latest to drive home that message for me is Michael Winterbottom’s 2001 release, “The Claim,” with screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novel, “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” I say inspired by, because Boyce has been influenced primarily in theme rather than plot by Hardy’s classic.
The setting is the 1860s in a snow-covered wilderness in the California Sierras (it was actually filmed in Alberta, Canada, and Colorado). A wagonload of women arrive in the town of Kingdom Come, all but two of them prostitutes bound for a local bar/brothel owned by Lucia, a beautiful Portuguese woman. Drunks brawl over the younger of the other two women, Elena Burn and her daughter, Hope. They are rescued and escorted to the local hotel by Donald Dalglish, head of a railroad survey team which also has just arrived in town. Hope tells Dalglish they have come to see a wealthy relative.
The ‘relative’ is Daniel Dillon, lord of the town, who 20 years earlier had sold his wife and daughter for a rich gold claim. This is revealed to us in a flashback, the movie equivalent of back-story which can be equally effective or damning to a story. Boyce handles it deftly in this presentation. Elena Burn is dying and wants recompense for their daughter who doesn’t know Dillon is her father. Despite having achieved wealth, Dillon has been haunted by his secret. He doesn’t want to admit his sin to Hope but offers to “marry” Elena and try to make up for the past.
In order to make this change Dillon must disassociate from Lucia who has been his mistress. Since he doesn’t explain his actions and attempts to pay her for services rendered Lucia at first believes he has his eye on the younger Hope. She then tries to seduce Dalglish who has been building a relationship with Hope.
Notice how skillfully Boyce manages the conflict between characters and how each of them changes by the end of the film. There’s ample lesson just in this. The character who experiences the most change, of course, is Dillon who after Elena’s death does confess to Hope. Though she earlier voices forgiveness for an action by Dalglish she rejects her father’s plea for salvation. Distraught, Dillon destroys everything for which he had previously sacrificed his family.
It’s a remarkable film, one like we used to see from studios before they became obsessed with comic book super-heroes. Though he took a broad step away from his inspiration, I think even Hardy would have approved of what Boyce did with the theme of sacrifice for material gain. While they can’t be duplicated in print, there are some stunning cinematic moments in this film along with good acting, lovely (if cold) scenery and some beautiful music (especially the songs by Mila (Lucia) Jovovich).