Himalayers: revisiting and revising ‘Black Narcissus’

‘Black Narcissus’ has, like the mountain palace of Mopu itself, been haunting me for some days now, after watching both the new TV adaptation and going back to the 1947 Powell & Pressburger (‘P&P’) film. What is the allure of this strange story, and why does Rumer Godden’s original novel somehow elude both versions?

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Please note: In my last piece (about the new I Fagiolini short film), I mentioned the need to avoid ‘spoilers’ to enjoy the full impact. The same applies to ‘Black Narcissus’, especially the 1947 film.

However, this feature looks at how the book and adaptations relate to each other, and the climactic events are a crucial part of that. So – if you read on, I’m assuming that you know the full story from at least one version, and you’re happy for me to give chapter and verse on what happens. Onward…

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Full disclosure, then: the 1947 ‘Black Narcissus’ is my favourite film of all time.

I didn’t read the book for some time, possibly because I’d always placed the film on such a pedestal. I had heard of Godden’s disapproval of it (apparently because it wasn’t made on location) and perhaps feared I’d read something wildly different from the movie. Well… it’s more complicated than that.

But the 1947 film is the most widely-acclaimed version. What makes it so special? Here are some key reasons.

Filming in studio. The painted landscapes, which enabled the film-makers to control the look of the film completely, add to the slightly heightened air of otherworldliness: the palace of Mopu is not quite heaven, not quite earth, and never quite real.

The casting – of two roles in particular. Both Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron had worked on one previous film each with P&P, so knew their slightly surreal universe. Kerr had played three roles (an ongoing personification of ideal womanhood) in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, while Byron had made a mark as an angel in heaven’s admin department in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’.

Kerr, the embodiment of ‘poise’, must have seemed an ideal fit for Sister Clodagh. But the casting of Byron as Sister Ruth is a masterstroke. Her lightning changes of expression and steely intensity, already there in the earlier role, are dialled up to the max in Ruth, and Powell has no qualms about emphasising her angular features to make her seem almost feral. Both actresses give performances of great generosity: Kerr’s self-repression allows Byron the space for a fully uninhibited, breathlessly physical display; while Byron’s willingness to put her character through such a transformative collapse allows Kerr to bask in a glow of perfection.

The economy of the storytelling. Running a little under 100 minutes, there is no flab at all; lots of things might be happening at once, but nothing is drawn out or surplus to requirements. Clodagh and Dean’s awareness that they may have some common ground is established with more or less a glance over Briony’s (terrible) coffee. The passage of a few months is captured by a single blazing floral shot.

However, these points are all part of the single greatest achievement of this film: its unpredictability. Plenty of films have twists, of course, and equally we’ve become used to stories that deliberately subvert genres – black comedies, docudramas, ironic thrillers merging the good guys with the bad… But ‘Black Narcissus’ is one of the few films I’ve encountered where, as a first-timer, you start thinking that you’re watching one type of movie, but by the end, it has become something entirely different. And the shift it makes, the change in your experience, is almost imperceptible, as if the palace has worked its spell on you, too. Repeat viewings do not diminish this effect. Every time I see it, I feel that I notice something new; but more unsettlingly, I don’t find it any easier to pinpoint how and where the film slides out of its melodramatic character-study moorings and into outright horror. And horror it is: the more the film gets under my skin, the more surprised I am at its appearance in afternoon schedules, and its family-friendly BBFC certificate (“Contains mild peril”! You could say that.)

For example, ‘Black Narcissus’ is one of those films where we can talk about its place or setting – here, the palace – as being a ‘character’ in its own right. It influences the actual characters and affects the narrative. While this motif might crop up here and there in other genres (for example, the way Woody Allen uses New York) it is overwhelmingly a horror device. The ‘haunted house’ is a well-worn cliché by now; but this is more than that.

There is a certain subset of horror films that unnerve the viewer and create an extra layer of fear by subtly implying the unacceptable: that the ‘presence’ (whatever form the malign spirit or influencing power takes) is in the ‘right’. The film is on its side, if you will, and our protagonists are trespassing. Think of the distorted doors and walls of ‘The Haunting’, where the house ultimately welcomes one of its guests permanently; or the Overlook Hotel in ‘The Shining’ – its impossible structure and all-knowing gallery of past residents are in perfect sync with Kubrick’s cold, controlling direction. We experience the same in the ‘Psycho’ motel or the ‘Alien’ spaceship. And it doesn’t need to be a structure – sometimes it’s a society, or community: consider which parties eventually triumph, their practices unchallenged, in ‘The Wicker Man’ or ‘Midsommar’.

The nuns do not belong at Mopu. They never fit: they are monochrome shapes, drained of colour against the painted palace walls and the vivid shades of the skies and flora surrounding them. When Ruth finally succumbs to her madness, she embraces colour, and the bright reds of her lipstick and dress blaze out of the screen. This is devilish eroticism – bordering on vampiric, right down to the fetishisation of certain objects. Ruth, now ‘evil’, brandishes a compact as she prepares to refresh her lipstick, and the ‘good’ Clodagh, intending to watch over Ruth, mirrors her action by opening her bible as a form of holy shield.

There are less heady references to the horror genre, however. Once her simmering rage finally boils over, Ruth becomes a would-be killer. Her return to the palace after rejection by Mr Dean is orchestrated for pure terror. Let’s call these set pieces what they are: the sudden cut to a close-up of Ruth’s red-raw, insane eyes watching Clodagh is not just a disturbing image but a jump-scare. Her shadow on the palace walls – as if her absorption of the palace’s colour gives her energy – moves like a stalker as Clodagh’s face plays back to us what we feel on her behalf: fear and tense fatigue.

The ending is foreshadowed – but in moments of delicacy, even eccentricity. Ruth’s empty table setting, shown as the Mother Superior tells Clodagh who will accompany her to Mopu, is both poignant and sinister on a second viewing. But at this stage Ruth is just described as a kind of ‘problem child’, a character who will perhaps test Clodagh’s resolve. Our first sight of Kerr’s face is also delayed (she is seen only from the back in the first few minutes), so even if we sense this links Clodagh and Ruth in some way, it’s not clear how.

Other, similar moments rack up. Soon after their arrival in Mopu, the nuns race to see Clodagh with their various problems, and unlike the others, Ruth is shown at a slanted camera angle, literally ‘unbalanced’. A later incident has Ruth appear suddenly with blood all over her habit, but at the time this is spun positively: Dean thanks her for stopping the wound incurred by an injured worker. Later, Ruth will choose to cover herself in red and it will result in her own bloodshed.

Ruth’s transformation is, in fact, P&P’s invention. Early on, they establish a rule of the order that vows are renewed each year. Much later in the film, we see Ruth retrieve a package from the palace deliveries: this turns out to be her new dress. She has decided to take advantage of the order’s flexibility and leave altogether, so that Clodagh will no longer have any control over her.

None of this is in the book. Godden’s prose is elegant and evocative – her familiarity and fascination with India self-evident – but at the same time, cool, detached. The writing is sympathetic, but never indulgent or tender: at times, it feels as though the realism of the setting is her key aim: having established a living, breathing Mopu, she places the nuns there like mice in a maze, their experiment becoming her experiment. Each of their characters is carefully drawn – now place them in the alien scenario, wind them up and watch them go.

The novel is unhurried, and there are extra characters and events that work brilliantly in the book but, equally, were ripe for pruning when P&P streamlined the action for the film. (For example, Phillipa leaves the palace prematurely and her replacement, Adela, is a rigid presence who serves mainly to twist the knife further for Clodagh as the Mopu project runs away from her.) I think it’s crucial for Godden that Ruth is characterised with the same psychological insight and accuracy as Clodagh. In the book, Clodagh’s flashbacks are woven skilfully into her activities, so that they read as they would probably have felt – as jolts, disturbances, undercurrents. Clodagh is unsettled, but not mentally fragile. She regains her composure and files her memories away. When her surface cracks, it’s through feeling able to open up to Dean and tell him her story. The Ruth of the book, however, is aware of her own volatile temper and potential instability: she is constantly on her guard against uncontrollable rages and when she succumbs, it is to voices and delusions about the others (“They”).

Accordingly, the starkest difference between the book and the 1947 film is probably the handling of Ruth’s collapse. Ruth, intent on controlling herself to come over in the best light possible, is still in nun’s habit when she approaches Dean, and she explains her feelings for him steadily and calmly. Only gradually does the twin obsession – unthinking love for Dean, jealous hatred for Clodagh – emerge. She insists on returning to the palace alone. Around two pages in the novel provide the springboard for the extended nightmare sequence in the film: Clodagh senses someone else in the palace and thinks she hears a habit brush the floor (in the book, remember, Ruth has not changed into civvies). But even the murder attempt at the bell is described with slight disinterest, the playing out, one might feel, of something inevitable?

I think this is why the novel tends to be called ‘haunting’, ‘tragic’ – rather than, say, thrilling or horrific. The compassion you feel for Godden’s nuns derives from the emotion and energy you put into them, and the dispassionate final image of Ruth – which the film doesn’t even try to replicate or convey – is all the more powerful in its clinical precision.

Taking that idea of inevitability and running with it – this is perhaps one of the more surprising aspects of the new TV adaptation. In some respects, it uses its more luxurious running time to restore a closer framework to the book. The characters cut by P&P are back in, and there are a few more steps taken on the path to catastrophe.

My overriding impression, however, was that the TV series was striving to make a version that felt immediate. Instead of the movie’s deliberate artifice, this was filmed out in the real world – no doubt Godden would have approved. We get grit instead of grandeur. The stars of the 1947 film were not exactly motion picture royalty (even the luminous Kerr had yet to reach Hollywood) but in the old-fashioned way, Everyone Looked Magnificent. In 2020, the acting styles are far more naturalistic and even-handed – slightly blurring the line between how Gemma Arterton’s Clodagh and Aisling Franciosi’s Ruth cope with the assaults on their senses. The new version also dispenses with the now-problematic elements in the older film: no ‘blackface’ (most of the Indian roles in P&P’s film were taken by white actors) and no ‘comedy natives’ – although such moments are as much a feature of the book as the film, both equally of their time.

But two decisions taken in the 2020 adaptation surprised me. First, Clodagh’s flashbacks are presented as more straightforwardly sexual memories, igniting proper scandal rather than the slower-burn heartache of the novel and film. While this is an example of the modern grit I mentioned, I feel it doesn’t quite work: it implies that Clodagh is likely to love Dean in much the same way as Ruth. After Ruth’s death, it gives in a little more to this indulgence, as Clodagh and Dean exchange their goodbyes with a newly-extended intimacy.

Second, a different framing device adds a new element to the palace’s history that again, puts a different spin on Ruth’s fate. At the very start of the new version, in a brief prequel showing the palace’s decadent past, we see a tormented princess head for the cliff-edge under the bell to commit suicide. (The closest character in the book, the General’s sister, is closeted and all but withers away.)

This allows the TV programme to pay homage to the film rather than the novel, as Ruth discovers the princess’s possessions, and puts on her old make-up and a glittering red costume for her visit to Mr Dean. After he rejects her and Ruth returns to kill Clodagh, their struggle at the edge is inconclusive – Clodagh saves herself from falling, then retreats as Ruth trips to the ground. She clambers to her feet, faces Clodagh, then deliberately steps back off the edge.

Some who didn’t like the TV version (compared to the P&P film) felt it lacked suspense – and this is surely the reason why. I mentioned the 1947 film’s masterful genre switch and resulting unpredictability: the 2020 series goes the opposite way. Showing someone in the past falling from the precipice, then cutting to the main story and introducing an unstable character immediately indicates that history will repeat itself. By the time Ruth is dressing as the princess, it’s clear that she is fated to go through this process, her suicide inevitable.

The aim may be to make Ruth a more three-dimensional, sympathetic character, but casting her as an echo of a falling/fallen woman actually gives her less agency than in the book (where she grapples with her demons) and the 1947 film (where she is allowed to be a tragic villain, following through on her own delusions). In its climactic moments, the TV series plays the horror card out of nowhere, with its ‘Shining’-style intimations that ‘Ruth’ had always belonged at Mopu, and always would.

I enjoyed the television version, even though it was never likely to displace my all-time favourite film in my affections. A lot of its detractors wondered what the point of a new adaptation was in the face of such a masterpiece, but I don’t feel that way: the new version had a new take, and something worthwhile to say. I can well imagine plenty of modern-day viewers preferring its fresher, more relatable performances, and gliding patience.

But perhaps Godden was right. Neither version – not even the Best Film Of All Time! – could bring itself to replicate her distanced, downbeat vision. The book’s Dean decides to get drunk instead of heading to the palace to warn Clodagh about Ruth. The Young General is no progressive and in the book, any idea of a great romance across the social divide is debunked: Kanchi is destined to be a concubine. Clodagh’s disappointment, her failure is absolute. But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. The novel’s extended epilogue in fact reveals Clodagh, not Ruth, as the truly ‘tragic’ figure. We read how she is purged of her memories, and free of the burden of leadership. Cleansed of her innate character flaw, pride, by the climactic crisis, she now faces the possibility of rebirth, renewal.

AA

The novel is in print: a Virago Modern Classic.

The 1947 film is available for around 3 weeks after the date of this post on BBC iPlayer here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00788rg/black-narcissus-film

The TV adaptation is also available on BBC iPlayer for another 11 months: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/p08x8dxw/black-narcissus

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