Like all people, I too get sucked into the book vs the movie debate. I have some friends who are adamant that the book always wins & I agree to a point. Books are always better than the film on the sole point that you, the reader, can play with it in your head however the hell you want. It makes something like The Divine Comedy or Mary Caponegro’s “The Father’s Blessing” even better because your personal visuals break limits that no camera or CGI graphic can.
Conceding that point, that doesn’t mean that film is always inferior. I have about four categories that film adaptions fall into. They are:
Obviously Bad Ideas: Wise Blood, Bastard Out of Carolina
Makes the Book Look Better: Fight Club
Don’t Even Tell Me: Middlesex, The Killer Inside Me
Strong, but Not Quite Equal: Short Cuts, The Last Picture Show
One of the films I would put in the “Strong, but Not Quite Equal” category would be Robert Rossen’s version of Lilith. I’m not sure how well-known either the book or the film are. I ran across the book while I was working at Borders & it turned out that my future husband Kurt had read it. Obsessively. The author, J. R. Salamanca, had been one of Kurt’s professors at U of Maryland. The book also took place in Rockville, where Kurt had grown up, & was set in the local asylum, Chestnut Lodge. So, I bought a copy & the first few months of our relationship consisted of us reading the book to one another.
The story goes like this: An idealistic young man growing up in Rockville goes to work at Poplar Lodge, the local asylum, out of a desire to help others, but also to find his place in the world. He gets hired as an occupational therapist and works with many of the damaged people who are inmates there. He falls in love with a girl his age who is schizophrenic. Her name is Lilith & she’s constructed an elaborate fantasy world that fascinates him. She draws him further into her world, leading him to doubt his own reality & to take drastic measures in order to control her & his perception.
I enjoy this book, for a lot of reasons other than personal association. First, it’s one of the few books I’ve read that don’t paint the girl as a fragile flower doomed to her fate. Lilith as a character is a force to be reckoned with, which Vincent learns through the course of the book. Second, I read this soon after rereading Look Homeward, Angel & before I dove headlong into Faulkner-land. & I have since always had this dream of writing an involved academic paper on morality & the male perspective in Southern Lit.
Needless to say, I approached the movie Lilith with all of this baggage, all these ideas that still pester the hell out of me. The first time I watched the movie, I struggled to leave all that at the door. These squares of celluloid were never going to live up to comparing Eugene Gant’s sexual awakening to Vincent’s awareness of Lilith’s acts of passion.
In any case, Lilith is an intriguing movie. The most interesting contrast is how Vincent’s character is tweaked in the transition. In the novel, Vincent is something of a social outcast. He’s born out of wedlock & is indirectly ostracized as a result. He tries to be a scholar, he tries to be a soldier, all to no avail. Poplar Lodge is a place of misfits; it’s a perfect fit. In the movie, Vincent is played by Warren Beatty. Which is to say that Vincent is Warren Beatty. Which means he’s a misogynistic dick.
Ok, that’s harsh. The movie tries to paint Vincent as this failed dreamer, as someone who’s just trying to deal with what fate’s handed him: a mother who goes insane, a girlfriend who’s abandoned him for a secure marriage, a spinster grandmother who has no idea how to deal with him. The conventional morality that is so complex in novel-Vincent becomes simplified in movie-Vincent. This clip is a good example of the tone of his character.
What Beatty does bring to the role is the just-under-the-surface threat of violence that makes Vincent just a terrifying as Lilith in his worst moments. You can believe that movie-Vincent would beat the shit out of some dirty bitch because she had it coming.
& speaking of our lady, Jean Seberg is amazing as Lilith. She is coy, angry, manipulative, idealistic in her own misdirected way. She captures much of what makes novel-Lilith so interesting. She is not frail & she will not be coaxed into conforming. One of the best early scenes in the novel is included at the beginning of the movie. During an outing, she gets an inmate who is in love with her to fetch a dropped paintbrush from a perilous cliff. After Vincent rescues him from a near-fatal slip, he confronts Lilith on why she sent the boy out to such a dangerous place. She looks at him & states clearly, “Because I am mad.”
The other shocking thing about Lilith is that she is carnal. Part of her delusion involves a philosophy of “pure love” in all it’s forms, that it is the only way to healing & understanding. Not only does she ensnare Vincent, her other conquests include other inmates at Poplar Lodge (male & female), Vincent’s co-workers, & (supposedly) her own brother. One of the creepiest scenes in both versions is how she works her wiles on young boys.
There is one small speech Lilith makes before her final descent into madness. I wish I could post a clip of it here, but I couldn’t find it. She says (of herself), “Do you know what she wants? Do you think they can cure this fire? Do you know what they have to cure? She wants to leave the mark of her desire on every living thing in the world. If she were Caesar, she’d do it with a sword. If she were a poet, she’d do it with words. But she’s Lilith. She has to do it with her body.”
What is also frightening about both of these characters is that they both will go to any lengths to have what they desire. With Lilith, it is experiencing sexual ecstasy with whoever will sate her hunger. With Vincent, it is struggling to control the illusion that he’s grown to need: someone (specifically a woman) who will never fail him, who will always be his exclusively. In the movie, this “infection” passes from Lilith to Vincent until they are both mentally unable to deal with the “real world”. In the book, Vincent doesn’t fall into the same pit as Lilith, but does remain broken. The only difference is that Lilith is carted off to a maximum security asylum while Vincent is deemed penitent (& sane) enough to be accepted into society. An irony considering that what he’s wanted his whole life, it just now comes at the price of his suffering.
I could go on & on; there’s so much more I could say. But, either in film or in text, Lilith remains a vital interesting work. & either way she leaves us wondering about her, the “wild girl with dirty hair whom you keep locked in your attic.”