Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham - Book, movie and radio program

On the steamer that took them up the Western River Walter read incessantly, but at meal-times he endeavored to make some kind of conversation. He talked to her as though she were a stranger with whom he happened to be making the journey, of indifferent things, from politeness, Kitty imagined, or because so he could render more marked the gulf that separated them.

~p. 87 of The Painted Veil

This is going to be an extremely casual set of thoughts. I watched The Painted Veil, the movie starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, one night when Huzzybuns was out of either town or country or both, and then tore through my house looking for the book. It took me two days to locate the book, which I immediately read then followed up with a second viewing of the movie and then the BBC Radio 4 "Woman's Hour" radio production in 5 parts. The general storyline for book, movie and radio series:

Kitty has spent her youthful years toying with a procession of suitors without finding a single one of them appealing enough to marry. Now, her younger sister is marrying well and her mother asks, "How long do you expect your father to support you?" Kitty realizes she is not only considered a burden but also about to become a laughingstock because her younger sister will be titled and she will be "the cast-off elder spinster sister." She wants to go far, far away. Conveniently, Walter asks her to marry him and accompany him to China, where he works as a bacteriologist.

They move to Hong Kong (Shanghai in the movie) and two years pass. Kitty thinks Walter is boring and rude. He has a tendency not to reply to her because he's focused on his work and is not prone to chatter -- he's a very nerd-centric, science guy. She becomes captivated by Charlie, who is also married, and they have a steamy affair. In the book and BBC Radio 4 series (as I recall -- the radio series was only available online temporarily), they go to a room above a shop; in the movie the location of their trysts is unspecified but in all cases, they end up in Kitty's room on a day that Walter arrives home early. He turns the doorknob but the door is locked.

Walter doesn't pretend he knows nothing. He's already aware that Kitty finds him appalling, but now he's Majorly Pissed. Within a short time, he's decided to take a job working in a remote village where there has been an outbreak of cholera. He tells Kitty he'll leave her behind if Charlie will divorce his wife and marry Kitty immediately. Walter is not as stupid as Kitty thinks; he knows how Charlie will react. Off they go to Mei-tan-fu, where all but one of the Englishmen in town have died or fled. Will Walter succeed in killing them both, thus eliminating the wife he now hates and his own humiliated self?

This is how the movie begins:

Walter and Kitty are sitting in the rain, nowhere near each other, waiting for their ride (which involves chairs carried by coolies). You can tell they hate each other, Kitty is angry, Walter doesn't care what she thinks; he's off in his own little world. It's perfectly portrayed in a stunningly beautiful setting. Flashbacks are utilized to tell the story up to this point, whereas the story is told in linear form in book and, I think, also in the radio series.

The three versions -- original novel, film and radio program -- are fascinating in their distinctions, but it may be a bit of a spoiler to say exactly how they differ, apart from noting that Kitty gains strength and character and learns to respect her husband in the movie and in the book she remains a simpering, frail, pitiful character to the end. Oh, and there are a lot of things added to the movie, obviously for cinematic effect. Most of those were good choices, in my opinion.

Want to know more about the differences? Keep reading, but be aware that this may be spoiler territory.

In the book, Kitty learns to respect her husband but continues to declare that she can never possibly love Walter. Kitty is a typical wimpy bitch heroine written by a popular writer of the time period (1920's - copyrighted in 1925) and disappointing in her lack of growth.

The movie and radio series were obviously written with modern sensibilities in mind. Women of today will not put up with a character who can't be bothered to learn from her mistakes and buck up. From respect for her husband's hard work and the love and care he shows to others, as well as her own hard work, Kitty loses her hard edge and learns to love. She develops a backbone where needed, softens in other ways. And, the love that develops between Kitty and Walter makes the story both romantic and tragic. But, honestly, I don't want to ever give everything away.

----End spoiler----

So, which version of The Painted Veil did I like best? Honestly? I enjoyed all three versions for different reasons but especially liked them in combination. I liked the beautiful scenery of the movie, Maugham's gorgeous writing in the book, the way the radio program brought the sound and sensations of the book to life with actors in roles (as opposed to the typical single-narrator/actor audio recordings, which I tend to detest), horses hooves clattering, bells chiming. But, I really do not like the ending of the book.

I thought Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber hit it out of the ballpark. Their characterizations were spot on, at first, then fit the changes made to the script (which made the movie version romantic). The average viewer who rated The Painted Veil at Rotten Tomatoes tends to agree with me. The radio show was different in minor ways but, again, apart from updating the female role to fit modern demands, it wasn't that far off from the book. In fact, it was closer to the novel than the movie. My one complaint about the movie was that there were a couple senseless jabs at Catholicism. I'm not Catholic, but I was a bit appalled by them.

On the second viewing of the movie, I took notes. At one point, Mr. Waddington (the only other Englishman in the village) says of the nuns who run the local orphanage:

"They're not just here to run an orphanage. They're turning these children into little Catholics."

Hmm. Not in the book. In fact, the nuns have nothing but the interests of the children at heart in the novel. They are not all orphans but by paying their parents a modest fee, the nuns are able to take in children who would be otherwise neglected, starved, possibly abandoned. And, then there's a little speech by Mother Superior, who compares her love of Jesus to a marriage:

"Over the years, my feelings have changed. He disappointed me, ignored me."

No, she doesn't say anything of the sort in the novel. She is a deeply committed believer who cannot be persuaded to return to her extremely wealthy family in France. Having made her decision when young, she still feels she has made the right choice and that China is where she belongs, regardless of the risks.

Other than those annoying changes, I thought the movie was pretty well done. Some lines are recognizably pulled directly from the novel. In one case, Mr. Waddington of the movie version is given one of Mother Superior's lines -- or, maybe it's the other way around. The movie is faithful enough and the ending is an improvement. Look, Walter and Kitty actually touch each other, late in the movie!

I think I had trouble with the fact that Kitty found her husband so repulsive partly because I like skinny, nerdy, science dudes. Heck, I even married one (although we have both since expanded . . . he sort of married a skinny nerd, too -- just a different kind). Walter is really quite a bit like my husband, in many ways: focused, smart, driven, quiet. I mentally chewed out Kitty, a few times. Silly old cow, can't you see what a decent guy you've got?

Book, movie and radio program all recommended - I don't know what it is about this story that I love, but I found the idea fascinating, the characters interesting and well-developed and the portrayal very beautifully done in both movie and radio show. The acting is really marvelous in both. Movie-wise, Edward Norton always amazes me, to be honest. I didn't even know who was playing Kitty till the credits rolled, but I was impressed with Naomi Watts, too. I think The Painted Veil is the first movie in which I've seen her. Kitty is disappointing in the book, but I love Maugham's writing and I suppose I can forgive him for not letting Kitty grow a bit more. Yes, I do believe I will. Forgiven.

Cover thoughts:

The cover shown above is the design on my copy, which was published in 2004 by Vintage International (a division of Random House books). I like it. The mode of dress and hairstyle are right for the time period. I don't recall if there's any scene with a bird cage in the book, but there is in the movie. Actually, that part's kind of weird. They took Waddington's love life and gave Kitty a couple of "Gasp!" scenes. Oh, and Waddington -- I love the actor who played him and found that he fit the description in the book very nicely.

In other news:

There will be a cat photo, soon. My recent reviews have been way the heck too long, so I'll keep the next post brief. Sound good to you? Happy Valentine's Day!

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I adore this book, and thought the movie was good too, though as I read the book first, I did enjoy it more. Oddly, I remembered the ending of the book completely different from what it actually was. I remember Kitty going back to the mainland and working in the fields, basically doing penance and making up for her actions of so long. When I saw the movie and the end was nothing like that, I went back to read the book and was completely surprised by what I read. I have no idea why I had a completely different ending in mind. Having said that, I don't mind the end of the book because I felt like Maugham didn't do something unrealistic to Kitty's character. He also doesn't soften the fact that Walter was a vindictive jerk. That's not to say I don't love Walter, because I do, and I sympathize with him greatly. I'm a fairly vindictive person myself, I admit, and I can see myself reacting exactly the same way he did. I loved that Maugham explored two very human characters and had them stay exactly who they were the whole time, even when faced with the worst of themselves.

    1. That's a really great way to look at the characterization, Amanda. I didn't think about that. I do love a character who learns and grows, but Kitty and Walter definitely stayed true to their early characterization in the novel. Walter was over-the-top in his choice to kill them both off, but then he does at one point say he doesn't hate Kitty. He hates himself for loving her. That was, I thought, a very telling moment. Now, if he'd just gone off to die of cholera instead of dragging her along to die with him, he wouldn't have seemed so nasty, would he?

      That's fascinating how you remembered the ending. I've done that, myself -- mentally changed an ending and not realized it till a reread. Maybe not to that extreme, though!

  2. I haven't read this one, but you have succeeded in piquing my curiosity for the book. Now I want to find out what happens to Kitty! Her husband sounds like a brute!

    1. Zibilee, I highly recommend reading the book and then watching the movie, just for the fun of it. The movie is such a visual feast. I get Amanda's point, but I also prefer what happened to Kitty in the movie.

      As to Walter . . . yeah. Never piss off the good guy. He can flip on you. LOL I thought they did a nice job of showing just how angry he was in the movie by adding a line when Walter was telling Kitty he was going to drag her along to a village with a cholera epidemic: "Interrupt me again and I will strangle you." Not in the book, but it got the point across. Nobody was going to stop him from getting his revenge.

  3. Wow! Since I LOVE the movie and liked the book for different reasons, I found this whole post fascinating! I hadn't thought about Kitty not learning from her mistakes in the book. (maybe I should reread) but I like that she does in the movie.

    I like skinny nerds too and if Edward Norton is playing one all the better. ;)

    1. She did learn but it was minor by comparison with the movie and I didn't want to say anything about it because it's a bit spoilery. I meant she didn't grow in the way I wanted her to grow and I was disappointed with her final scene. I reread my review and I can see I didn't do a good job of expressing that. It probably is best to read the book first, then the movie, because she may seem a bit less pathetic if you read the book without having seen the broader changes portrayed in the movie (and the backbone -- loved the way she responded to Charlie in their last scene).

      Edward Norton is the bees' knees.

  4. Outstanding review, Nancy!! I haven't read the book, but I watched the movie a few years ago and thought it was remarkable. Your review has my interest piqued and I think I'll have to get a copy of the book to read and then watch the film a second time. I thought Edward Norton was amazing and Naomi Watts was very good, as well. Wouldn't this make a great combination for a book club discussion?

    1. Thanks, Les! Oh, yes, I think it would make an excellent combination for discussion. There's much to talk about if you're looking at the changes between the two, why the screenwriter(s) may have made those particular choices, how the characters differ in book and movie, etc. Edward Norton was perfect. The only thing about Naomi Watts that I disliked was that she had a particular set expression that she used throughout a good portion of the movie, but then it gradually changed. Plus, it creeped me out a little that she looked a bit like my mother, when young. LOL Weird sensation.

  5. I loved the book and enjoyed the movie, too. It's been awhile since I read it, but I thought she grew enough in the book that I couldn't really hate her, but her evolution is more noticeable in the movie.

    1. Well, she didn't grow enough for me. I thought Kitty was appalling in the book, even in her last scene. She learned something and she grew, but she didn't learn or grow in the ways I desired her to and it was marginal. I thought she was still pitiful at the end. The movie shows a much more dramatic change. And, they expanded it a bit, time-wise, in the movie. They were only in Mai-Tan-Fu for a few weeks in the book but it was months in the movie, which made the depth of those changes more palatable, I thought.

  6. yes! I'm finally here! ;) I need to take a note from you and just ditch the Google Reader but I'm too afraid I'll miss something awesome! Like this!

    Wasn't the writing in the book gorgeous? I haven't seen the movie--is Edward Norton the one who plays Walter? I'm guessing so with the skinny nerd type but he looks so beautiful in that picture! Or is the Liev? Yikes--can't tell. ;)

    I agree about Kitty and not having enough growth. Wanted to toss her across the room at parts!

    1. Trish,

      I'm sure I miss a lot of wonderful things by not using Google Reader, but it definitely took some stress out of my days. I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of posts.

      Yes, the writing was amazing! Edward Norton played Walter. Liev Schreiber played Charlie. I thought they both fit the roles perfectly as Charlie is a big man and so is Liev. Edward looked like a skinny nerd type, but yes . . . so, so handsome.

      So glad you agree with me about Kitty! I think her lack of growth was a product of the times. I've read several books from that period, recently, and the women tend to be one extreme or the other. They don't change much.

      Not to burden you, but I just wrote up a second post about The Painted Veil because there were a lot of things I marked that I wanted to record in some way. And, Bookfoolery is basically my reading (and cat) journal. You might find the poem interesting -- from which a death-bed quote was uttered.


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