In this space a couple of weeks ago, Anthony Sacramone rightly scored Alfonso Cuarón’s film version of P.D. James’ novel Children of Men . What James meant as a Christian parable was turned by the filmmakers into a screed against President Bush’s war on terrorism.

I too had a roughly similar experience when I went to see the latest film version (the third so far) of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil . Granted, this film¯which was produced by its two stars, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts¯does not do anywhere near the violence to Maugham’s novel of marital infidelity that Cuarón did to James’ tale of post-Christian infertility. Still, the movie version of The Painted Veil seems nonplussed when it has to come to terms with the Catholic mysticism that pervades the last third of the novel.

The idea for the novel began when Maugham was studying Italian under the tuition of the daughter of his landlady in Tuscany before World War I (he had by then decided to abandon a career in medicine for the life of a writer). While working through Dante’s Purgatorio , he came upon this line, spoken by the adulterous wife Pia:

Siena mi fè; disfecemi Maremma.

(Siena made me, Maremma unmade me.)

Ersilia (for so the tutor was named) explained that Pia was a noblewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma valley, the noxious vapors of which he was confident would kill her off. But she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her tossed out a window. As Maugham explains in his preface to the novel:

I do not know where Ersilia learnt all this. The note in my own Dante was less circumstantial, but the story for some reason caught my imagination. I turned it over in my mind and for many years from time to time would brood over it for two or three days. I used to repeat to myself the line: Siena mi fè; disfecemi Maremma . But it was one among many subjects that occupied my fancy and for long periods, I forgot it. Of course I saw it as a modern story, but I could not think of a setting in the world of today in which such events might plausibly happen. It was not till I made a long journey in China that I found this.

Maugham goes on to say that, when deciding what to write about, he usually thought of characters first and then wrote novels about them , letting the plot follow the plausibility of the characters themselves. But in this case the characters were chosen to fit the story , the one from Dante that he found so fascinating. Perhaps this explains why in the novel only the wife (Kitty Fane, née Garstin) seems fully realized, for in Dante we get only Pia’s side of the story. Needless to say, in a movie where the male lead is also one of the producers, and which is being billed as a romance of redeemed infidelity, the husband had to be fleshed out, so to speak, more than the novel managed to do. Whether that opening up serves Maugham’s clear religious purposes in telling his tale is of course the question.

Here are the bare bones of the story that both book and movie outline (I am not giving away here anything more than the basic "set up" of the plot): Kitty Garstin is the elder of two daughters of a middling barrister and a vulgar mother, who comes right out of a Jane Austen novel and whose only ambition for the two girls is to see them "well" married. When the homelier younger daughter Doris announces her engagement, Kitty panics and accepts the hand, after a very brief courtship, of a newly doctored bacteriologist, Walter Fane (in the film, the courtship seems to last less than twenty-four hours!). But he works for a government laboratory and will soon be sent to Hong Kong on assignment, and so off they go together. No surprise here at what happens next: In the insular world of greater Britannia, on which the sun never sets, Kitty quickly realizes how bored she is by the country-club society of the self-styled "elite" of Hong Kong’s English colonials¯and by her husband, who comes across in the novel as a kind of scientist drone.

Needless to say, she isn’t there long before she falls in lust with the Deputy Colonial Secretary, Charles Townsend, nor does it take long for their adultery to be discovered. At which point her husband threatens to divorce her unless she accompanies him to a remote Chinese village now being ravaged by a cholera epidemic.

So far, so Dante. But Maugham complicates the situation at this point by introducing the reader to a remarkable group of French nuns who run the hospital and orphanage in the small town. More out of boredom than altruism, Kitty volunteers to work in the orphanage, teaching music, while her husband is toiling away in appalling conditions in the infirmary. At this point she gets to know the serene but firmly-in-control Mother Superior (deftly played by Diana Rigg in the movie). In the novel, this friendship, and this alone , effects Kitty’s transformation. As the Mother Superior says at one point, in a line that beautifully anticipates Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology of the vows (fortunately kept in the film): "Remember that it is nothing to do your duty. That is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty. The only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding."

The line, as I say, was kept in the movie; but in the novel it constitutes the turning point of the plot. For from that point on, Kitty resolves to go in search of a life that will give her that peace. In fact, the last line of the novel concludes with her resolve to do just that: "Perhaps her faults and follies, the unhappiness she had suffered, were not entirely vain if she could follow the path that now she dimly discerned before her, . . . the path those dear nuns at the convent followed so humbly, the path that leads to peace."

Without giving away any more of the plot than I already have, let’s just say that in the movie Kitty finds her peace in a reignited sexual passion for her husband. No doubt such reconciliations take place in rocky marriages all the time, not to mention in Hollywood romances. But that’s not the novel Maugham chose to write. OK, he didn’t arrange to have Kitty defenestrated in the Pia manner; but Maugham makes clear, through her later backsliding (totally omitted in the film), that Kitty’s path to that long-sought peace would be a very long one indeed.

Perhaps a movie of a marriage resting on shaky foundations can only work if there are two equally poised spouses, with lives and narratives of their own, taken on their own terms. But in the Norton/Watts version, all that Kitty Fane learns from the Mother Superior is a lesson, not in mystical peace, but in altruism . In fact, she learns that lesson far more from her husband, who in the film is shown building a primitive sewage system to save lives¯and even riding on horseback to get upriver!

I’ll admit that in many ways the attempt to open up the plot for cinematic purposes worked well. Far more than Maugham did, the film attends to the rise of Chinese nationalism in the 1920s. The character of the one remaining British official in the cholera-plagued town, a decadent and opium-besotted Customs officer, is extremely well observed. The soundtrack, mostly of piano pieces by Eric Satie, is ravishingly played by the famous Chinese pianist Lang Lang¯and the landscapes of the Chinese interior are beyond ravishing. (Even the on-location Chinese crew told the cast they had never seen a more beautiful part of their country, a beauty now grown increasingly rare in a frantically globalizing China.)

As it happens, the film was co-funded by the Chinese government, which probably accounts for the translation of locale from the novel’s Hong Kong to the movie’s Shanghai. (A portrayal of English arrogance in Hong Kong would probably conjure up more analogues to present-day Hong Kong than the Chinese government felt safe to allow.) Worse, the producers were forced to grant total censorship of the final cut to Beijing. This delayed the film’s release until the last week in December, which might affect its reception at all those over-the-top award ceremonies the film world likes to celebrate in January and February. Unless it wins some of these awards, I doubt the film will play widely, which would be a pity. For, with all its faults, it has many merits, not the least of which is that it will prompt many filmgoers to read the much better novel.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.

Articles by Edward T. Oakes

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