Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Painted Veil

In 2007, I saw the movie The Painted Veil, based on the novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. I also read Of Human Bondage, which is Maugham’s most famous book. I LOVED both of them. Then I read The Painted Veil, which was nothing like Of Human Bondage, and was very different from the movie.

I say different from the film, but it isn’t really. The plot is still mostly the same. Kitty is a twit. She’s a twit who lives in England, and likes to have a good time. But then along comes Walter Fane. She doesn’t like Walter – he bores her tremendously. But when he proposes, she accepts, mostly because she has already passed on a lot of better prospects. So, they get married and move to Hong Kong, where Walter is a bacteriologist. It doesn’t take Kitty long to find a boyfriend there – Charles Townsend. When Walter finds out, he gives Kitty a choice: accompany him to a cholera epidemic or get Charles to divorce his wife and marry her. Walter knows Charles is a cad and would never divorce his wife. So, Kitty has to go to the epidemic. While there, Kitty comes to see herself in a different light, mostly through her work at an orphanage with nuns. She realizes what a twit she is.

And this is where the book and the movie diverge. The movie is a sweeping love story: in the midst of the epidemic, Kitty finally falls in love with Walter. Kitty learns she is pregnant…it’s probably not Walter’s, but it doesn’t matter anymore. When he finally gets sick with cholera, she is there to help him, but he dies. A few years later, we see Kitty in England, where she runs into Charles. She has her little boy with her, whom she has named Charles. He hints at picking up their affair again, but she declines.

The book is very different on these points. She does learn that she is pregnant, and it’s still probably not Walter’s, but it does matter. Maugham makes it clear that it would have been easy to lie to Walter and say “of course it’s yours.” But she can’t do that anymore. In Maugham’s version, Kitty never comes to love Walter. Their hatred of each other does cool slightly, and Kitty comes to respect Walter, but she never loves him. Walter dies in the novel also, but Kitty isn’t there. She’s only told he’s been sick when he’s moments from dying, and though she begs him to forgive her for what she did, he only mutters gibberish about a dog. She returns to Hong Kong, where Charles Townsend and wife graciously offer to house and take care of her. How sweet. Mrs. Townsend has no idea her husband and Kitty had anything going, of course. Eventually, Charles gets Kitty alone, and she yields again to his advances. She feels so despicable at herself afterwards that she leaves in a few days to return to England. When she gets there she learns that her father (her mother has just died) is going to the Caribbean and she convinces him to take her along. She is determined to raise her child (she assumes it’s a girl) so that she doesn’t become a twit like Kitty was.

In the end of both, Kitty is a changed person, though how and why she changed is different. In the film, Kitty is changed mostly through Walter, through his forgiveness and love. You know – Titanic in China or something like that. In the book, Kitty is changed on her own – by her work in the orphanage and by realizing how stupid she was to fall for Townsend. She changes by seeing how utterly useless she has been in her life. I’m not sure which one I prefer.

As I mentioned before, this book was very different from Of Human Bondage, which was really long and very good. Not that The Painted Veil wasn’t good. It felt very modern…I think one could easily be convinced it was written by someone in 2008 – that it was a new book – rather than one that was written in 1925. Not that Of Human Bondage (published in 1915) felt dated – it’s just not a book stylistically or topically that I could be convinced had been written recently.

Overall, I’m still not sure how much I liked The Painted Veil. I definitely liked Of Human Bondage more, and I wasn’t as moved by the book as I was by the movie. It was a fair book of its own right, but comparatively I didn’t particularly care for it.

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