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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

7. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

This is the first time I’ve ever read a book right after – and as a result of - seeing the film of it.

Normally I rush to read the book first, in fear a poor adaptation will ruin the chance to enjoy it fresh from the page, because generally I find movie versions don’t live up to books I have loved.

I loathed the film of I Capture the Castle, with that terrible, terrible wig, and I’m so sad my seven year old saw the blah film of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe before she could read the Narnia series. I actively tried to shield her from it, but she watched it at a friend’s house. Dammit.

Sometimes though - Harry Potter - the movies are much better than the books, and then there are the rare and joyous cases where both experiences, the reading and the watching, are equally transporting. Gone With the Wind is the classic example, and I’m happy to report that A Single Man falls into that category too.

I adored the film. Why wouldn’t I? I’ve had a fag hag crush on Tom Ford for years and his sexy smooth aesthetic defines the cinematic experience from the start.

Colin Firth richly deserved that Bafta (and I hope he gets the Oscar, too), but the film is so quietly visually ravishing, it would be a glory to watch with the sound down too. It’s worth seeing for the women’s hairstyles alone. A lot of the critics were bitchy about all that, like it was a bad thing it looked so beautiful. Ignore them.

But beyond the superficial I was gripped to find out why Ford was so strongly moved to make this particular book into a film, he even co-wrote the screenplay (swoon).

One of the themes that particularly interested me is the portrayal of a deep friendship between a gay man and a straight woman. It’s a rarely-explored area and one very close to my heart, as such relationships have been some of the most significant of my life. Which is why it’s a major thread in my first novel, Pants on Fire. (Really the straight love story in that book is just a vehicle to look at the more interesting meeting of minds between the heroine and her boy pal.)

That’s one detail that is notably different in Ford’s film; perhaps unsurprisingly, he has made his on-screen gal pal much more glamorous than Isherwood’s literary version, who is plump and poorly dressed (the horror!).

And probably advisedly, the film doesn’t go near a section of the book which outlines the gay protagonist’s utter revulsion at the mere idea of female genitalia, amid a passage of general intense misogyny.

That chapter was like a slap in the face to read, but brilliantly brave and honest to put it down in print. I’ve known gay men who feel that way – a simultaneous adoration for and shrinking away from the female. Indeed that’s precisely the contradiction which can make the fag/hag relationship so interesting. And so complicated.

The most major change though, is a crucial storyline in the film, which isn’t in the book at all. (I’m not saying what it is, because I don’t want to spoil either of them for anybody.) It makes the film less subtle than the book, but I can see why they needed it for narrative pace. The book is none the lesser for not having it, though.

So in the final analysis, as this is a reading diary not a film page, what did I think of the book? I thought it was a tiny precious gem, as sparkling and finely worked as a Graff diamond.

There are so many big ideas concentrated down into a very slim volume – it’s almost a novella – but so lightly drawn it never drags. It skitters along like sunbeams bouncing off cars on an LA highway, as apparently lightweight as the city where it’s set, but with the great depth of Isherwood’s skill and experience, supporting it from below.

Thank you, Mr Ford, for prompting me to read it.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 6
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 7
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 9
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 10

Note: have decided to take spouse out of my ratings, as he doesn't really read fiction (not even my bloody books). Will put him back if I do a non-fic book. He likes books about history/war/boxing/philosophy etc.


  1. dying to see this film not only because i also have a fag hag crush on TF but also bec i have a crush on CF and JM as well. throw all of them together in a film and i just cant resist it. i am with you on the film for the lion, the witch and the wardrobe; what an utter disappointment, though i quite liked the cartoon version i saw when i was a child.

  2. Recommend to niece: 9? I'd better read it!

    I didn't like the film as much as I expected to - it was a bit like watching a two hour long perfume advert. I did love the period styling and thought it looked beautiful, but there wasn't enough tension to keep me interested. And I hate Nicholas Hoult's pouty face!

    I also thought Julianne Moore's performance was really embarrassing - she was hamming it up like Patsy in Ab Fab.

    I'll be interested to read the book and see how it differs...

  3. I also loved the movie, and now plan to read the book (although neither gay nor female). Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. gah, that DOES it. I've got to get to this film before it disappears off wide screen forever. Have never had the normal reaction to CF but this may be the one to tip me over. xx

  5. oh those pesky fag hag/ best gay boy friend relationships!!! sounds familiar. Ice and a slice Midge?

  6. Hi Maggie
    How lovely to have found your blog.

    Thanks for this review of A Single Man. Been meaning to watch the film - a big CF fan.

    I had a smile on my face when you mentioned your novel, Pants On Fire. I remember the first time I read it, I'm a newcomer to Sydney and it really resonated.

    Cheers, have a great weekend and looking forward to 'seeing' you this weekend in the SMH.

  7. mmm now I see what Pants on Fire was all about, and it makes perfect sense. Was very familiar from my own relationships. Marvellous supply of godfathers. Josa Young

  8. This is a test. This is a test. Code C and holding. Code C and holding.

  9. Hi Maggie,
    I saw this movie on the weekend and just couldn't stop thinking of Tom Ford throughout. It was melancholic and beautiful and frankly some of the best things were Charley's hair, her pink fags, the potted orchids and kumquarts in her hallway and the clothes. The acting was superb.