Black Narcissus (1947) may seem like a strange choice for my third Film First post. I wouldn’t call it a favourite film. That suggests one that I’ve seen hundreds of times and know it off by heart. In fact, before writing this post, I’d only seen it twice. But it has always sort of haunted me.
I first saw it when confined to my flat - heavily pregnant with my eldest son and not able to go out because there was snow and ice and hills everywhere. I was uncomfortable, and bored, and it was back in the day when you watched what was on, because there weren’t any other choices.
I wasn’t initially impressed. It is a strange film. Basically, it’s the 1930s, and a bunch of nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), take on the task of converting the deserted Palace of Mopu into a convent and school/hospital. They are high up in the Himalayan mountains, with only the wind, a few natives and their solitude. Not a great deal happens for a large portion of the movie, until Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) goes mad and inevitably falls off a cliff. I distinctly remember turning the TV off and thinking “well that was odd”, before probably raiding the fridge and having yet another nap.
Under the Skin
But as the days went on, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. On the face of it, it all seems quite tame. Nuns, gardening, bell ringing, school lessons. But there is something deeply unsettling about it. When it was released in 1947, audiences were shocked, and it was heavily censored and even banned in some places (namely Ireland). It’s filled with such strangeness – odd behaviour, long silences, meaningful symbolism and lots of lingering closeups. Martin Scorsese called it “one of the first truly erotic films”.
The film is basically about the repressed desires of the nuns and what the environment does to them - how it sends them all a little bit mad. One nun starts planting flowers instead of vegetables, another secretly longs for a child and becomes too attached to the local children. Sister Clodagh herself spends half the film reminiscing about her lost love in Ireland, whose rejection sent her into the church. And the sexual tension oozes through the screen like treacle, all in the looks between the main players.
It is very subtle. Everything is done by suggestion and implication. There is such a long slow build up of tension and eroticism - like the characters themselves, you almost don’t notice it happening until it is too late. When Sister Ruth finally flips, it's dramatic and atmospheric, but it's also almost a release. You almost sympathise with her because she at least is finally being true to what she wants.
On the Page
Black Narcissus was Rumer Godden’s third novel, published in 1939. I had never read any of her work before this. Based on the mastery of the film, and the fact that I LOVED the TV show Tottie when I was little which was based on one of her books, I was sure I was going to love the book.
But it was… slow.
The film is actually pretty faithful to the book. Most of the events happen as written, though there are a few in the book which are either missed out or skipped over. But the film is a lot more dramatic - particularly the final scenes. It's also much more concise - I guess you can say a lot very quickly through imagery.
It isn’t that it’s not well written, it is. The characters are all well sketched (Mr Dean the agent being particularly vivid), and the descriptions really do give you a great sense of place. It’s all done with the same sort of subtlety as the film – nothing is explicitly stated, you just have to figure it out for yourself. But sometimes it feels a little bit too subtle, and you want it to just get a bit more of a move on.
The film keeps you watching because it is strange and disturbing and somehow gets under your skin. But I found myself putting the book down for long stretches without really feeling motivated to pick it up again. It didn’t have the pace or the intrigue to keep me turning the pages, and under normal circumstances, I’m sorry to say I probably wouldn’t have finished it.
Here’s the thing though. I finished the book, and fully expected to conclude that I definitely preferred the movie. But then I re-watched the film, and it actually made me appreciate the book a lot more. Probably because the book allows you to delve a little bit deeper into the motivations of the characters. It explains a lot more about how the nuns are going about things the wrong way, and how their fixed attitudes affect their relationships with the local people. It delves into Clodagh’s past – there are glimpses of this in the film but they are very stylised and a little vague. Importantly, it also gives a lot more depth to Sister Ruth – why she acts the way she does and eventually loses the plot.
Apparently, Rumer Godden wasn't keen on the film adaptation. She slated the fact that it was (unbelieveably) shot on set in the UK, saying that “everything about it was phoney… the Himalayas were just muslin mounted on poles”. It seems incredible to me that the film makers were able to create a backdrop of such splendor just through paintings. I guess she wanted a bit more realism and a bit less Hollywood flimflam for her work.
For me, the film wins. It feels as though the film makers got right to the heart of what the book was about and drew it out in glorious technicolour. If I had read Black Narcissus without seeing the movie, I think I would have left it feeling a bit 'meh'. The film definitely stands on its own, but if you do feel like you need a little more understanding about what's going on, give the book a read.
Black Narcissus is back in print and widely available!