The McCourts of Limerick: Lives Too Awful for the Screen

Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes , from a screenplay by Laura Jones and Mr. Parker, based on the memoir by Frank McCourt, materializes on the screen as a disappointingly turgid saga of squalor that is overproduced, misdirected and almost totally lacking in the existential epiphanies of Mr. McCourt’s exhilarating remembrance of childhood poverty in the Limerick, Ireland, of the 30’s and 40’s. It is a case of too much and not enough in the treacherous transition from page to picture, and all with the best intentions and the most prodigious set constructions and locale authentications.

The trouble is that once we become immersed in the noxious cesspool of Roden Lane in hellish Limerick, the characters sink into it as well, and there is not enough of Mr. McCourt’s literary irony and sudden leaps of compassion to pull them out of the muck and the mire. There is only the eventually tedious glare of a little boy, and then a slightly older boy, and finally a grown youth, played by three different actors, a dangerous casting problem in movies, but never any kind of a problem in books.

It is easy enough to say in retrospect that Angela’s Ashes should never have been made into a movie. Certainly one can not unduly blame producers Scott Rudin, David Brown and Mr. Parker, nor the team of artists, craftsmen and technicians they assembled for the task. The project got off to a good start with the casting of Emily Watson as Angela, the mother of the ever-growing and ever-disappearing brood of McCourts, and Robert Carlyle as the most unbearably feckless and irresponsible of dads in either fiction or nonfiction. If you’ve never read the book, you cannot appreciate how awful Malachy McCourt, the elder, was as a husband and a father, short of being violent and sexually abusive. It is not the variety of his shortcomings, but the sheer repetition of the same disgracefully drunken rituals again and again and again, that makes Dad so loathsome a character in the book. Ms. Jones and Mr. Parker, the co-scenarists, were obliged by the nature of their medium to reduce the enormous number of Dad’s transgressions on the screen. In the process, they have made him less unbearably unsympathetic. Indeed, if they had mentioned from the beginning that Dad had sold his beloved dead baby girl to a hospital for her body parts, for which he received beer money for his “Irish vice,” the movie audience would have begun walking out of the theater in disgust. As it is, Robert Carlyle manages to make Dad almost a human being in a demonstration of the charm and skill a good actor can bring to the most obnoxious character.

Ms. Watson’s Angela McCourt is not as fortunate in her passage from the book to the movie. Heaven knows she was exasperating enough a character in the book, what with having child after child her husband was congenitally unable to support, and never having the gumption to throw him out of the house or, rather, hovel, to which they were permanently consigned. But at least in the book she had more than a few feisty moments, and a few close friends and kind benefactors to help her lighten the burden. In the movie she just seems to suffer and suffer and then suffer some more. The net result is that Angela is emotionally diminished on the screen even as shamefully drunken Dad is partially rehabilitated from the wretch he was in the book.

The main burden for transmitting feeling thus falls most heavily on the three actors, Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge, who take Frank McCourt from his eighth year to his 19th. In a book, characters can age seamlessly, but in a movie with a prolonged time span the substitution of actors at different stages can distract the audience from the dreamlike continuity of the narrative. There was nothing wrong with Valerie Hobson and John Mills as Estella and Pip in David Lean’s and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1946). They were eminently talented and good-looking, but they represented a discernible rupture from the magical Estella and Pip in childhood played by Jean Simmons and Anthony Wager. And the less said the better about the insane conceit of the Fight Club that asked us to believe that the two characters played by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt were actually the same person.

“When I look back on my childhood,” Mr. McCourt writes in the second paragraph of his memoir, “I wonder how my brothers and I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

It is not surprising that this degree of ethnic candor has made Mr. McCourt a somewhat controversial figure in Limerick and the rest of Ireland, and in Irish America. Certainly, no book or movie on the Irish has been as rough on both the church and state of Ireland as has Angela’s Ashes in both versions. Mr. Parker and his collaborators have kept most of the book’s social and political criticism in the movie, but even here many of the ironic jabs at the rich and the Protestants and the well-fed and well-housed Catholic clergy have had to be omitted from an already overlong movie.

A more serious problem for the adaptation is the explicitly excremental and urinary realism of the spectacle in terms of even contemporary movie toilet standards. In short, Angela’s Ashes is a movie you can almost smell without the benefit of Smellovision. The litanies of “piss” and “shit” flow as freely out of the mouths of children as out of their bladders and intestines. Again, this is something that reads more agreeably than it plays on the screen. A mild furor was caused in 1928 when King Vidor’s The Crowd merely left a bathroom door open on an unoccupied commode. Alfred Hitchcock once quipped that he hated doing costume pictures because he could never figure out how people went to the bathroom. We have gone so far to the other extreme that a high-ranked network sitcom like Ally McBeal spends half its time in a unisex office bathroom with occasional jokes about the proper position of toilet seats.

Still, the primitive, disease-breeding plumbing facilities on Roden Lane are hard to take in a movie, even though Mr. Parker and company were squeamish enough not to show or even mention the book’s rats running wild in the privies and even in people’s houses. What price realism? And when does it become artistically counterproductive?

My own tolerance level for the scummy side of life is comparatively lower than that of many of my readers. Still, I do feel, perhaps in a hyper-Aristotelian application to the film medium, that there is a limit to how much you can degrade and humiliate characters in movies before they disappear from the radar screen of audience identifiability. At that point they become “them” and not “us.”

The symbiotic relationship between film and literature has always fascinated me, but never more than now when filmmakers are free enough to incorporate almost anything in books into movies. For the first time we can begin defining the less arbitrary limits on adaptation. In the case of Angela’s Ashes , the ultimate limitation has to do with what is lost from a book when its profusion of detail and its luxurious abundance of texture has to be sacrificed to make a two-hour-plus movie. In describing the reasons Mr. McCourt declined to write his own screenplay, Mr. Parker cited among other considerations the following: “Also, it’s painful for any writer to take the cleaver to much-loved passages. Mr. Timoney or Mr. Hannon? Theresa or Patricia? Mr. O’Neill or Mr. Benson? South’s or Gleeson’s?”

I don’t know about the other choices, but with the benefit of hindsight, cheap and useless as it is, I would not have parted with Patricia and the emotional explosion she caused when she taught Frank from a neighboring hospital bed the romantic verses of The Highwayman . But, come to think of it, I wouldn’t have parted with Frank’s guilt-ridden Liebestod with the doomed Theresa, either. Perhaps we could keep both in a miniseries of Angela’s Ashes .

This may show why it is easier to second-guess a movie than it is to make it in the first place. All I know is that I saw the screen adaptation of Angela’s Ashes before I read the book, and then I wondered if the book was any better, and I read it, and it was, and I have now taken a stab at trying to figure out what went wrong. If only to induce me to rethink my own childhood, it has been fun musing on the precious fruits of Mr. McCourt’s marvelous memory.

Erratum: A thoughtful reader has noted that Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) received two Oscar nominations, one for supporting actress for Mariel Hemingway and one for original story and screenplay for Marshall Brickman and Mr. Allen. I had reported none, for this, my favorite Woody Allen film.

The McCourts of Limerick: Lives Too Awful for the Screen