Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 18 (1987)
To make a film of such a well-loved classic book as Silas Marner could be called a calculated risk. To venture into the home territory of George Eliot and talk about it to an audience of experts in the subject seems frankly foolhardy. So, while expressing my gratitude to the George Eliot Fellowship for inviting me to address you, I cannot deny that my awareness of the great honour you do me is mixed with more than a dash of trepidation.
First let me say that I do not think I have anything profound to add to the perennial debate about film adaptations of great books. In my experience the more one intellectualises and tries to evolve any meaningful theory the more one runs into paradox. The best films clearly belong to a different art form from the best books. A bad book can often translate into a good film. A good book, because it is so perfect in the original, must of its nature resist being redone in another language. Indeed, the nearest I can get to any guideline relates to translation~ The best translations owe at least as much to the expressiveness of the language being translated into rather than the language being translated from. So I believe it must be with fiIm. What mattered to me was that SiIas Marner should succeed in satisfying, moving and enthralling its audience first and foremost as a film. But even as say this I realise I am begging many questions, and the only answers that are of any real help are the practical ones.
So…. Why Silas Marner? The answer to this lies behind the final credit on the finished film……. “For Hannah Weinstein”. Hannah was the first producer for whom I worked when I entered films as a lowly script editor in the late fifties. She was a remarkable American lady over here at the time to produce the popular Robin Hood television series starring Richard Green, which some of you may remember. (What few people knew at the time was that the series provided much needed work for several famous Hollywood scriptwriters who had been blacklisted and wrote episodes under pseudonyms in order to escape the McCarthy witch-hunt.) When she returned to the States we remained in touch and always talked about working together again on a suitable project. Sometime in 1983 she called me at the BBC to suggest putting together a number of classic titles for a series of films to be made on a coproduction basis.
Hannah was a woman of great vision, and what obsessed her was the idea of using television to introduce a new generation of Americans to the great works of world literature. She remembered her father, a poor Russian-Jewish immigrant, buying her as a child a shelf-full of standard editions of classic books which she devoured. Television, she believed, could be the modern equivalent. I said it sounded a fine idea and where do we start. She replied: "Silas Marnerll. Sadly, Hannah did not live to see the project realised but the enthusiasm she engendered not only started the ball rolling but helped it a long way down the road. Hence the dedication.
George Eliot herself writes somewhere that Silas Marner started in her mind with a visual image. It is there on the first page, that powerful description of the weaver outlined against the landscape, the figure of a man weighed down by the burden on his back. Echoes of John Bunyan. It is an image which immediately evokes a sense of loneliness, of an outcast, a solitary being cast out from the warmth of human contact. Crucially, it is an image which resonates in the mind and carries its vivid message without any need of words. And film-making is essentially about creating images.