The conversion of Ford's novel into a television play was an enterprise even more foolhardy than the BBC's Golden Bowl some years back. The adapter must at once resign himself to the sacrifice of dozens of ambiguities and implications, for they are made possible by purely novelistic means - in this instance, by the taste of the narrator for seeming irrelevance, for digressions that do not digress, for missing apparently obvious connections and for insisting hysterically upon others that look imaginary and without point, Ford professed to despise story: the idea was, by using all the available liberty of discourse, to represent an 'affair' in such a way as to extract every drop of meaning from it, which you could not do if you recounted it in story sequence. And although film and television drama can perfectly well do something like this, they lack the power to comment, with the suspicious certainty or the dubious innocence of Ford's narrator, on the events and utterances thus artfully represented. The Good Soldier is continually preoccupied with knowing: it looks at that word, as at the word 'heart' from many semantic angles, and in consequence allows very little to be certainly known. But in dramatic adaptation there is a requirement that characters should do things much less ambiguously: their acts cannot be filtered through the head of John Dowell, the rich American simpleton (if indeed that is what he is) who tells the story. Moreover Dowell has to be there with the others, objectively represented as well as in voice-over; and it is beyond the power of any actor to play an impotent bonehead who is also a cauldron of passion and a sensitive register of cultural disaster (if that is indeed what he is).
LRB 21 May 1981 | PDF Download