When Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote the novel Sunset Song in the early 1930s, he faced the challenge of using only words to create powerful images of early 20th century Scotland in the minds of his readers. More than 80 years later, movie director Terence Davies used all of the resources of the motion picture to tell his own powerful version of the story.
When I saw Sunset Song at the Detroit Film Theatre on May 1, 2016, I had read about half of Gibbon’s 1932 novel. I had hoped to read all of it, but Gibbon’s impressionistic style and usage of Scottish words make the novel a challenging reading experience. For example:
Blawearie hadn’t had a tenant for nearly a year, but now there was one on the way, they said, a creature John Guthrie from up in the North. The biggings of it stood fine and compact one side of the close, the midden was back of them, and across the close was the house, a fell brave house for a little place, it had three storeys and a good kitchen and a fair stretch of garden between it and Blawearie road.
Scottish speech also proved challenging in the movie. I appreciated the usage of subtitles to help the audience follow the story without being distracted too much by the unfamiliar words and accents. At times, the subtitles took your eyes away from the many powerful images and acting performances of the movie, but when I closed my eyes occasionally to see how well I could follow things, I once again appreciated the subtitles.
Now that I’ve seen the movie, I’m finishing the novel. My appreciation and understanding of both the book and movie are enhanced by the ways that they reflect off of each other. The book expands on certain parts of the movie, while the movie helps me better visualize parts of the book.
Adaptations of novels sometimes disappoint people who greatly admired the book and had high expectations for the movie. Several examples of that disappointment can be found in the IMDb reviews of the movie version of Sunset Song.
But books and films are two different ways of telling a story, something I explored a few years ago in a comparison of the book and movie versions of the novel Rebecca (From Book to Film).
As I watched Sunset Song at the DFT, I kept noticing how different scenes and characters of the novel were compressed or ignored in the movie.
The main difference between the book and movie is the movie’s stronger focus on the main character Chris Guthrie, who was excellently portrayed by Agyness Deyn. The novel is more of a documentary-style look at the rural area where Chris grew up, with Chris the main participant and observer of the changing times of this area.
The house where Chris spends most of her life becomes a character in the movie, as a silent witness to the changing shape of Chris’s family as she moves from her teen years to young adulthood as a wife and a mother. Chris also shows a love for the land that is reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s affection for the Tara plantation in Gone with the Wind.
Sunset Song is a powerful cinematic experience. Before it started, DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm explained that Sunset Song was shot on 65-mm film. It was then transferred to the 4k digital format, which to my eyes has eliminated much of the shiny sharpness of digital presentations.
The high quality of the images and the widescreen presentation resulted in many stunning compositions, especially of the Scotland landscape. The cinematographer Michael McDonough worked with the director Terence Davies to use several camera movements to compress the passage of time and move the story along in an epic manner.
The screening of a new film at the DFT was even more special than usual when Elliot Wilhelm told the audience that the DFT’s showing of Sunset Song was essentially the United States premiere of the movie. The official U.S. release had been moved to after May 1, but the DFT screenings were allowed to go on as scheduled, perhaps because of the DFT’s strong reputation as a showcase for world cinema.
The DFT screening of Sunset Song that I attended was the very last event of the DFT’s Winter 2016 season. As usual, I felt that melancholic wave of warmth about another DFT season passing into memory, after it had stimulated my senses for the last few months.
Elliot Wilhelm talked enthusiastically about the summer events at the DFT, which start with the DFT’s participation in the Cinetopia International Film Festival, which begins June 3, 2016. After that, the DFT’s summer schedule runs through August.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue my way through the rewarding challenges of the novel version of Sunset Song. And I’ll look forward to seeing the movie version again after its nationwide release, to once again travel to the world that it so effectively creates.
Copyright © 2016 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.