the word and rule, or book 1, film 0

Fresh off the bus from Toronto, I welcomed ten women into my home this afternoon to enjoy the film Desert Hearts, based on the 1964 novel by Jane Rule, Desert of the Heart.

It never fails to fascinate me to see the differences between a book and a movie, most particularly when it comes to queer content. I’m relatively sure of myself when I assert that the noticeable discrepancies are more glaring in films produced 20 years ago (Desert Hearts came out in 1985) than they are now, but it still happens today. A few easy examples were mentioned during our discussion today – for instance, the way the lesbian love interest was washed out to the point of nearly complete absence in the films The Colour Purple and Fried Green Tomatoes, each of those based on books in which the sexual and romantic involvement between the female characters was clearly shown.

In the case of Desert Hearts, it’s not so much that the lesbianism was washed out – it’s not. If anything it’s far more explicit in the film than it ever becomes in the book; Jane Rule might be a wonderful writer but she’s not given to detailed descriptions of sex scenes or bodies. No, what struck me personally, and the group at large, wsa that the focus of the film is so extremely different than the focus of the book.

In the book, which is beautifully and cleanly written, there is an enormous amount of ink devoted to meditations on the concept of marriage, both as a cultural imperative and a legal union, and on the related concepts of fidelity, gender, morality, independence and other such thoughtful topics. The book poses wonderful questions, such as, does marriage serve to maintain our ideas of gender? Of women’s role as women and men’s as men? Not only by reinforcing what the culture expects of each, but by reinforcing what men and women expect of themselves and of each other? And questions about fidelity and vows – one character, Ann, brilliantly sums up her point of view: “I don’t really understand how people take the marriage vows. (…) It’s one thing to forsake the past, but how can you forsake the future?” And questions about what makes someone a good person, and the usefulness of guilt, and so forth.

In short, while there’s certainly a plot and dialogue and interesting characters, it’s really a book about values and life and questioning the norm without necessarily being about shit-disturbing and loud politics at all. Pleasantly subtle, really – the feeling is one of sincere intellectual musing infused with real, lived passion rather than of exaggerated philosophical rantings or excessive poetic or political indulgence. Perhaps the tone can be in part explained by Rule’s position as a professor at the University of British Columbia at the time of the novel’s publication. (Yes, she was nearly fired, need you even ask?)

Of course, they are questions that were a big deal in 1963 rather than today; in a sense the book is dated, but beautifully and thoughtfully so, not boringly. Certainly this is not to say that marriage is any less a significant institution these days, but the nature of its significance has radically shifted thanks to feminism, the declining influence of the church, and in more recent years, queer politics and the groundswell of support for same-sex marriage rights. In other words, the questions are still valid, if perhaps based on an older frame of reference; and the answers are still poignant, if perhaps less controversial toay than they were 40-plus years ago.

The movie, on the other hand, is about two women taking an awfully long time to lead up to a very awkward sex scene. And that’s, um, about it.

At least they kept the sex scene in. That was definitely groundbreaking at the time. But nowadays, it just comes off as pretty ridiculous and melodramatic. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure there are still ladies out there who get very uptight indeed about letting other ladies into their dressing-gowns. But really, the idea that the L Word cast would be required to watch the scene as prep for their own on-camera makeout sessions, and that it would be referred to by gay.com as “the standard for lesbian screen sex,” is just… well, pretty laughable.

I don’t know that I have any deeper things to say than this… simply, if you have the chance, read the book. It’s intelligent without being weighty, and fresh without being fluffy. Yum. As for the film? Don’t bother unless you’re really intrigued by the historical aspect of it, or so starved for girl-on-girl action that you’d prefer stiff and uncomfortable on your living-room TV screen to none at all.


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