When I see a film, there is almost always a reason…. Maybe it’s a novel that has been made into a film, like John Irving’s books years ago; The Cider House Rules, to mention one… Or there is a specific actor that I like, or a theme – India perhaps… But I can’t remember why I went to see The Sheltering Sky directed by the acclaimed Bernardo Bertolucci – and this is years back. The film was released in 1990.
The film made a huge impact. It’s shot on location in northern Africa, and the sequences from the Sahara desert are magnificent. All through, the movie has the colours of the desert.
It was only ten years later I discovered that the movie was actually based on a novel; The Sheltering Sky by legendary and cult author Paul Bowles: A Norwegian to-be author had travelled to Tangier to “kneel” by the author’s feet – and a tabloid newspaper was trailing two steps behind… Paul Bowles had many admirers, and he was a man covered by many myths. He died in Tangier, in 1999.
Inspired by the discovery, I read the book, and saw the film one more time. The film should always be seen on widescreen, the tv screen cannot really justify the beautiful filming, but anyway…. And then I ordered what I could get from Amazon – his novels, short stories… and read them all.
I have just read the book for the second time, I suggested it for my reading group – I have no idea why it came up after all these years. I guess it is one of those books everybody should have a go at.
The novel is – in many respects – cruel. As I read it, I was searching for the one word to describe it, and the feeling it evokes. And by coincidence I found just the right word on a web page called The Book Drum, where The Sheltering Sky was described as claustrophobic. And yes, that is the word. And it disturbs your mind.
In short, the novel tells the story of three young people; the married couple Kit & Port and their friend Tunner – who (post war) travel to Northern Africa. From the very start, the novel makes you feel uneasy… and it takes a very nasty turn two-thirds along the way. It’s a paradox that it is now that the beauty of the film gets really serious….
The movie sometimes takes giant steps in the sense that 100 pages are suddenly reduced to two sentences… But then of course, it is not possible to include every move in the book. Still, the film is true to the novel in almost all respects.
What I really remember from the film, is – apart from the colours – Debra Winger’s dry voice and her utter despair as the story unfolds. Plus the couple’s sunglasses, and the leather suitcases. Rich people definitely didn’t travel light in those days…
I’m not sure if I think that John Malkovich is right as Port (although he plays well), because Malkovich has this drowsy, thin voice that makes him sort of weak, and the novel doesn’t – in my opinion – paint a portrait of a week man.
The last page of the novel made my reading group despair…. and the movie is equally confusing. But that’s the authors privilege; only Paul Bowels – in his grave – knows what happened to Kit Moresby.