(In theatres, January 2011) As much as I like supporting Canadian Content (and there’s nothing more CanCon than an adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s last novel, filmed and set in Montréal), there’s something just subtly off about Barney’s Version. It’s an accumulation of small annoyances that damage the film, from a scatter-shot episodic narrative to flat performances to overly sentimental moments. I’ll be the first to note that presenting forty years of a man’s life on-screen isn’t the simplest screenwriting challenge: As an adaptation of a dense and thick novel, you can perceptibly feel the loose threads running over everywhere and be frustrated at the amount of extra detail missing from the screen. That’ll explain the way the film doesn’t quite seem to hang together. While Barney’s Version revolves around Paul Giamatti’s exceptional lead performance and Dustin Hoffman’s unrecognizable turn as his father, actors surrounding them are far less credible. Most of the female characters seem played either without subtlety (I once thought I could watch Minnie Driver all day, but her one-note shrill performance tested that assumption) or without affect (Rosamund Pike, sedated throughout): even assuming that the film is from Barney’s subjective perspective isn’t enough to excuse it. Humorous in the details and tragic in the whole, Barney’s Version runs off in all kinds of directions, and it’s not in its nature to finish neatly with a big finale. It’s best, then, to appreciate its small quirky moments, its Montréal atmosphere and the occasional Denys Arcand cameo. It is, as is the case with so many middle-of-the-road Canadian dramas, amiable but unremarkable. Barney’s Version is good enough to make Canadian audiences feel better about seeing it, but it’s not worth much commentary otherwise.
Knopf, 1997, 355 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-679-40418-X
Commonly-held wisdom is that movies ruin books, but that relationship usually proves true in only one direction, for readers of the original who then see the movie adaptation. There is much less appreciation for the way the arrow runs in reverse: how movies can enhance books when viewers go on to read the original.
Seeing 2010’s Barney’s Version movie adaptation is an ideal way to prepare for reading Mordecai Richler’s 1997 novel, his last work of book-length fiction. Given how Barney’s Version is a lengthy autobiographical ramble by a man who has had three wives, the opening pages of the story makes no attempt at nicely introducing the reader to the gallery of characters what have come to populate Barney Panovsky’s life. What are those references to Bogie? Who is “the second Ms. Panofvsky”? How many wives has Barney had anyway?
The relationships aren’t one-to-one between novel and film: The events of the film version has been pushed fifteen years forward, ditch a Paris-set prologue for Rome, update details of Barney’s television-show production company, combine a few characters, streamline some scenes and abandon many of Barney’s crankier reflections on Montréal and Québec society as seen from the perspective of a Jewish English-Canadian. Gone are the vicious attacks on separatism, dismissive thoughts on young activists and conscious rebellions against political correctness.
But all of those are in the book, and more. The point of reading Barney’s Version is to understand more fully the characters surrounding Barney, and peek a little deeper in his mind. Among other treats, we get to know what happens to a few characters abruptly evacuated from the film as soon as their plot points are accomplished –I particularly appreciated learning how the now-obese “second Ms. Panofvsky” kept hounding Barney throughout his life, or what happened to Cedric after Paris. Barney is such a character that reading him about circa-1995 annoyances is good enough for a few smiles –and I’m voluntarily not trying to link Barney to Richler himself. As a nod to Richler’s best-know work, Duddy Kravitz is even mentioned a few times as another elderly businessman who has never lost his touch for the subtle con.
Barney’s Version can feel like hard work at first, though: The blizzard of names, disconnected events, shorthand references and deliberate mistakes in the text is meant to reflect the way Barney is losing his mind to Alzheimer. The first few pages don’t make for a friendly reading experience, though –and that’s with the help of the film in mapping the relationships between the characters.
One of the question that often comes in recommending that readers spoil themselves rotten with the movie adaptation before tackling the source novel is whether the reader can still be surprised, satisfied or otherwise caught up in a story whose twists and turns are already known. Ignoring adaptations that use a premise before going in their own direction, or those who change key elements of the resolution, Barney’s Version proves that a sufficiently skilled storyteller can keep up the surprises even when you know all the tricks up his sleeve. The framing device of the book itself (untranslatable in film) is remarkably effective and even if the final revelation to the book is the same as the movie, nothing can quite prepare the reader for the last page: even the last few “damn, damn, damn” of the novel give the extra emotional layer to the truths left unrevealed to some characters.
If you’ve seen the film and thought that maybe something was missing, do yourself a favour and get a little bit more of Barney Panofvsky’s cranky wisdom. (It’s no exaggeration that the written Barney would have hated the film version of his life, restructured around a pat romantic drama.) At the same time, you’ll understand why Mordecai Richler’s ghost still remains such a presence over the Canadian literary scene, even a decade after his death.