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I just finished half-rereading Stefan Zweig's brilliant novella, "Amok," to refresh my memory before reading "Letter from an Unknown Woman," in the same collection of short stories, in anticipation of watching the film, "Letter from an Unknown Woman." However, I just found out there was not one, not two, but *three* films made after "Amok," so the siren song called me, and I began watching the 1934 French version. Note, why did these middle-aged British and French men assigned to Borneo and Malaysia complain about not seeing any caucasian women for months-on-end? Are they out of their minds? Gauguin knew what he was doing, you'll see ... *** SPOILER ALERT *** Do not read any further until reading the novella *and* watching the film. Listen up: It makes no sense to watch this film unless you've read the 40-page novella first, so please, don't - read the novella first, because no matter how good this film is (and I've only watched 15 minutes of it), the novella will be better, I assure you. You'd be doing yourself a grave, literary disservice if you watch this movie before reading the story. So, really, any discussion that follows is going to be assuming you've read the book - and whether or not the film stays true to the novella, well, that remains to be seen, but my guess is that it just might. So read it first, huh? The great Stefan Zweig deserves nothing less (I'm not kidding when I say he's one of the five-best authors I've ever read, even though I've only read his short stories - he is on a par with Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, or anyone else you care to name, and if you doubt me, read him. In fact, if I could read just one more book in my life (assuming all were equal in length!), I might just choose something by Stefan Zweig. As my friend (and donrockwell.com member) Sasha K said, after reading the 41-page-long, "The Royal Game," "People should be ashamed to call themselves 'writers' when works like this exist," and he's absolutely correct. To watch this film, it will help to have some idea of what the true meaning of "running Amok" is - it's a Malaysian term that essentially means losing complete control (because of a strange, unknown disease), and going on a single-minded killing spree, until you either collapse or are killed, and there's no way to stop it once it starts - not unlike being a dog with rabies. This is represented quite well in the first fifteen minutes of the film, and sets the stage for the "real" story, which is allegorical. The film is staying very true to the book so far (I'm 40 minutes into a 1'25" movie), but other than a couple minor deviations, the first major one just occurred: Hélène's lover just found out about the child; in the book, he never found out, and that was an extremely important component of the doctor's unwavering devotion to her. As a psychological drama, it's little things such as this which can never make a movie as good as the book - there isn't adequate time to reflect on things, and compromises will always be made for the audience, no matter how insignificant you think they may be. When you read the story, you'll see how important this seemingly insignificant component is in determining the totality of the doctor's "amok state." Wow, also the blackmail with the letters from Hélène's lover - that doesn't happen in the book. See, in the book, his "amok state" is out of control, yes, but it's tempered with total dedication to her well-being, and he would never do anything to harm her like this. The movie has now taken two pretty big liberties, and I'm not sure I like it; on the other hand, I'm not sure how 90-minutes of psychological pursuit would come across on the big screen, when much of that pursuit occurs in the doctor's own mind (it actually happened, but not to the extraordinary degree to which it does in his mind). These aren't two "black marks" so much as two "gray marks," and I'm hoping there aren't many more, because you're messing with perfection, and you don't want to do that. This is Zweig's story to tell, and it's Otsep's primary mission - in my opinion - to present it as faithfully as possible. Everything comes home to wine: A common wisdom among "terroirists" (of which I am one) is that the *maximum potential* for a wine occurs the moment the grapes are picked; from that point forward, it's the winemakers primary task *not* to screw things up. Think of an absolutely perfect, ripe, heirloom tomato - how can you improve upon this? There are ways, but they generally don't involve corrupting the tomato. There are potential advantages to changing small things. For example, even though it was as obvious as the sun rising in the morning, I failed to see (in the book) that when the doctor saw Hélène at the ball, she was going to have the procedure done later that night - I have no idea how, or why, I missed that, but I did - this movie made that perfectly clear to me (dumbing things down for the dummy, perhaps?) I'm not sure this involves a "cinematic advantage," so much as a "dimwitted reader." The problem is, with him attempting to blackmail her - even though it was almost surely a bluff - when he looks at her and says, "Forgive me," he comes across as a complete, total, *jerk*, whereas in the book, it's clear that he isn't calculating enough to try and pull such a stunt - he was, as he said, running straight forward, at top speed, with blinders on, and nothing could stop him. When you "run amok," you simply don't have the presence of mind to attempt such a rotten tactic, and the movie suffers because he did. A classic, "eat shit" look from the 1930s: And strike three: He never once told her he loved her in the book: It wouldn't have been in keeping with the story. And stike four: The ending was all wrong, and reminds me that the movie was entirely missing the narrator, and didn't work without it - it needed to be structured just as the book was. This film ends with the absolute certainty that this was a clear case of murder-suicide, whereas the book leaves everything completely unknown, and the secrets are forever buried at the bottom of the sea - it is *so* much better in written form, and I urge you only to watch this film if you've read the book, and are curious about a comparison-contrast. I would love an opinion of someone who *hasn't* read the book, but I can't ask anyone to do this to themselves: "Amok" *can't* be a great film - it just can't be. But the novella was one of the greatest short stories I've ever read. Damn - the deviations did this in. Trivia, which I didn't recognize: Valéry Inkijinoff, whom I believe deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination - despite the Film being French, and despite him being Asian - played the roles of *both* the man stricken with "L'Amok" at the beginning, and also Maté, Hélène's servant, who was unwaveringly faithful until the very end.
Stefan Zweig would be on my short-short list of "Greatest Writers Ever." The two novellas I have read by him, "The Royal Game" (1941, "Schachnovelle" in German) and "Amok" (1922, Der Amokläufe in German), are as good as any short stories I've ever read, and if someone held a gun to my head, and forced me to pick the single greatest short story I've ever read, it would be "The Royal Game" (and, quite frankly, I don't have any idea what the runner-up would be). It is, in my eyes, an almost-perfect novella, especially its structure in A-B-AB form - it's like reading a Beethoven Sonata. To put the admittedly hyperbolic statements above in perspective, Fyodor Dostoyevsky would also be on that list, which you could count with the fingers of one hand. Structure and architecture are two extremely important things to me, and Zweig's structure cannot be improved upon - it's like reading a Bach Fugue. There's one potentially ruinous thing about "The Royal Game," and that is the translation. Zweig was personal friends with Sigmund Freud, and human psychology is an integral part of his writing - for this reason alone, it is imperative to find a well-translated version of his works. The book that DIShGo read (which I own, "The Royal Game & Other Stories") is translated in the fashion of "stuffy British English," and I cannot even find the name of the translator, though I've only spent about fifteen minutes looking online. The first time I read "The Royal Game" was nearly twenty years ago, and it was the subject being discussed in a book that was called something like, "What Is Art?" I lent it to a friend, and never got it back. , so I remember neither the exact name of the book, nor the name of the translator, but *that* version was what reeled me in like a fish; this four-story anthology is a crime against humanity for what it did to Zweig's masterpiece. Oh, the story is still there, and you'll see how wonderful it is, but that extra 10% of magic is gone due to the formality of the language used - Zweig desperately needs to be translated in an almost conversational style since his works deal with such intense human emotion; the compendium available on Amazon makes you feel like you're reading a news article instead of reading Zweig's own words. I feel helpless, not being able to recommend a good translation to you, because it is absolutely imperative. Anyway, I leafed through this translation (the compendium on Amazon), and was aghast at the writing style. Phrases and words that you'll simply never hear spoken in your entire life are used with regularity, and it actually made me *sad* that people are reading this, thinking they're reading Zweig. Regardless, I decided to bite my lip, and read the second story in the compendium, "Amok," and even with this stiff language, it is abundantly clear that I was reading a masterpiece - a work that could have only been written by an author so profound that even a stuffy translator couldn't ruin it. "Amok" was an unbelievably great novella, the kind of story that you *hate* putting down because you have to be somewhere - it's only forty pages long, so can be easily read - savored - in a couple hours of focused attention. I will not ruin the story for you, at least not in this post, but perhaps if anyone wishes to discuss it, I'll include a prominent *** SPOILERS *** section so as not to ruin it for the uninitiated - but not yet. "Amok' was a story so engaging that I might come out and say it's the second-greatest novella I've ever read; yet, according to DIShGo, it may not even be the second-best novella in this one compendium! There is very little chance at this point of me finding out the name of the original book I had, much less the translator, but I can say with confidence to avoid this edition on Amazon. "The Royal Game" is clearly divided into three sections, and was labeled as such; *this* compendium doesn't even have the decency to label the "sections" 1, 2, and 3 - it just crams everything together. Never have I read a story that is so clearly demarcated - a child could have put in the section numbers without even knowing anything about the novella. "The Royal Game" was published just before Zweig committed suicide. I wonder if he knew, deep down inside, that he had produced a work of such profundity that it could never again be matched. Almost surely not - Zweig had some personal problems, but they came out in full Technicolor in his writing - writing that can only be described with one word in the English language: genius. Never have I raved about an author like this, and once you read Zweig's works, you'll understand why. You'll *hate* it when they end. I must add that I have read precisely two novellas by Zweig, hardly making me an expert, so this essay must be tempered with the appropriate grain of salt. That said, I'm so confident in this man's genius, that I could commit to reading *only him* for the rest of my life, and if the body of work was large enough, it would be a life well-spent. --- This is important, so keep reading! PS - There is hope! My friend answered my desperate text message with a response - the book is called "Understanding the Arts," (*) and it was written by John Hospers. I don't understand how book sellers can sell books on Amazon for one cent, but it seems to be available in some fashion on Amazon.com (can anyone explain this to me? They charge $3.99 for shipping, but that hardly makes them any money). Anyway, my friend couldn't find the translator, but he told me to research "the 1972 Viking Penguin reprint," because that's the one they use in this book. I asked him to type out the first sentence of the translation, and it is this: "The big liner, due to sail from New York to Buenos Aires at midnight, was filled with the activity and bustle incident to the last hour...." - that is the edition that you want. Interestingly, my friend and I are also chatting, and he said the only reason he found the book was because he's insisting that his friend read "Schachnovelle," adding, "It is the greatest short story I know," and this guy is a hyper-genius. Get this edition and read it! (*) OMFG - the entire edition is online! It's not the most enjoyable way to read a book, but you can at least *read the book* if you don't mind scrolling through the pages (I personally *hate* doing this - it's like listening to a great piece of music through a pair of earbuds, and in my opinion, ruins the experience).