I recently rented a film called Chef (NOTE: Spoilers ahead). It appealed to me primarily because it starred its writer-director (Jon Favreau) and also because I’ve been in a bit of a John Leguizamo mood lately. I can’t say that film was my thing: it had a tad too much meat in it and, and it made use of the unsubtle trope of morally-astute-kid-who-is-unrealistically-aware-of-the -shortcomings-of-his-father. I did, however, enjoy the film’s feel good end scene. Chef is the story of Carl Casper, a chef who is stuck between the rock of being creatively constrained by the owner of his restaurant (Dustin Hoffman), and the hard place of being ripped apart for not being bold enough by a food critic (Oliver Platt). The film ends with Casper, now a food truck operator, serving food to the critic, winning him over and then having an exchange, in which the critic tries to rationalize his combative relationship with chefs as a sort of theatre. In a day and age when twitter obnoxiousness is a cultural norm, the critic’s is an oddly reassuring line: people don’t actually enjoy tearing each other apart, they just enjoy playing at it.
The other important exchange in this scene, however, is the one I want to write about today. A newly empowered Casper explains to the critic that he agrees that he did not offer him a sufficiently bold menu, but that this was out of his control due to the orders of his boss. This scene feels cathartic because it addresses an elephant-in-the-room that haunted the whole movie. Casper allowed himself to be ruined by this critic, when if he had only reached out to the critic and tried to explain his context in the first place, his dilemma could have been resolved.
Of course, human psychology is not such a simple thing. Often we let insecurities, even insecurities we know to be irrational get in the way of us doing the common sense thing. This is the link between Favreau’s light-fare and M.L. Stedman’s(/Derek Cianfrance’s) tear-ridden novel(/film) The Light Between Oceans.
The Light Between Oceans begins as the story of Tom Sherbourne, a WWI veteran who, traumatized by war, decides to take a post operating a lighthouse. That means spending three year terms alone on the Australian island of Janus, where he is only allowed the company of a potential wife and kids, and the occasional visitor. Tom is quiet and guilt (quite possibly PTSD) stricken, but eventually accepts company when he captivates the imagination of Isabelle Graysmarck (Alicia Vikander) a young woman in the town of Partageuse, looking for some sort of adventure.
Isabelle tries to enjoy her new life on the island, but her mental health takes a turn for the worse after she suffers multiple miscarriages. It is at this point, however, that a boat winds up on the shore of Janus containing a dead man and a very young baby. While Tom wants to report the incident, Isabelle insists on keeping the baby who they name Lucy and raise as their own. It is only when Lucy is around four-years-old that Tom and Isabelle discover her mother is not dead as they had assumed, but alive and well in Partageuse. Her name is Hannah and she is portrayed by Rachel Weisz in the film. A guilt stricken Tom anonymously informs Hannah that Lucy is alive, leading to a custodial and criminal battle between Hannah and Tom & Isabelle.
In the ways listed above Derek Cianfrance’s film adaptation of The Light Between Oceans is entirely true to Stedman’s novel. The two stories have similar themes, beginnings and conclusions. Some of the novel, however, was inevitably lost in the process of adaptation. The film notes Tom’s trauma, but not frequently or in detail. This, perhaps, is a reasonable sacrifice given that the film already runs over two hours in length. Isabelle’s horror at the prospect of the baby being sent to an orphanage, however, is also under-depicted, a more problematic sacrifice.
Meanwhile, a number of plot points are also ommitted from the film. Firstly, the film maintains the idea that Tom’s pushover friend Bluey reveals Lucy’s whereabouts to Hannah, but does not explain it is only because Bluey was under pressure from his mother to collect reward money for his marriage (Bluey’s subsequent remorse also doesn’t make the film). Secondly, the film also reduces the role of Hannah’s sister Gwen, who in the book takes a more nuanced view on who Lucy’s mother is than does her sister. Most importantly, however, the film omits the ideas that Isabelle and Tom both knew Hannah previously: Isabelle simply as a fellow Partageusian, and Tom, because he saved her from being sexually assaulted by a sailor.
Whether Cianfrance’s cuts are disappointments or not is a question that requires contemplation. The film, like Chef, is a story of failedcommunication. When Lucy’s identity is revealed to Hannah, she comes to view Tom and Isabelle as kidnappers who belong in prison. While reading the book I found myself clenching my fist in frustration. Why can’t Isabelle and Tom just tell Hannah, that having found a baby alone in a boat they reasonably assumed her mother couldn’t have been alive? Why couldn’t they just tell her they didn’t report the baby knowing the dismal conditions children face in orphanages? Why couldn’t they, as people who loved Lucy just as much, if not more so now, than Hannah, have recognized they were mutually suffering and worked out a joint custody agreement? Couldn’t these adults consider the best interest of the actual affected child, rather than resorting to an un-nuanced dispute based essentially in the philosophy of property rights?
These questions apply to the book and movie alike. In the book the case for Tom and Isabelle is stronger: we know of Isabelle’s orphanage trauma, we know that the reconciliatory way of thinking I’m proposing is not unheard of in the charatcers’ world (consider Gwen’s approach), and we know that Hannah knows Tom to be a man with a moral compass who tried to make the best of difficult situation. Yet in the book and film alike Hannah is equally un-nuanced in her response to the situation. She doesn’t want to sit down and talk about restorative justice and Lucy’s well being: she wants the iron fist of the law to do its work.
Cianfrance’s approach, one can thus say is economical. What use is it to include the layers that Stedman includes if they don’t matter? The Light Between Oceans is a story of how good people can end up spitefully irreconcilable, and Cianfrance perhaps portrays a better version of such a situation than Stedman does.
On the other hand, Cianfrance does not completely deviate from Stedman’s approach. He keeps one detail from the novel that could theoretically complicate Hannah’s approach to the Lucy situation. In both the novel and film, Hannah’s late husband is Frank Roenfeldt, a German immigrant who is treated horribly by Partageusans (and ultimately driven out of town) because I suppose at that historical moment, a lot of people struggled to tell the difference between enemy combatants, and ordinary people who simply came from countries Britain happened to be at war with (ok, maybe that’s still a problem). Despite being bombarded with bigotry, Frank remains a friendly community member, explaining to Hannah “you hate forever, you only have to forgive once.”
In the film Hannah sees this line in a flashback. Much like her knowledge of Tom’s past in the book, however, this flashback does not alter Hannah’s behavior as much as one would think. Driven by the dream, she tells Isabelle that she can have Lucy, so long as she testifies against Tom (implying he murdered Frank). Hannah’s behaviour here is interesting: simply negotiating with Isabelle over Lucy’s custody does represent a bold move on her part, yet it’s still, at best, a much-watered-down application of Frank’s ideals (it rings with a sort of deadpan irony). Regardless, this scene shows there is a merit to Stedman’s approach of filling her book with qualifiers that don’t matter: reasons for Hannah to be conciliatory that ultimately don’t have an impact. These qualifiers tell us that while perhaps The Light Between Oceans is a tragedy of under-communication, it may also be a deeper sort of tragedy. Stedman’s book suggests a deep-seeded belief that people may indeed never be able to understand the perspective of others: or perhaps there is one human who can, but he died of a heart attack alone with his infant daughter in a rowboat in the ocean.
The Light Between Oceans film ends with an elderly (he, interestingly, doesn’t look that much older), lonely Tom looking out to a sunset. The scene suggests his story has gone full circle. He was lonely, he met Isabelle and now he ends up lonely again. It’s a mysterious moment, suggesting the entire drama we just saw was but one way of contextualizing the misery of a single broken person, rather than the story of several. In a way, however, it’s fitting that both Stedman’s novel and Cianfrance’s adaptations are tales of situations that could have been resolved, but largely weren’t. They are calls for people to be more like Frank and Gwen, but they are characterized by a pessimism that implies many us will end up at odds like Hannah and Isabelle, or at very least, forever hopeless like Tom.