Posted by: Gregoryno6 | October 15, 2010

A different prisoner, a different prison.

My completely subjective assessment of book-to-movie translations: ninety-five percent leave the book’s fans thinking “Not as good,” four percent are acceptable and reasonably enjoyable, and one percent carry the book’s ideas and material to a whole new level. After 35 years of filmgoing I would say only The Stunt Man and Blade Runner qualify for the top rank.

Successful collaborations between the author and the filmmakers are even more rare. Philip K Dick, according to semi-reliable sources, was not happy with Blade Runner. (The title of the source novel was Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and that alone gives some sense of the gulf that yawned between Dick and Ridley Scott.) This makes the teamwork between Japanese author Kobo Abe and director Hiroshi Teshigahara all the more interesting. In the early 60s they collaborated on three films based on original novels by Abe.

There are some obvious parallels between my namesake and the central character of  The Woman In The Dunes. Number Six was confronted by faceless authority represented by Number Two; his Japanese counterpart is dealing with the devious council of a remote coastal town. One is a former secret agent who resigned in disgust, however, while the other is an amateur insect collector who hopes to become famous by discovering a new species.  But both sets of captors are quite clear about what they require. Those keeping Number Six in The Village seek information. The town council need their man to shovel sand.

Sand dominates The Woman In The Dunes. Sand is Number One in this village, the true authority which the coast dwellers must obey. They can shift it, shovel it, and sell it. But they cannot escape it. The sand is alive and makes a futile gesture of any attempt to escape. Imagine the worst day you ever spent at the beach – sand in your food, under your clothing, blasted by storms into your face. Not even close.

When The Truman Show was released there were plenty of comparisons to The Prisoner. I think a lot of people missed the main contrast between them. Number Six was sent to The Village to have his individuality destroyed; Truman was the (unconscious) darling of millions because his life story was theirs. One was being pressured to conform to society’s standards. The other lived in a society that had been built around him – as Robert Ardrey once asked, shall we make a man to fit the world, or a world to fit the man? Likewise the stories of Number Six and Abe’s protagonist are not strictly parallel. At the end they veer away in quite different directions. Number Six gains his freedom, but there is a hint in the closing moments that that freedom is not and never will be complete. And the insect collector, finally given his chance to escape, turns back to the sand. There’s a hint that his captivity has elevated him from catching insects to community with his fellow human beings, and in that perhaps lies a greater good…

There was no particular need to hurry about escaping. On the two-way ticket he held in his hand now, the destination and time of departure were blanks for him to fill in as he wished. In addition, he realised he was bursting with a desire to talk to someone about the water trap. And if he wanted to talk about it, there wouldn’t be better listeners than the villagers. He would end by telling someone – if not today, then tomorrow.

He might as well put off his escape until sometime after that.

On the other hand, maybe he’d just become accustomed to his cell.

The Woman In The Dunes is available as part of a DVD collection from Criterion, and as an individual title. The paperback is published by Penguin.

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