Felicia’s Journey from book to screen
This is not, technically, an entry in my very occasional series in which Rachel makes me watch a movie adaptation of a short story. First of all, Felicia’s Journey is a novel, not a short story, and secondly, Rachel had nothing to do with it – though I hope she takes this as a sign that she should read this book and watch this movie.
But, much like the adaptations of Calm with Horses and Escape from Spiderhead, which Rachel did inspire me to criticize, the 1999 film “Felicia’s Journey” was flattened on its way to the screen. I continue to have the distinct feeling that filmmakers just don’t trust movie-goers to appreciate a nuanced story with characters who don’t fit neatly into “good” and “bad” categories, or to tolerate anything but a happy (or at least, hopeful) ending.
This film fares a little better than the other two in presenting morally grey characters, and of the three adaptations, might be my favourite, for sticking to the plot (more or less), for keeping the bad guy pretty darn bad, and because it gave me some new insight into the characters. The other two mainly made me wonder what went wrong.
I came to Felicia’s Journey through Cathy and Kim’s “A Year with William Trevor” event. I wasn’t particularly drawn to this book (I’m not big on teenage-pregnancy-as-plot-point, and I talk enough about “journeys” at work) until I realized there was a Canadian movie adaptation, available for free on CBC Gem. Director Atom Egoyan is legendary here, and I’ve never seen any of his movies.
But first, the book. Based on the title and cover, I was expecting some kind of heartfelt family drama, but instead found a thriller. Or maybe a mystery. Not about Felicia – a good Irish Catholic girl getting knocked up, abandoned by the father, and rejected by her family is a tale as old as time, and the additional drama due to the father joining the British army is a tale going back to at least 1916. Joe Hilditch, though? At first, he’s presented in a very particular way – the way he wants to be seen – as a fastidious middle-aged middle manager who has a big appetite for food, but who otherwise lives quietly and correctly. He seems like the type of pleasant, older man that kids on TikTok would want to “protect at all costs,” until he meets Felicia, newly arrived in England and looking for her wayward boyfriend.
Hilditch appears helpful at first, suggesting where she could look for a young man in industrial Birmingham. But soon he’s following Felicia, and manipulating things so that he’s the only one who can help her. We learn he’s done this before, and clue in pretty quickly that he doesn’t befriend wayward teenage girls out of the goodness of his heart. But, if you had asked me why he does it, exactly, at page 50, or 100, or maybe even 150, I wouldn’t have known. The slow reveal and unravelling of Hilditch is shocking and mesmerizing.
The movie takes a more direct route to showing us what Mr. Hilditch is up to, and why. His house is full of relics, he wears outdated clothing, and drives a vintage car, all of which are pristine. He’s fussy at work and at home, a man who is forever stuck in the past, still trying to please his late mother, never quite measuring up. Bob Hoskins, who I’d only known as “the Roger Rabbit guy” up to this point, is great at portraying Hilditch as alternately smug and near cracking under the pressure. Elaine Cassidy as Felicia, who I barely recognized from The Wonder, gives a quiet and passive performance, which is as it should be. Flashbacks to her home life in Ireland are set to very generic Irish music, but the setting is beautiful, especially the ruins of Glanworth Castle, and provide a striking contrast to the bleak industrial landscape she finds in England.
I will never figure out why Felicia is wearing chunky platform sandals in the movie, though. That’s certainly not in the book, and I was exhausted just thinking about a four-months-pregnant girl clomping around in those all day. Period-appropriate for the 1990s, yes, and Felicia is pretty naive, but no real girl would do this!
But I digress. There are other, somewhat-more understandable choices we need to discuss.
I will give the movie props for keeping a controversial part of the story, in which Hilditch coerces Felicia into getting an abortion. The film portrays this in all its ambiguity – Hilditch is probably right that this makes sense, but he does it for all the wrong reasons, and Felicia doesn’t come around after, and is suitably traumatised by what she’s done.
But we lose a pivotal passage in the book, in which, after the abortion, Hilditch starts to see Felicia in a more sexual light (Madonna-whore complex, much?). The movie is almost entirely desexualized, actually. Hilditch is portrayed as some kind of voyeur, luring young runaway girls into his car for conversation, mostly, taping it all with a hidden video camera, meticulously labeling and cataloguing the tapes at home. This does translate very creepily on film, but in the book, Hilditch is an exhibitionist, not just driving the girls around, but flaunting them in restaurants and rest stops, taking sick pleasure in the whispers and stares (real and imagined) as passersby trying to puzzle out what relationship this middle aged man could possibly have with these teenage girls. Hilditch’s need to be seen as successful, sexually, is in constant tension with his need to keep up appearances (it’s always some out-of-the-way roadside diner, never anything remotely near his home or work). These passages are so creepy and depraved, and the videotapes have nothing on it.
In the book, this actually comes to a head at the abortion clinic, where Hilditch simply can’t help calling himself Felicia’s “boyfriend” to the unamused clinic staff. Unable to form normal relationships, Hilditch is reduced to tricking strangers into thinking he impregnated a teenager.
And that brings us to the biggest change of Felicia’s journey from book to film. Why is Hilditch the way that he is? As you may have gathered, it is indeed because of issues with his beloved late mother, but the intensity of this revelation is dialled way, way down for the film. What becomes clear near the end of the book is so shocking and sad, it makes the reader question what they’ve read so far, and what the book is about in the first place. If you only watched the movie, or watched it first, you might not feel like something is missing, necessarily, but the book is just on another level here. I can’t quite figure out why Egoyan softened the blow for movie-goers, as he’s known for some pretty out-there stuff.
The movie also brings things to a close too quickly. In the book, some Jehova’s Witnesses become entwined in Felicia’s, and therefore Hilditch’s life, and their constant questioning chips away at what’s left of Hilditch’s sanity, bit by bit, until he’s brought to a breaking point. It brings a psychological thriller aspect to the book. In the movie, this plot point is there, but it goes from zero to sixty in a single scene. Similarly, in the book, Felicia spends a harrowing couple of nights (at least?) on the streets, bouncing between shelters, store entryways, and squats, and making friends with all sorts of unsavoury characters. It takes her from naive to desperate. These b-plots (“journeys”, I suppose) are necessary for the end of the story to make sense, and to have emotional depth. I have to think these story elements were cut for time, which is unfortunate but (somewhat) understandable.
The very end, and the sense of where Felicia’s journey will take her next, is not wholly changed, but it’s cast in a much more hopeful light. I can’t say a lot more, but it was the very final scene of the movie that inspired this post and my initial note to self was “they can’t keep getting away with this!”
They really can’t. “Shadow of Violence”, “Spiderhead,” and now (well- 24 years ago) “Felicia’s Journey” took dark, messy, stories and made them more palatable for film. Felicia’s Journey is still well worth the watch, for Bob Hoskins, for the sets, for the preserved line of dialog from the book in which he muses that “Mothers can be difficult”, which, indeed. But please, I beg of you, read the book too!
Well, this has whetted my appetite for the book, for sure!
It’s a gooder!
I love this book so much, I think it is Trevor’s masterpiece. It is so atmospheric and so ambivalent and of course, some of that gets lost in the movie. I remember enjoying the movie when I watched it years ago (I went through a brief but intense Egoyan phase) but do remember thinking it didn’t convey the shadowy nature of the book.
Exactly. I actually liked the addition of his mom’s cooking show, and I loved the visuals, but the book was SO tense and the movie just couldn’t get there.
Brilliant! Love this comparison between book and movie. I haven’t seen the movie and I read the book a long time ago, but I wonder if the book works better because it’s up to the reader to do most of the work… you have to figure out what the man’s intentions and motivations are, whereas a film spells it out…?
Yeah, and the thing is, for me anyway, I did NOT figure it out until very late in the book and I was SO shocked! So that moment was missing from the movie entirely. Movie’s still worth a look though!
I was thinking I must read some William Trevor and this will be it, great post, film later!