THEY HAVE developed rituals for teaching everything here in dear old dusty academe, and Lawrence is no exception. For you can't just read a novel by Mr. D. H. Lawrence; no, that would be to elude the proper ritual. Instead, you must first listen to Sectionm?? extol the importance and uniqueness of Lawrence's place in English lit. Then you must nod in understanding agreement as Sectionman points out Rogaine imagery and influence from Mr. Lawrence's "real life." And, finally, just as somewhere in yourself you begin to feel that Lawrence really is pretty great, quite uncanny in the power of his perceptions and vision, ?apl they pull the rug out from under you. Sectionman will begin to smirk. "But, then," he'll whine, "the older I get, the less I like Lawrence. There is something so adolescent about his work. He becomes so [pause] tedious [long, sustained exhale]." Well, perhaps. But to achieve such dubious critical acumen at the expense of surrendering the remaining shretls of one's adolescence has always seemed to me a rather uninviting proposition.
Conveniently. Ken Russell's current film of Lawrence's Women in Love solves the problem quite neatly. Thanks to Larry Kramer's screenplay, which follows quite closely the plot of the novel, and thanks to Alan Bates's amusing but rather lightweight portrayal of Rupert Birken, Lawrence's protagonist and spokesman, the film turns poor old D.H. into the adolescent's adolescent. (Incidentally, someone along the assembly line was indiscreet enough to have Bates/Birklen wear a beard cut exactly like Lawrence's own. They seem to be daring us to make the connection.) And since (cautionary baritone) this film has been rated R -which means only that even an orphan can get in if he looks old enough to be bar mitzvahed-those of us who still have a few days of adolescence left to savor are not to be denied a chance to see Lawrence exposed for what, as Sectionman would have it, he really is.
Essentially, Women in love, the novel, is a partially dramatized dialectic on the meaning of sex, love, and marriage, Lawrence's characters-Gerald, a machine-driven industrialist (played by Oliver Reed in the movie); Gudrun (Glenda Jackson), a willful, aspiring artist; Ursula (Jennie Linden), her simpler, more sensual, sister; and, of course, Birken-tramp about their country homes in the English countryside circa 1910 while strenuously debating the finer points of their relationships. Eventually they pair off and work out their respective destinies. For the movie version, Kramer has saved great chunks of their conversation in an almost suicidal attempt to remain faithful to the book. Unfortunately, his fidelity goes unrewarded. One never really quite believes the way Lawrence manipulates dialogue for his own didactic purposes. In the novel that doesn't really matter, because in his semi-mystic descriptions of nature, his hypersymbolic dramatic vignettes, his sometimes fumbling but mostly honest attempts to define sexuality, Lawrence gives us so much else to bolster his argument. His dialogue is only a part of a most imposing whole, and so we forgive it its deficiencies. So when Kramer's screenplay captures the dialogue, but neglects those elements of the novel that support it, it really is like cutting off the visible peak of an iceberg, thinking you've preserved the entire thing whole, What results is rather more silly than imposing.
IN ANY CASE, audiences aren't likely to devote a great deal of attention to the running debates between Birken and his friends. It is in the nature of movies that actions speak louder than words-particularly when the words are as diffuse as those found in Women in Love. Conceivably, Russell could have saved his actors from adolescent soul-searching by providing proper dramatic channels for the novel's ideas. But here again, Russell's Women in Love lacks the depth of the original. Take the sex scenes, for example, Sex for Lawrence is something of a double-edged sword. (Metaphorically speaking, one assumes.) At once, it frees man to flow with larger forces of nature and life, while at the same time condemning him to struggle over positions of subservience and dominance with other men. The novel's sexual encounters are the arena on which this complex of issues is unraveled. Russell, though, only shows us the physical side of sex, not its psychological or spiritual dimensions. He does so with an intensity that is often quite unsettling, Every time Gudrun begins to bare a breast, the soundtrack pours it on as it to invite us to spend a Night on Bald Mountain. And once the sex begins the camera tumbles about so that one can only assume the cameraman himself is joining the two lovers-in-some kind of kinky menage a trios. Sex in Russell's movie is hot, harried, and sweating, It is adolescent sex. All that is needed is the back seat of a car to make it complete. To some extent, of course, that is the way Lawrence knew and hated sex. But then Lawrence was struggling for something better, and for him to have gotten so far so consciously was something of an achievement. The real point of Lawrence's novel is that he meant to go much further, but the movie-except for the interminable conversations which no one is going to listen to anyway-gives no indication of the dimensions of that quest.
If there is a common denominator of failure in the film, it is a certain earthbound literalness that prevents us from taking the meaning of the characters' actions at anything but face value. In recreating Edwardian England, Russell has gone to a great degree of bother. The end product, however, is simply too much detail. When Russell attempts an outdoor scene, it looks more like he's constructed a horizonless hot-house. Consequently, in key sequences-as when Birken abandons the intellectual Hermione (Eleanor Bron) in order to submerge himself in nature-one never makes the necessary leap from physical facts to the metaphoric meanings. Why Birken isn't tearing himself apart with prickly burrs as he rolls naked in the ferns and bushes is a more absorbing question than why he stripped in the first place.
The few images that do work suggest the direction the film should have taken. The first few shots of a nude wrestling match between Birken and Gerald, deep, low-angle, lit by a darkly golden fire. are quite eerie in their implications. (Although, the inevitable pulsing soundtrack and tumultuous camerawork mar the development of the scene.) A shot of a drowned girl, entwined in the arms of her dead lover, as they are washed up onto a muddy shore is equally effective. (Although, it is mistakenly intercut with shots of Birken and Ursula making love. Properly, the omen is directed at Gerald of whose fears it is much more illustrative.) One of the film's concluding images comes closest to suggesting the metaphoric associations flowing beneath Lawrence's narrative. Gerald, after breaking from Gudrun in a scene that parallels Birken's rupture with Hermione, wanders off, exhausted and spent, into the snow. (The two are, at the time, on an outing in the Swiss Alps.) In such circumstances, nature does not offer Gerald the salvation it provided Birken; the landscape into which Gerald wanders is barren and frigid. He collapses, curls up like a tiny fetus dwarfed by a field of grayish white, his darker footsteps trailing offscreen like an endless umbilical cord. The actual physical setting of Gerald's death is overshadowed by its implications of loneliness and sterility. Compared to the cluttered literalness of most of the film, these few, tentative steps toward approaching a sparser, more abstract method of story-telling are much more suggestive of the grandeur of Lawrence's design.
BOTH IN comparison with the novel on which it was based, as well as on its own transcendent internal elements, Russell's Women in Love is something less than adequate, Even taken as the simpler story of four individuals in and out of love, it is far from satisfactory. Audiences, fresh from the carnival of casual sex that is Woodstock (and though Woodstock may yet be just an apocalyptic vision, it is nonetheless endemic of the times), aren't likely to have much patience with the difficult, struggling sex of Women in Love; Russell's film is ungrounded in any larger pattern of significance that could make a consideration of such sexuality important.
The relationship between Birken and Gerald should also prove something of a stumbling block for movie audiences just learning to accept male homosexuality as a valid means of exploring love and sex. Birken's desire to achieve a mystic yet sensual union with another man must be seen in reaction to his fears of Hermione and Ursula. Birken hates women for their sex at the same time as he is drawn to them; he associates the demands of the two women with those of motherhood and death, forces that limit and frustrate his lofty aspirations for freedom. But since the movie caricatures Hermione to the point of foolishness and eliminates the sensuality in Ursula that would make her Lawrence's threatening earth mother, it presents no compelling force to drive Birken toward Gerald. His interest appears ambiguous, if not entirely incomprehensible, as is the central wrestling match itself. Given such ambiguity, audiences conditioned to accepting homosexual pairings as either platonic or sexual, but not as a more realistic combination of both, don't quite know what to think, except to wonder why in the world the whole thing is called Women in Love in the first place.
All of which points toward the fact that while Russell's movie looks a good deal like Lawrence, it offers little of the Lawrence feel. And when you can no ionger feel the force and logic behind Lawrence's work, the mere plots and characters on which the work is buitl do look quite foolish, peopled as they are with serious little adolescents not yet fully capable of critical self-awareness. But it is unfair to blame Lawrence, when the fault lies in Russell's lack of feeling for his material. During one scene in the novel-interestingly enough, a scene absent in the movie-Birken decries the emptiness of modern life and art. "I'm sure," he says, "life is all wrong because it has become much too visual-we can neither hear nor feel nor understand, we can only see." That's about how you feel after seeing Russell's version of Women in Love. And, as Lawrence might have added, seeing ain't necessarily believing.