THE trend toward screenplays adapted from another medium has perhaps hit its peak over the past year. Whether from a lack of imagination and originality, or simply from a resurgent interest in adapting fiction and drama, original screenplays are becoming harder to find. The translation from another medium is often an awkward, difficult task. Lee Grant's screen adaptation of Tillie Olsen's classic 1961 novella about an aging Jewish immigrant couple facing the problems of elderly life haunted by the lasting effect of Nazi torture treats her subject with admirable restraint and sensitivity.
Tell Me a Riddle is the story of David and Eva (Melvyn Douglas and Lila Kedrova)--two contrasting personalities living alone together. Their kids are married off and their house feels large. David, retired union organizer, is outgoing and affable. Eva, on the other hand, is introverted--slightly deaf, she is able to turn off the world by turning off her hearing aid. But she cannot extinguish a constant stream of disturbing flashbacks that remind her of years spent in Nazi concentration camps. Together, the husband and wife quarrel about selling the house. He sees it as a pragmatic move, but she cannot part with the memories and dreams.
When Eva becomes terminally ill. David convinces her they should travel around the country to visit their children and grandchildren. Eventually, Eva's worsening condition forces them to pitch tent in San Francisco with their granddaughter Jeannie (Brooke Adams).
Throughout their journey Eva has felt the pain of her Nazi torment, and she repeatedly asks David to take her to the safety of her own home. When Eva discovers David has sold the house without asking her permission, the two have a bitter argument. But, as is usual in love stories, the tension eases and the two become reconciled eventually.
Although the plot is tediously slow, Grant's sensitive direction enhances the brilliant performances of Douglas and Kedrova, translating the Olsen story's depiction of typically modern confusions clearly and cohesively on film. Grant obviously understands the complexity Olsen gave to Eva's character. Her stubbornness certainly can be annoying, but cannot subdue the sympathy Kedrova elicits by capturing the intensity of a woman almost shattered by Nazi torture--the fear and sensitivity of a woman living within herself: finding solace in the literature and old photographs of Emile Zola and Victor Hugo, associating images of her playful grandchildren with Nazi soldiers guarding a campsite. Upon her first visit to the Pacific Ocean. Eva throws off her shoes to run through the water and kick the sand, her inspiration drawing much surprise and disapproval from her husband. But, in spite of his forebearing figure, she manages to triumph over her past imprisonment and basks in the freedom and security of the solitary beach.
THE ADAPTED SCREENPLAY especially triumphs in its portrayal of the relationship between Eva and her granddaughter Jeannie. Unlike Jeannie's minor role in Olsen's novella. Joyce Eliason and Alex Lytie, authors of the screenplay, developed the granddaughter's character fully, allowing her to unearth Eva's "other" personality: that of a casual, free-spirited, and highly intellectual woman. The authors successfully show the mutual infatuation of relationships that span generations.
Essentially, Grant has created a woman's film--the story of a battered, dying woman plagued with a husband who doesn't understand her. Unlike films of recent years which try to deal with women's topics intelligently but somehow fall short, such as Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman, Grant gives us a bit of a twist--a story involving an elderly woman. Instead of a tired screenplay or a middle-aged woman giving it another go and wondering whether her life is worth anything. Tell Me a Riddle deals with an honestly emotional and psychological strain, describing Eva's maladjusted lifestyle as a result of her painful past. The film gives us the opportunity to see how in the remote past, memories unrelated to family life can influence a woman's mind.