A Thousand Acres as Movie is Melodramatic and Bogus
Perhaps Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "A Thousand Acres" was a bit over-rated. For one thing, the book's "dark secret" seemed utterly implausible. I just didn't believe that the book's protagonist and narrator, a 37-year-old Iowa farm wife named Ginny, could have completely repressed the fact that her father had sex with her when she was 15 years old, night after night, for a year. For True Believers in "Repressed Memory Syndrome," this might sound like gospel: I found it melodramatic and bogus. Furthermore, the sensitive-unto-death narrative voice was dissonant and grating: Ginny came across as too intelligent and self-aware to be as clueless and numb as she was supposed to be.
Despite these major flaws, however, Smiley's au courant revisiting of "King Lear" had its virtues: keen insights into family dynamics, a stately, beautifully controlled pace and a weirdly chipper, let's-do-the-dishes-everybody quality that only heightened the ominous sound of fatal machinery grinding away beneath the banal surface of Happy, Happy American life. Unfortunately, these literary achievements -- created by tone and nuance as well as the sheer hypnotic effect of time spent turning the pages -- are not easily captured by film. The movie fails to convey any of the book's strengths -- and it magnifies its shortcomings into bathetic clichés.
"A Thousand Acres" may simply be one of those books that can't be made into anything but a plot-driven movie-of-the-week. Although the first half hour is really dreadful, with its hokey plot-establishing voice-over and choppy, melodramatic action, it's not easy to imagine how director Jocelyn Moorhouse an...
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... or the face-off between her way of living in the world and Rose's.
Smiley's novel is filled with an unnecessary amount of family horror -- she could have achieved the same artistic effects without sprinkling on the Gothic MSG. But the interiority of the novel form allows us to look away from the lurid plot, to follow the subtler movement of Ginny's mind. Moorhouse halfheartedly tries to tell the story from Ginny's point of view, but she keeps going back to the external, epic vision. Instead of feeling like an epic, however, "A Thousand Acres" feels like a soap opera -- an impression not lessened by the soupy this-is-a-sad-scene music and the treacly voice-over that keeps telling us what just happened -- "going to court had divided us from each other." If Shakespeare spun a few times when Smiley's novel came out, he must be rotating like an eggbeater now.
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