Luchino Visconti’s Lo Straniero, adapted from Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (The Stranger) has plenty to engage anyone who may not know that it is based on a great novel. Unfortunately, it is. As a result, the most interesting thing about the film is how it is tangled in the intricate webs of adaptation. That Visconti’s reputation is nearly as prestigious as Camus’s makes the comparison even more complexly difficult.
It is a truism that great novels are not the best choice for film material. A filmmaker can faithfully dramatize the action, but that equates a novel’s importance merely with its plot, not how it is expressed. Camus’s famous opening lines throw down the gauntlet to any potential adapter: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”* Such first-person narration can work seamlessly in a novel, but how does a medium like film, based on the certainty of physical presence, suggest the doubt in that ”can’t be sure?” The reader knows Camus’s Mersault from the inside out, journeying with him on a voyage of self-discovery. Visconti’s Mersault is always seen from the outside, literally objectified by the cinematic image.
While Visconti was known for his respectful, if free-form, approach to adaptation, he was able to film L’Étranger only with the approval of Camus’s widow, who prevented any substantial changes. With inventive adaptation out of the question, foreknowledge of the novel is almost required to understand what is going on in the film. Visconti compensates somewhat by indulging his talent for sensuous texture, conjuring the Algerian heat and sunshine with tangible, oppressive heaviness. It makes those sequences in which Mersault simply looks at things going on around him evoke the dissociation of Camus’s prose. Pleasurable as they may be, however, their overwhelming physicality is questionably suitable.
And if the basic action seems almost haphazard, understanding the novel’s handling of the relationship between the French and Arabs comes off as little more than local color. The film was shot on location, but the actors speak in Italian. For all his rueful alienation, Mastroianni cannot overcome the discrepancy between the language he is speaking and the character’s supposed nationality, much less demonstrate how his actions are implicated in the injustices of French colonialism. Mersault ends up paralyzed between the competing demands of two media rather than a man trapped in absurdity.
Therefore, depending on your point of view, Lo Straniero is either too faithful or not faithful enough. No film could hope to equal the novel’s significance, but simply to succeed as an independent work of art, an adaptation must be free to re-imagine an original in terms of the demands and opportunities of the new medium. Even then, the results will be at best a translation. It can succeed only if executed with the assurance of the original. At the risk of invoking another author’s work, Borges’s ”Pierre Menard,” the only 100% faithful adaptation of any work is the original itself.
*Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.