Brideshead and Silence

Japanese author Shusaku Endo, a Roman Catholic, wrote a novel entitled Silence (1966) that has recently been adapted into a film by Martin Scorsese. The book seems generally to be considered Endo’s masterpiece. The story is about Jesuit missionaries sent out in the 16th century to convert the Japanese.  One of them runs into a bad patch with the locals and apostasizes. This brings out a relief party from Rome and things get complicated.

The film has been reviewed in the Roman Catholic press and compared by critics to Brideshead Revisited as well as to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  One critic, in The Tablet, declares Scorsese’s film a masterpiece; another, in The Christian Review, deems it a failure. The Tablet review notes that:

Endo…has been called the Japanese Graham Greene. When the novel appeared, Greene commented, “In my opinion one of the finest novels of our time.”…A few years ago a feature film for theatrical release was made of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Brideshead Revisited.” While the television series based on Waugh’s book was magnificent, the film completely missed the religious dimension of the story. Whether the creators of the film did not understand the novel or decided the religious dimension would hurt the box office, I can only guess!

In the case of Scorsese’s Silence, the filmmakers got it right, according to this reviewer (Fr Robert Lauder), and brought in the religious element correctly.

In the Christian Review, on the other hand, the critic (Barabara Nicolosi) thinks Scorsese, who is a lapsed Catholic, failed to comprehend the religious themes and therefore does not fully understand the story:

It’s axiomatic that the greatest novels don’t translate to the screen. It’s even more true when we are talking about great spiritual novels. ShĹ«saku EndĹŤ ’s Silence is one of the greatest Catholic novels of the Twentieth Century alongside literary wonders like Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited [and] Greene’s The Power and the Glory… The key to translating a great Catholic novel to the screen is to have a profound sense of what Evelyn Waugh called “That Catholic thing,” in Brideshead. When you miss “That Catholic thing” in one of these great novels, you don’t just end up making a confusing mess on the screen, you end up making an anti-Catholic thing. That’s what has basically happened here in albeit not in a formidable way…

So, in the hands of a Church-loather, Graham Greene’s Power and the Glory is a scandalous tale of a weak-willed alcoholic priest. In the hands of a keen-eyed believer, it’s about the mysterious power of the grace of the sacrament of ordination. In the right hands, Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, is a story about how the Gospel has rendered one family very different from others, full of intoxicating charm. In the wrong hands, it’s about how the weird Flytes keep ruining their lives by always bringing God into everything… 

According to Ms Nicolosi, Scorsese just doesn’t get the religious element and, without it, the film fails. It is not clear whether in her comparisons Ms Nicolosi is referring to actual or hypothetical film adaptations of the novels by Waugh and Greene. In the case of both books, there have been two film adaptations. The first reviewer condemns the 2008 version of Brideshead but finds the 1981 version acceptable; he expresses no opinion, however, on the adaptations of Greene’s novel. In the case of The Power and the Glory, according to Wikipedia, the 1947 version was freely adapted by John Ford and retitled The Fugitive. It was a box office failure but won a Roman Catholic-sponsored prize at the Venice Film Festival. The second version was a 90 minute US adaptation made for TV in 1961 and starred Lawrence Olivier. It was a critical success and later shown in theaters overseas.

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