by Sam Juliano
Today’s review of “A Separate Peace”, based on the novel by John Knowles is the second in a planned series that will examine films from the 1970’s that were either forgotten, undervalued or misunderstood at the time of their release.
From the late 60’s to the late 90’s three novels dominated the literature component of high school English curriculums, and each of the three were written and published around the same time. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has probably maintained the most venerated position of the three, and captured the Pultizer Prize, but both William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and John Knowles’s A Separate Peace have held the literary stage both for their writing excellence and the intricate expression of their universal themes. It was inevitable that all three would be made into films, but A Separate Peace took the longest to materialize, finally appearing as a film in 1972. The Paramount release, with Larry Peerce serving as director and unknown actors in the leads, received divided notices, and has since been displaced as the film of choice on this novel by a 2003 television version directed by Peter Yates.
But the earlier version remains easily the better adaptation, in fact it’s one of the best American films ever made about youth and coming-of-age. During the summer of 1942, sixteen-year-old Gene Forrester attends Devon School, a private New England Academy. His roommate is Phineas, a free-spirited and cheerful nonconformist who is loved by everyone he meets. Gene, an introvert, tries to stifle his growing jealousy but is unable to control his envy of Finny’s athletic skill, natural popularity, and above all his innate goodness. Finally, unable to bear the knowledge that Finny is a better person, Gene apparently shakes the branch of a tree overhanging a river in the film (and novel)’s centerpiece sequence that causes the normally agile Finny to fall to the ground, breaking his leg and turning him into a cripple. After the accident, Gene meets with Finny and attempts to confess, but he then realizes that Finny desperately needs the illusion of friendship and he needs to boost his fallen friend’s self-confidence. When Finny returns for the winter semester after recovering (but his own athletic career is finished) he refuses to accept the wartime influences that permeate Devon and commences to train Gene for the Olympics. Finny is initially resistant to the fact that a war is raging around them, until another student, “Leper” Lepelier returns AWOL and corroborates the horrible stories that up until then have never been informed by first-person narrative. Another student, the judicious-minded Brinker Hadley instigates an inquiry into Finny’s accident and convenes a kangaroo court of fellow students on a small second-floor meeting room on campus, at which point Leper reveals the truth about what happened, as he was looking up from under the tree when Gene supposedly shook the branch. Finny begins to cry and in his effort to escape the tribunal, he falls down the stairs and breaks his leg again.
The second disaster has a curious healing effect on both boys, and when Gene visits Finny in the infirmary, the two are reconciled as Finny accepts the fact that Gene never meant to hurt him, and Gene reveals that Finny would have been emotionally unfit for war anyway. However, during a second operation on his leg, Finny dies after a sliver of bone marrow, undetected during the procedure gets into his bloodstream and travels to his heart. The surgeon tells a shell-shocked Gene “there are risks, always risks” and then the surviving boy realizes a part of him has died with the death of his best friend.
The director, Larry Peerce, whose career includes a large body of television work, directed Goodbye Columbus (1969), but A Separate Peace represents his finest work. Peerce wisely chose to bookend the film with Gene Forrester as an older man who returns during the bleak and lifeless winter to the ‘spectre’ of the tree, where the fateful event that has haunted him through his life still stands almost in defiance. The muted color cinematography by Frank Stanley and the haunting piano chords of Charles Fox combine hypnotically in these sequence as well as in the remainder of the film which captures the scenic, yet errie beauty of a prep school operating in seclusion, while the world engages in the final stages of a war that may have passed the boys by, but in fact informed the events at home. The period detail in the film is remarkable as Ron Tasky’s 1940’s clothing and Charles Rosen’s art direction are evocative and at the same time evoke an aching sense of nostalgia. The scene where the boys attend a carnival is beautifully replicated, and the later snow scene, when Gene assaults Leper is filmed in long shot and stands as a breathless example of Peerce’s excellent feel for season and climate. The screenwriter, Fred Segal is reasonably faithful to Knowles’s great novel, retaining throughout a verisimilitude of language and dialogue, including such expressions as “goofy”, “nutty,” “it’s a cinch” and “fat chance” lending the film a sense of schoolboy authenticity.
Inevitably, literary scholars have made much as the veiled current of homosexuality running through the novel, which of course manifests itself in Gene’s later wearing his friend’s clothes (visualized in the film) in an effort to “become” his friend, a frightful declaration that of course recalls the famous I Am Heathcliffe spoken by Cathy in the classic Wuthering Heights. Certainly a cogent argument could be made about the early closeness of the relationship (and Peerce accents this by having Gene rub up against his friend during athletics) but book critics have argued for years that a strong homoerotic undercurrent runs through the novel in some of the unspoken, inrospective passages.
The film’s best performance is delivered by John Heyl, who gives Finny a fresh vitality and winning mischievious smile that even causes his ordinarily rigid headmasters to laugh when he commits infractions like wearing the school tie for a belt. Heyl infuses both the character and the film with wide appeal, and he’s the foil of the brooding Gene, who unfortunately is played with rampant amaterishness by Parker Stevenson. Certainly, Stevenson is physically right for the role, but he delivers some of lines haltingly and with a transparent stare. Still, Stevenson gets some of the film’s most important scenes right, and the supporting cast of non-professionals give authentic portrayals.
Much of the novel’s symbolism and themes remain unconsummated in the film, as Peerce realizes this is all best left to the viewers’s imagination, and the psychological context could not satisfactorily be transcribed to the screen in such a straight-forward adaptation. But it’s abundantly clear that the “loss of innocence” envisioned in the film does not only come off as a necessary evil but is as vital to spiritual growth as the loss of the umbilical cord is to physical growth. Hence, Finny is doomed because because of his refusal to shed his idealistic view of human nature. It’s a testament that Peerce’s film provides audiences (and students) with a haunting and enveloping film of one of literature’s most brilliantly-written and mesmerizing novels, and in tone, setting, atmosphere and suggestiveness this 1972 film is far more than a noteworthy achievement. It’s one of the best American films about youth ever made.