Book, Movie or Both?

Portrait of Jennie: Book to Movie to Art

David Stone
Portrait of Jennie: Book to Movie to Art

How you feel about seeing a movie after you’ve read the book it’s based on? How about the other way around? It’s a dilemma because each is bound to be very different… and whichever comes last disappointing.

Classic Movie Dilemma with Portrait of Jennie

I made a rule never to see a film inspired by a book I’d read because the movies so often mangle the intent of a book, abbreviating for time — it takes much longer to read a story than passively watch one — translating content from literal to visual to meet demands of the medium.

But I had a decision to make with Portrait of Jennie, a short novel by Robert Nathan whose The Bishop’s Wife transferred well to cinema largely due to Cary Grant’s brilliance. (A later version starring Denzel Washington was disappointing.)

Jennie stars another legend, Joseph Cotton, one more character actor than romantic lead.

Reading forces you to participate, creating scenes that feel true in your mind, making up some entirely. Movies are fed to you, at the filmmaker’s pace and on his or her terms and targeted for a certain, at least vaguely definable audience.

Movies don’t leave you with much time to pause or reflect.

Not only does Hollywood usually dumb things down to sell as many tickets as possible to that established lowest common denominator audience, the books and movies often are much different in the finished product.

The only reliable similarity is that both movies and books that inspire them share a well-known title, good for a block of guaranteed sales.

For  Portrait of Jennie, which I saw first as a movie, I broke my rule. 

I was completely taken in by the film, costarring Jennifer Jones, and thought the theme so innovative I wanted to see how the author, Robert Nathan, originally pulled it off on a page.

Art & Inspiration, the Theme for Portrait of Jennie

During the darkest days of the Great Depression, in 1934, Eben Adams is a failing painter struggling in New York City. His clothes are tattered. Holes have been worn through his shoes.

Barely able to afford food, Adams rents a hole in the wall that serves as both home and studio.

That’s almost all the movie has in common with the book. 

Robert Nathan’s novella isn’t Hollywood, as written, because the romance is far from clear enough, the characters are too subtle and the scenes make too much logical sense.

David O. Selznick’s movie works wonderfully, however, although the mirror is distorted. 

Both version move along in a dreamlike flow. Things happen that can’t in waking life.

In the book, Jennie Appleton, who matures from child to adult in six months, is Eben’s muse, the creative inspiration that carries him from failure to fame.

Jennie Appleton, played with stunning believability by Jennifer Jones on screen, is transformed from a fantasy into something more of an emerging and tragic beauty who captures Eben’s heart and imagination. 

Meeting Jennie

On a late, winter afternoon, Eben is strolling through Central Park when he meets Jenny for the first time, under the tall, skeletal elms in The Mall.

In the book, she is playing hopscotch all by her self, unaccompanied by parent or friends, which concerns Eben who fears she might be lost.

But in the movie, he meets her in broad daylight along a snowy slope near The Dairy.

A cheerful little girl, the Jenny in Nathan’s novel connects wit something in Eben that never lets go. In part, it’s an awareness that something is not quite right with her. 

Jennie tells him that her parents are “jugglers on a rope” at the Hammerstein Music Hall, a venue already closed for many years.

He recalls how firm and warm her little hand was in his. 

“She wasn’t a ghost and I wasn’t dreaming.”

He accepts her offer to sing him a song:

Where I came from

Nobody knows;

And where I’m going

Everything goes.

The wind blows,

The sea flows -

And nobody knows

“I wish you’d wait for me to grow up,” she adds, “but your probably won’t.”

When she walks away back down The Mall, she more or less disappears into the dusk. 

Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones

Although Jennifer Jones role seems the more challenging, Joseph Cotten was the only one to win a major award, for Best Actor in 1949 at the Venice International Film Festival.

In the film, Jennie ages from a child romping in a snowy Central Park to the cusp of womanhood, covering something like ten years.

Along the way, her resiliently positive character must relate to the sudden death of her parents in an accident, being handed off to a convent and finally setting out to continue her education in Europe.

All the while, carrying the romantic theme of the movie, her school girl crush on Eben blossoms into a dream of something more lasting.

Cotten’s struggling artist is less crusty in the movie. His position relative to other artists of his day is lessened.

Because Jennie’s role as his emerging muse is reduced and no longer a symbolic reflection of what drives art, Cotten’s main assignment is to deal with growing confusion over who or what Jennie, a more tangible character, is and that he is falling in love with her.

Building to a Climax 

In the movie, no one but Eben sees Jennie, except in his sketches and paintings. In the book, everyone does, enforcing its dreamlike unreality.

Without giving away any more of the story than necessary, I can tell you that both approaches work well for this theme. Plot twists and incidents are changed, dropped and created from scratch.

In completing the movie, Selznick burned through five scriptwriters before getting what he wanted.

He also spent lavishly, rejecting Hollywood sets to film on location in New York and Massachusetts. Doing so, he greatly enhanced the tug of the fantasy by unfolding it in recognizable places, often in Central Park.

The build up to a foreshadowed end is seamless in both book and film. The climax finds Eben scrambling to understand who Jennie is, although the movie takes him to a more dramatic finish.

(One interesting highlight of the movie is the creation of a whole new character, Mother Mary of Mercy, a nun Eben visits in searching for Jennie. The role is played by silent film legend, Lillian Gish.)

Portrait of Jennie, Odds and Ends

  • Not long after the completion of Portrait of Jennie, Jones and Selznick married, a union that lasted until his death in 1965. An enduring symbol of their romance remains in the actual painting, featured in the movie, of Jennie.
  • Completed by Robert Brackman, the painting was a portrait, not of the character Jennie, but of Jennifer Jones herself, commissioned by Selznick and hung in his home after the movie was done.
  • Enhancing the mesmerizing look of the film is Joseph H. August’s cinematography. He actually shot some scenes through canvas, causing them to look like paintings. Although he didn’t win, he was nominated for an Academy Award.
  • Watch an art gallery scene closely. You’ll see two teenage girls. One is Anne Francis, who went on to play the Jennie role in a radio adaptation opposite Cotten, a year later. The other is Nancy Davis, better known a few decades later as Nancy Reagan, America’s popular First Lady. 

Conclusion

As a story writer, my bias is always toward the magic of words in the interactive play of creating imaginary worlds. 

Robert Nathan wrote what is now considered a masterpiece of fantasy, a convincing story of something that could not happen, but for Eben Adams, it does. 

It’s a great, small book in which to get lost for an afternoon.

But the film is an unforgettable work of art, too. 

Its scenes and story take you away with the first scene and keep you engaged and wondering until its dramatic conclusion. 

The story changes Selznick beat into his series of writers work on film, and the change in emphasis to an elusive love story is convincing, with great acting throughout.

My advice: read the book first. It’s more subtle. You’ll, of course, be looking for the story you read in the movie you watch. But since the moviemaking is pulled off with such excellence, you’ll feel like you gained a whole new, textured layer of brilliant storytelling.

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