Judge George Hatch pulls together the pieces of this second attempt to bring John Knowles's renowned classic novel to the screen.
"I thought that Devon School would teach me everything. It turns out that Finny was the best teacher I ever had. He taught me how to not be at war with myself."—Gene Forrester
Back in the 1960s, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and John Knowles's A Separate Peace, two modern novels about adolescent rites of passage, were required reading in high school. In the last few decades, several pressure groups have tried to ban Salinger's book from schools and libraries because of the cynical attitude of its 17-year-old narrator, some coarse language, and subtle sexual content. Knowles's book, though, was never threatened with a literary purge. But A Separate Peace carried darker and more controversial undertones about friendship, loyalty, jealousy, betrayal, and finding an affirmation—or "peace"—within oneself, and that made for a richer, more rewarding reading experience.
There are still some themes that are too underplayed in this Showtime TV adaptation (originally aired in 2004), but it is far superior to the 1972 version directed by film veteran Larry Peerce (Goodbye, Columbus).
Facts of the Case
In 1942, Gene Forrester transfers to Devon, an exclusive prep school in New England, and his assigned roommate is Finny, the campus jock, a regular "breaker of rules," and one of the most charismatic students in the Holmes House dorm. Bookworm Gene tries to remain aloof so he can concentrate on his studies, but Finny quickly introduces him to a few other eccentric classmates: Brinker, "the Einstein of our group," and the nerdy Leper, who is nurturing an immense colony of snails in his room "that we will one day make into escargot," jokes Finny. They all soon share a common bond that is dominated by Finny's extroverted and aggressive personality.
On an afternoon hike, they watch a group of seniors jumping out of a tree and landing in the lake below. Brinker explains, "They're 'draft bait'…practicing for deployment as paratroopers overseas." Once the seniors are gone, Finny decides to try it himself because he wants to enlist as soon as he's finished with school. He makes a successful leap into the water and challenges one of the other three to follow him. Brinker is too smart, and Leper is too much of a coward, but Gene makes the jump, forging a closer relationship with Finny.
After visiting the lake several times, Finny thinks that Gene and he should form a "secret society." They pressure Brinker and Leper into being the first to join. Surprisingly, Leper is the only one who accepts the invitation. While waiting for him, Finny and Gene decide to practice their own jumps, but a tragic accident of questionable cause affects the friendships and futures of the group.
The specter of WWII hovers over the heads of these students like the Grim Reaper. Though they are pressured into studying harder so they can advance to college, they all know that they have only two real options: enlist upon graduation or wait for the imminent draft call. Their campus carousing may be a break from classes, but their games carry a patriotic and military edge. When Finny creates the "Official Devon Winter Olympics," for fun, there is only one race—everything else looks like basic training in boot camp.
In his novel, John Knowles found a unique metaphor in the connection between "a world war," and "a separate peace." You may try to save the world with international confrontations, but you must face your own inner demons to in order to find peace within yourself.
Gene (J Barton, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde) has the darkest secret and carries a heavy burden of guilt. In their growing relationship, Finny (Toby Moore, Murder in Greenwich) exerts a physical and emotional power over Gene, one that Gene initially found compelling, but quickly came to resent. Trips to the beach, late night walks, and unauthorized midnight swims in the pool during which Finny tested his Olympic prowess all cut into Gene's study time, and he eventually fails a math test. On their next climb up the tree, the limb shakes before they reach the lake, and Finny falls, landing unconscious on the ground below. Only Finny's leg is broken, and he will walk again—but sports are no longer in his future.
What's interesting about this crucial scene is director Peter Yates's decision to show Gene intentionally shaking the limb. In the novel, Knowles kept the details of the incident obscure, and in the 1972 film, it was shot from an oblique angle. In both cases, Gene automatically assumes the guilt. But in this Showtime adaptation, we see a close-up of Gene staring intently at the back of Finny's head and watching his footing. At just the right moment, Gene bounces the limb with his weight, and watches Finny fall. Counterpoint this with an earlier scene in which Gene slips and Finny immediately grabs him by the wrist and, with an enormous amount of stamina and conviction, pulls Gene safely back onto the limb.
Finny has only vague memories of the fall, but he does remember that Gene just stared, making no attempt to grab him. Gene gets flustered when Finny questions him about it in the hospital. "I-I got scared. I couldn't move. I didn't realize what was happening." There is, now, no doubt in Finny's mind that Gene simply couldn't act quickly enough. But Gene's rapidly growing guilt is turning into self-hatred. At the risk of severing their bond, he tries to explain to Finny exactly what he did—but he doesn't know how to clarify the reason. "It was just an impulse."
>From this Judge's point of view, it looked like a spontaneous act of revenge. As much as Finny would sincerely like to see Gene score higher grades than "Einstein" Brinker (Jacob Pitt, K-19: The Widowmaker), Gene feels Finny is subverting that very goal. I won't go so far as to say that this tree incident was premeditated, but at some point Gene did, indeed, intend to exact a similar revenge by undermining Finny's sports capabilities and aspirations. It was just a matter of time, and of how he would do it.
When I first read the novel at an impressionable age, and later saw the 1972 film as a young adult, I sensed a homosexual bond forming between Gene and Finny. It's barely hinted at in this Showtime version. When Finny says, "It's nice being at the beach alone, but not as good as when you are with your best buddy," Gene's reaction shot has a glimmer of confusion about Finny's motivations, and it also reflects his own mutual attraction to his friend. Gene tries to question Finny about the lavender shirt he plans to wear to High Tea with the Headmaster. It's a formal white-shirt-and-tie event, and Gene can barely mumble, "People might think you're…you know…" The "H" word is stifled as Finny reminds Gene that he's a "breaker of rules, and this is all a big joke anyway."
Finny draws Gene even closer when he announces that "Gene and I are going to enlist after graduation. How can I serve in the Armed Forces without trusting someone like him with my life?" But after the accident, when Gene tells Finny he going to enlist with Brinker, Finny can barely suppress a jealous rage. More modern films, taking place in the present, such as The Lords of Discipline (1983) and Dress Gray (1986), allow for a lot of elbow-poking teases about being a "homo" in school or the military. And while both versions of A Separate Peace were filmed in 1972 and 2004, the story still takes place in the early 1940s, and gay references could only be insinuated. You can read between the lines and find it in Knowles's novel, and you can hear and see it in the dialogue and facial expressions in both screen adaptations.
The film centers on Gene and Finny, but Leper (Danny Swerdlow, Going Home) is another important character who deserves some extra attention. I've so far referred to him as a nerd and a coward. In the context of the film, I would also call him a pacifist, and—with no disparagement intended—a tree-hugging naturist. Leper's obsessive dedication to his snail colony and his concern for wildlife (in this case, a beaver that might be freezing in its dam after a recent snowfall) are evidence of the peaceful lifestyle he's looking forward to, once the war is over. But when he watches a military training film about ski-troopers, he immediately decides to drop out of Devon School and enlist. Sadly, his dreams of seeing "snow-capped mountains and reindeer" are shattered (much like Finny's leg and his sports dreams) by the horrors of war he's been exposed to.
Having suffered a nervous breakdown, Leper is discharged from the military He can't go home, and he can't go back to Devon. Like Gene, he also feels guilt, that of being rejected by the Armed Forces, and it's coupled with an overwhelming shame about his failure to take a stand and make a personal contribution to America's war effort. In a way, Leper is the integral character who conveys author Knowles's basic conceit about war and peace. Leper is a pacifist turned into an activist—but for all the wrong and misguided reasons.
While Leper can't return to the Devon prep school per se, he still feels it's his real home, so he uses his naturist instincts to construct a makeshift hut off campus grounds using branches—and, note: the "broken limbs"—of nearby trees. Leper is also the only eyewitness to the Gene-and-Finny tree incident. When Gene spots Leper absconding with some food from Devon's commissary after hours, he races to follow him.
This Showtime adaptation accurately captures the complexity of this awkward confrontation. Leper has already fallen under the military scourge of a "Section 8" dismissal from service. When Gene tries to coax him back into re-registering at Devon, Leper lashes out with, "Why should you care? Nobody ever liked you! And the best friend you ever had—you pushed out of a tree!"
Finny's "accident" has been the topic of conversation at Devon, particularly among the members of the Holmes House dorm. In search of an answer, a mock trial concludes the film, with Gene in the hot seat. Brinker starts the interrogation by asking Finny what he remembers. Finny's answers are evasive, and, recalling Gene's admission of it being an impulsive act, he tries to keep Gene off the limb altogether. "I was still waiting for Gene to catch up with me. He was on the ground, or maybe climbing the rungs when I fell." Realizing the generosity of what Finny is doing for him, Gene conveniently confirms everything Finny is saying. But the questioning and cross-examinations quickly become more specific, and lead both boys into total confusion and contradiction. Then Leper, the only person who actually saw what happened that day, makes a surprise appearance, and all hell breaks loose.
Peter Yates is another director noted for his ability to successfully cross genres, but he's probably best known for his classic action and suspense films, such as Bullitt (1968) and The Hot Rock (1981), and odd-ball items like Mother, Juggs, and Speed. Yates was twice nominated as Best Director for Breaking Away (1979) and The Dresser (1983). With the exception of that one scene depicting Gene being clearly responsible for Finny's fall, Yates handles A Separate Peace with surprising sensitivity and finesse. The film never becomes overwrought, and he draws excellent performances from his four lead actors, especially Danny Swerdlow, who plays Leper and steals the show in the last half hour. Watching Swerdlow transform Leper from a four-eyed geek into a patriotically inspired enlistee and, ultimately, into a psychologically broken human being who feels he no longer has a place in the real world is so impressive that it makes this film version of A Separate Peace a must-see.
Paramount's full-screen presentation looks terrific thanks to the impressive cinematography by Checco Varese. The campus grounds and the scenes in the woods by the lake have a picture postcard quality, something that's come to be expected from Showtime presentations. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo is crisp and clear. It's so good that the maudlin score may occasionally get on one's nerves. For some reason, Paramount chose to give A Separate Peace an "R" rating. There is no nudity, and I heard one four-letter word. In fact, Wendy Kesselman's screenplay received a nod from the Writers Guild of America for Best Children's Script. Maybe she's the one who should tackle The Catcher in the Rye.
Paramount and Showtime have made a noble second attempt at bringing A Separate Peace to the screen, but a definitive interpretation has yet to come. And any teenagers who expect to view this film in lieu of reading the novel will turn in only a superficial book report.
Not guilty! Gene Forrester challenged his inner demons and is free to go. He has, however, sentenced himself to life with memories of the tragic results following the trial.
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