“Rachel, Rachel” (1968)
Dir. Paul Newman
Writers: Margaret Laurence (novel),
Stewart Stern (screenplay)

Okay, so Joanne Woodward is blonde (and I’ve always imagined Rachel as being dark-haired). And the funeral home on Japonica Street is a white frame house (as so many lovely old American homes are, although they’re more commonly brick in Canada, and Rachel’s house is a red-brick one). But they’re details. Of course the essence of a story can be captured differently when the medium changes from print to film. So I had to set those quibbles aside.

Does “Rachel, Rachel” embody the same spirit that Margaret Laurence’s novel, A Jest of God, possesses? Yes, it does. The emphasis might be slightly different, but the overall feeling is the same, whether you’ve read or watched Rachel’s story unfold.

In the film, from the moment that Willard speaks to Rachel in “Rachel, Rachel”, there is an undertone of sexuality. He suggests a nerve relaxer (we’re not so far removed from the days when women were believed hysterical for wanting more than a narrow existence as home-makers and angels-of-houses) and talks of the sensual nature of sleep in a suggestive tone, while sprawled in the front seat of his car. (Even though, moments later, he is inviting Rachel to dinner with his wife and leaps out, leaving Rachel to close the car door behind him, like a Good Little Woman.)

It’s not far removed from the scene in which we first meet Willard in A Jest of God. Rachel observes: “There’s something reptilian about the look of him. Not snakelike — more a lizard, sleek, dry-skinned, dapper, and his eyes now dartlingly quick and sly, glinting at me, thinking he knows all about me.” The details are different, but “Rachel, Rachel” certainly captures this reptilian feel. And there is an undercurrent of sexuality in the scene in the novel, too: Rachel is aware of wanting something, something seemingly completely unrealistic. ::insert romanticized images of seduction and conquest::

Overall, the film does emphasize the sensual elements of the story. So perhaps it makes sense that when we’re introduced to Calla, we hear the two women chatting and referring to Willard  as The Groper, and there are meaningful noises and gestures exchanged (even though Rachel in print lacked this sense of confidence and workplace collegiality). But likely it would have been simply too slow, plot-wise, to have had Rachel as alone in the film as she is in A Jest of God.

In “Rachel, Rachel”, the friendship that she and Calla have is, at least, depicted as multi-faceted, and Estelle Parsons is not only believable, but a single camera shot in the final shot with her reveals a depth of emotion that couldn’t be captured in the narrative because A Jest of God is told from Rachel’s perspective alone and she wasn’t always aware of the complexity of Calla’s feelings for her.

Also emphasized in the film, as an extension of the focus on sensuality and sexuality, is the relationship that Rachel does have with a man which, to be fair, is vitally important in urging Rachel to consider other opportunities that she had previously set aside, to consider another way of living. But it still feels as though this element was emphasized in the film because it makes for a familiar and recognizable arc, whereas the novel allows for more dithering and quiet exploration of other ways in which Rachel experiments with the limitations of her life.

In “Rachel, Rachel”, this relationship seems to be the primary catalyst for change, whereas in the novel readers are constantly aware of Rachel’s changing thought patterns, so the impetus to change seems equally internal as inspired by an external catalyst (the stranger, from “away”). But, in and of itself, the relationship she has in the film is depicted in a realistic and significant way; it’s easy to understand how this could have impacted Rachel’s decisions and dramatically altered her expectations of life.
As one might expect, the ending of the novel and the film also differ in emphasis; the novel ends slightly earlier in Rachel’s story, and we are left to imagine the questions that Rachel will be posing and grappling with next. The film carries on a little longer, posing some of those questions directly via voiceover, and it also alters one detail of the story which makes it seem a little more like Rachel was simply reacting to something, to a lack of opportunity in one direction; whereas, in the novel, we know that she has corrected a misunderstanding and chosen to make a change for herself actively, with this new information in hand. It makes her seem more of an active decision-maker, but it is a very subtle difference, and “Rachel, Rachel” still comes off as a bold declaring of a woman’s capacity to change the circumstances of her life in a meaningful way.

There are elements of A Jest of God that are brought to the screen in “Rachel, Rachel”  in a wholly satisfying way. For instance, Rachel’s desire to see different outcomes for situations can actually appear in a few graphic images (just as Rachel-in-print imagined them) and that brings definition and clarity to the idea that Rachel wants her life to be different, wants to see specific situations play ou

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t in ways other than they have.

There are also some lovely slips between time periods, wherein one shot shows Rachel-today and the next shows Rachel as a child in the same place (e.g. her bed, picking flowers in a field) which beautifully captures the way we each carry our younger selves within, the unexpected reappearance of memories that dramatically influence our experience of the present in a way that an observer could not guess just to look at us.

Similarly, some of the quiet moments in the novel are captured with prolonged facial close-ups of the beautiful Joanne Woodward. And, if occasionally the screenplay uses the voice-over in these shots, in a more direct way than is perhaps necessary for intuitive viewers, the balance of the narrative is true to the novel’s spirit and you can, at times, catch phrases lifted directly from the novel, straight from Margaret Laurence’s prose.

Nominated for four Oscars (Best Actress, Joanne Woodward, Best Supporting for Estelle Parsons, Best Picture, Best Writing), and having won two Golden Globes (one for Newman directing, which was actually his debut, and one for Joanne Woodward), “Rachel, Rachel” is worth watching as a quietly satisfying film, particularly for those interested in women’s roles in the 1960s and the changes that decade brought. And for those who have enjoyed Margaret Laurence’s novel, A Jest of God, “Rachel, Rachel” is worth watching as a faithful visual reproduction of the novel’s quiet revolutionary spirit.

PS This not only fits in my Margaret Laurence week, but it also counts towards the Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge. Tomorrow, I’ll be chatting about The Stone Angel, the novel, and watching my second film for this challenge as well.