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The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Some years ago I read that Somerset Maugham was a “difficult” writer, so I’ve avoided his books until last summer when The Painted Veil was assigned for my local book discussion group. It was a pleasant surprise! The “difficult” reputation is most assuredly unearned.

The story, set (and published) in the mid-1920’s, is about Walter, a quiet, intellectual doctor who marries Kitty, a frivolous rich girl and moves them both to Hong Kong to pursue his medical career. Why do stick-in-the-mud guys insist on getting involved with party girls? It never works out. Though Walter turns out to be quite passionate, it’s not enough and the bored Kitty soon begins an affair with a married diplomat colleague of Walter’s. When her husband discovers the affair, he volunteers his medical services to a remote village struck by cholera, despite only having worked in a lab until then. But he’s not going off & leaving Kitty to her amusements, oh no, he is taking her with him.

Once there, Walter throws himself into working at the hospital or researching the disease. Kitty is again bored, even more so in the middle of nowhere & decides to volunteer at the nearby convent orphanage out of desperation. Once she overcomes her revulsion at the place and the children, she finds great fulfillment. Surprisingly, shallow Kitty needs to be needed. She finally realizes that she is not the center of the universe. One gets so caught up in Kitty’s growth as a person that we almost forget the epidemic’s danger until tragedy intervenes. The book stays true to the characters & doesn’t flinch from despair, but never turns melodramatic.

One of the fascinating things about this novel is how Maugham gets inside of the heads of his characters, even when they’re polar opposites. He presents them in an objective way, where you completely understand why they are that way, even if you don’t like them. It’s a testament to the author’s talent that he is able to do that so convincingly. It also allowed him to make several feminist statements that are still quite bold today. It was also startling to find so many bedroom references in a work from that era. Between the two, I wonder if this book caused any controversy at the time?

He is also full of poetic descriptions, whether about the Chinese landscape or a person’s thoughts. For instance, Kitty, in a rare moment of insight after her affair is revealed, realizes Walter’s jealous mental state “was like a dark and ominous landscape seen by a flash of lighting and in a moment hidden again by the night.” The poetic prose & melodic metaphors are a large part of what made this book a joy to read.

The cinematic version of 2006 was hugely disappointing, despite being well cast (except for Naomi Watts, who displayed more emotion in “King Kong”) and stunning authentic scenery (filmed in China). In fact, knowing Edward Norton was in it, I pictured him as Walter as I read the book. Forty five minutes into the film, however, it veered from the novel into a completely new story, not only tacking on a “woman in jeopardy” incident, but also politics & a soap opera. Often a different character would say lines from the novel, giving it a contradictory meaning. It was very frustrating when it had started out so well. But it is less so to those who see the movie first, and are better able to take it on it’s own terms, instead of referring to the novel. Though to me, if a book is used as a source, a certain amount of loyalty is called for.

The Painted Veil was an excellent introduction to Somerset Maugham and I am quite eager to read more of his work, in hope that they are as splendidly satisfying as this one.

Vintage Books film tie-in 2006 (orig. 1925) 224 pp. ISBN-10 0307277771

21 comments on “The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

  1. Leena
    November 10, 2007

    Haven’t seen the film yet, but isn’t it a bit like the case of ‘The English Patient’? The book and film might as well not have anything in common. What I especially like about TEP the film is the way Minghella went into a book brimming with complexity and nuances and different kinds of material, and managed to pull out a simple, perhaps even somewhat clichéd story but one that is perfect of its kind. Perhaps TPV film does something similar?

    But I agree on everything you say about the book. I don’t know if Maugham was a great writer, but his objectivity sets him apart – he really ‘saw life steadily, and saw it whole’. I think you might like ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, by the way; I read it some years ago so the details elude me by now, but it’s about this seemingly dull, passionless middle-class man who suddenly leaves his family and work to pursue a career as a painter, and the other characters try to find out what could have possessed him to do something like that. It was inspired by the life of Gauguin, I believe.

  2. Jackie
    November 11, 2007

    No, everything in TEP the film was in the novel, they didn’t add on stuff. And the proper characters were saying their lines, they didn’t swap them. Katharine wasn’t saying Carvaggio’s lines or Almasy saying Hana’s, that’s what they did in PV. And they kept the same ending & the characters were true to their personalities, none of which happened in PV.In the PV film, it was if they thought Maugham’s story wasn’t enough & they had to paste a whole ‘nother movie onto it. If they were going to do that, why name it after the book to begin with, just call it something else. Grrrr!

  3. Eva
    November 11, 2007

    I beg to differ!
    I don’s see “The English Patient” adaptation to screen as faithful as Jackie presents it to be. Starting from Almasy’s and Katherine’s ages which have been tempered, allowing us to conclude that their relationship suffered a bit too. A woman in her 20’s doesn’t behave the same with a woman in her 30’s. Same case with the nature of their relationship, which in the book was purely sexual and not at all romantic. I didn’t see Almasy walking around bruised because Katherine always beated him (because he got on her nerves?). A small light mention, laughing in bed doesn’t really convey the proper message, in fact it alters it foundamentaly. None of the scenes between the couple or their dialogue were in the book. Hana’s relationship with Carravaggio was entirely different in the book. Kip showed the fresco’s in the church to a different person. In fact Kip and Carravaggio were the main characters, Almasy and Katherine a mere sidestory.
    I do understand and accept why all the changes were made. I believe it was for the benefit of the film and I venture to say that the film was better than the book it was based on. I agree with Leena, Minghella saw potential in the complex story and chose a few elements to create his own work. For me “The English Patient” the film is above all about one thing: Nothing is as it seems, you have to read deep into everything to know its true meaning and I don’t think that was the message of the novel.

    Same thing with “The End of the Affair” (do I hear Leena going “grrr”?) Characters merging, different ending – a more cinematic one.
    Does it really not matter because Ralph Fiennes was the lead in both films?
    At least Neil Jordan’s screenplay remained true to the spirit of the book.

    That is what “The Painted Veil” the film does, if not more.
    Let me start from the book and to quote both characters “I truly despised it”. Walter Fane is just a typicality Maugham has to go through to “justify” some of Kitty’s actions. You never really understand his character or motivation. You never know who he really is. His love of Kitty, his commitment to his science, his compassion for the dying; his hurt that she cheated on him, his resolution to punish her and HIMSELF, the cruelty with which he does that. All that is not displayed. Kitty’s monologue makes it all a whim of his charactrer.
    The novel was about an egotistic little creature, incapable of any other feeling other than self-pity. A silly, frivolous woman going through a lot of turmoil, but only thinking about herself. She never learned how to be a better person only how to be in order to have a better life. She never understood, cared, grieved or loved Walter. That’s not a lot of growth in my book! Her (short) reformation a result of the nuns’ work? How easy and simplistic is that?
    It took a lot of courage and intelligence from the part of Edward Norton (he was deeply involved in the production of the film for years) to see the story’s potential and evolve it, make it something better. Something that perhaps was never meant to be on paper. And these decisions gave a chance to the characters to actually grow. Politics -which is also implied in the book- are masterfully hinted by the director in short scenes; another brave decision which makes the story universal and also contemporary. It is not just about an English couple playing out their little domestic drama in an exotic scenery. It conveys strong messages that need a thinking and educated audience (not implying for a moment that Jackie doesn’t fall in that category, that is why I was a bit surprised with her criticism). If the point of these adaptations was just another visualazation of the novel, why bother? There are already two others… What better than exploring the story, evolving it, finding hidden meanings and potential?

    PS: I think you are being very unfair to Naomi Watts, her performance was excellent and the scene in which she cries for Walter, moved me to tears as well.
    PPS: I have repeated some of my views posted elsewhere for the benefit of the readers here.

  4. lisaonsea
    November 11, 2007

    Great review. Really want to read this now. Enjoy your reviewing style very much and look forward to more!

  5. marygm
    November 11, 2007

    I read ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ and I recognise what you are saying about his objectivity in the analysis of characters doing unlikeable things. It sounds like a book that’s very open to interpretation.

  6. Jackie
    November 12, 2007

    Maybe Naomi Watts had botox between King Kong & PV? She certainly didn’t change expressions much in the latter. Or maybe she liked Arian Brody better than Mr. Norton? Or, gasp! maybe the giant gorilla was really the one she is most passionate about?
    But I digress. The political machinations didn’t bother me as much in the film, it was the departure from Walter’s personality that aggravated me & the wrong people saying lines. In the novel, Walter’s remoteness gave the story it’s mystery & a great deal of it’s poignancy. His iciness was actually more disturbing than a hot temper. We really don’t know if he contracted the cholera by accident or on purpose. Was it really suicide? Kitty says he “died of a broken heart”. That mystery is gone in the film, because they have reconciled, which completely messes up the story. They Americanized the movie, tacking on a romantic/happy ending. They couldn’t leave it stark with despair as in the book, oh no, they didn’t have the courage. That is what angers me most about the changes they made, it isn’t true to the characters or the intent of the book.They ruined it.

  7. Eva
    November 12, 2007

    I suppose this is a highly subjective matter and maybe there is no point discussing it in a book blog of all places (especially if you are going to be sarcastic). Novel Walter was not mysterious, he just seemed to have no motivation at all. We know that it was suicide (he refused vaccination against cholera) and I didn’t see any hot temper displayed by “Mr. Norton”. I have already explained how I feel about some liberties taken. I do not consider the film as having a happy ending and I don’t think it was Americanized. On the contrary Americans could learn a lesson or two from its messages if they are paying attention. I still despise the novel, I still love the film and EN’s creativity.

  8. Jackie
    November 13, 2007

    You’re giving up so soon? Bah!
    The hot temper I refer to is when Walter finds out about the affair & threatens to kill Kitty. That is not true to his icy personality in the book, where he is remote & unapproachable.There is no reconciliation, Kitty expresses no regrets. The fact that they changed all of this drastically altered the tone of the story. In the film he is made to be a heroic person, almost single-handedly saving the village, whereas the novel shows him to be overwhelmed with the severity of the epidemic. That is far more realistic. Both of the Fanes are less likable in the book, the film sugar coated them & their relationship, that is what I meant by “Americanizing” it. Hollywood does not have the courage to portray ambiguous characters & unsentimental endings.
    What I still don’t understand is why EN didn’t just write an original screenplay about the troubled marriage of a doctor in China instead of pretending to do a film from this novel? It would have been more honest.

  9. Eva
    November 13, 2007

    No, I am not giving up. I merely said all I had to say. I am clearly not going to change your mind, you definitely aren’t going to change mine!
    Besides, I don’t see any kind of “fun” in this arguement, not in the way it is conducted and I am sure we have bored everyone to death.

  10. Eva
    November 13, 2007

    By the way, I understand what you mean about Hollywood and unsentimental endings… I mean look what they did to “Oscar & Lucinda”!

  11. Jackie
    November 13, 2007

    But O&L wasn’t a Hollywood film, it was an Australian production.So your insult is not based in fact.
    Are you saying that you are as passionate about PV as I am about O&L? That can’t be possible, surely, especially since I like Peter Carey’s novel, whereas you “depise” Maugham’s book.

  12. Eva
    November 14, 2007

    “Oscar & Lucinda” was produced by Fox Searchlight and that must be as Hollywood as Bob Yari Productions is.

    I am not saying that I am as passionate about PV as you are about O&L. But why should we have two different sets of standards? If something is “true” for both we should be able to admit it. ‘Passion’ doesn’t make any difference, we are discussing adaptations and what “changes” from book to film, no?

  13. Eva
    November 14, 2007

    Why is it an insult to say that the ending was changed in O&L?

  14. Jackie
    November 14, 2007

    Because you were insinuating that it had a sentimental ending after I’d just frowned upon them. Recall that the author approved of the way the film ended & said if he were writing the book today, that’s how he would end it.
    Fox Searchlight marketed O&L, but I don’t believe they had any say in the making of it. It was done under the Australian Film Commission with an Aussie director & mostly Aussie cast.The rest was British. You know very well that movies are made & then shopped to film companies for release, that doesn’t necessarily mean the company influenced the contents of the film. And in this case they didn’t.
    Remember I’ve read earlier versions of the script & they were not connected with Fox Searchlight or any other company, so you can’t say O&L was “Hollywood-ized”.
    You couldn’t think of any other film adapted from books to make your point?

  15. Eva
    November 14, 2007

    I really don’t see why you are so bothered with my example… there is no “off limits”, you must accept that.
    You ruffled my feathers, I ruffle yours… it’s give and take it can’t be one-way only…
    I was merely suggesting that they changed the ending of O&L by doing exaclty what you complained about in PV, (Americanized, sentimental, feel-good -or better than the book anyway) maybe you hadn’t realized it but that’s what they did. So it was a bit surprising to see you attack PV so fiercly.

    Maybe if Maugham were alive today he’d also love this new interpretation of his novel… you never know…

    And I did mention not one, but two other films but I was ignored.

  16. Jackie
    November 15, 2007

    Well, now you’ve gone & done it, thrown down the gauntlet. I’ll have to challenge you to a duel. The only thing is that we need awfully long sabers to reach across the ocean.

  17. Eva
    November 15, 2007

    How about pistols?

  18. Jackie
    November 16, 2007

    LOL I’m surprised you didn’t suggest axes, considering that you are a Rasko.

  19. Eva
    November 16, 2007

    It is the “Onegin” inside that suggested the pistols.
    So I assume you agree with my last point (not about weaponry the previous one)!

  20. Jackie
    November 16, 2007

    No, no, if I agreed, I wouldn’t be challenging you to a duel, now would I? And I understood the pistol reference perfectly.

  21. Eva
    November 16, 2007

    Hmmm… I thouhgt one challenges to a duel when “disgraced” ;o)
    Still think that my reasoning is not open for doubts. Too bad no one else cares to comment.

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This entry was posted on November 10, 2007 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , .

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