THE NOVEL. Alan Sillitoe’s brilliant novel has been filmed by the Osborne-Richardson company, with Albert Finney and Shirley Ann Field, directed by Karel Reisz. This two-part review is by Rod Prince
the reason for commenting on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning two years after publication is, naturally, the film (which presumably accounts for its appearance in paper-backs): and the object of the exercise is to assemble some ideas about the book while it is still simply a book, before the film arrives and changes things. Alan Sillitoe’s article in NLR 4 suggested that in filming the novel there would be no basic changes in theme or tone; so in this case there may be a chance to look at the way in which the matter of the novel has been translated into the terms of the film. I think that this may be of particular interest in this instance, because of the style of the novel. Films made from novels are usually unsatisfactory, because they fail to break away from literary terms; films derived from plays are worse still, because they seem to bring out all the latent theatricality in film-makers. But the qualities of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (and I mean the book) are non-literary ones: as a novel it is less worthy of note than as a potential film. Chief among these qualities are its creation of a very real central figure in Arthur Seaton, and its direct evocation of Arthur’s world; the bulk of the book is concerned with Arthur in the factory, Arthur at home, out boozing, or with the women—and it is here, rather than in the narrative, that the book says most clearly what it is about. The book is, in fact, constructed in more or less self-contained sequences, linked by the vaguest sort of narrative, and some of them (like the Christmas sequence) almost completely independent. The language is, for the most part, unliterary, but occasionally falls into an uneasy half-literary journalese, which doesn’t suit the general feel of the book at all. (“For it was Saturday night, the best and bingiest gladtime of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, a violent preamble to a prostrate Sabbath.”)
I think, therefore, that the book is most successful in its most cinematic aspects—in its re-creation of a complete world; and least successful where it is trying to be a novel—on the level of plot and language. So for the film, we have a ready-made mise-en-scene, which is necessary, but not sufficient. Alan Sillitoe and Karel Reisz in fact recognised this: in his NLR 4 article, Alan Sillitoe says “The greatest difficulty was to simplify, to re-mould the episodic novel into some sort of order; and also to decide what to leave out.” Among the pieces which were left out, in fact, were the army scene and the Christmas party.
So far, so good: but I think there is a deeper fault in the book—a lack of balance in its construction. It will be interesting to see if this is retained in the film. Partly, there is a lack of balance between the two parts of the book: the bulk of the book—about five-sixths of its length—is taken up by the part called “Saturday Night”, which is the account of Arthur’s various brushes with authority and convention; the rest is about “Sunday Morning” and Arthur’s reconciliation to the conventions of love and the idea of marriage. Simply, this part seems sketchy and unconvincing. Arthur’s beating-up at the end of Part I leads him to lose interest in life, “as if he had been living in a soulless vacuum” until he is suddenly roused from this state by a fight between relatives at the Christmas party. These two violent incidents are enough to bring him to terms with life, to settle down to the prospect of marriage which he has so fiercely opposed up to now. There is no real explanation of this, and the attempted explanation is unconvincing, both on its own ground, and in relation to the rest of the book. Not only has Arthur’s personal war against the world been dwelt on at great length, so that the conversion seems unlikely and sudden; but the writing differs in the two parts. The first part is written in a very direct style, so that the important things about Arthur come from Arthur himself, in his conversation or in his thoughts. In this way everything we learn about the factory where Arthur works, which is the root of his hostility to society, we learn from Arthur—mostly in the second person: “You could make your money if you knocked up fourteen hundred a day.” Not he or they but you. But in the section which seeks to account for his change of attitude, the writing becomes external.