DOCTOR: Does my smoking bother you?
MOTHER: No, it only reminds me.
DOCTOR: Would you like one?
(Silence. Mother struggles then gives in.)
MOTHER: I’d love one.
(She reaches for one. The Doctor laughs, and lights it for her.)
THE STORY: Check out the play.
THE BACKSTORY: In the play the Mother Superior refuses the cigarette; in the movie she doesn’t. I have no idea why I felt it appropriate for the film and not for the play to have her smoke. (A revision of the script I did recently – updating the play – specifies that the Mother does smoke.) Other than this change the film follows the play quite closely, though it’s somewhat leaner. There is one notable exception. When Norman Jewison optioned the play as a film I was thrilled. I’d known Norman for several years – he had even attended the opening night of the out-of-town pre- Broadway tryouts in Boston. The adaptation, however, presented two challenges: the location and the monologues.
The play takes place on an essentially empty stage, and the location of the convent is never given. The film, of course, had to be locationally specific and it was Norman who came up with the suggestion of setting it in Montreal. The city has a definite European flavor to it, as well as a very American rhythm. And underneath it all there is a very Catholic sensibility. There are even crucifixes, as Norman pointed out to me, in the courtrooms. This first challenge of adaptation was very successfully met – I can’t imagine the film taking place in any other city.
The second challenge in adaptation, however, was somewhat less successful – how to translate the Doctor’s audience-addressed monologues throughout the play into film language. We tried doing this through several scenes – we see the Doctor’s mother (played by the beautiful Anne Pitoniak, the actress who originated the role of the Mother in the first professional production) – we meet the Doctor’s boyfriend, etc. But it never quite works, and I feel that Jane Fonda’s performance, which is subtle and exquisite, is diminished in the viewer’s eye because of what we left out – those subtle nuances in the speeches that give the role its bite. Because of this it’s more difficult to track the Doctor’s change throughout the film, and we ended up having to end the movie with a voice-over which never quite worked. The film really plays wonderfully well up to this point, and then I fear disappoints in the last two minutes. But other than this I’m very pleased with it – it garnered me a Writers Guild nomination – and all three leading actresses turn in beautiful performances (Meg Tilly won a Golden Globe, and both she and Anne Bancroft received Oscar nods). Norman’s direction is lovely, Sven Nyqvist’s cinematography is perfect, and there are several scenes of convent life that still touch my heart whenever I see them.