Film studies: A pause for Pinter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 January, 2009, 12:00am

The death of Harold Pinter on Christmas Eve has not only robbed theatre of one of its finest playwrights, it has deprived cinema of a unique and powerful voice, not to mention an accomplished actor.

Described in his Times obituary as a 'masterly screenwriter', Pinter produced almost 70 scripts for television and film in a career spanning nearly 50 years: his first screenplay was 1960's A Night Out for British television's Armchair Theatre; his last was for Kenneth Branagh's remake of Sleuth, starring Michael Caine and Jude Law.

Pinter was nominated for two Academy Awards for adapting John Fowler's The French Lieutenant's Woman (starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, pictured) in 1981 and his own play, Betrayal, in 1983. He won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for 1964's The Servant, and two Baftas for The Pumpkin Eater in 1964 and The Go-Between in 1971.

Given the single-minded integrity of his work for the theatre, Pinter's writing for the cinema feels diverse by contrast. True, many of his screenplays are brooding, darkly comic and pregnant with pauses that speak louder than words - most obviously the successful film versions of his own plays such as The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and the aforementioned Betrayal. But Pinter also adapted everything from Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers to Shakespeare's King Lear; from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Love of the Last Tycoon. He was the (uncredited) writer of the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, and he could also transform base novels such as Adam Hall's The Quiller Memorandum into cinematic gold.

Nowhere is Pinter's alchemical touch better illustrated than in his first film, an adaptation of Robert Maugham's novella, The Servant. Attracted by the story's 'battle for positions' in an ever-shifting master-servant relationship, Pinter expanded this slip of a book into a searing parable of power, class conflict and repressed male aggression. Released in 1963, The Servant also signalled the first of several distinguished collaborations with director Joseph Losey: in 1967, they collaborated on Accident, and on The Go-Between in 1971. Other notable collaborators included Elia Kazan, Robert Altman, Paul Schrader and Karel Reisz.

Although Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005, largely thanks to his much-heralded contribution to the theatre, it was cinema that increasingly dominated the final decades of his writing life. Many critics see 1983's Betrayal as the end of his heyday as a dramatist. Yet, in the ensuing 20 years, he produced a number of fine works for the screen, including The Comfort of Strangers, The Handmaid's Tale, The Trial, and Old Times for television.

Originally an actor, Pinter also delivered several impressive film performances: as Goldberg in his own The Birthday Party; as a domineering Sir Thomas Bertram in Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park, and as Krapp in the film of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.

This latter role was a fitting tribute by one great artist to another: Beckett was a central influence on Pinter's work, in much the same way that Pinter has influenced subsequent generations of writers for both the stage and screen. Indeed, we may hear from Pinter yet. A number of his scripts remain unfilmed, including a version of Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and Joseph Conrad's Victory. Whether these are made or not, Pinter's voice will continue to be heard whenever dramatists confront fear, pain, violence, oppression and the unspoken spaces between us all.