Kent Haruf’s ‘Our Souls at Night’: from novel to movie. What worked and what didn’t.
The expectation is always high when, after reading a good book, we watch its movie adaptation. Many are the questions that come to mind: about the screenplay’s faithfulness to the original work; about the director’s and the actors’ skills; about the successful outcome of condensing two or three hundred pages into a two-hour movie.
Kent Haruf’s ‘Our Souls at Night’ is an elegant, simple story, poignant in its simplicity, where – as Ciriaco wrote in his review of the book (in Italian, here) – ‘the dialogues run like in a tale, without being forced, without any dramatisation… and where the characters are essential, well-rounded, beautiful.’
Some viewers might be disappointed by Ritesh Batra’s movie, because Louise and Addie’s souls – at night – speak, disclose, dig into their past in a continuous dialogue that is what is building up the couple’s unique relationship while revealing their personal stories. But there is much more than that, in the novel. Much more than what – for some people – could otherwise result in an overtly sentimental, cloy story.
I was not disappointed by the movie, and I attributed this to the actors, who did a very fine job in portraying their respective characters. There is great chemistry between Jane Fonda (interpreting Addie) and Robert Redford (Louis), who have been working together since the Sixties, starring in ‘The Chase’, ‘Barefoot in the Park’ and ‘The Electric Horseman’. Their good acting keeps the plot – partly devoid of the complexity of Haruf’s novel – going. The movie is even more character-driven than the novel, therefore the role of the actors is pivotal. Fonda is great in representing Addie, the bold and forthright woman, who makes the first move and cannot care less about people’s gossiping. Redford is perfect as Louis, the tense, worried man who treasures this new relationship and yet sneaks in Addie’s backdoor so people don’t talk.
In general, the storyline has been respected in the screenplay, written by Scott Nuestadter and Michael H. Weber. As we soon find out, the intimate relationship between Addie and Louis (who are neighbours, both in their seventies, both widowed) does not start with a spark of passion, but with an unusual proposal. This is certainly the best part of the novel, and of the movie as well. One night, Addie Moore knocks at Louis Waters’ door saying that she needs to talk to him about something. Once inside, she comes out with the unlikely proposal: ‘I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.’ Addie explains that she doesn’t mean she wants to have sex with Louis. The nights are long and often sleepless, but – she says – ‘I think I could sleep again if there were someone else in bed with me. Someone nice. The closeness of that. Talking in the night, in the dark.’
Louis, startled by the idea, agrees to think about it. And so they start, from the following night. They talk in details about things that both of them already know (Louis’ extra marital affair, the death of Addie’s daughter – run over by a car when she was a child; his relationship with his daughter, her relationship with her son), and others that are more intimate and personal. All this needs to be said, needs to come out of their own souls to take its real shape and to cement their relationship. Obviously, the couple becomes a scandal in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, but then even this novelty is soon gone. Therefore, it seems that their happy relationship can go on like this forever, despite the outside world, their family issues, and people’s judgement.
And it is precisely here, in the complexity of ‘other’ relationships that have a weigh on Addie and Louis’ lives, that Haruf’s novel shows all the strength that is missing in the movie. On screen, we are introduced to Louis’ daughter, but we know very little about her, and we cannot understand that her incapability to have long-lasting relationships with men is rooted in the fact that Louis’ wife felt rejected and mistreated after his betrayal ‘And that was picked up by our little girl from her mother and probably is part of her feeling now about men, including me,’ as Louis says.
In the same way, watching the movie, we become aware of the difficult relationship between Addie and her own son, Gene. Gene (who has just lost his job and is going through a marriage crisis) does not accept Louis’ presence in his mother’s life and home, even less so when his own child, Jamie, spends some time at Addie’s and gets close to Louis. But all this cannot give justice to the many layers of Haruf’s novel, which partly explain the painful final developments. Gene not only has always felt guilty for his sister’s death, because they were playing together when she ran away and was hit by a car. He has also suffered for the failed relationship with his own father, and this makes him very judgemental towards Louis.
‘He seems to be repeating what happened between him and his own father,’ (Addie says).
‘You can’t fix things, can you,’ Louis said.
‘We always want to. But we can’t.’
This perfect, brief dialogue, sums up the essence of life, the power of fate.
The last part of the novel, with Addie’s final resolution, is much more dramatic than in the movie. There is tension, there is revenge, and Gene’s resentment and anger play a big role. Addie’s final decision is not the result of a rationalised thought process that delineates what is best for her and her grandson, as it seems to come out from the screenplay adaptation. It is rather due to a lack of sensible choices, an action taken out of fear of losing what is dearest to her. This has unavoidable consequences on her relationship with Louis.
A sentence said by Ritesh Batra, the movie director, resonates with the development of the plot and is even more clear in the novel: “I always saw this movie as a coming-of-age story. Coming-of-age stories are not just for younger people. I’ve been coming of age every decade in my life in a small way.” It is true. In great literature, characters evolve and change, just like we do. And Harouf’s shows us this transformation. In using both characters’ points of view throughout, and in a very respectful manner, Harouf highlights their evolutions.
If Batra’s movie can stand up to any criticism because of the great affinity between the actors and their apt roles in interpreting Addie and Louis, Kent Haruf’s novel progresses pushed by changes, situations and the characters’ reactions to external factors and relationships. And this happens despite the fact that Haruf talks about the simple happiness of two normal lives. His great achievement is his capability to do so without any cheesiness or sentimentality, but with great honesty, the same honesty and respect that Addie and Louis have for each other and that will never falter.
I would recommend watching the movie (a Netflix production) and also, definitely, reading the book, to appreciate the many nuances of this beautiful story. Haruf’s mastery and skills in ‘Our Souls at Night’, a novel he completed just before dying, are to be found in the transparency of his prose, in the fine dialogues, in the way he gives life to the characters, and in the linearity of the plot. And all this cannot be missed. Even if nothing extraordinary happens in Holt, or in and around Addie and Louis’ lives, so much happens between the two souls that meet at night.