A blog on reading, writing and life

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Reads: Homage to Catalonia



            While reading Homage to Catalonia, I've been imagining how I'd make it into a film. The protagonist would be of course Eric Blair, as Orwell was known in his daily life, and throughout this review I'll be using “Blair” to refer to the character in our fictional movie and “Orwell” to refer to the author of Homage to Catalonia. The opening credits would shift back in forth in time. One period would be Blair, before arriving in Spain, dining in Paris with Henry Miller sitting at an elegantly dressed cafe table where both men would sip red wine from crystal glasses. Miller would be better dressed than Blair, who we'd portray as a young journalist and the guest of a more established writer. (Let's ignore the fact that Orwell had already published four books and had another manuscript in the publication process. This is Hollywood and we need an underdog.) A patch on Blair's suit might clarify the distinction we want, as well as casting Miller as broad shouldered and domineering to contrast with the lanky Blair. The dialogue would include some information dumps on the political situation, unfortunately this movie would require a lot of information dumps for the complex inter-leftist conflicts to make sense to the casual viewer (likely the reason it hasn't been made), but the main heart of this scene would be Miller telling Blair that going to fight in the Civil War there out of some sense of obligation or guilt was “sheer stupidity,” and that his ideas “about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all baloney.”

            This scene would be broken up with images of Blair's arrival in Barcelona, as described in the book's first chapter, establishing how it seemed to him a socialist paradise. We'd get a few close-up shots of posters for various political parties “flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues,” joyful revolutionary hymns echoing from loudspeakers while the streets filled with Spaniards in blue coveralls clasping each other’s hands and referring to each other with . Blair is seen befriending various revolutionaries in the city, as is recorded early in the book, and signs up to participate in the militia for POUM, an anti-authoritarian socialist organization.


           The story recorded in Homage to Catalonia isn't nearly as lineal as I may make it seem here, though there are sections of straight narrative. The chapters of Blair at the front focus mainly on the physical sensation of the trenches, mixed in with an explanation of the broader political situation in Spain. In this part of our film, however, we would introduce some characters who become important at the end of the narrative, such as Jorge Knopp and Bob Smilie, who are both later arrested by the Communist, the latter dying of appendicitis in prison. Orwell mentions that there were heated political discussions that he didn't take seriously at the time, which would be a good way to cover more of the political background. I'm sure we'd slip the phrase “war of acronyms” in somewhere.

           Orwell records many memorable images in these chapters. I imagine Blair reading various books from scene to scene. Orwell mentions distinct memories of reading a pulp detective magazine and a Penguin classic, and I think the appearance of various 1930's titles and covers could be an interesting visual.
   
         We would dig a narrative out of Blair’s frustrations with the unorganized POUM militia, which was putting boys barely into their teens on the front, often with barely working rifles. But he’s anger would be soothed by his friendships with the other foreigners in his unit, who really believe in absolute revolution, while Blair remains more pragmatic, thinking that the left-wing groups need to stay united against the fascists.

           Soon after the only serious action Blair is involved in at the front (and a nice set-piece in our fictional film), his unit it sent back to Barcelona on leave. He finds the proletarian paradise he saw months earlier had disappeared. Now they are elegantly dressed people in big black cars and luxurious being sold in shop windows. The returning militia don’t receive the hero’s welcome that they would have once received, and is marched through town with hardly a glance from the pedestrians busying along the sidewalk. Blair's wife visited him Barcelona, which has great potential of human interest. Orwell doesn't say much about her, or any other individual for that matter, but what we do learn about her makes it clear she is a badass, very narrowing escaping arrest herself towards the end of the narrative.
     
       Our climax would be here, in the Barcelona street fighting that began when the anti-fascist groups began to turn on one another after the Civil Guard tries to take over the Telephone Exchange run by an anarchist workers union. Blair, enjoying his leave, is strolling down the street through the now openly bourgeoisie city when he hears rifle fire and sees anarchist running down the street with red and black neckerchiefs. Another POUM member herds him into their militia’s headquarters, and they find them woefully underprepared, not even having enough guns and ammunition to hand around. Our next several scenes would record Blair’s various positions, guarding the building from the Civil Guard, who technically were on the same side of the war. All the while, rumors are spreading that POUM might be outlawed and Blair made a traitor to the cause he traveled hundreds of miles to fight for.
    
        Blair returns to the front at this point, but after Barcelona, our film would wrap up quickly. It is worth noting though that in this section of the book Orwell writes the most British line of all time. He opens the story of being shot through the neck, a wound that missed his carotid artery by millimeters, destroying one of his vocal chords and nearly paralyzing his arm, with the following line: “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in great detail.” Oh, the British.
     
       When Blair is released from the hospital and arrives back in town, we'd have a scene Blair's wife saving his ass from being caught by the secrete police, then a montage of the POUM members she recollects have escaped or were “got,” among those “got” Major Jorge Knopp, arrested on his way to an urgent mission at the front. Blair's attempts to get him released, speaking to a colonel in the Popular Army and being forced to confess membership in a heretical political party, would be the last major events before Blair and his wife manage to escape Spain shortly after the Civil Guard tears apart their hotel room.
       
     We’d end our film the same way the book ends: with images of England, untouched and ignorant of the brutal civil war just 700 miles south of her. As Orwell writes, and I certainly can’t improve, “the railway-cutting smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shinning horses browse, the slow moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the lackspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England.”   

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