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Lecture Notes: Rosellen Brown's horror movie

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When her novel Before and After was being produced for the big screen in 1995, Rosellen Brown had every reason to hope for the best. The film's leads, Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep, seemed perfectly cast as Ben and Carolyn, a New England couple whose son is implicated in the murder of his girlfriend. The screenwriter, Ted Tally, had won an Oscar for his adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs and had a reputation for treating his source material with great respect. Brown knew producer-director Barbet Schroeder as the man who had produced some of Eric Rohmer's films, and she felt Reversal of Fortune had demonstrated his ability to handle complex characters.

Brown's earlier book Civil Wars had been optioned for a film, but Before and After was the first of her four novels to make it into production. In the curious world of Hollywood movie deals, it became a "property" before it was even a book: Brown's agent had consigned it to Creative Artists Agency shortly before Farrar Straus Giroux published the hardcover edition in 1992. The modest family drama might never have gotten Hollywood's attention without the backing of Streep, another CAA client, who identified strongly with the character of the mother. "She's a smart woman," says Brown. "She doesn't just read treatments. She read the book and got very involved in it emotionally."

The novel examines the balance between parents' responsibility for their children and their obligations to society. When Ben learns that his 17-year-old son, Jacob, a sullen and secretive boy, is wanted for questioning in the bludgeoning death of his high school sweetheart, he does everything in his power to protect the boy. When Jacob is finally arrested, his parents hire a hotshot defense attorney who's determined to win at any cost, but Carolyn and her daughter Judith are less willing to do what it takes than Ben and Jacob.

Schroeder came to visit Brown and her husband in Peterborough, the small New Hampshire town where they once lived and still spend their summers. (Originally a New Yorker, Brown taught writing at the University of Houston for 15 years, but in 1995 she and her husband moved to Chicago, where in the fall she'll join the faculty of the School of the Art Institute.) Schroeder wanted to soak up the New England locale, and to Brown he seemed fascinated by her novel's portrayal of a family suddenly ostracized by a close-knit community.

He also took care to involve Brown in the screenwriting process, soliciting her suggestions on Tally's early drafts, but she was dismayed by what she read: "The very first time I saw the script, I said to my husband, 'This looks mighty flat to me; there's nothing alive here.' And he said to me, quite correctly, 'Look, we don't really know that much about reading scripts. Obviously there's gotta be a lot of room for the director in here, and the director will probably add the spice, he'll add the angle of vision to it.'"

But by the time Brown saw Before and After, it had been previewed by a test audience, scenes had been reshot, and the movie was ready for release. To her chagrin, she discovered that Schroeder had subordinated the novel's carefully drawn characters to the empty thrills of plot. "You get the story as it happens in the book," she says, "but there isn't much reason to feel anything for the people, because you don't have any sense of who they are."

Perhaps worst of all, Tally and Schroeder had reshuffled the moral deck. In the novel, Jacob caves in his girlfriend's head with a car jack but goes free after two trials end in hung juries. In the film, he strikes her once with a tire iron, but what actually kills her is the subsequent face-first fall onto the jack. Despite the added ambiguity, a test audience decreed that Jacob should be punished for his crime, and so he gets two years in juvenile detention. Brown blanched when she saw the movie's climactic scene: Jacob makes a full confession to the police, and the family envelops him in a group hug. "They all put their arms around each other and he says, with that cracking little voice of his, 'I never knew how much you loved me.' Oh my God! I would die sooner than write a line like that."

Brown never told Schroeder what she thought of the film. "When you sell your book to somebody, he can do whatever he pleases with it," she concedes. She did fax him what she says were a few minor criticisms, but "his response was so furious and defensive that I never pursued talking to him further," she says. "I had the feeling he didn't even want to speak with me." (Schroeder signed his reply, "Love, Barbet.")

While the paperback had been selling quite well and was popular in discussion groups, Brown says the film so effectively muted the characters' moral dilemmas that she fears it will hurt book sales. Brown is now working on her fifth novel, the story of a white woman who has a child by a black man. Because of Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, which also features a child of mixed race, Brown doubts that Hollywood will come knocking this time.

While she bears no grudge against the American film industry, Brown says she doubts it's capable of pulling off a quiet family drama. Recently she watched two Hollywood films that she loved, The Fugitive and In the Line of Fire, but she couldn't help noticing that at the end of each, the villain crashes through a glass ceiling. Recalls Brown, "I thought, 'That's what we do really well!'"

Brown will discuss Before and After and her other novels Tuesday, March 11, at 5:30 PM at the Cliff Dwellers Club, 200 S. Michigan. Admission is $12; for reservations call 312-922-8080. --J.R. Jones

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rosellen Brown photo by Nathan Mandell.

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