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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

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My name:  Brian Martin

The Awakening (1980), directed by Mike Newell

The Awakening is one of several adaptations of The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker.  It stars Charlton Heston as the Egyptologist from the novel and Stephanie Zimbalist as his daughter, and several other people who no more than suggest characters from Stoker's story, and who aren't very important anyway.


Brought up to the present (1980), it reminds us of the arrogance of the West at the turn of the century.  In the novel, Stoker’s Egyptologist was able to cart the full contents of an Egyptian queen’s tomb back to his house in England.  Here, in the film, all a grateful government will give him is a mirror, and a pretty cheesy one at that.


Yet the movie begins well, cleverly starting 18 years before the novel, with the birth of Heston’s daughter.  I mentioned in my review of the novel that very little happens in the first third, but we know that something dramatic happened much earlier, when little Margaret was born.  In the book, her mother died in childbirth.  She doesn’t die in the movie, but instead gives birth prematurely (and painfully).  And in both cases, the event begins the moment the Egyptologist opens the queen’s tomb.


I had begun to think I might have found a treasure of my own, but the feeling didn’t last long after the movie jumped to the present day, at which point it lost focus, squandering the dramatic momentum of the opening.  You know the filmmakers' are scrambling when a loving father and his devoted daughter are squeezed off the printed page and poured onto celluloid as potential practitioners of incest.  This theme gets scant treatment here, and ironically that’s a fault rather than a virtue, for it becomes just another blind alley down which the script wanders in its vain search for some idea to generate sustained suspense.


Adaptations fascinate me, and while I don’t let a bad adaptation prevent me from enjoying a good movie, I do find it instructive to compare the two, especially when the movie is lacking, in which case education is often mixed with humor.  Stoker spends quite a lot of time explaining the ancient Egyptian concept of “Ka,” the idea that people can project their consciousness outside of their own bodies.  And he mentions “Ra,” the Egyptian god of the sun.  When Heston and his assistant (Susannah York) enter the queen’s tomb, York notices the hieroglyphics for both outside the Queen’s Chamber.  But, instead of interpreting them in any meaningful way – as any true scientist would do – she says, “Ka, Ra” and so names the queen:  Kara.


This sort of superficiality is what really undermines the movie.  In terms of action, Stoker didn’t give any future screenwriters much to work with.  Which should have been a clue.  Where screenwriters Clive Exton, Chris Bryant, and Allan Scott decided to inject a number of conventional horror scenes to fill the gap, they would have been better served turning the movie inward.  The characters, after all, have quite a pretty problem:  a queen who wants to live again, a scientist who would give (almost?) anything to see that happen, and a young woman who would much rather live her own life than become the vessel of some ancient Egyptian bitch.