Saturday, August 04, 2007

There Is No Frigate Like a Book

I see that Up the Down Staircase will be coming to DVD on November 6. I recall being disappointed when I first saw this film for a very specific reason: it was not a comedy, and I had always thought of the book as basically a comedy. When I re-read it later I realized that it is basically a story about a young teacher trying to make a difference at a tough school where most of the other teachers have given up trying -- in other words, that the movie is faithful to the book.

But because the book is done in the form of letters (long letters by the heroine and short letters and notes written to her by her colleagues and students), a lot of it is comedy, with the students in particular doing schtick that would have fit in on Welcome Back Kotter. The makers of the movie were two of the most subdued, un-schticky filmmakers around, the team of Robert Mulligan (director) and Alan Pakula (producer) that had done To Kill a Mockingbird, so the tone is very muted and maybe not quite different enough from the average Blackboard Jungle type of movie.


Anonymous said...

The Mulligan movie of Up the Down Staircase is all right, I guess, but it's predominately dark and somber -- it's a serious movie with little humor; the characters seem defeated and doomed. [You can imagine Sandy Dennis going home one night during her second year at the school and committing suicide.] But the lasting appeal of Bel Kaufman's novel back in the '60s and '70s came from its (lightly) daring mixture of despair and black humor actually encountered by most teachers. It was a funny book, because it was true and rueful.

Perhaps Mulligan & Pakula (and scripter Tad Mosel) feared straying from a straight forward dramatic structure; maybe they were just afraid that if they followed Kaufman's approach, people would laugh at the wrong things. At heart, it's a pretty ordinary movie (though fairly well acted, and nicely shot on location). My mother, a teacher for nearly twenty years, liked the picture but missed the "piquancy" of the novel. "We didn't laugh enough," she said.

It might have taken the likes of a Robert Altman to try some things and really face the many sides of Kaufman's story. [That said, there's little of value in the later, ridiculous TEACHERS, which did take a darkly humored attitude toward its subject.]

mybillcrider said...

I remember that line from the novel: "Never try to teach 'No Frigate Like a Book.'" Great stuff. When I read the novel, I was a first-year high school teacher, and I identified with everything in it. I thought it was very true and very funny.