Tom Ford dominates his film adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man with a slick visual aesthetic that too often obscures the subtleties of human emotion its lead actor, Colin Firth, displays. A few days after seeing the film, Ford’s meticulous images (a couple’s intimate talk poised on a precarious cliff, naked male torsos writhing under water) faded quickly from my mind as if I was turning the page in a fashion magazine. However, Mr. Firth’s character, George Falconer, a gay English professor living a mostly closeted life in 1960’s Los Angeles, lived with me for weeks as I was heartened by the continuing evolution of gay and lesbian characters on film.

George is not only the centerpiece of the movie, he is given a complex interior life, filled with astute observations about love and grief that transcend his gay identity. Yet, despite these advances, I was left with one nagging question: why did this story need to include the ubiquitous gay suicidal ideation in its narrative? I decided to read the source material, the classic book that Edmund White touts as “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement” and was shocked to discover no notions of suicide in it. If a book written in a pre-Stonewall world didn’t need this in it, then why would a film version made almost a half century later?

In both the book and movie, we witness a day in the life of George, who has recently lost his long time lover, Jim (played in the film by Matthew Goode), to a car accident. This being the sixties, George is unable to share his grief with anyone but his closest friend, Charlotte (a glamorous Julianne Moore), who still harbors romantic feelings for him and reflects the ignorance of the culture at the time: even though she witnessed the intimacy between George and Jim, she still wonders if George missed out on a “real” relationship with a wife and children.

In the book, Isherwood astutely maps the physical and psychological effects of this stifled grief with a precision so recognizable, the reader is viscerally aware of it. As strong emotion does, it charges every conversation, every action and thought, with its energy. Like the best novels of this era (Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays come to mind), Isherwood always ties this grief and depression to the body, so as not to get lost in the psychobabble of the self-help literature (i.e. Dr. Thomas Harris’ I’m OK, You’re OK and Dr. Eric Berne’s Games People Play) that came to popularity later in the decade.

Mr. Firth is faithful to this in his performance, registering this force in the slack of his jaw and shoulders and only incrementally rebuilding his posture and smile as the film progresses.

What is revolutionary about how Isherwood wrote and how Firth performs this character is the ways they humanize George in a world that has chosen to dehumanize him, to include him in a human spectrum that usually ostracizes GLBT characters. Unfortunately, Mr. Ford and his screenwriting partner, David Scearce, chose to include the stereotypical notion that all gay characters in the face of tragedy and without the support of society must contemplate suicide, a fate that was too often expected for gay characters, especially in films about this era, such as Don Murray’s Brig Anderson in Advise and Consent and Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Doble in The Children’s Hour. For Isherwood to not include this was a huge leap forward and in the book’s ending, George is left contemplating mortality as his heart races toward an attack, but death is not definite, it’s as it is for everyone, an ever present possibility; in the movie, the suicide attempt is aborted, but the heart attack leaves George pale and dead on his bedroom floor.

Mr. Ford has said that this movie is “extremely autobiographical” and that when “George decides to take his own life all of a sudden the beauty of the world starts to pull at him,” statements which suggest another, more personal film might be in his future, one where his eye for artificiality might reflect the world of his characters more. With the recent suicide of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, I could see Mr. Ford telling a very moving story about the struggle to create and be human in an industry that focuses solely on surfaces. For this story, though, it’s Isherwood’s choice to not make George a tragic character, to give him sparks of redemption throughout the day and to leave his ending open that makes it more universal.

by Christopher Isherwood
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN: 978-0816638628
Paperback, $15.95 ,186p

Directed by Tom Ford
Screenplay by Tom Ford and David Scearce

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5 Responses to “Isherwood through Ford’s Lens: ‘A Single Man’ 40 Years Later”

  1. 2 March 2010 at 2:25 AM #

    I heard Ford’s interview on Fresh Air, so I knew about the suicide theme. A few things surprised me about the film, which stays in some ways so very close to the book.

    Why are the students white? In the short novel, most of the students are Asian, many Japanese and close to the interment camps. It’s a small detail, but I didn’t understand the need to “bleach” the campus. I first read the book when living in Europe and it felt important to me that both George and the students were, in some ways, strangers in this country.

    Why was Charley dressed so beautifully? Again, I remember her as more trying to look good than succeeding.

    And, most important (other than the suicide storyline, which is clearly the most important change), why is George so clearly not invited to the funeral? This detail, to me, changed the whole emotional tone of the film. There was an angry that we, the audience, are to feel toward the Jim’s family that was added. Isherwood has the family being almost tender. Then we can feel the anger of grief.

    All that said, I very much enjoyed the film and was very happy to see this work of Isherwood, with such an interior focus, made so well (if differently).

  2. 2 March 2010 at 2:23 PM #

    I really enjoyed reading this insightful piece, Steven. It presents a perspective I hadn’t considered, mostly because I’d been thinking of the introduction of the suicidal thoughts from a formal perspective.

    I remember first watching the preview for the movie and feeling dismayed after seeing a prominently-placed gun, since I didn’t remember anything like it from the book. By the time I’d finished watching the movie, though, I felt its inclusion made sense. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, so forgive me if my thoughts are a little foggy, but I think that George’s keen observations and insights, delivered via his internal monologue are (in part) what makes the book so compelling. These insights would be difficult to capture on film without the intrusion of extensive voice-over, which Tom Ford & co. wisely avoid. Instead, they shape his observations by presenting them as a result of his contemplation of suicide; he suddenly sees the world differently because he imagines that he will soon not be a part of it. This allows the film to engage in these glorious moments that have the power and force of revelation, and I think they might not make sense, or would at least feel clumsier, without the added element of suicidal thoughts. They dramatically shape the narrative in a way that works for film, whereas Isherwood shaped his narrative more subtly in ways that work for literature.

    (If I’m right, though, maybe this makes Tom Ford a lazy filmmaker. Or maybe, as you suggest, an insensitive one. Or maybe just a cautious one, since, after all, this is his first movie.)

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts; I always enjoy hearing (or reading) them.

  3. 3 March 2010 at 4:04 PM #


    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree that Ford added the suicide plot as a way to ratchet up the dramatic tension and, as you say, to give his insights added weight. But, even if we put aside my argument about that choice in light of gay cinema, we’re still forced to question whether it’s psychologically astute. Does a character on the day he is planning a suicide have these types of revelations? In my experience and reading, people that close to suicide aren’t looking for redemption and they’ve already convinced themselves that the human experience is no longer valuable or precious. These types of revelations come more to people who either had to face their own mortality through illness or accident or from the death of someone close to them, both of which are built-in to this story already.

  4. 7 March 2010 at 4:10 PM #

    Let me say first, I have not read the novel. Reading this comparison of the film and written work I am dismayed that the sucide was not part of Isherwoods original novel. I can understand Tom Fords use of the intention of suicide to take the character from an extreme low to bring him forward through these moments of life’s beauty to have him find a new found hope. But I ask this, then why kill off the character in the end through a heart attack? Why not leave the film open ended completely in the end or as apparently as the book “suggested” that he may have a heart attack. I loved the films style and performances as well as the lingering, quiet direction by Mr. Ford, but in the end it felt that the main character had nothing but death in the end. I would have much rather seen a man truly grieve his lover in a true to life way, then perhaps have these awakenings through the same beautiful experiences in his last day and then perhaps had a heart attack in the end. I think then it would have left his audience with a feeling that these days experiences were fate filled leading us to ending that would leave us as well as the character with a greater sense of peace. A suicide plot as well as then having the character die at the end from natural causes after he had decided to live on is just plain overkill. Had the suicide been left out, you would have had a much more tender, endearing, true film about life, love, and fate.

  5. […] an Academy Award for his starring role in another Isherwood adaptation, A Single Man. Steven Rydman wrote about the film in February. Watch the trailer for Christopher & His Kind and read the synopsis after the […]

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