Literature and the cinema have been in direct conversation with each other ever since the latter came into existence at the end of the 19th century, with none other than George Méliès looking to both William Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm for source material in his early experiments with film. At its best, the act of adaptation works like a translation, with the original carefully dismantled and then made anew with an entirely different set of tools. But all too often the subtlety of a literary text is represented on screen with too heavy a hand, in what ultimately reveals a failure of imagination.
Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger is a leaden adaptation of Sarah Waters’s quiet yet distressing novel about an aristocratic family’s downfall. The film begins with a local doctor, Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), answering a routine call to examine the only remaining maid employed at Hundreds Hall, a crumbling manor wearily inhabited by the formerly prosperous Ayres family, which includes Caroline (Ruth Wilson), her battle-scarred brother, Roderick (Will Poulter), and their mother (Charlotte Rampling). In Faraday’s childhood, during which his mother was also a maid at Hundreds Hall, the house was a grand and exclusive representation of the gulf between the commoners and Britain’s landed gentry. But many complicated factors following the immense cost of the two world wars led to the British upper class being no longer sustainable, and the Ayres family—like many others—has been left treading water in the wake left behind by a nation forcibly reinventing itself.
Faraday, as a doctor with a prominent position in the community, enters this context as a representation of a new generation’s upward mobility in what was previously a very strictly upheld class system. After tending to the maid at Hundreds Hall and then repeatedly returning again to begin treating the effects of Roderick’s various war injuries, Faraday becomes somewhat of a fixture among the Ayres family, even sometimes dropping by unannounced, almost as if the house itself were drawing him into its fold. And in what becomes a recurring image in the film—an extended scene revealed in carefully layered flashbacks—we learn that Faraday has actually been inside Hundreds Hall years ago as a child during a garden party he attended with his mother. Then, the young boy traversed forbidden territory and ultimately broke off a piece of an ornate wall decoration, as if to take as a souvenir of his time in Hundreds Hall—claiming a piece of the house as his own.
The film, like the novel, is a ghost story. Each member of the Ayres clan succumbs to a mysterious force that’s seemingly entered Hundreds Hall—perhaps an embodiment of the sibling of Caroline and Roderick who died as a child, shortly after the young Faraday first ventured into the house. And as the family threatens to completely fall apart, the doctor grows more and more desperate to keep his tenuous place among them. But while Waters’s novel is told in a tightly controlled first-person voice that deflects Faraday’s growing obsession with a veneer of good intentions toward the Ayreses, the film leans too heavily on voiceover to convey its protagonist’s inner life, and doesn’t quite pull off the intended surprise nested in its final act because the moments narrated by Faraday are too deliberate and pointed.
In Room, another adaptation of a novel told in the first person, Abrahamson gamely met the challenge of representing the perceptions of an oblivious child narrator, one who’s reimagined what the audience understands as a horrific situation into a gleeful exploration of a limited world. But the trick of presenting an unreliable narrator is to coax the audience into understanding characters who don’t understand themselves—or maybe don’t want to understand themselves—and this is a different challenge altogether.
The Little Stranger deflates when the nature of what’s befallen the Ayres family becomes too clear to the audience, too easily spelled out in metaphorical terms that could have been pointed to with less narrative intervention and a more delicate handling of how the camera can reveal things that even the characters in the frame do not—or choose not to—see. Perhaps the film’s failure to surprise in the end is a result of leaning too heavily on a toolbox not yet translated into the language of cinematic form. The occasional diversions in the narrative that build such delicate and sophisticated tensions between these troubled, doomed characters are ultimately undermined by a film that doesn’t trust its audience to sleuth out the ghost. The focus group must have fallen asleep at the wheel.