A Good Year is an enjoyable book and film

by Glenn on July 4, 2015

When given the choice of the book or the movie, it’s usually the movie. I can’t think of an occasion where I would choose the movie over the book. But there are some cases where the movie is as enjoyable as the book.

In the case of A Good Year, both the Peter Mayle novel and the Ridley Scott film are delightful. I would like to know more of the provenance of the movie as Peter Mayle mentions the director, Ridley Scott, in his Author’s Note. He writes,

“For his crucial contribution to the book, I would like to thank Ridley Scott, whose nose for a good story got me started.”

I love both the book and the movie.

There are some key details that are different. In the book, Max Skinner has lost his job on the same day that he discovers that he has inherited his uncle’s estate, which introduces a theme of a down-on-his-luck character getting the opportunity to start over.

In the film, Skinner is a high-powered London money maker that rides close to the line of legality and doesn’t mind hurting people in the process. So that while Skinner comes across more as a victim in the book, he isn’t all that likable in the film. In the book, France is a place for Skinner to begin again. In the film, France is a place for Skinner to become more kind and human.

In the book, the action follows Skinner so that once he has left London, we don’t really go back. The film has a character that doesn’t exist in the book, an assistant for Skinner, Gemma, played by Archie Panjabi. (It’s intriguing to hear Panjabi using Indian-accented English as I’m used to her sounding rather American on The Good Wife.) Gemma keeps us in London as she and Skinner talk on the phone throughout the film. (I can’t believe how anachronistic a Blackberry seems already.)

Of course, the film has a pretty French lawyer, just like in the book, but in the film that’s all there is to it, while in the book the lawyer is part of a mystery that adds another facet to the story. It’s unfortunate that that mystery takes a very minor role in the film.

One other character that doesn’t really exist in the book is Uncle Henry. In the book he is simply referred to. For example, Skinner at one point says,

“[H]e liked to think of himself as a man with one or two basic principles, and a voice from the grave came back to remind him of something Uncle Henry had often told him: a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.”

In the film, Uncle Henry is a main character as the film is constantly flashing back to young Max learning lessons from his Uncle Henry.

There are some minor differences in characters and plot points. For example, in the book, Claude Roussel manages the vineyard. In the film, he is named Francis Duflot. In both the book and film, Skinner and his vineyard manager are wary of each other, but in the book Roussel comes to Skinner with a confession where in the film Skinner and Duflot work out any strife through a tennis match.

When I enjoy both the book and the film, it’s because the film has managed to bring the book to life (or at least has captured the spirit of a novel). It seems to me that plays and short novels adapt themselves the best to the screen. These allow you to say things like, “That’s just how I pictured it” or, at least, “I can see why they’d picture it that way.” (The first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, worked that way for me as did The Shawshank Redemption and A River Runs Through It.)

When the book is long, then I find myself saying things like, “Wow, they’re leaving a lot out” or, more specifically, “What happened to Tom Bombadil?” And so Mayle’s book seemed like a great choice for the screen.

I think it’s interesting the role of imagination plays in experiencing these two genres of novel and film. In the book, so many things are left to us as readers to picture. For example, we’re left largely to our own to picture what Max Skinner looks like. But films give us very specific images. The director has done the imagining for us so that we don’t have to picture what Max Skinner looks like. We know he looks like Russell Crowe. And his love interest looks like Marion Cotillard.

A Good Year as a novel and a film is simply two ways of telling the same story. Peter Mayle makes you wish you lived in the south of France. He brings romance to the whole thing. I think Ridley Scott’s film operates more on the level of seduction, with all of the beautiful people.

Scott’s version of the story revolves around a choice that Max must make, between his ultra-successful London life and carrying on his uncle’s legacy in the south of France.

There is a lovely moment of dialogue in the film:

How typical, to assume that I live in Provence because I have no choice.

Fanny, this place just doesn’t suit my life.

No, Max, it is your life that doesn’t suit this place.

Of course, there’s the fact that films are much less work. It’s much harder for me to read a book than watch a movie, and I normally feel more proud of having read a book.