I first discovered The Beguiled when I saw a trailer for the recent movie, which looked intriguingly dark and mysterious. When I did some googling , I found that it is based on a book that had been published in 1966. Generally I prefer to read a book before I see its movie rendering, so I set about ordering a copy from my local library immediately.
Impressions of the Book
The book jumps around between each of the female characters, and the story is slowly revealed through their slightly differing perspectives. Often the girls spy on one another and recount conversations between others that they have heard. The story is told by the characters looking back on past events, and it often reads like a script. Considering the author is a playwright, this isn’t surprising. I found the dialogue in this book to be flowery and somewhat excessive. The characters tend to chat for extended periods, and that made the book slowly drag on in a way that made me feel impatient. I had seen the book described as “gothic horror”, and for the life of me I wasn’t finding anything horrifying about it. It’s not until about 2/3 of the way into the book that the story finally begins to pick up, and the action helps the book at least finish well.
What frustrated me about this book was that even though there are “secrets” about the characters that are slowly revealed, none of them differentiate from one another in an extremely noticeable way. In fact, the characters spend so much time listening in on one another and dictating each other’s conversations that one barely has any time to understand much about the inner workings of the individual women. They all run together in a confusing way, and it’s frustrating that there is so little variance. On top of that, some of the women are flighty and just plain daft a good deal of the time.
Noticeably, the story is never told from the wounded soldier’s point of view. The soldier (Johnny) is an enigma that the reader is constantly trying to understand throughout the book. His flattery is ceaseless as he interacts with each woman.
The great question that the author asks the reader is, “Who is the beguiled?” He makes this almost impossible to discern because the motivation behind all of the action is completely hidden from the reader. We don’t have any direct explanation for feelings or emotions experienced by the characters, only an account of these emotions as observed by others. As parts of the women’s pasts are revealed, we can only guess if these events contribute to their actions within the story. Johnny, of course, reveals very little about his past except for a brief account of his journey from Ireland and his enlistment into the Union military. He also shares some brief, anecdotal stories about his life in Ireland, but other events in the story leave you questioning whether or not he is weaving tales for his own benefit.
There is one character whose inner thoughts and lucidity stand out among the rest, and that is Mattie, the sole slave left at the school.
While the book challenges you to answer a question, the movie approaches the story from a different angle. For me, I felt that the movie was much more intent on observing the actions and the subsequent reactions of the characters. Once Johnny is half-dragged to the house, you see the women’s daily lives and their state of mind affected by his presence. The sexual energy and agitation he generates within the house are palpable almost immediately.
The atmosphere of the movie is by far my favorite part. The sets and costumes are beautiful, and the stunning house is a focal point of the film. The candlelit evening scenes within their home lend a (quite literally) dark and eerie feeling to the movie. The movie brought the story alive for me in a way that I was unable to do when reading the book. I was so caught up in the mires of superfluous dialogue that I didn’t put much consideration into the scenery!
The movie moves through the story quickly, which for me was a welcome change after dredging through the book. Some characters in the book are removed from the movie, most notably Mattie, as well as Harriet Farnsworth, the second teacher. Harriet’s character is merged with that of a student, Edwina Morrow. The backstories of the characters are completely ignored in the film, and thus the viewer’s focus is confined to the present.
The ending of the movie is far more dramatic than that of the book, which personally I appreciated. However, I think that the book does a better job of leaving you thinking about what you encountered. It gives a little tug on your heartstrings, if you are carefully paying attention to details. The dexterity of the author and his mission to leave the reader wondering are evident in his conclusion. The movie’s finish is abrupt in comparison, and you are quickly hustled to the credits. It’s not the type of movie that leaves you with excess emotion to shake off; you don’t build any real attachment to the characters, so leaving is easy.
The book was…ok. Honestly, I was a little underwhelmed. Would I still recommend it? Possibly, if you are a patient reader and are able to put up with over the top amounts of dialogue. The author weaves a story that provokes the reader to speculate further, which I think is admirable. I would be more likely to recommend the movie, as it is a quick watch with a unique ambience to it that I think is its strongest feature. Whichever you choose, The Beguiled is a noteworthy story that, if you wait long enough, will serve up a few surprises in the end.
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