The unfilmable brilliance of Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively’s novel defeated even Harold Pinter’s attempts to write a screenplay, and it’s not just the narrator’s voice that a camera couldn’t capture

When Michael Ondaatje won the Golden Booker prize last week he gave credit for the novel’s popularity to Anthony Minghella, suggesting that the film director’s adaptation of The English Patient had “something to do with the result of this vote”. He was being modest; The English Patient is a superb book and stands alone. Even so, it’s fun to speculate about what might have happened if an equally impressive film had been made of Moon Tiger.

Indeed, I’ve sometimes wondered why such a film has not appeared. One of the many pleasures of reading Moon Tiger comes from the variously gorgeous and unsettling images it embeds in your brain. Some of the descriptions of desert war wouldn’t look out of place in The English Patient (“A black file of Italian prisoners trudging through the grey desert, black smoke streaming from a crashed plane, white smoke puffing from the gun of a tank.”) Some descriptions of characters ring beautifully true. Narrator Claudia, for example, is in a car accident with an actor “of devastating sexuality and unbelievable stupidity”.

Other moments are striking in their vividness: Claudia and her brother Gordon as children, hunting for fossils on a cliff, or a later scene in the desert, when adult Claudia gratefully accepts tea brewed in a mess tin, made from water boiled over a can of petrol-soaked sand.

Such images have stayed with me since I first read the book almost a decade ago. But while Moon Tiger has visual appeal, I can’t see it working as a movie. Neither can Penelope Lively, who told the BBC World Service book club back in 2011:

“There were various film ideas back when it was first published. Somebody asked Harold Pinter if he’d be interested in writing a script – and I remember I found his answer extremely interesting. He said he’d liked the book very much and he’d enjoyed it – but that it would be incredibly difficult … [because of] what scriptwriters call the “internalising”: the way in which so much of it is Claudia’s thoughts and attitudes. How do you do that? It’s very difficult … I absolutely see his point. He said he’d thought about it quite a lot and he just could not see how he could bring it across and keep that aspect of it, which he felt was absolutely integral to the book.”

I quote at length because, well – Harold Pinter! The mind boggles. And also because of what Lively says about the essence of the novel: a film without Claudia’s internal voice would not be a true reflection of Moon Tiger. Her wonderful, complicated, frustrating presence could never be recreated.

This dominating voice is a curious thing. When I first reviewed the book, I described Claudia as “a mean-spirited, selfish character with whom one can’t help falling in love”. I’ve since realised I was wrong: plenty of people don’t like Claudia at all. It isn’t just that casual cruelty. Several people here have found it difficult to click with Claudia, who comes from such an alien world, was raised in a different time and place and has so many different values. If I were in a room with her, I think we’d very quickly get into an argument – and just as quickly, I would find myself losing, because Claudia is smarter than all of us.

Lively has frequently discussed the fact that some men really don’t like Claudia, saying that the way men react to the character says as much about them as her. If you’re one of the male readers that likes Claudia, you could feel flattered here, and feel proud of your ability to withstand Claudia’s wit – but maybe you’re also just seduced by Lively’s highly effective evocation of Claudia’s beauty.

But physical attraction and mental acuity are superficial aspects of Claudia. If she were a character in a film, that would perhaps be as far as things went. In the novel we are made to understand that, in spite of her charms and confidence, Claudia is vulnerable. There’s an ache to her narration that is never made explicit, but felt all the same in the gaps between the lines and in the novelist’s art. It would take one hell of a film to recreate that – and perhaps it is better that even Pinter never tried.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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