Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jerzy Kosinski's _Being There_, novel and film

I had seen Being There many years ago and was intrigued by it. Recently I found a copy of the novel by Jerzy Kosinski, so I thought it would be interesting to see the film again and compare it with the novel. I decided to watch the film first and then read the novel, for I have found that reading the story first tends to prejudice me against the film version. So, that's the way it happened, and I found the experience very interesting and a bit confusing also.

First, I should point out that the good folks at the International Movie Database site ( assert that Jerzy Kosinski not only wrote the novel but that he is also the film's screenwriter. To the usual questions that always arise whenever a book is adapted for film, are added several others. Why did the novelist make these changes in his story? Were they just the usual changes that are made when transferring the story from print to film? Were some of these changes really ones he wished he had made in the novel in the first place? Were they ideas that he had initially rejected when writing the novel or perhaps ideas that came after he had published the novel? Only Kosinski, obviously, can tell us, and I've never read any comments by him about either the novel or the film.

Spoiler Warning: from this point on, I shall be discussing important plot elements and also revealing the endings of both the novel and the film.

The basic plot structure of the novel is retained in the film. Chance (played by Peter Sellers) is an orphan and is taken into a rich man's house. He becomes the gardener. Chance's benefactor dies, and he must leave the house that he hasn't left for some 40 years or more. He has met less than five people up to this point: his benefactor, two maids, and the gardener before him who stayed around only long enough to tell Chance what his duties were. After The Old Man died, Chance then met two more people from the law firm that his benefactor employed. They were the ones who told him he had to leave.

He leaves and is injured, painfully though not seriously, by a limousine owned by the wealthy and powerful Ben Rand. His wife (Shirley MacLaine) was in the vehicle and invited him to stay at their place until his injury, a bad bruise, is healed. Her husband is dying, and they have an extensive medical setup in the house. The doctor is also living there at this time.

Chance, now known as Chauncey Gardiner (she misunderstood his answer to her question regarding his name--Chance, the gardener), moves in and charms both Rands. He meets the US President and impresses him also. Since the President quoted him, Chance then became news and appears on a TV late night show and becomes an instant celebrity. He has two sexual encounters, one homosexual and one heterosexual with Mrs. Rand. His reaction to both is curiosity only, and both realize that he is uninterested in sex.

The power brokers behind the present President then decide that he is a liability and that if they wish to control the White House they must dump him and select someone else. They finally decide on Chauncey as their candidate for President.

That's the bare bones of the story, the novel and the film. What does Chance/Chauncey have that so impresses people? It is his seemingly childlike simplicity and, conversely, his presumed ability to discuss complex issues in a very basic way. He appears to be one who simply and naively says what he thinks at all times. When asked about the dire economic situation (sounds much like today), he responds with an analogy from gardening, the only thing he knows, besides TV. He compares the recession? depression? with the seasons. It is now autumn and time for many plants to die or at least go into a resting state. However, spring will come, and the garden will bloom once again. Some plants will need help while others will survive on their own. This is true also of the present economic situation.

What also is evident is that each person who hears him interprets Chance's statements. Chance is really a mirror in which all see their own faces and all hear what they want to hear. At a party, the Russian ambassador asks Chance if he knows the fables of Krylov. Being agreeable, Chance smiles. The ambassador says something in Russian and Chance laughs. The ambassador immediately assumes that Chance understands Russian and was laughing at what he said.

While the basic plot structure is the same, there are a number of curious changes that are incorporated in the film. I won't discuss those changes that I think are inevitable when going from print to film. A number of the changes, though, are curious.

One of the most important changes is in the depiction of Chance. In the film, he comes across as being almost retarded, socially retarded if not mentally anyway. He speaks as a young child with very simple sentences. "I am glad to meet you...Yes, I am hungry also." He seems to be all surface, and his behavior is always calm and somewhat flat. He also seems to be a reactive sort of person in that he seldom initiates a conversation and usually waits for the other person to begin. He then takes his cues from that person.

However, that's not quite the way he appears in the novel. For example, in the film, gardening and watching TV are the two most important activities in Chance's life. Nothing in the film, however, suggests that watching TV is any more significant for him than it is for any other TV addict. But, Chance has a very clear and distinct idea about his relationship with the TV set:

"By changing the channel he could change himself. he could go through phases, as garden plants went through phases, but he could change as rapidly as he wished by twisting the deal backward and forward. In some cases he could spread out into the screen without stopping, just as on TV people spread out into the screen. By turning the dial, Chance could bring others inside his eyelids. Thus he came to believe that is was he, Chance, and no one else who made himself be."

Chance in the novel is a somewhat more complex person than he is in the film. At several points in the novel, Chance finds himself in a novel situation. Not knowing what to do or say, he decides to act as he has seen others act on TV in similar situations. He is not acting naturally or spontaneously, as it appears on film or to the other characters, but he is putting on a facade that he thinks is appropriate for the situation. For example, during the first morning that Chance finds himself in the Rand mansion, he is still in bed when Mrs Rand (Eve in the film and EE), comes in and begins talking.

"Thinking that he ought to show a keen interest in what EE was saying, Chance resorted to repeating to her parts of her own sentences, a practice he had observed on TV. In this fashion he encourages her to continue and elaborate."

And again, when Chance meets the President--

"Remembering that during his TV press conferences, the President always looked straight at the viewers, Chance stared directly into the President's eyes."

However, TV's limitations are also Chance's limitations. At one point, when EE attempts to seduce him, Chance doesn't know what to do. He had watched many scenes on TV in which males and females kissed and hugged and even started to remove some articles of clothing, but then the scene changed or a commercial came on, so he never knew what came next.

It seems clear to me that throughout the novel, Chance is not just the simple soul he appears to be on the surface, but someone more complex; however just what that is, I don't know. The picture of Chance in the film is different for only near the end of the film does Chance act in a way that suggests something more than the wise sage that others take him to be.

In the film, the doctor (Richard Dyshart) plays a minor role, but a much greater one than he does in the novel. I think he appears several times in the novel, but only to act as a doctor. In the film, though, he is the only one who slowly begins to wonder about Chance, and he begins to do some investigating on his own. He at the end of the film is the only person who knows that Chauncey Gardiner is really Chance, the gardener. What is strange is Chance's comment to the doctor near the end of the film when Benjamin Rand dies. Shortly after Rand's death, Chance says to the Doctor, "You will be leaving now." It is uncertain whether this is a question or a statement. The doctor seems puzzled by it also.

The other curious incident is the ending of the film. Benjamin Rand is alive in the novel, although he has just had a serious relapse, whereas he dies in the film. Rand's associates in both the novel and the film decide to drop their support for the President (whom they feel won't win his reelection bid) and back Chance instead. As far as I can tell, Chance does not know of their decision.

At the ending of the novel, Chance is at a party, and he steps outside on a balcony: "A breeze fell upon the foliage and nestled under the cover of its moist leaves. Not a thought lifted itself from Chance's brain. Peace filled his chest."

In the film, Chance is at the cemetery where he is attending the funeral ceremonies for Ben Rand. At the end, he walks away from the gathered mourners, goes down a hill, and begins to walk across a pond. He appears to be walking on water. He stops in the center of the pond, looks around, and then sticks his umbrella into the water where it sinks in, thus suggesting that the water is at least several feet deep. Who is it that can walk on water? Again, this ending occurs in the film only.

However, even this is strangely ambiguous. Chance leans over and inserts the umbrella about two or three feet from where he is standing, so it is quite possible that he could be standing on a submerged dam or walkway. I wonder why it was chosen to do it this way, for Chance could have inserted the umbrella right by his own feet which would have unequivocally removed this doubt. Perhaps that was the what was wanted--a doubt. But, why?

Overall Impression: a strange novel and film. There are puzzling elements in both. I will read the book and watch the film again. Maybe time will help resolve some of the uncertainties.


  1. Steve,

    Thanks for the kind words. Anything in particular you most liked?

  2. I read this book along with some of the authors other works many years ago (The Painted Bird is very powerful)-I appreciated your analysis of the movie versus the book-the movie is more a satire of the corruption of society and the book is more about the pervasive effects of TV-I like the movie a lot-I still can recall the Russian Ambassador saying that Chauncey was a bit "Krylovean" and I laugh to myself when I do-nice post

  3. Yes, I thought so also. The book does focus much more strongly on the effects of TV on Chance than the film does. TV takes the place of real life for Chance in the novel.

    I missed the significance of the reference to Krylov who is possibly Russia's best known fabulist. To call Chance "Krylovian," therefore, makes me wonder. Is Kosinski hinting that this is a fable?