Monday, May 11, 2009

Undiscovered Country

I made my film debut in 1973 playing Queen Gertrude in William Shakespeare's Hamlet.  It was a made-for-TV production.  Well, ok ...it was a made-for-classroom-TV production. 

The producer, director and film editor was our local parish priest who owned a video camera in the days before the average person owned a video camera.  He made lots of movies with the parish.  He made a history of the parish (my dad was the narrator).  He worked with the 8th grade every year to make a stop-motion animation film (our year we did Casey at the Bat).  But his greatest achievement was Hamlet.  He asked the woman who coached 8th graders for the Speech League competition to help out and she did the casting and some of the coaching.  She cast me as the Queen.  My most vivid memory is when we filmed the big ending (where everyone dies) "on location" at the Grand Avenue water tower and drinking that poisoned cup and rolling down the concrete steps over and over for take after take.  Yawn. That's when I knew making movies wasn't for me. 

One reason I wanted to read Lin Enger's Undiscovered Country was because I knew it was based on Hamlet. But I wasn't sure how that was going to work for me.  Would knowing that it was based on such a well known play be a distraction?  How would he handle the idea of a ghost?  Was the main character really going to die?

I did find it a little distracting.  I never could completely lose myself in the tale, I was always wondering how he would fit the plot elements of Hamlet into this story set in the 20th century Minnesota north woods.  But the distraction wasn't enough to ruin it for me and, on the whole, I liked the novel.

He didn't shirk from putting in a ghost for one thing - a really disgusting ghost with his head half blown away (this father was killed while sitting in a deer stand; most people thought it was suicide).  And the mother (named Genevieve in this version) is involved with her brother-in-law.  But there are two boys, not just one.  And the Ophelia character doesn't go crazy. 

So there were some surprises.  And some red herrings.  The mother is a former community actress - I kept waiting for the play within a play to occur.

Enger writes beautifully.  Having spent a great deal of time in the north woods I could feel and smell the setting from his descriptions.  Jesse (the Hamlet character) is finely drawn and his grief is very believable, made more so by the fact that Jesse is the one who finds his father with his head blown away.  Enger's description of the aftermath of that moment is compelling.

His mother is also believable in an odd way.  He paints her as someone who suffers from depression and after the death she withdraws almost completely only coming alive when Uncle Clay is around.  It is almost as if Jesse has lost both parents, his mother is so far gone into her own depression.

I won't tell you how Enger ends the tale, but it is satisfying in itself and for fans of Hamlet