Neil LaBute's Possession of A.S. Byatt's Romance: The American Connection

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

As film adaptations go, Neil LaBute's version of A.S. Byatt's novel Possession: A Romance, which won the Booker Prize in 1990, can be counted among the honourable failures that at least strive for accuracy. The juxtaposition of the Victorian and the contemporary plots is sustained with almost meticulous detail and somewhat overemphasised fervour, as the camera-movement sweeping from past to present amidst a largely -- and rather surprisingly -- unchanged English landscape is deployed so repeatedly as to acquire an almost comical effect. The mood of the novel, however, is preserved as well as most of its themes -- the leitmotif of the quest, the thrill of the literary detective, the juxtaposition of Victorian love-affairs with modern relationships, and the use of a wide variety of literary topoi or clichés that complement the novel's emphasis on intertextuality. The Victorian letters are read out and even some of the poetry is quoted.

Considering the length of Byatt's novel, the original plot can be seen as having been preserved to a surprising extent, and a range of changes can be seen as necessary cuts such as, for instance, the omission of Roland's girlfriend Val, which consequently necessitates a revision of his attitude towards relationships in the film. There are, however, other crucial changes of Roland's character. Most disruptively to the novel's concern with the situation of underpaid literary scholarship in Britain as opposed to the threatening blank cheques of the American biographer Mortimer Cropper, Roland Michell, an obscure Research Assistant in the British Library's basement, is turned into an American import himself. In Byatt's novel, Cropper's at once possessive and obsessive neocolonial mission is to appropriate everything belonging to the (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash by taking it abroad to contain it in his air-conditioned multi-media storage rooms: "So we are to assume a private, inaccessible inner cabinet of curios that he turns over, and breathes in at the dead of night, things no one ever sees --" (484) Exploding the entire pattern of ways and, most importantly, means of research that distinguishes the British scholars from Cropper's collection-mania of souvenirs of Ash, this change renders the desperate chase after the documents at the end of book (as of the film) pointless.

As a postimperial novel nostalgic for the Victorian age and emphasising the possibility that research of the past can contribute to the present -- as most poignantly shown in the influence of the Victorian lovers on the late twentieth-century researchers, who learn about a way of loving that has been lost to their (post-) modern selves -- Byatt's Possession, in fact, highlights the potential of Europe's past in the rediscovered accounts of two English and one French poet. Their exportation to Cropper's centre in New Mexico is seen as a neoimperial threat. By changing Roland Michell into an American, Neil LaBute's adaptation has erased the entire postimperial significance of the story.


Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. [1990] London: Vintage, 1991.

United Kingdom

Last Modified: 19 November 2002