About Schmidt--The Film

In response to my post on Louis Begley’s About Schmidt, I was asked about the subsequent film version of the novel. I have no idea why they gave the film the same title as the Begley novel. The Schmidt in the film is nothing like the Schmidt in the book, at least as far as I had imagined him to be.

I am glad I knew that in advance, for I would have been even more disappointed than I was with the film if I had not known it. I might even have felt differently about the film if it been given a different title, something like “A Life of Cheerful Desperation.” I know I would have been eager to see that one.

Naturally a film doesn’t have to be a replica of the novel upon which it is based. However, if you have read the novel first you develop certain expectations about the characters and the situations they encounter. If the film departs widely from these notions, viewing it can sometimes be unsettling or as I felt in the case of About Schmidt rather jarring. On the other hand, I did not feel this way in viewing The Reader, Atonement or, say, The English Patient or more recently Revolutionary Road, each of which remained fairly true to their novelistic predecessor and, at least in my case, contributed to a deeper understanding of it.

In the book, Schmidt is a rich attorney in upper crust New York society with a Harvard degree and a second home in the Hamptons. In the film Schmidt is a middle class insurance actuary in Omaha, Nebraska with a degree from Kansas State and a huge Winnebago bought for his retirement.

The original Schmidt is also a bit of an anti-Semitic, has always slept around, most recently with the mother of his future son-in-law. In the film Schmidt hardly knows what an affair might be, couldn’t care less about a person’s religion, and is repulsed by his future mother-in-law.

I have been thinking a lot about the reasons for these differences, why those who wrote the film created a totally different Schmidt than Begley did in his book. Did they think the film would have greater appeal this way? What else could have motivated them? I am at a loss for any other explanation. However, the Schmidt of the book is far more interesting to me than the one in the film.

Yet both Schmidts are desperate to know what do with their life. What is a man to do, what can a man do, who has lost it all at this point in his life?

In reviewing the film (New York Times January 19, 2003) Begley comments that he “missed the theme of the redemptive and regenerate power of Eros, embodied in my novel by Carrie, the personage I care for most among all that I have created.”

“She is an improbably beautiful and adventurous half-Puerto Rican waitress, just a tad over 20 years old, and her love for Schmidt, and the torrid sex between them, ripen him and open the possibility that he will become a freer and wiser man.”

Yes, very nice, and maybe that is the case for some. But I think not for Schmidt, at least in the light of the previous experiences of Eros that Begley gives to the Schmidt-of-the-novel before his wife died. That did nothing for Schmidt then and it is even less likely that it will do much of anything for the Schmidt-of-the-film either.

Eros cannot solve the problems of the two Schmidts, or if she can, she will do so only superficially and never for very long. Eventually, the problems will resurface in all their maddening desperation.