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The Leopard--A Great Film, A Great Adaptation

by John Aquino on 01/29/19

I wrote a recent blog on the difference between great films and favorite films. Some of those reading were kind enough to write on my blog and in e-mails, adding their suggestions for great films. I had the opportunity to see a film I hadn't seen for years, The Leopard, released in 1963, based on the novel Il Gattopardo (the leopard, or, actually, the serval) by Giuseppe Tomas di Lampedusa, directed and co-written by Luchino Visconti, and starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale. I actually saw it twice, given the FX movie channel's habit of showing a flm on Tuesday and then on the same film on Thursday and then on Saturday. Whether or not it is a favorite film will depend on your taste. Some will find it slow, and its battles and revolutions are backdrops for the main story, which is the gradual evolution of the nation and culture of Italy and Sicily as a result of the Risorgimento ("Resurrgence") that unified Italy into a nation state. But it is a great movie and a great film adaptation. The latter is true because The Leopard is a faithful film version of a novel that also lacks big moments.


The tendency in adapting novels (as well as true stories) is to make them more cinematic and more audience-pleasing. One fairly typical example is Barry Levinson's 1984 film version of Bernard Malamud's baseball novel The Natural.
It was financially successful, critically well-received, and is well regarded by both baseball fans and those who do not follow the sport. But as an adaptation, it has been ridiculed by those who prize the Malamud novel. (SPOILER ALERT). The film version makes the character of Roy Hobbs sympathetic and fairly simplistic--a great young ballplayer who is robbed by fate of his chance for greatness and is provided with another chance later in life--and gives the story a happy ending--Hobbs hits a home run, winning the game, achieves baseball greatness, and settles into a happy life with his wife Iris and their son. The home run gives the film a spectacular close as the ball shatters the night game lights, showering the field with sparks as Hobbs runs the bases. The novel's Hobbs is more complex and flawed--he takes a bribe to throw the game, changes his mind, but strikes out anyway, losing his chance for greatness and happiness with Iris and their child. In movies, to paraphrase The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when there's a choice between a happy ending and a bleak one, go for happy and forget about the book. Similarly, King Vidor's film adaptation of Leon Tolstoy's War and Peace, what some would label an historical costume drama like The Leopard, ends with Natasha and Pierre walking off together, albeit stiffly, and doesn't delve into how the novel ends, with Tolstoy's suggestion in his epilogue that Pierre and Nikolai, the son of Prince Andrei, will join the 1825 Decembrist revolt by the liberals against the Tsar. In adapting a book to film, filmmakers generally opt for thinking film and not respect for the source. The legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock was asked why, rather than using as a source for his mystery/crime films short stories or obscure novels, he didn't film a great crime novel such as Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Hitchcock answered that with little-known works he was freer to make changes to exploit the cinematic aspects of the original but with a literary masterpiece he was less free. One can argue, as I and others do, that Visconti respected The Leopard and yet still translated it cinematically.

One can imagine the traditional approach to adapting Il Gattapardo: add lots of battles and steamy love scenes, eliminate much of the novel's debates between characters, and end with the lovers in each others arms looking to a bright future in a unified Italy so that it ends happily. Instead, at a length of 187 minutes in its most available version, Visconti's The Leopard explores its story at a pace similarl to the novel. Fabrizio Corbero, Prince of Salini in Sicily, decides to neither fight nor resist the Risorgimento. He votes for it and argues against those who oppose it. He insists, "Things will have to change in order that they will remain the same" and "This isn't the end of anything, it is the beginning of everything." He is offered a chance to join the new Senate and declines, saying "I belong to an unlucky generation, astride between two worlds and ill-at-ease in both. And what is more I am completely without illusions. Now, what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty for self-deception, an essential requisite for wanting to guide others. No, I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would be bitten off." But the prince's nephew Tancredi rides with the tide and marries, not a fellow aristocrat, but Angelica, the daughter of newly-wealthy former peasant. The film ends with a 40-minute ball in which Tancredi introduces Angelica as his bride. After the ball, Prince Salini walks home alone.

It's a true adaptation of the novel. It is also a magnificent film. The ball that ends the movie proceeds in painstaking detail, with gorgeous gowns, lavishly photographed displays of food, and lush music by Nino Rota (assisted by an unpublished waltz by Giuseppe Verdi). And all the while, Prince Salini struggles through the evening, feeling, as he says, "ill-at-ease" in both worlds. He says he has a headache. He washes his faces, looks deeply into his reflection, and cries. He walks into another room and stares at a 1778 painting by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze that's in a style and subject that he is unused to. The title, appropriately, is "The Father's Curse, and the Son's Punishment," for the Risorgimento will bring not only unification but, in 60 years, the dictator Benito Mussolini and world war. He returns to the ball and sits with people from what will soon be called the middle class and with whom he has nothing in common. When he walks home, he passes a priest and altar boy on their way to early morning mass, kneels out of respect, and, while kneeling, prays, saying, "O faithful star, when will you give me an appointment less ephemeral, far from all this, in your own region of perennial certitude." He rises and walks into the shadows as the film ends.

The Leopard was not a big success in the U.S., coming out in the same year as such epics as Cleopatra and How the West Was Won. But it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Italy's David di Donatello for best production, and the best foreign film award from the National Board of Review. It is the director Martin Scorsese's favorite film. And it is included in Steven Schneider's book 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die.

As I wrote earlier, it is not for everybody's taste. I remember an outing with my family to see Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film version of William Makepeace Thackeray's Barry Lyndon, to which The Leopard is similar as an adaptation and in style and pace. My late brother Jim walked out and called it "Borrey Lyndon." I can imagine Jim would have a similar view of The Leopard, calling it "Lousy Leopard" or "Longey Leopard" or something.

I am not even sure The Leopard can be a favorite film of mine, one that I can dip into again and again. Time will tell. But I think it is a great one and an example of how to credibly adapt a well-known and respected book.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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