Sunset Song on screen

Film adaptations of Scottish literature have been very much in my mind recently. In November we celebrated Stevenson on screen for RLS Day, and last week I was in Inverness talking about the Hitchcock film version of John Buchan’s The thirty-nine steps –  now many of us are catching up with the long-awaited film of  Sunset song

Sunset Song HBK

(Polygon 2015 edition image courtesy of the publisher)

Director Terence Davies has been keen to film the classic 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon for many years – in fact the completed script has been lodged in the archives at our Moving Image Archive in Glasgow for a long time – but funding problems have delayed the realisation of his dream.

This year we can at last see the finished film, shot on location in places as diverse as Fettercairn and New Zealand, with Agyness Deyn in the iconic role of Chris Guthrie.

Most of us in Scotland I suspect first met Chris at school, where Sunset song has been long-established on the curriculum. Polls have suggested that Gibbon’s novel is the country’s favourite, but all the same it is a little-known title outside Scotland. Perhaps the film will remedy that.

And what of the film? Adaptations can be faithful or carefree. J.K. Rowling has recently ensured that the cinema versions of her Harry Potter novels deliver closely what has appeared on the page. In the old days of Hollywood studios tended to be less reverential, though, F.Scott Fitzgerald, as an uncredited script writer on Gone with the Wind in 1939, reported that every word of Margaret Mitchell’s novel was being treated as if it was Holy Scripture.

It is no easy feat for a film-maker to take a much-loved Scottish novel, cast a 30-odd year old Lancashire actress as a national heroine in her teens, and also do justice to the rural world of the Mearns – never mind the inimitable Gibbon prose. Perhaps many of us know the novel too well, and many of us of a certain age will remember a television adaptation from the 1970s, which seemed at the time to get to the very essence of the book, but has been little-seen since.

Sunset song is a great Scottish novel, and deserves to be interpreted for the big screen. Perhaps film-makers will have another look around at Scottish literature, and consider other titles with colourful characters and striking scenery. A new version of Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky galore is already on its way, but what about that powerful 1955 drama from Robin Jenkins – is it time for The cone gatherers to light up the screen?