The Painted Veil (2006) Blog Entry
Stars: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Live Schreiber
Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner
This adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel is much closer to the original than the Greta Garbo vehicle (1934). The Garbo version inserts a whitewashed family life for Kitty in London before she marries, and a romanticized reconciliation of Kitty and her husband Walter at the end. In between, Garbo’s affair with Charlie (George Brent) is used, but much of the wonderful, painful, insightful, dialogue between Kitty and Charlie and Kitty and her husband is left out.
But, even the 2006 version changes the novel in substantial ways. The actor who plays Walter Fane, Edward Norton, collaborated with the screenwriter and so it’s no surprise that Walter Fane’s role was expanded. The Wikipedia write-up nores that the novel was considered “one-dimentional” and as Norton phrased it, “almost unremittingly bleak.” So, as in the 1934 version, the two main characters end by reconciling with each other and falling in love.
Edward Norton explained, "I like to think that we didn't change the book so much as liberate it. We just imagined it on a slightly bigger scale, and made external some of what is internal in the novel." The actor explained of the change to the story, "I went on the assumption that if you were willing to allow Walter and Kitty to grow... you had the potential for a love story that was both tragic and meaningful."
Norton considered The Painted Veil to be in the spirit of films like Out of Africa (1985) and The English Patient (1996), seeing it as "rooted in really looking at the way that men and women hurt each other".
Norton also had a different view of the nature of British colonials. Norton believed that Maugham thought that the British colonials were unlikely to change. Norton had a less bleak interpretation.
Norton described the character Walter Fane served as "the proxy for the arrogance of Western rationalism", explaining about Fane's confusion at the lack of gratitude for his help, "Walter means well, but he's the folly of empire, and that adds a whole new dimension to what happens in the story. It's a metaphor for the way empires get crushed.”
Director John Curran suggested setting the film during 1925, when the events of the Chinese nationalist movement were taking place. Norton, who had studied Chinese history at Yale University, agreed with the suggestion. To detail scenes from the time period, Curran, Norton, and Nyswaner relied on excerpts from historian Jonathan Spence's 1969 book To Change China, which covered the inept efforts of Western advisers during these years.