I saw the movie Out of Africa the other night.
The first time I saw it was years ago, and I immediately ran out to buy Karen Blixen’s memoir. As a writer, I’m always curious as to how a screenwriter interprets scenes from a book. Although Blixen’s writing is often inspired, I put it down half way through.
Don’t get me started on the colonial bullshit. All that talk of saving the natives from themselves put me off. And I’m too much of an animal lover to forgive her anytime soon for killing lions and elephants. Maybe these magnificent animals were a nuisance on the savannah in those days, but I can’t stomach detailed descriptions of hunts.
Despite not loving the book, the movie is in in my top ten favourites. Why was it so much better? For one thing, Out of Africa the book was Karen Blixen’s memoirs. Sometimes her writing was lyrical, but it was Meryl Streep who brought this line to life: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
The Out of Africa Wiki page says that the film is “less a direct adaptation of the book than it is a love story,” and that it draws heavily on Blixen’s two biographies. It’s admitted that the screenwriter (Kurt Luedtke, who won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation) took “substantial liberties with some of the details.” So substantial that I had to really search for the few episodes from the book that did appear in the film
There are several love stories fleshed out from the book, which is what makes the movie so compelling. Karen Blixen’s love for Africa, her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, and her love for the people, personified in her manservant, a Somali named Farah. This is the picture of the actor who made Farah come alive in the movie:
In her book, Blixen writes that “Farah was the greatest gentleman I have ever met,” and the scenes the screenwriter pulled out of her memoir and wrote for the actors, expressed this beautifully.
One of my favourite moments was near the end—when Karen Blixen is selling off her worldly goods and returning to Denmark after her coffee plantation fails. She’s trying to explain to Farah that she’s going a very long way and probably won’t return. “Remember on safari, how you went ahead and would make the fire? It will be like that except that I will go ahead and make the fire.” His reply? “You must make this fire very big, so I can find you.”
I searched vainly for that pitch perfect moment in the book, but the only reference was to when Karen was informed, years later, of Farah’s death. She couldn’t believe “he’d gone away” but then realized that she had often “sent him ahead to some unknown place, to pitch camp for me there.” When I read that it did not move me, but it appears the screenwriter conjured the scene out of this one reference. Actors rendered it on celluloid, giving me a good excuse to sob dramatically.
Another moment is when Karen is about to board the train and she says to Farah, “I want to hear you say my name.” The look in his eyes when he says, “It is Karen, Sahib.”
Here’s another of the many iconic lines in the film. I don’t expect any man to understand, but just so you know what’s going on, when Denys Finch-Hatton says to Karen, “What matters to me is that you try so hard,” there is not a woman who doesn’t melt.
The divine end to that love story is when Karen relates that she’s heard that two lions would come to lie on Denys’ grave. And she says (in that lovely Danish accent), “He would like that. I must remember to tell him.”
Perhaps, “took substantial liberties with some of the book details,” is the key to turning a somewhat dry memoir into an Academy award winning movie.