- Versions (Con-, In-, and Per-) in Manuel Puig's and Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman, Novel and Film1
The path from film to novel to film is seldom traveled, yet Kiss of the Spider Woman has completed this journey beautifully. Manuel Puig, himself a confessed film addict (Schwartz 153), constructed his novel around the retelling of several old movies; and, in turn, Hector Babenco turned the twice-told tales into a thrice-told film. This conversion from screen to page to screen focuses on the relation between a revolutionary and a homosexual, and the plots of both the novel and film climax with the inversions in their relationship. These two individuals, trapped in the necropolis of an Argentine prison, finally invert positions; the apathetic homosexual acts politically by contacting the revolutionaries, and the leftist revolutionary becomes homosexual when he shares the kiss of the spider woman. Throughout the narrative, and perhaps unknowingly at times, both men seek the same human values, freedom and dignity, and finally learn to view life from a broader perspective. The inversion of their roles reflects a central theme of the [End Page 417] novel and film and raises the issue of the very nature of perversion. The dreams and actions of the protagonists, when compared to their manipulative and cruel captors, compel us to ask who are the real perverts: the homosexuals, Molina and Valentin, or their sadistic captors. Puig clearly sees the military as the perverters of human dignity and freedom, and Babenco tranlates this into a central theme of his film.
Rarely has a narrative been converted from film to novel to film and perhaps just as rarely translated so well. Of course the novel's narrative style, consisting in great part of dialogue, lends itself well to this transmutation. And if it seems that the novel lacks some of the narrative details normally found in novels, we should not be surprised, because Puig started his writing career as a script-writer and assistant director (Schwartz 157). Puig is more than a little like Molina in his retelling of old films. Sounding much like his own literary creation, Puig reports: "What excited me in film was to copy, not to create" ("Growing" 50). In addition to the similarities in form that translated well into film, numerous themes also made the transition smoothly. Although many themes of the novel survived in the film, the search for dignity and freedom dominates the transmutation from films to novel to film. In neither the conversion from films to novel nor from novel to film does the source translate literally; instead the narrative is recast to highlight significant themes.
Because Molina embroiders the films when he tells them, modifying them to suit his own fantasies, we are unable to know exactly which films he is retelling. There is disagreement among scholars as to the exact number and titles of the films retold in the novel. Schwartz identifies only four films: The Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Paris Underground, and Holiday in Mexico (57). More recently Merrim claims that there are
six films narrated in El beso, three of which are based on real films, three of which are composites of several films: (in order of their appearance in the novel) "Cat People," dir. Jacques Tourneur (1942); the invented Nazi propaganda film called "Destino"; "The Enchanted Cottage," dir. John Cromwell (1946); what we call the "Adventure" film; "I Walked with a Zombie," dir. Jacques Tourneur (1943); what we call the "Mexican" film.("Through the Film Darkly" 311)
Although I have recently seen Holiday in Mexico (and it generally follows Molina's version, thereby giving Schwartz more credence), [End Page 418] I do not know which of these lists is more accurate.2 But that is a moot point. The narrated films are meant to take on their own lives, to become entities unto themselves. They are not literal retellings but recreations to suit Puig's and Molina's purposes.
The nature and meaning of the original films are irrelevant because the embellished retellings represent the world according to Molina and are more indicative of his...