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Biography 23.4 (2000) 651-669

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Jane Campion Frames Janet Frame: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young New Zealand Poet

Suzette A. Henke

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In An Angel At My Table (1989), her cinematic adaptation of Janet Frame's three-part Autobiography, Jane Campion faced many of the same problems encountered by Joseph Strick in his ambitious film version of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1 In each case, the narrative demanded by the bildungsroman genre competes with the more diffuse, episodic form dictated by autobiography. Just as Strick drew on Joyce's early, abandoned fictional fragment Stephen Hero to amplify his cinematic presentation, so Campion amalgamated a number of scenes from Janet Frame's autobiographical novel, Faces in the Water, to dramatize her protagonist's eight-year incarceration in mental hospitals after a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. The result is an extraordinary cinematic portrait that challenges the tacit assumptions of more traditional Hollywood biopics. The screenplay was written by Australian author Laura Jones, and Campion chose three remarkable lookalikes to play Janet Frame at various stages of development: Alexia Keogh as the child Janet, Karen Fergusson as the adolescent protagonist, and Kerry Fox as the young adult. Iris Churn, as Lottie Frame, and K. J. Wilson, as the patriarch George, both turn in exceptional and convincing performances.

Biographical films, I would argue, owe much of their fascination to the referential frame of historical authenticity. And yet, while claiming the sanction of (auto)biographical verisimilitude, the biopic nonetheless replicates, either consciously or inadvertently, the triangular structure of Aristotelian drama, conflating ostensible documentary reporting with an imposed narrative model dependent on rising and complicated action, a peripeteia [End Page 651] or crisis, and a satisfying denouement. This same pattern also governs the rising and falling action of the bildungsroman--a novel of youth, development, experience, and maturity. The general theme of this particular semi-autobiographical form is often that of an ingenuous youth for whom epiphany generates a defining moment of transformation. The protagonist implicitly testifies to having once been lost, but after the amazing grace of revelation, to having been saved for future work, love, success, wealth, or spiritual redemption.

Janet Frame's three-part Autobiography, however, does not readily accommodate cinematic translation. The multivolume text is highly episodic and relies on the palimpsestic compilation of random tableaux, all gathered together in a loosely structured memoir that may strike the reader as tonally flat. The first volume, To the Is-Land, carefully details a series of childhood tribulations evoked by the quotidian demands of an impoverished life in a remote New Zealand village during the global Depression of the 1930s. Although my own graduate students in autobiography seminars provide a small sample indeed, they would seem to suggest that North American readers can become impatient with Frame's belabored descriptions of mundane agricultural chores. Unfamiliar with dysphoric symptoms characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder, my students express disappointment over the author's ostensibly laconic and impassive response to her sisters' tragic drownings. Most importantly, my students want more --far more--information about Janet Frame's incarceration in antipodean mental hospitals. And it is precisely this lacuna that Campion seeks to fill in Angel by drawing on details from Frame's autobiographical novel Faces in the Water.

Campion, to her credit, refuses to capitulate either to the demands of strict textual/autobiographical fidelity, or to the compressed parabolic structure of climax and denouement that a bildungsroman would require. One might call up the analogy of Paul Schrader's cinematic strategies in his film Mishima, analyzed by John Howard Wilson in an article entitled "Sources for a Neglected Masterpiece." As Wilson points out, Schrader boldly complicates his 1985 biopic of Mishima by introducing a complex narrative structure embellished not only with biographical data, but with a collage of imaginative detail drawn from the author's semi-autobiographical fiction. The result, claims Wilson, "is a rich and unusual film" that offers an "unparalleled integration of literary and biographical sources" (280-81...