Monday, November 12, 2012

Random Harvest, Book and Film

I read James Hilton's novel Random Harvest on my Kindle Fire while flying to Paris last month. I have often watched the Mervyn LeRoy production of the movie Random Harvest starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. The plot can be found here on the website--it all turns on Charles Rainier's amnesia after being wounded in World War I. The protagonist (Ronald Colman)suffers amnesia twice--once after the war, when he struggles to remember who he really is, and once after he has made a new life, when he remembers who he really is, but cannot remember who he was for two years. He had actually married a young woman (Greer Garson) who in his new life is serving as his secretary and whom he weds in a marriage of convenience as his social and political hostess. Colman and Garson make a wonderful romantic couple.

The novel, unlike the movie, hides the identity of Rainier's social secretary and political wife as Rainier's latest secretary, a young man named Harrison, narrates his story. The novel is divided into four sections and traces Rainier's life story as he tries to put the hidden past of his life together. Hilton introduces a great character, a Church of England pastor named Blampied, who marries Smith, as Rainier is then known, and Paula, the young woman who helped nurse him through influenza after he escaped from the asylum where he'd been treated for his injuries and loss of memory. The novel begins with a moment of silence on a train--for Remembrance Day, November 11--so the timing of this review is propitious, I think!

Rainier returns to his family once he remembers who he is, and finds them none too pleased to find him alive. Each family member, however reluctantly, donates some portion of their inheritance from Charles's father, who dies without knowing that his son, presumed dead in WWI, has returned alive. Rainier goes off to continue his education at Cambridge, but then has to take over and rescue the family business--all the while wondering what happened to those two years he was missing. Harrison begins to work for him and meets his wife, Helen, whom he thinks a gracious hostess while wondering what his boss's relationship really is with Helen.

In the movie, there are a few scenes that show Paula's (Greer Garson's) work in vaudeville, including a wild scene in which she dances in a very short kilt--and vaudeville plays a role in Rainier's strange, fleeting memories. Rainier and Harrison don't know it, but when they attend a vaudeville performance, they are seeing a shtick that "Smith" accidently developed and has now become part of the repertoire! Finally, of course, Rainier finds himself back in the village where he as Smith and Paula met, and he goes to a place only he and Paula would know--another one of those vague memories he tried to remember--and Harrison witnesses the reunion of true husband and wife.

James Hilton was a very successful novelist of the thirties and forties: Lost Horizon; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Random Harvest; So Well Remembered, etc, and his novels were well adapted to the screen. Ronald Colman starred in the film version of Lost Horizon and Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

If you've seen the movie, the novel is such a different experience, one that I also highly recommend.

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