Film Reviews Capote: The Film and the Book

Capote: The Film and the Book

The Film

Capote, the film, presents a mosaic of ambivalences in which categorical distinctions are blurred and intentions flow through spaces outside of normal conventions and question all our taken-for-granted understandings of human relationships.  As we move through situations that do not fit old definitions, we must either find new classifications or accept that life is a paradox.  This state of affairs emanates from the main character, Truman Capote, in whom male and female are so blended that his view is of a more complex world in which nothing is reduced to simple categorisation. 

As we follow him in his pursuit of Perry Edward Smith, the man who killed a farmer, his wife, son and daughter, we see him entangled in his own vision, trying to define the undefinable.  Perry Edward Smith, half-native American, is as complex as he is.  He describes Smith as having lived in the same house, only Smith left by the back door while he left by the front.  In this statement, he acknowledges that he has had advantages in life which allowed him to become a celebrity author while Perry with similar interests in writing and an intelligent mind became a criminal. In Smith, he encounters so great a paradox that he is compelled to try to resolve it.  But he cannot. Violence and compassion are so intermingled in Smith that he remains a puzzle to the end.

Capote is disturbed by the effect that Smith has on him. Though he recognises him as an alter ego, he does not seem to recognise that he presents just as complex a paradox.  As he came out through the front door, the violence in his behaviour - his pressure on Smith to relive the horror of the murders, his mockery of others, his exploitation of Smith's situation - seems muted. 

It is through Smith that Capote develops the paradoxical notion of a nonfictional novel.  Such a concept combines both fact and fiction and makes it possible for an author consciously to base his writing on actual happenings and by examining them provide an insightful and artistic perspective that makes us see people in all their fallible humanity.  In the film, Smith is not presented as a monster.  He is a vulnerable human being who is at once perpetrator and victim.  He is a man desperate for friendship and his loyalty to friend turns him into a murderer.

In himself, Capote, the homosexual, presents the coming together of opposites.  In his writing, he brings together opposites, fact and fiction in his nonfictional novel.   In Perry Edward Smith, in whom brutality and compassion are inextricably fused, he finds the mirror to human nature, Jekyll and Hyde in one.

Truman Capote reminds me of Herman Charles Bosman, as complicated a human, exploring both the darkness and light in his being.

The Book. 

Gerald Clarke. Capote: a biography. 2006. London:Abacus.

The film Capote is based on Gerald Clarke's book Capote: a biography, a different genre.  A biography is an expansive meander through wide ranging events over many years, in this case a lifetime.  A film, even though based on a biography, follows more stringent requirements.  It has to present cogent action within a limited time frame.  The film Capote, therefore, concentrates on the most significant event in Truman Capote's life, his writing of In Cold Blood.  The film concentrates on five chapters, Chapters 38 to 43, out of a book of 59 chapters and glimpses into Capote's life outside of the writing of the novel, are presented in flashbacks. 

To learn about Truman Capote, therefore, you have to read the book. Biography is probably the most difficult of all literary forms because the content is factual and does not allow the author total freedom of imagination.  Gerald Clarke's book, nevertheless, is both a fascinating study and a remarkable achievement.  Clarke presents Capote's life as a rise up to the writing of In Cold Blood and then a decline after this major opus.  In the book, it is not Perry Smith, the murderer in In Cold Blood but Capote himself who is shown to be a complex man of conflicting, contradictory moods, impulses and intentions.  He knows from early in his life that he is, not wants to be, he is a writer and he shapes his life accordingly. He ignores those subjects in school that he believes have nothing to contribute to his career and avoids university as he does not believe a writer can be manufactured.  While still a teenager, he makes his own way into a writing career beginning first with short stories that are immediately recognised as the work of a highly gifted, innovative writer. Long before he produces his first novel, his charismatic charm wins him friends among the rich and famous.  He is only twenty-one when Other Voices, Other Rooms, his first novel is published.  It is acknowledged as a work of genius, becomes a hit and turns Capote into a celebrity, much sought after in the world of glitz and glamour.

In the years that follow, supremely confident in his genius, he continues to produce short stories and short novels, begins to venture into other genre and media, the most significant of which are his forays into journalism where he finds himself having to turn fact into entertainment.  That leads him to the Clutter murders and the writing of In Cold Blood, an experience both rewarding and debilitating.  Unlike his other work, this novel was totally unpremeditated.  He went out to Kansas to do a journalistic story of the impact of the murders on a small town but when he saw the murderers, he was drawn to them and the focus shifted from the townspeople to Dick Hickock and Perry Smith who came to a farmhouse and killed four people they did not know.  Unlike his other works, which were based on personal experience, he was now working from within other people's experiences and turning fact into superb faction.  He was totally dependent on what was happening to Hickock and Smith and waited in endless frustration for their execution so that he could complete his masterpiece.

After that he attempted to go back to writing as he had before and encountered almost total writer's block.  "No one will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me," he said.  "It scraped me down to the marrow of my bones.  It nearly killed me.  I think, in a way, it did kill me. Before I began it, I was a stable person, comparatively speaking.  Afterward, something happened to me.  I just can't forget it, particularly the hangings at the end.  Horrible!"  The memory of all he had gone through continued to reverberate in his head, he said, like the echo in the Marabar Caves in E. M. Forster's  A Passage to India.  And it delivered the same dark message: life is meaningless; or, as Forster phrased it, "everything exists, nothing has value." (p. 398)

In Cold Blood seemed to have drained him of creative energy and he kept promising to complete another novel Answered Prayers but could not.  He did produce other short novels and stories, which were considered to be his best work, but he could not dedicate himself to his writing as he had before.  Perhaps travelling outside his own experience into worlds unknown had given him a fulfilment that he could not recapture within the boundaries of his own encounters.  At any rate, his life fell into despair; he became an alcoholic and drug addict clinging desperately to abusive relationships and he degenerated physically, emotionally and spiritually. 

His end may be considered sad and undignified but he was a man who fulfilled in every way, positive and negative, the potential of his being and thus gave us works of genius that assure him a long life in literature.

Share this post...

Add comment



Anti-spam: complete the task