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Il Postino - Ardiente Paciencia
The Fine Art of Disney Adaptation
by Mark Axelrod

Prior to the 1996 Academy Awards, practically every radio station in and around the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area (this actually stretches from San Diego to Santa Barbara) was advertising Il Postino (The Postman) in an attempt, presumably, to influence votes for the Academy Award as Best Picture. It was the producers, Miramax, attempt to overcome the odds of beating out Braveheart or Babe, of beating out an epic or an antic, by positioning the film as a charming and delightful love story. And even though Miramax did not win Best Picture it recognized it had a relatively large audience and that it would, no doubt, make sizable gains with Il Postino in other areas: namely, video and print.

The video was released summer 96, but the new novel has already been out for some time; actually, the old novel has been around for years. As a matter of fact, the novel has been around for a decade, it s just that it s recently been repackaged and marketed, and in the repackaging/marketing process what has been accomplished is something nearer to prostitution than publishing (if those two professions have ever been very different) and smacks of something even more crassly capitalistic than anything Marx (either Groucho or Karl) could have imagined.

In 1985, the Chilean novelist Antonio Ská²­eta published a novel titled Ardiente Paciencia by Ediciones del Norte. In 1987, the novel was translated by Katherine Silver and published by Pantheon, a division of Random House, as Burning Patience. Ironically, Skarmeta's dedication reads To Matilde Urrutia, Neruda s inspiration, and through him, that of his humble plagiarists. It s ironic because the notion of plagiarism is clearly the sine qua non of Hyperion Books who, presumably, captured the book rights when Pantheon decided not to renew them and after purchasing them from Graywolf Press in 1994. For example, the blurb on the Pantheon jacket reads, in part, ...Antonio Skarmeta s new novel, Burning Patience, is a bittersweet tale of adolscent love set against the sadness of Chile s recent history. Hyperion counters with, The Postman (Il Postino) is a bittersweet tale of first love ignited by the power and passion of Pablo Neruda s timeless poetry.

While Pantheon talks about the novel, Hyperion talks about the film. As a matter of fact, the lead line on the back cover reads: Based on Antonio Skarmeta's classic (sic) novel, The Postman (Il Postino) is now a Miramax film starring Philippe Noiret and the late Massimo Troisi and directed by Michael Radford. Now as much as one may like Antonio Skarmeta s work, Burning Patience is not a classic. Not yet at least. Classics generally take more than a dozen years to become classics and the whole notion of what makes a classic is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, Neruda s Canto General is a classic, Burning Patience is not. But that s really not the argument and I don t think Skarmeta would argue that point. The real argument is what Hyperion has done to the novel in terms of commodifying it and what Miramax has done to the film in terms of undermining it.

But one shouldn t be surprised at what s happened since both Hyperion and Miramax are owned by Disney and Disney (and Company) has never really respected the spirit of any of the texts they ve adapted so why should Hyperion? In the Grimm original of Snow White, for example, the brothers create a mother who dies and an evil-stepmother who, eventually, also dies and seven dwarfs (none of whom had names) and a prince who takes pity on Snow White and takes her coffin with him when he discovers it. Apparently, the prince was not into necrophilia since he never actually kisses Snow White. Actually, the prince ordered his servants to carry the coffin on their shoulders [perhaps not to soil his own], but they stumbled over some shrubs, and the jolt caused the poisoned piece of apple that Snow White had bitten off to be released from her throat. It was not long before she opened her eyes, lifted the lid of the coffin, sat up, and was alive again.

This pre-Heimlich maneuver was obviously dismissed by Disney as unromantic and not in keeping with the way Disney stories should end. With such a point of departure it s no surprise that the people at Hyperion would be infected with the same poshlost, as Nabokov once called it, and take the route of greatest cost effectiveness. Not only is the original title no where to be seen on the cover, but the cover is an overly romanticized frame from the film, flush with the nubile Beatriz s firm breasts and Mario s sanguine smile.

But in fact, both Miramax and Hyperion are brothers in the bastardization of the story as well. While Hyperion has whitewashed the cover to gloss over the political, Miramax actually went one step further and eliminated the political. While Pantheon at least registered the fact there was a tumultuous time in Chilean political history (the military dictatorship lasted from 1973-1990), Hyperion wouldn t soil the cover to evince that fact and Miramax, Troisi s acting notwithstanding, censored the political in a manner not unlike Pinochet might have done himself. As a matter of fact, it s as if Miramax and Pinochet collaborated on the storyline and agreed that, as it stood, it wouldn t make for good box-office so they decided to scrap the controversial parts.

But in addition to excising the political, Miramax also excised the softly pornographic as well since, you see, Mario, the postman, is not thirtysomething, but seventeen and the burning patience of an adolescent is not the same as the burning patience of someone twice his age. Besides the fact that Skarmeta is rather obsessed with Beatriz s breasts (unlike Dante, he s always expressing interest in their firmness or how erect her nipples are), he is also very concerned about Mario s sexual fantasies about Beatriz: In the afternoons, he would stand outside the tavern listening, inconsolable, to La Vela, always with the undying hope that each passing shadow would bring in its wake the miniskirt he now so often dreamt about lifting ceremoniously with the tip of his tongue.

In keeping with his youthful mysticism, he was determined not to alleviate his faithful and ever-present erection by any manual manipulation (Skarmeta 43). As fictional fanatasies go, soon they turn into reality as we find that Mario lowered her miniskirt, and when her cunt s fragrant vegetation reached his greedy nose, his only impulse was to cover it with his tongue. At that precise instant, Beatriz let out a screech laced with heaving sobs, extravagance, guttural cries, music, and fever that lasted entire seconds, while her body trembled until she collapsed onto the wooden floor. After placing a silent, reserved finger on those same lips that had given her such pleasure, she brought it to the rugged cloth of the boy s pants, and assessing the thickness of his member, said in a hoarse voice, You dummy, you made me come (Skarmeta 61-62).

Once Beatriz and Mario are married, all pretenses towards privacy are abandoned as in the kitchen Mario removed Beatriz s apron with the ease of a bullfighter, grabbed her by the waist, and rubbed his member along her thigh, a gesture for which she showed her approval with sighs of delight and an abundance of tantalizing juices that lubricated her sex. His tongue wetting her ear and his hands lifting her up by the buttocks, he penetrated her right there in the kitchen without even bothering to remove her skirt (Skarmeta 94). A classic indeed. But none of these scenes were ever incorporated into the film primarily because they, like Snow White s choking on an apple, don t have much standing power romantically. After all, the film is supposed to be a bittersweet tale of first love ignited by the power and passion of Neruda s poetry. Yes, well, there is some of Neruda s poetry there, but as the scenes show, Mario had no recourse to read any of Neruda s erotic poetry before servicing Beatriz. Indeed they would only have taken up valuable coupling time. But once again one finds that Disney has been able to sanitize a work that is clearly not sanitized either in terms of the political or the sexual. It was bad enough that the producers shot a Chilean novel not in Isla Negra with all the attendant advantages of Chilean culture (not to mention Neruda's house), but in Italy, with a Franco-Italian cast, with Philippe Noiret dancing tango (not the Chilean queca) with Matilde (who's not Eva Peron).

One might be able to overlook all of that: the dissolution of the storyline, the elimination of the political and sexual spirit of the novel, even the fact they ignored hiring Latino actors, but the novel ends with the death of Neruda and the postman, now 21, being taken by the CNI (Pinochet's answer to the Gestapo) for questioning. There s nothing to be afraid of, the man with the raincoat said. You ll be able to come right back home, said the man with the moustache, showing his cigarette to someone who poked his head through the window of one of the two cars without license plates that stood three with their motors running. It s just routine procedure, the young man added (Skarmeta 115-116).

Routine...and then you can go home...which he never did. As did so many other disappeared postmen. But Disney & Company (if not Hollywood in general) could never countenance that kind of an ending since it would have threatened box office appeal. Apparently, what seems to hold for animated cartoons works best in life as well. And though one might think that a company like Miramax would be able to invigorate a film without being subsumed by a kind of Disney hegemony, it appears that that is not the case. Apparently, in their quest to make all places just like the happiest place on earth, Disney-Hyperion-Miramax has made social injustice and human rights abuses as relevant and ephemeral as scraps of celluloid on the cutting room floor.

But that's Hollywood and we love it.

Works Cited: Antonio Skáeta. The Postman. New York: Random House, 1987.

© 1998-2006 Mark Axelrod