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Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
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Dec 07, 09

Read in November, 2000

HEADLINE: The film of the same name bears no relation to the book in any truly important respect.

The biggest piece of baggage many of us bring to this book is the film of the same title, admittedly a visually stunning one. However, consider as you read the book what Brenda Cooper of Utah State University points out in her thesis, a point that I happen to agree with adamantly based upon my own reading of this book:
Recent research indicates that questionable choices are made in order to fit women’s stories to the ideological structures that dominate mainstream Hollywood films. As one example, in Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, the parts of Isak Dinesen’s original stories that resist patriarchal and political ideals of race, gender and religion are omitted, while the parts that survive distort Dinesen’s unconventional stories in ways that reinforce patriarchy and conform to conventional American ideologies (footnote omitted).

The major themes of Dinesen’s autobiography were her criticisms of colonialism and her deep affection for Africa and the indigenous people she lived and worked with for nearly 20 years on her coffee farm in Kenya. The Kenyans’ pain and the European settlers’ bigotry that were major themes in Out of Africa, however, are nonexistent in Pollack’s film version, replaced with narratives that glorify rather than criticize the colonial effort and settlers. Dinesen poignantly expressed her grief over the changes the European settlers had forced on Kenyans and their culture, and her compassion for their struggles to maintain their identity and dignity. In the film, however, Dinesen is recast as one of the "offending European settlers, forcing her will on the native people without any sensitivity to their wishes or culture" (footnote omitted).

Further, the compassion Dinesen expressed for the country and its people in her autobiography are appropriated by the film’s leading male character, Denys Finch Hatton. The real Finch Hatton was committed to the colonial effort, but in the film he is represented as Dinesen’s moral superior. Explaining why he changed Isak Dinesen’s story so dramatically for his film, Pollack remarked: "For film purposes, it seemed . . . (that) invention was much more economical than the facts and dramatically much better" (footnote omitted).

This captures precisely why I so detest seeing great books made into films for the mass market.

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