Thursday, 10 September 2015

McGrath vs McGrath: Patrick Mcgrath’s "Spider" and the Ralph Fiennes film adaptation that is Totally Not Harry Potter

What do Voldemort, a sock down the trousers, and an intricate series of hooks and pulleys composed of pilfered sting have in common (other than this overwrought comparison)?
Patrick McGrath.

I recently finished re-reading McGrath’s 1990 novel Spider and it was, largely, an enjoyable experience. I say largely, because it has left my language severely disrupted and almost forced me to coin the idiom “pissing spiders”. But the novel itself was excellent, a claustrophobic account of Dennis Cleg (or the Spider of London, as he often wishes to be dubbed). Mid-way through my reading, however, I was made aware that there was Cronenberg adaptation of the novel, staring the dark lord Ralph Fiennes himself. And so it was that, late one fateful Tuesday night, I settled down to watch the adaptation and lost approximately 91 minutes and 17 seconds of my life. Allow me now, dear reader, to steal a few minutes of yours to help you avoid such a fate.

I think my loathing of the Hades remake (anyone else remember Fiennes in Clash/Wrath of the Titans? No?) stems somewhat from my love of the text. Spider involves one man’s recollections of his childhood and the horrors that occurred in his home. We are slowly enveloped in this somewhat eloquent, sometimes charming, but mostly unreliable narration as Dennis Cleg take us on a warped nostalgia trip through the events that drove him to the halfway house where he now resides under the watchful gaze of the tyrannical Mrs. Wilkinson.

Of course I don’t want to spoil some of the more shocking revelations, but ‘your Spider’, as he refers to himself on several occasions, spends the text darting between reality and memory, often depicting events that he was definitely not present to observe. The whole experience is one of unravelling: the reader unravelling the mystery of his predicament; Spider unravelling his story thread bit by bit; and Spider’s own gradual unravelling as the process of remembering slowly drives him back into a form of madness. The story revolves around patriarchal disharmony, an unreliable narrator’s framed narrative, and a perceived revenge tale, and feels distinctly Gothic in tone; it’s hard not to feel Poe in the margins, asking readers if they still think him mad, or to not think of Roderick Usher’s house crumbling into the tarn when Spider visits the blitz-ruined wreckage of his childhood home. It’s an enjoyable read, with subtle nuances towards the twists that keep driving the plot forward.

"I feel crazy... oh, so crazy!"

Meanwhile, in the Michael Ebbs version (The Chumscrubber, anyone? 2005? Fiennes plays a mayor? Terrible film, anyway), this subtlety and nuance is lost. Of course, it’s difficult to portray the dual narrative nature of the story (past and present, which McGrath blurs at several points) and the film does actually portray this well.  However, much is lost in the adaptation. The subtle psychosexual implications of Spider’s father killing his mother and replacing her with a prostitute is abandoned as 'Dolarhyde' (everybody loves Red Dragon) recollects his young self watching his mother dancing in a new shift for his father. The film even introduces another new scene in which a young Spider is flashed by Hilda Wilkinson, the aforementioned prostitute, in one of the early memory sequences, foregrounding an issue which is more gradually introduced throughout the novel.

It was also upsetting for a film directed by the Baron of Blood, the King of Venereal Horror, Captain Cronenberg (that’s my own) to not include some of the more interesting moments of grotesquery from the text. Scenes where Spider, for example, finds a baby and sucks its skull dry through a small hole in the top, or the strange sections detailing the warping and twisting of his organs, with his intestines wrapped up his spine, his colon and rectum twisting around his neck and anus showing from the back of his neck. And of course we mustn’t overlook the section in which Spider goes to the toilet and urinates out a thin black stream of spiders into the bowl. All these are abandoned and the film loses something in this. We are still treated to a scene where Hilda throws some of Spider’s Father’s semen into the river, though the camera is interestingly placed so that the audience has this thrown square into their face. Though the idea of this isn’t exactly pleasant, it is still only a mild moment of disgust compared to some of the passages dropped.

Behind the scenes with David Cronenberg

That isn’t to say the film is a complete disaster. The aforementioned section with Hilda and Spider’s father by the river does work incredibly well to show the blurring between Spider and his memories, and to establish the unreliability. Miranda Richardson’s performance in the film is, as always, wonderful, and adds depth to a theme that was purely implicit in the novels. Fiennes pulls off a sympathetic character in this version, but it seems a far cry from the Dennis of the novels. Instead of our confident, but breakable Spider of London, we get a mumbling broken Voldemort (the whole film feels like some strange Potter prequel, damn you Fiennes!), stumbling from a train onto the screen and muttering to himself as he pulls the long sock from between his thighs, an image which loses some of the nuanced sexual implications in the film.

Overall, I’d recommend McGrath’s novel for the immersive nature of the story, for the slow draw into dark implications and genuine concern for a character who charms us while he slips further into delirium, who hides in his own mind as he builds and propagates his own counterfactual narrative world. As Spider puts it himself, “Odd thing, no?”

Novelist Patrick McGrath

If you’d like to know more about pissing spiders, men encased in their own grotesque bodies or doctors trapped within memories then you’re in luck! Stirling University has heard your impassioned pleas to the Gothic Gods and is organising an entire day dedicated to McGrath:

ASYLUMS, PATHOLOGIES AND THE THEMES OF MADNESS: PATRICK MCGRATH AND HIS GOTHIC CONTEMPORARIES is a one day symposium on Saturday the 16th of January 2016, with a cfp out and abstracts due October 16th 2015. For more info, go to and follow the University of Stirling Gothic twitter account at @GothImagination

Danny Southward is a 3rd year PhD researcher at Sheffield University. When not displaying his surprisingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Ralph Fiennes films -[“Anyone else remember he was in the Hurt Locker, too? Madness. And the voice of the hunter dude in Curse of the Were-Rabbit!”]- he can be found pretending not to be thinking about Ralph Fiennes films.

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