Page To Screen: Of Human Bondage

ofhumanbondagebook
First edition, 1915. (IberLibro)

About a year ago, I reviewed the 1934 film, Of Human Bondage, starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis (Read it here), and at the time, I found it to be a downer, full of manipulation and abuse. In spite of that, I jumped at the chance to buy the novel at a library sale. When the price is only two dollars, what’s there to lose, right? I got the book and plowed through it, mostly while my son was at his swimming lessons.

We’ve all seen how different movies can be from their source material. While the Of Human Bondage film focuses primarily on Phillip Carey and his entanglement with Mildred, the book also gives us Phillip’s backstory, starting with the deaths of his mother and newborn baby brother. He’s then sent to live with his uncle, who’s a vicar, He and his wife are childless, and really don’t know what to do with Phillip. They’re not unkind to him, but they just don’t get him, and try desperately to interest him in anything. The only things that catch Phillip’s eye are stories and pictures about faraway places. He’ll read geography books for hours and hours.

wsomersetmaugham
W. Somerset Maugham. (English Book in Georgia)

Phillip soon gets sent to boarding school, which is a mixed blessing. He’s around lots of other boys and he doesn’t exactly fit in. Just as in the film, Phillip has a clubfoot, and physically can’t keep up with the other boys. He gets sky-high grades, though, because, as his classmates say, “He can’t do anything but swat.” As his schooling goes on, Phillip rejects the faith of his uncle and aunt and chooses to become an atheist. He doesn’t meet with a lot of resistance when he does this; in fact, people are casual when they find out. I got the feeling that Phillip was slightly let down by this, as if he were expecting his uncle to throw things at his head. It wouldn’t have been a complete shocker, either, as his aunt and uncle had been expecting him to go into the ministry.

One of the major differences between the book and the film is that in the latter, Mildred seems to be the female Neil Armstrong of Phillip’s love life. In the book? Not so much. When he’s nineteen, Phillip is attracted to an older woman named Miss Wilkerson, and at first it seems exciting and dangerous. He stays behind from church and waits for her. It all goes swimmingly until they make plans to sleep together. Phillip takes one look at Miss Wilkerson in her chemise and immediately regrets what he’s about to do, but goes through with it anyway. After that, he goes off to school in Germany and doesn’t miss her a bit.

of-human-bondage-22539
1934 (IMDb)

In the film, Phillip decides to go to medical school when his dreams of becoming an artist don’t come to fruition In the book, we have time to see Phillip try and fail in the art commmunity. He studies in Paris, befriends other students, and even meets another girl, Fanny, who’s fatally anti-social. Literally–she falls in love with Phillip, but commits suicide when it’s unrequited.

Breezy, cheery stuff, isn’t it? And that’s all before Phillip meets Mildred.

Once he does, the book and the 1934 movie are almost identical as far as plot arc goes. The bottom line with Phillip is that he’s irrationally desperate to be accepted, but feels inadequate because of his clubfoot. He’s never really sure if people truly like him or if they’re just indulging him out of pity. Phillip has no experience with healthy, loving relationships and therefore has nothing to aspire to, or at least it takes him longer to get a clue.

ofhumanbondage1946
1946 (IMDb)

Oddly enough, Of Human Bondage is considered a classic, but don’t ask me why. It’s not completely terrible, but it is depressing, morose, and definitely not light reading. If anything, it reveals the ugliness of the human condition, and can be considered a cautionary tale of what not to do.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, except that instead of a clubfoot, Maugham had a stammer. Like Phillip, Maugham was sent to live with a vicar uncle after losing his mother to tuberculosis. He went to boarding school in both England and Germany, and also like Phillip, tried several failed career paths. His uncle hoped he would train for the ministry, but it was thought his speech impediment would make the family look bad. Maugham did study medicine enough to become a medic, however, and drove an ambulance during World War One.

It doesn’t appear that Maugham ever moved on from what he dealt with in his life, but allowed it to make him sour and cynical to the point of unreasonableness. In fact, the entire book can be summed up in this quote:

ofhumanbondagequote

I couldn’t disagree with the above statement more. While there are those out there who deceive others, the idea that young people are told nothing but lies is a cop-out at best and itself a lie at worst. It assumes malicious intent on the part of the older and doesn’t take into account that more often than not, young people see what they want to see. Discerning reality is a skill that comes with maturity. Some people never really grasp it, though, but that can hardly be blamed on others. It comes down to choices. It also seems that Maugham was acting out his own bitterness by discounting everyone else’s life experiences. That’s very sad.

ofhumanbondage1964
1964 (IMDb)

I’ll be honest, I almost didn’t want to write this review because, in case it isn’t already obvious, I couldn’t stand Maugham’s book. It’s not that I prefer everything to be unnaturally light, but there does have to be a medium somewhere. The novel almost reminded me of Oliver Twist, except that Oliver was at least able to catch a break now and then, plus Dickens excelled at comic relief, whereas Maugham didn’t. Phillip does catch a break late in the story, except that by that stage, I felt as if I were carrying lead weights. Of Human Bondage ought to carry a disclaimer: Do not read if stressed, because this book’s a smile-killer.

Unlike me, Hollywood likes Of Human Bondage. The film was remade in 1946 with Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker, and again in 1964 with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey. Sigh. I’m going to skip both of them, because once through the novel and the first film are more than enough.

All righty, another dose of Shame in the pipeline for tomrrow. Thanks for reading, everyone!


This book is available on Amazon.

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