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Chapter 5: Erika Spohrer, “Translating from Language to Image in Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping”

Robinson’s novel has inspired not only readers and critics but the Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, who released a critically admired adaptation of Housekeeping in 1987. Shot in Nelson, and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and starring Christine Lahti as Sylvie, Sara Walker as Ruth, and Andrea Burchill as Lucille, it offers a uniquely cinematic interpretation of the novel. In her essay “Translating from Language to Image in Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping,” Erika Spohrer examines the various ways in which Forsyth translates Robinson’s richly allusive and poetic novel into the language of film. While she acknowledges the debate over “the practical feminist value” of Housekeeping’s representation of Ruth’s fluid and at times contradictory subjectivity, Spohrer regards the novel as a feminist text and argues that Forsyth has not only captured this dimension of the text but made it more visible. Drawing upon the work of feminist philosopher and theorist Judith Butler, she claims that Forsyth’s adaptation foregrounds the performative nature of gender by making viewers acutely aware of how both Sylvie and Ruth fail to perform the conventional gender roles assigned to them by the good people of Fingerbone. For Butler, gender roles are not simply socially constructed roles that individuals choose to embrace or reject, they are inherently performative in nature. As she writes in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), “Acts, gestures, enactments . . . are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means” (qtd. in Spohrer 57). In his film adaptation of Robinson’s novel, Forsyth foregrounds both Sylvie and Ruth’s subversive performance of gender through his use of mise-en-scene, costumes and cinematography, often adding scenes and dialogue to draw our attention to Sylvie and Ruth’s “incongruous female bodies and [their] exaggerated performances” (57).

Spohrer traces the development of Sylvie, Ruth and Lucille over the course of Forsyth’s film, stressing that all three characters can best be understood as embodiments of Butler’s views on the performative nature of gender roles. Whereas Lucille embraces the gendered identity expected of her by the community, Sylvie and Ruth eventually reject the hegemonic and normative gender roles they have attempted unsuccessfully to perform and choose instead to free themselves from such restrictive identities. As Spohrer notes, however, the conclusion of Forsyth’s film differs significantly from the conclusion of Robinson’s novel. Rather than providing us with a coda in which Ruth describes herself and her aunt as drifters who continue to exist, like ghosts, on the margins of society, in the final frames of his film Forsyth portrays the pair crossing the bridge into darkness as we hear Lucille in a narrative voice-over claim of Ruth, “She’s always wandering away.” “By wandering away from Lucille’s voice,” Spohrer writes, “and in effect leaving the patriarchal institution that she has grown to represent, Sylvie and Ruth eliminate from their existence the audience that regulates their gender performances”(68).


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Housekeeping (by Marilynne Robinson) Copyright © by Paul Tyndall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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