As cinemagoers and telly watchers we are used to accomplished adaptations of fictions born on the page. Whether it’s the BBC’s latest Jane Austen costume drama or blockbusters like the Harry Potter series, we consume creations transformed from the page to the screen all the time. We are also accustomed to the fictionalisation and cinematic imaginings of happenings from history, with one of film’s latest trends being the increasing use of exciting events from the recent past. The likes of The Social Network and 127 Hours brought books about modern, real lives to the big screen.
But we are less used to films based on academic and extensively researched works of non-fiction. There is of course the occasional box office hit based on a lucky scholar’s lengthy biography or surprisingly successful history. However it’s rare for such books to be huge hits in print via Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith, let alone dominate in theatres. It normally takes a strong following of the book to persuade producers that the appetite is there for a lucrative movie. Or a particularly juicy subject matter, ripe for controversial or intriguing expansion and exploration.
In the case of A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr there is certainly the potential for controversy. His book, released in the early 1990s and based on new evidence, charts the relationship between commonly recognised pioneers of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, which is controversial enough in itself. But its way into the world of intellectual competition and mental instability is the papers of Sabina Spielrein. She was a Russian patient of Jung’s, taken to a clinic in Zurich in 1904 at the age of 18. Her habits included “ill concealed masturbation”. And she and Jung had an affair.
As if that were not a sufficiently saucy and shocking cocktail, the nature of the affair remains scandalous even now. Jung was trying to drive forward a new profession and ensure its respect as a science and as a medical treatment. And yet he had an affair with one of his patients. An affair directly linked to his treatment and his probing of her condition. She was beaten as a child by her father and this sexually excited her. It doesn’t take much to imagine what she and Jung got up to. Sadomasochism enters the mix.
An official trailer for A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure (which was based on Kerr’s original book), is now online. You can watch it here:
It stars Cronenberg’s usual partner in crime Viggo Mortensen as Freud, Michael Fassbender as Jung and Keira Knightley as Spielrein. Disappointingly for fans of Cronenberg and Mortensen’s previous collaborations, the story appears to focus on Jung, with Freud relegated to a secondary figure. The weight of the narrative therefore falls on rising star Fassbender, who also stars in a new Jane Eyre adaptation out later this year, and his chemistry with Knightley. Disappointingly for fans of history and good storytelling, Knightley’s role, from the trailer at least, appears to be that of kinky sex slave.
Even the slightest research into Kerr’s original work uncovers just how fascinating a story, a true story, he set out to tell. Spielrein was treated by Jung and she had some kind of sexual affair with him, although it may never have been consummated. She went onto graduate as a doctor and pursued her own career in psychoanalysis, playing a key role in bringing its breakthroughs back to Russia. She was treated by Freud but always remained attached to Jung.
Not only did Kerr tell this remarkable story with “verve devices” of storytelling and “scholarly precisions”, according a 1994 review in The Independent, but his book had a serious point. Aside from being part of a tantalising love triangle complicated by genius and a battle for the soul of a groundbreaking science, Sabina Spielrein sheds light on who was the more influential man; Jung or Freud. Kerr argues that Freud’s thinking was of its time and not revolutionary. In any case many of Freud’s and Jung’s ideas are recognised as plain wrong and outdated today but if one was more important in laying the true foundations of psychoanalysis, Kerr argues it was Jung. He helped create Freud’s reputation and was the “engine” of the profession’s growth.
Of course this is just Kerr’s opinion but it is backed by thorough research and is genuinely interesting. The trailer for A Dangerous Method focused on psychoanalysis for its first 40 seconds, before throwing Knightley into the mix as over the top, loony eye candy for Fassbender to drool over. The dialogue, from Fassbender, Knightley and Vincent Cassel, becomes shamelessly erotic; “never repress anything”/”I want you to punish me”/” why should we put so much effort into suppressing our most basic natural instincts”. Surely Cronenberg hasn’t wasted his time on soft porn with period detail?
Probably not. It’s probably just the marketing approach of the trailer. And there are positives and great potential to be found within its brief runtime. The focus on Jung suggests that the general intellectual thrust of Kerr’s book, that Jung was more instrumental than Freud, will remain (although Mortensen does seem to be portrayed as an infrequent but superior wise figure). Cronenberg is hardly known for costumed drama and after the hard hitting A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, we can expect something knew from him in this genre. There is also little wrong with well acted desire and I’m sure the full performances won’t disappoint.
The fact remains though that those behind the trailer for A Dangerous Method are following that age old principle of advertising; sex sells. The prospect of charismatic and fit X-Men star Fassbender having forbidden romps with a kinky and crazy Keira Knightley will interest millions, whilst Jung’s professional friendship and battles with Freud will lure considerably less. There is nothing wrong with humanising great figures from the past; it’s what great stories do and it can bring fact to life. But there is something wrong with completely destroying the intentions of a source born of one writer’s hard work. Even if the final film tells Sabina Spielrein’s full story and is truer to Kerr’s revisionist study, it will have sold some sensational half truths to tempt people to see it.
Liam Trim (follow me on Twitter)