Last week, I reviewed Z For Zachariah, the latest film by director Craig Zobel (read it here), which is based on Robert C. O’Brien’s posthumous 1974 novel of the same name. I had planned to reference an earlier adaptation of the book, a production shot by Anthony Garner in 1984 for the BBC program “Play For Today.” The two-hour movie is much closer to the source material in plotting but is also not without its faults. Most significantly, it feels very much like a dated product of its era: Cold War dread of nuclear fallout.
In his adaptation, Zobel does a fine job cutting out the dated concerns that played on Cold War era fears, so it’s a shame he doesn’t magnify the more primal tensions of the drama to make for a more timeless film. Though there’s a sense it was designed for it, I doubt this film will be remembered come Oscar time, considering some of the movie’s fine performers, who ultimately couldn’t seem to rise above the scant material.
In my review, I pointed out Zobel’s weak grasp on the film’s mood as a great issue of his version. Not so for the BBC version. What succeeds with this adaptation is that you feel a creeping sense of disquiet that surrounds the idyllic farmhouse, spared nuclear annihilation because it happens to sit in a valley. Solitary farm girl Anne Burden is played by TV actress Pippa Hinchley, making her acting debut. Here’s a fun bit of trivia: she happened to have played a minor role in the Chris Pine vehicle People Like Us (2012). Pine plays a third character in Zobel’s adaptation of the film who was never in the book nor the BBC version.
There’s a darkly wonderful moment in the BBC version establishing Anne’s response to the loss of her family after they leave her alone at the homestead to search for other survivors but never return. After waiting for who knows how many days, she weeps for them, gathers their toothbrushes and some dead flowers, and tosses them all into the garbage. It’s an interesting gesture. Just when you think she will become sentimental about her loss, she does not. For what use is sentiment when there is no one else left alive?
Eventually, a survivor arrives at her house. John Loomis (a scenery chewing Anthony Andrews) first appears at a distance, emerging from a white tent in a radiation suit. He gradually moves the tent closer and closer to Anne’s house. This version of Z For Zachariah indeed takes its time with both atmosphere and character development. In Zobel’s film the chemistry and trust between John and Anne seems too simplistic with a sense of little at stake. Garner’s version genuinely considers the chasm of trust that would lie between a teenage girl and a shady looking man, taking its time to reveal a sense of trust with John that is doomed to failure. There’s a profound sense of ambivalence between Anne and John from the start, something Zobel’s version so sorely needed early in its drama. In the 1984 version Anne keeps her distance for days. When she does approach, John has gradually been weakened by radiation poisoning. His sickness only enhances the specter of death that looms over the film. Meanwhile, in Zobel’s version, it only takes a few injections of a handy serum for John to recover from his illness.
In this 1980s version, John also gives soliloquies about the horrors of radiation poisoning, how it gradually eats away at a person’s body as well as revealing what happened to set off the nuclear holocaust that brough Anne and him together. This element of suspense feels remarkably dated in today’s post-Cold War era, and Zobel is right to cut it back. He instead focuses on the personal drama of alienation from society. There’s an unnerving sense of the inevitable power of a man who invades on a world of a woman who thought she was alone in the world. She is getting by, but she can hardly fend for herself, lacking the skills and knowledge to get the lights back on and clinging to her precious faith for survival.
A sense of the grim inevitable in the early version is revealed during other scenes of dialogue, as this film seems more concerned with death than it is the dynamic between the man and the teenaged girl. In one scene, crippled by radiation exposure, John dishes advice to Anne on how she might survive on her own by rotating the crops. He slowly goes mad, and a third man does appear, but as a figment of his delusions, as he feverishly rants about his past, revealing to Anne deeper and darker secrets. Things get scarier from there, but the movie also tumbles over a cliff by dragging out a hackneyed turn in the plot. But one more plus: the dog figures into the story till its grim ending, unlike Zobel’s version, which inexplicably drops the dog out of the narrative a mere quarter of the way through. Both films are mediocre adaptations, but this older dated version really isn’t as weak a film as the more recent version.
Without further ado, watch the 1984 adaptation of Z For Zachariah here (Update: the video has since been removed from YouTube):
And the new version of Z For Zachariah is currently playing in our Miami area exclusively at Sunset Place. It’s also available on VOD. Again, here’s my review: