*Note: Contains Plot Spoilers*

There have been countless studies arguing that babies who aren’t held may actually die
from lack of physical contact and affection.  Forget oxygen, it seems that love in all of its
kaleidoscopic forms is the fuel that drives us.  For some, like the characters Tom Avery
and Fay McLeod in Carol Shields’ novel
The Republic of Love, it even has the ability to
heighten the senses.  Combining vivid imagery laced with magic realism and lusciously
sensual cinematography, Indian born screenwriter/director Deepa Mehta manages to put
her own unique spin on 2003’s cinematic adaptation of the work by Pulitzer Prize-Winner
Carol Shields.  Utilizing the essay format, I will introduce Tom and Fay, summarize
Republic of Love
, highlight the differences between the two versions of the tale, evaluate
the success of both in their respective mediums and share my own perspective in response
to the issues the works bring forth.

While we know what happens when babies are neglected, Tom Avery is the quintessential
example of what can happen when a baby is over-nurtured, not just by one mother but
twenty-seven eager young women.  The women it seems took part in a bizarre
experimental university class training them to become
Stepford-like homemakers. An
illegitimate child born to a mother suffering from acute pneumonia and depression, Tom
Avery was loaned out as a practice baby for the candy-colored sweater-clad students.  Now
aged 40, Tom (played by Bruce Greenwood in the film) is a man hopelessly addicted to
love, with three ex-wives that he chalks up to bad luck.  A late night disc jockey offering
simple wisdom and spinning classic cuts for lovelorn insomniacs, Tom, so phobic about
spending Friday evenings alone, continually goes to a support group meeting for the newly
single even though he’s hardly new to singledom.  It’s at the group, frighteningly led by an
overly enthusiastic woman spouting slogans like “keep your condoms ready” where one
desperate evening Tom brings home an attractive attendee whom he quickly learns has
become collateral damage in the battlefield of love in the 1990’s.  He suffers the
consequences in an odd sexual encounter that nearly breaks his nose and scares him out
of the dating scene until a similarly aged acquaintance named Sammy drops dead while
jogging and Tom realizes that he doesn’t want to grow old alone.

Beautiful, brainy Fay McLeod has one of those prestigious academic careers that sounds
great on paper but in person makes her a bit of an intellectual loner—walking evidence of
recent studies showing that for every fifteen IQ points, a woman’s chance of marriage
decreases.  A folklorist working at a museum, Fay (played by Emilia Fox in the film)
spends most of her time researching mermaids for a book she hopes to publish in the
future.  Her love life has been comfortable but sparks-free and in the beginning of
Republic of Love
, she ends a long-time relationship by dumping an attractive, well-
intentioned but tedious coworker named Peter Knightly.  Afterwards Fay, like most
intellectuals who spend more time thinking than doing, begins worrying unreasonably
that she is rapidly approaching spinsterhood at the age of 30 (in the film) or 35 (in the
book).  The reason for Fay’s irrational fear is largely due to sublimely happy parents with a
marriage so picture perfect after forty years that her mother actually mails her father
Valentine’s Day cards and the two never exchange anniversary presents, instead saying
that they are each other’s gift.

Tom and Fay meet each other at a children’s party—Tom, taking care of his godson for the
weekend, arrives at Fay’s brother Clyde’s place only to be struck by the sight of Fay walking
in, clasping a strand full of colorful balloons the night before she journeys to Europe on a
research trip.  The two strain to hear each other over the din, leaning closer until his lips
brush her ear.  After realizing that they live very close together, following the book’s
statement that “geography is destiny,” (Shields 178), Tom offers her a ride, only to
remember he hadn’t driven so instead they venture out on foot.  In the film Tom has the
apartment directly above Fay and in the novel Tom lives directly across the street from
Fay’s condo conversion.  After an awkward exchange, Tom surprises himself by breaking
from cordialities, telling Fay that he wishes to put his arms around her and Fay steps
forward for the embrace.  He tracks down her temporary overseas address and writes her a
gushing love letter while she researches mermaids and she replies that she loves him in
return.  After her feet touch Canadian soil again, the two make love, Tom takes up
residence at Fay’s and they quickly become engaged.  Their whirlwind courtship screeches
to a halt when Fay’s father suddenly leaves her mother shortly after their fortieth wedding
anniversary and Fay sees the effects of love gone wrong firsthand.  She breaks off her
engagement, only to show up at Tom’s door near the end of the film in a touching moment
punctuated on film by floral imagery. Meanwhile, her father returns to her mother and Fay
marries Tom impulsively in a civil ceremony.

Obviously much is sacrificed in adapting a 366-page novel into a 95-minute film but Deepa
Mehta uses her time effectively.  While Shields waited until page 175 to have Tom and Fay
meet, Mehta links them much earlier, just 25 minutes in.  Transplanting the setting from
Winnipeg to Toronto, Canadian resident Mehta populates her film with a cast more
ethnically and realistically diverse and makes her characters a bit sharper and cinema
ready than the prose version.  Making Fay a bit younger and placing her at the stage in her
relationship with Knightly when he asks to move in makes her seem a bit less bookish and
old lady-like than the novel allowed, wherein they lived together and had finances and
dull issues to sort out.  Making the main character a folklorist academic is dicey but Mehta’
s Fay is more sexual, writing about the sensual shape of a mermaid’s tale in an early scene
and likening it to the male anatomy, having fun coming up with other suggestive
synonyms, implying she isn’t quite the schoolmarm one would expect. In the novel, Fay’s
brother Clyde was the victim of a horrific stutter but in the film the stutter vanishes and
his abortion activist powerful white wife Sonya is turned into Yasmine, an attractive
Indian woman fond of vibrant clothing whose career is never mentioned in Mehta’s film.  
The character of Fay’s sister Bibbi, the youngest and most beautiful sibling living with a
much older humorless communist has disappeared altogether.  A curious choice, most
likely to heighten the loneliness of Tom and Fay was made by Mehta to delete their friends
from the book, making the most of family and work colleagues instead of introducing extra
characters.  Tom’s radio producer, now Native American in the film, is his best friend
substitute and Onion, Fay’s godmother has become a combination of not only her own
character from the book but a few other of Fay’s friends and colleagues.  Fay’s father is
given a pet duck named Mr. Chopin to humanize his character and make one see him as
slightly eccentric, possibly preparing viewers for his leaving of his wife.  Tom’s ex-wife
Sheila is now African-American and the same lawyer that Fay uses—one of several
characters and situations that Tom and Fay have in common before officially meeting.  
Tom encounters Peter Knightly at the folklore museum in the film whereas in the book the
two awkwardly meet while on dates at a Woody Allen film and afterwards keep running
into one another.

Carol Shields’ novel has the benefit of using inner dialogue so that one feels they know
Tom and Fay personally by the time the two finally meet.  On the page, the story feels
much more intimate—in a way, having readers spend day after day with the two is a
hindrance because they grow tiresome and we want them to meet sooner as Shields filled
space with some dead-end subplots and endless descriptions to fill white space.  For
example, we don’t really need to know exactly what they eat at every single meal.  However
in the film, so much had been abandoned that people just tuning in may view Tom and Fay
as one-dimensional characters and not get as successfully sucked into the story.  Mehta
never loses the influence of her Indian homeland—the film is rich with vibrant color and
sensuous movement of shadows dancing on walls like mermaids in water.  Magical realist
imagery decorates the celluloid in my favorite scene when Tom embraces Fay for the first
time and suddenly their plain everyday clothing is turned into elegant evening wear and
we are instantly transported, seduced by the story and dizzy from the budding romance as
if we were Tom or Fay, longing for those first touches and glances.  In a questioningly
egotistical film geek moment, Mehta uses an opportunity to plug her work, having Knightly
bring over a Bollywood musical (Mehta’s
Bollywood/Hollywood) to entertain and tempt
Fay with as he says, the film’s “erotic subtext” only to have her fall asleep, illustrating to
viewers that their relationship is beyond dead.  Apparent in her screenplay, Mehta’s sharp
wit and the crackling dialogue developed from the wondrous combination of taking the
very best that Shields had to offer and then using it simply and quickly for better comic
effect is evident in the scene wherein Sammy, an acquaintance of Tom’s drops dead
unexpectedly from a heart attack while jogging.  In the film, as soon as Tom leaves Sammy,
he goes down—startlingly and in a darkly comic reply to Tom’s jokingly wishing him the
“Best of British luck” and Tom tries to figure out afterwards who and what was to blame.  
However, in the novel, he dies ten to fifteen minutes afterwards and the news is shared
much after the fact.  Shields loves cutting away from action and then delivering the news
in retrospect and novels are better suited to jumping around in time and space but Mehta
knows film is best kept in the present.  The cinematography is dripping with color and
light—Mehta is unafraid of symbolism, laying it on a bit too thick at times so that it has a
chilling effect, filling in segues with shots of empty hallways, escalators, immaculate
buildings and space to signify the loneliness.  

In this age of cynicism, it is extremely risky to try to talk about romance in a way that’s
hopeful and realistic.  For one reason, love has been dissected since the beginning of time—
translated into every language, with rules blurring every day—no one gets away cleanly, we
all have our battle scars like Tom Avery.  As a romantic myself, I applaud Carol Shields for
letting her critics be damned—for taking a stance as a literary, award-winning, highbrow
writer to create such a dizzifying ode to love, revealing its contradictions, complications,
and of course, the contact-high love provides must have fueled her on each time her pen
touched paper.  One reason the book may have been so successful and not just labeled
typically romantic paperback trash was because Shields was unafraid to show love warts
and all.  She gave Tom all of those ex-wives and past experiences, offering Fay a number of
suitors who are good men but unable to offer that spark and showed the way love evolves
and sometimes dies over the years in the characters of her parents facing a rocky patch,
her godmother deciding to tie the knot now that her longtime lover has become
hospitalized and is facing death.  I think Mehta translated the idea of love at first sight
extremely well—it’s another risky proposition, one that I can’t get my own mind around,
feeling that the best I can admit to is lust at first sight, but her visuals made it seem real.  
I’m able to swallow the idea of a whirlwind courtship a bit easier on film because of the
way Mehta links the would-be lovers first by coincidence and proximity, which is honestly
how most real-life pairs seem to get together as well.  In her hands, the love at first sight
concept is well prepared for and I buy it.  Like Tom, despite the war wounds and the
collateral damage, I remain hopeful and open to the evolving nature of love, awe-struck by
its power and enlightened by its effects. Perhaps the important thing is to think of love like
a newborn child with the decision to nurture and cherish so that it may flourish.

In conclusion, I set out to evaluate
The Republic of Love both as a film and novel, looking
at the works in a more literary manner as a romantic and student of the humanities rather
than as a film student simply judging cinematic technique.  Because they deal so expressly
with love and family, I applaud these women for having the courage to put their selves out
there so nakedly in sharing this tale—their fingerprints are all over their respective works
and they’ve used the preferred tool at their disposal to its finest use. The success of both
depends on the personality of the person who chooses to take part—I’m glad I read the
novel to get the back story as the film can seem a bit vacuous for a first time viewing but I
truly love Mehta’s awe-inspiring marriage of picture, words and sound.  As a writer, a large
part of me feels like I’m betraying Shields by preferring the film and I feel Mehta who
revered the original ideas herself would understand as she dedicated her work to the late
author who passed away the year the movie hit filmmovement.com and the festival
circuit.  As a romantic, I’d like to say I’d choose them both, but as a woman like Fay who
drops the easily comfortable choice and goes with her true feelings, I know that I have to
choose one over the other.
Deepa Mehta's
The Republic of Love
By Jen Johans
(c) Jen Johans.   filmintuition.com
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