The Razor’s Edge is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, written in 1944. It is about a man that is shocked by his experience during the Great War, which changes him forever and sets him off on a quest to try to understand whether life has any sense to it, or whether it is just a stupid blunder. It was made into a movie in 1946 and remade in 1984.
The 1946 Movie
The movie begins in Chicago just after the end of the war, with Maugham (Herbert Marshall) finding himself at a party for the upper class, where we meet most of the characters who will figure significantly in the rest of the movie. One in particular is Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), who is exasperated that his niece Isabel (Gene Tierney) is engaged to Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), because “he hasn’t any money,” and “he doesn’t want a job.”
“That must shock a man like you who’s never earned a penny in his life,” Maugham notes with amusement.
“It may have escaped your notice, my dear fellow,” Elliott replies, “but I am not an ordinary man. For the run of mankind, industry is essential. I see no reason why this young man, who my niece has got herself engaged to, should not conform to the customs of his country.”
Elliott says “his” country, because he does not himself regard America as his home, preferring Europe instead, especially Paris. He says he is in “this benighted city” only to visit his sister, the hostess of the event, and his niece Isabel. In those days, Europe had snob appeal, what with its royalty and class consciousness, as opposed to America, where no one is born with a title or cares about having a coat of arms.
In fact, as we quickly find out, Larry has turned down a job selling bonds, offered to him by Gray Maturin (John Payne), who comes from a rich family. Isabel is perplexed by this. When she asks Larry what he wants to do, he answers, “I don’t know. Loaf, maybe.” This confirms Elliot’s characterization of him as “bone idle.”
Isabel makes the observation that many of us watching the movie have been thinking about for several minutes running, which is that you can’t live without money. Larry replies that he has a little, which gives him the opportunity to do what he wants. As we find out later, he has an income of $3,000 per year. The story begins in 1919, so, adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of over $47,000 today. It was a peculiarity of a previous era that wealth was often expressed in terms of income rather than net worth. In the novel, after the passage of over ten years, Larry says he was not affected by the stock market crash of 1929 because all his money was in government bonds. During the years when this story was set, twenty-year Treasury bonds paid an average of 4%. So, in order to generate an income-equivalent of $47,000 today at this interest rate, Larry’s bonds would have to be worth over $1,175,000. That is what Larry apparently means when he says he has a “little” money.
In Larry’s situation, I would not have wanted a job either. The difference, however, is that whereas I really would have loved to spend my life loafing and being bone idle, Larry is bothered by the fact that during the war, a man gave up his life saving him, and he wants to know why, to understand what it all means.
I have no doubt that participating in a war would be a most disturbing experience. And to come very close to death, only to have another man give up his life saving yours—that would have a profound effect on you. But Larry’s perplexity seems to go beyond that, as if the event has challenged certain preconceptions he had. I shall take the liberty of speculating on what those preconceptions were.
There is an idea that shows up periodically in the history of philosophy that man is basically selfish, and any appearance to the contrary can be explained away as selfishness in a less obvious form, sometimes referred to as enlightened egoism. But a genuine sacrifice of one man’s life for that of another would be hard to explain in that way. From this it would follow that there must be a transcendent principle that allows man to rise above his animal selfishness, setting aside his self-interest for the benefit of others. That seems to be what underlies Larry’s need to understand that sacrifice, to find that transcendent principle.
Upon hearing about Larry’s intentions, Isabel decides to put their engagement on hold. In part, she does not want to try to live on Larry’s income, but she is also bothered by Larry’s lack of ambition, saying that he should get a job as a matter of “self-respect.” They agree to wait, and Larry goes to Paris, where he believes he will be better able to see things clearly. In general, the characters in this movie flow from America to Europe, and in Larry’s case, all the way to India, only to return to America as the story ends.
Isabel and her mother come to Paris a year later. She finds that Larry intends to persist in his existential quest, but he thinks there is no reason why they could not get married anyway. “Remember how we used to talk about traveling all over the world together?” he asks.
“Of course I want to travel,” she replies, “but not like that: cheap restaurants, third-rate hotels. Besides, I want to have babies, Larry.”
“All right, darling,” he says. “We’ll take them along with us.”
That is utterly unrealistic, and Isabel knows it. As she has no intention of living the bohemian life that would entail, even without babies, she breaks off the engagement. Just before she returns to America, Isabel and Larry go out for a multicultural night on the town, after which she intends to seduce him, get pregnant, and force him to return to America, where he will have to marry her, settle down, and get a respectable job. But she changes her mind. Elliott, who was wise to her game, asks her why she did not go through with it. She said she could not bring herself to play such a dirty trick on him, but Elliott says she was just being realistic, knowing the marriage would never have worked. We all act from mixed motives, and probably her decision not to go through with it was a combination of the two.
Isabel returns to America and eventually marries Gray, which is what Elliott wanted for her all along. Gray has been quite successful selling bonds, and is now worth $20,000,000. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be like $270,000,000 today.) Also at their wedding is Sophie (Anne Baxter), who has been Larry’s best friend since they were children, and her husband Bob. Sophie and Bob, a couple of modest means, were also at the earlier party with which the movie began. At that time, she declined a drink when offered, saying that Bob didn’t like her to drink because she was “too fond of it.” In other words, she is an alcoholic.
The scene shifts back to Europe, where Larry is working as a coal miner. Now, it was one thing for him to lie around, taking it easy, reflecting on the meaning of life, made possible by his income of $3,000 per year; but if he was going to work anyway, why not get himself a job selling bonds for Gray’s company? The reason, of course, is the supposedly purifying nature of manual labor. Working with your hands always seems to be more honest and conducive to a spiritual life than working with your mouth or with your mind, which some people regard as having a corruptive influence on the soul. That’s why it was important that Jesus had been a carpenter rather than a money lender, for example.
Larry has made friends with Kosti, a nihilistic, defrocked Polish priest, who says that Larry sounds like a religious man who does not believe in God. Larry says he doesn’t believe in anything. Kosti suggests that Larry go to India and meet a man that many have found inspirational. This Larry does, putting himself under the tutelage of the Indian guru. Whereas Western religions tend to see God as presiding over man and nature, the religious view to which Larry is now exposed thinks of God as one with these things. The holy man tells him, “There is in every one of us a spark of the infinite goodness which created us. And when we leave this earth, we are reunited with it as a raindrop falling from Heaven is at last reunited with the sea which gave it birth.” The movie reinforces this simile comparing God to the sea by beginning and ending with scenes of the ocean, not to mention the many times we see the ocean in the background throughout the movie. After studying for a while with the holy man, it becomes time for Larry to ascend the mountain and live in solitude. It is there, seeing the sun come up one morning, that he feels himself to be one with God. This is the transcendent principle Larry has been seeking, the one he believes is needed to overcome man’s basic selfishness: if we are all one with God, then altruism is just one part of God helping out another part of God.
Just as manual labor is presented as spiritually preferable to office work, so too is nature presented as more conducive to the experience of revelation than the artificial constructions of civilization. As it was important for Jesus to go into the wilderness, where he fasted for over a month, so too was it important for Larry to seek solitude on a mountain top, enduring the bitter cold. By way of contrast, Elliott says he detests the countryside, and Maugham observes at another point in the movie that Elliott looks upon “nature as an impediment to social intercourse.” In any event, having had this revelation on the mountain top, Larry is advised by the holy man that it is time for him to return to his world.
That world, it turns out, has not been doing so well. First, Sophie survives an automobile accident in which Bob and her baby are killed. Somewhat later comes the stock market crash of 1929, in which Gray’s firm is wiped out. (This was not on account of the bonds his firm had been selling. In the novel, Gray and his father got caught up in the stock market frenzy and started speculating in securities on the margin.) In a conversation with Maugham, Isabel notes with irony that she and Gray and their two children are living all right on her income, which is about the same as Larry had when she refused to marry him. Actually, they are doing better than that. It seems that Elliott not only got out of the stock market just before the crash, but actually sold short, making a killing. He has taken a place on the Riviera, where he can hobnob with royalty, while allowing Isabel’s family to live in his posh apartment in Paris, and also providing them with a maid and a governess for the children.
At least, they are all right financially. Gray, however, has not only been unable to find work, but has suffered a nervous breakdown as well, afflicting him with terrible headaches. Just as manual labor and communing with nature on a mountain top has given Larry peace of mind, so the fall from high society and the world of finance has given Gray a head full of pain.
When Kosti told Larry about the holy man, he said it was not so much the man’s teachings that affected people, but the man himself. This recalls what Maugham said at the beginning of the movie, that the man about whom he was writing was not famous, and that he may be entirely forgotten after he has died. That is, there is something about Larry himself that impresses Maugham, not in anything that he has done. In fact, Larry does remarkably little.
The first thing he does on his return to Paris, where he becomes reacquainted with Gray and Isabel, is to cure Gray’s headache through hypnosis or the power of suggestion, which he learned in India. This is not farfetched, for Gray’s headaches are clearly psychosomatic. As Larry puts it, there is nothing miraculous about what he did; he only put an idea in Gray’s head, and Gray did the rest himself. It was necessary that Larry explicitly deny that what he did was a miracle, for left unsaid, we might think him a fraud. (In the novel, Gray says, “It’s a miracle.” And later, Isabel says the same thing. But as in the movie, Larry denies it.) However, it functions as a miracle substitute. On the one hand, something like a miracle was required. Suppose Jesus had never performed any miracles. If all he had done was preach, no religion would have formed around him, no matter how wise and good he may have been. By the same token, in order for us to be convinced of Larry’s spirituality, he had to do something that at least bordered on the miraculous. On the other hand, this story is set in the twentieth century. Had Larry walked on water, we would have thought that to be ridiculous. And so, as a compromise, Larry does something marvelous, something neither Maugham, Isabel, nor Gray had ever seen before; while at the same time, what he does can be understood rationally, not requiring a supernatural explanation.
Once the headache is gone, they all decide to go out to a nightclub, where Isabel confides in Maugham that she still loves Larry and has never loved anyone else, including her husband, though she says she is too fond of Gray to ever hurt him. After they spend some time at a respectable nightclub, they decide to go slumming and end up at a dive, a place where people dance the tango, of course. It is in that seedy place that they run into Sophie. When I first watched the movie, I figured she worked there. But in the novel, her in-laws were so scandalized by her drunkenness and promiscuity after Bob and her baby died that they promised her an allowance if she left America. And now that she is in Paris, she has acquired a taste for opium as well. She also has a man who treats her rough, just the way she likes it.
It is only on the way home that Larry finds out about Sophie’s tragedy. He gets out of the car and heads back to that nightclub. Somewhat later, we hear that he has gotten Sophie to quit drinking, and they are going to be married. Upon receiving that news, Isabel becomes furious. She tries to get Maugham to tell Larry not to marry Sophie, saying that Sophie is no good. “The fool thinks he’s cured her,” she says. Maugham notes that Larry cured Gray, but Isabel replies, “Gray wanted to be cured. She doesn’t.” When asked how she knows that, she says, “Because I know women. Do you think she’ll stick to Larry? No. She’ll break out. It’s in her blood. It’s a brute she wants. That excites her. It’s a brute she’ll go after. She’ll lead Larry to Hell.” Maugham agrees with her, but he doesn’t think there is anything they can do about it.
“Do you think I’ve sacrificed myself,” she asks, “only to let Larry fall into the hands of a woman like that?” Isabel claims that she gave Larry up so as not to stand in his way. Maugham sneers at her characterization of what she did as a sacrifice, saying, “You gave him up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat.”
Maugham gives the usual reasons for not interfering with Larry’s plans to marry Sophie, essentially saying that it is none of their business. But then he goes a step further. “There’s only one thing you can do,” he says. “Make the best of a bad job. Larry’s gripped by the most powerful emotion that can beset the breast of man: self-sacrifice. He’s got to save the soul of the wretched woman whom he had known as an innocent child. And there’s nothing you or I or anyone can do to prevent it.”
While Isabel’s self-serving talk of her sacrifice stands in contrast to the sort that Maugham attributes to Larry, Maugham has a low regard for self-sacrifice, even when it is genuine. In the novel, he makes it clear that it is a temptation to be avoided, even comparing it with the sacrifice Jesus made, for which he has contempt:
D’you remember how Jesus was led into the wilderness and fasted forty days? Then, when he was a-hungered, the devil came to him and said: If thou be the son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But Jesus resisted the temptation. Then the devil set him on a pinnacle of the temple and said to him: If thou be the son of God, cast thyself down. For angels had charge of him and would bear him up. But again Jesus resisted. Then the devil took him into a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world and said that he would give them to him if he would fall down and worship him. But Jesus said: Get thee hence, Satan. That’s the end of the story according to the good simple Matthew. But it wasn’t. The devil was sly and he came to Jesus once more and said: If thou wilt accept shame and disgrace, scourging, a crown of thorns and death on the cross thou shalt save the human race, for greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Jesus fell. The devil laughed till his sides ached, for he knew the evil men would commit in the name of their redeemer.
In any event, he advises Isabel to be nice to Sophie, and she seems to agree, but like Maugham, we are suspicious of her motives.
On the pretense of buying Sophie her wedding dress, Isabel connives to get Sophie alone with her. Isabel praises the vodka Elliott recommended, saying it must be tough giving up alcohol all at once. Sophie admits that it is a desperate struggle for her to not take a drink, especially when Larry is not around. Isabel then leaves Sophie alone with the bottle of vodka, saying she has to pick her daughter up at the dentist, knowing Sophie won’t be able to resist the temptation. Sure enough, Sophie drinks a glass and then another, leading her back to her old ways. Larry manages to track her down to an opium den, but she refuses to go with him, running away when a fight breaks out. No one knows anything about her until a year later, when her body is fished out of the harbor, her throat slit.
In the novel, Maugham runs into Sophie in Toulon between the time she ran out on Larry and when she was murdered. She seems to be much happier than previously. When the whole group met at lunch just before the wedding was to take place, Maugham described her as looking pitiful:
Sophie hardly spoke except when she was spoken to and then it seemed an effort to her. The spirit had gone out of her. You would have said that something had died in her and I asked myself if Larry wasn’t putting her to a strain greater than she could support.
But now she is in much better spirits. Not being sure if Maugham knew, Sophie tells him she didn’t marry Larry after all. Maugham says he knew that, and then asks her why not. “Darling,” she says, “when it came to the point I couldn’t see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ.” She tells Maugham about drinking the vodka at Isabel’s apartment, which made her feel “like a million dollars.” She says she plans to stay in Toulon, where she can get all the opium she wants from the sailors she sleeps with.
One sailor in particular shows up, her boyfriend, whom she says is a jealous Corsican, so Maugham had better leave after buying him a drink. After introducing them to each other, Sophie and Maugham exchange the following remarks in English:
“Dumb but beautiful,” she said to me.
“You like ’em tough, don’t you?”
“The tougher the better.”
“One of these days you’ll get your throat cut.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she grinned. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Back to the movie: Though it was villainous of Isabel to tempt Sophie with the vodka, would it really have made any difference in the long run? If Sophie could not be left alone for five minutes without drinking down an entire bottle of vodka, and then heading for an opium den, she was doomed anyway. We all know how people make an extra effort to please the person they are soon to marry, but then revert to their old ways within months of the nuptials. Isabel was only making manifest before the wedding what was bound to happen after it.
Even if the marriage would have worked, it was essential that Sophie die instead. Consider the case of Jesus again. He was able to move from place to place, cleansing the leper, giving sight to a man that was blind, enabling a man that was lame to walk again; after which he would move on to the next town. In short, Jesus never got tied down to any one person or any one place. But let Jesus get married and have children, and no matter how wise and good a man he was, we would never have heard of him. He may have sacrificed himself taking care of a wife who contracted leprosy, while also caring for a son that was blind or a daughter that was lame, working long hours to support them, and yet there would be no religion based on his life. By the same token, had Larry and Sophie gotten married and made a go of it, it would not have been long before she started having babies. They would have returned to America, where Larry would have had to take that job selling bonds. There is nothing like getting married and having a couple of children to put the quietus on your wanderlust. Maugham would never have written a book about him.
Maugham and Larry make arrangements for Sophie’s funeral, after which Maugham tells Larry that Elliott has had a relapse. Elliott has not gotten on well with Princess Novemali, an American widow who parleyed her fortune for a title by marrying a Roman prince, and who is now a major socialite in France. It seems that Elliott helped spread some rumor about Princess Novemali and her chauffeur, which happened to be true. She is throwing a party to which she has invited everyone of note on the Riviera, except Elliott. It is going to be the greatest party of the season, and Elliott, though he is on his death bed, yet is devastated that he has not been invited, a deliberate insult, which brings him to tears. It is the culmination of many such insults, as those who once ate his food and drank his liquor no longer have use for him. He says he wishes he had never left America.
The bishop that gives Elliott the last rites says, correctly, that he was a good man whose faults were on the surface. Larry, being good friends with Novemali’s secretary (Elsa Lanchester), manages to obtain an invitation card and fill it out himself, making it look as though Elliott has been invited to the party after all. His vanity satisfied, Elliott dies a happy man, after instructing Maugham to send his regrets about not being able to attend, and then cursing Princess Novemali with his dying breath. He leaves his fortune to Isabel, which will allow Gray to get his company out of receivership.
Let us review the deeds of Larry’s life since his return from India. First, he performed that trick of hypnosis that cured Gray’s headache. But that means that any psychiatrist skilled in the art of hypnosis might easily have done the same. Second, taking pity on the woman that was his best friend from childhood, Larry helps her with her alcoholism and decides to marry her. Marriage is indeed an undertaking not to be entered into lightly, but it is not beyond the pale that you or I, in the same situation, might do the same for a woman who has been our best friend since childhood. I’m not saying it would be a wise thing to do, mind you, for the reasons already given, but only that we might be foolish enough to try. Finally, given how easily Larry was able to obtain an invitation card and forge it to make a dying man happy, I dare say that most people would not hesitate to do the like as well. In the novel, however, it is not Larry that purloins the invitation and forges it, but Maugham. So Larry doesn’t even get credit for that. In fact, unlike in the movie, Larry is not present when Elliott dies.
In other words, Larry does not perform miracles, does not become the spiritual leader of a great religious movement, and does not dedicate his life to ministering to the suffering of mankind. In fact, there is no reason to think that Larry would not have done precisely the same things had he gone to work for Gray selling bonds instead of going to India, save for the fact that he might not have learned that hypnosis trick. Of course, as Larry reminds us in his final scene with Isabel, recalling what he told her at the beginning of the movie, the really great change in his life came when another man gave up his life saving him, and we never saw what he was like before the war. In any event, Maugham sums up what is special about Larry, saying to Isabel, “My dear, Larry has found what we all want and very few of us ever get. I don’t think anyone can fail to be better and nobler, kinder, for knowing him. You see, my dear, goodness is, after all, the greatest force in the world. And he’s got it.”
Just before the final scene with Larry, Isabel tells Maugham that she intends to see Larry as much as she wants when they all get back to America, saying, “All my life, I’ve done the things other people have wanted me to do. From now on, I intend to do the things I want to do.” However, it is too late, and in her final scene with Larry, she realizes she has lost him forever, especially when she realizes that he knows that she was responsible for getting Sophie to start drinking again, which ultimately led to Sophie’s death. This scene was not in the novel, where it is Maugham, not Larry, who knows the truth about what Isabel did to Sophie. It is just one of the ways in which the movie is more effective and satisfying than the novel.
In that last scene with Isabel, Larry tells her of his intention to work in a factory or a garage, because while working with his hands, his mind is free, and yet he is accomplishing something. He says he may eventually buy a taxicab, where he can always be on the go and meet lots of people. Once again, the point is that manual labor is the only occupation suitable for a man of his spiritual nature; and once again, the peripatetic life is the only one suitable for him as well. In the last scene, we see Larry working on a tramp steamer on his way back to America, thus combining the ennobling nature of physical work and movement from one place to another with the spiritual simile of the sea.
When I set out to review a movie that is based on a novel or short story, the question arises as to how much the original source should be taken into account. It is perfectly reasonable to evaluate a movie on its own terms, as if the novel or short story did not exist. In some cases, the two are so different that one must ignore the original source material completely. In other cases, as in this one, the novel and the movie are similar enough so that the former can help shed light on the latter. And so it is that I have referred to the one in reviewing the other.
But now I must add one more item that was left out of the movie that is of such nature that, had it been included in the movie, I suspect the audience would have lost their admiration of Larry and regarded him a fool, leaving the theater in disgust.
It is one thing, when reading the novel, to hear Larry go on about all that he learned in India, as well as the problems that still puzzle him: the existence of evil, the nature of God, the karma of reincarnation, and the meaning of life. And we are not terribly surprised when we read that Larry seldom eats meat, and that he has decided to abstain from sex from now on.
But then he gives away all his money! He does so because, though his income has made it possible for him to study philosophy and religion, yet he now believes that financial independence would be a burden to him going forward, because it would hinder his quest for the spirituality he seeks. And he gives away that money, even though it is his plan, upon returning to America, to save up his money until he can buy a taxicab. I need not tell you how appalled Maugham is when Larry tells him this, or what he says against such a decision, for it is the same reaction that most of us would have. A man may embrace any number of religious views and then drop them as the years go by when they no longer suit his fancy. He may become a vegetarian, only to give that up and have himself a thick steak. He may decide to be celibate, and then give in to his lust should the occasion warrant. But once he gives away all his money, it is gone for good.
In delving into philosophy, Larry should have read Aristotle, who said that while money cannot buy happiness, a certain minimum level of material wellbeing is necessary for it, for no one can be happy who is cold and hungry, which may be Larry’s fate someday, when poor health and old age eventually come upon him.
The 1984 Remake
The 1946 version of The Razor’s Edge is about as good as one could want, but it was remade in 1984 anyway. Some people do not like old movies, especially when they are in black and white, so that may have been the thinking behind the production of this second version. But there are differences far more significant than that.
One in particular is what Larry did during the war. In the novel, he was a fighter pilot. Before I had read the novel, I always assumed, when watching the 1946 movie, that Larry had been in the infantry. In the 1984 version, however, the story begins as Larry, played by Bill Murray, has volunteered to become an ambulance driver in Europe at a time when America had not yet entered the war. But if at this point in the story, Larry is willing to risk his life to save others, why should he be so shocked that someone lost his life saving him?
The scene in which Larry’s life is saved is perplexing. Larry says of the man who died saving his life:
He was a slob. Did you ever see him eat? Starving children could fill their bellies on the food that ended up in his beard and on his clothes. Dogs would gather to watch him eat. I’ve never understood gluttony, but I hate it. I hated that about you. He enjoyed disgusting people, being disgusting, the thrill of offending people and making them uncomfortable. It was despicable. You will not be missed.
Well, that’s quite a eulogy. I know we’re all supposed to understand that this is Larry’s way of expressing his gratitude and affection for the man that saved his life. But we know this only because it’s a movie, and because Gray and another man give each other knowing looks, indicating that they understand, so we are supposed to understand too. In real life, however, no one would ever say such things over a dead man unless he had contempt for him. I’m just glad he doesn’t say something like that when Sophie (Theresa Russell) dies.
So, what is the effect of having a man give his life to save Larry’s? Apparently, it turns him into a jerk, even to the point of his becoming rude and violent, yelling at Isabel and later at Elliott. The Larry of the novel and the 1946 version is good-natured and soft-spoken, but in the scene where Larry kicks an expensive piece of Elliott’s furniture, breaking it to pieces, it is Elliott who is calm and composed. At that point, I wanted to forget about Larry and stay with Elliott. And why does Larry yell and break furniture? Because he isn’t getting his way. He didn’t want to marry Isabel right after the war, as they had planned, and she was supposed to understand. But now that it pleases him that they should marry a year later, on his terms, she is the one that doesn’t want to. That makes him angry.
Whereas in the novel and the 1946 version, Isabel almost has sex with Larry in order to get pregnant and force him to make an honest woman out of her; in this version, because the movie was made in 1984, she has sex with Larry without getting pregnant. I suppose this was to make the story seem up to date. When she wakes up in the morning in Larry’s apartment, there is a disgusting bug on her pillow, and in the hallway, she sees rats. When she goes to use the communal bathroom, it is repulsive. But Larry’s place was not like that in the novel. It was decent, though modest, and had its own bathroom. But in this 1984 version, his room is a sty.
Years later, when Larry discovers Sophie in that dive and brings her to his apartment, it is a much nicer place. It’s clean and has its own bathroom. Maybe that’s what he learned in India.
This is just one of the ways in which this movie is over the top. Here’s another: In the novel, when the stock market crashes, Gray’s father dies of a heart attack. In this 1984 version, his father blows his brains out. And Gray becomes so upset that he cuts his hands smashing them through glass panels.
It is fine that this movie wants to extol the wisdom of India, but in so doing, it feels compelled to to take a cheap shot at Christianity. As Sophie lies in the hospital bed, distraught that Bob and her baby have both been killed, a nun tells her it is a time for rejoicing, for her husband and the baby are now both in Heaven. In real life, one may occasionally run into a nitwit like that, but in this movie, the nun is put forward as representative of Christianity. In other words, Eastern religion good, Western religion bad.
In the novel and in the 1946 version, we are supposed to regard Larry’s plan to marry Sophie as an act of self-sacrifice, evidence of his spiritual transformation. But at the end of this movie, when Larry is accusing Isabel of killing Sophie, he says, “I thought Sophie was my reward for trying to live a good life.” A reward, not a sacrifice. So, in this movie, he was just going to do what he wanted to do anyway, marry a woman he was in love with. Men do that every day, and they don’t have to go to India first either.
Speaking of Sophie, instead of her and Bob being a happily married couple, in this version, Bob got her pregnant and had to marry her, after which he appears to be unhappy to have lost his freedom. And there is no indication that Sophie is an alcoholic at this time. It was a lot easier to believe that Sophie would descend into drink and promiscuity in the novel and the 1946 movie after the accident. Sure, it could still happen, even so, but why make changes in the story that work against such an outcome?
Another difference between the two versions is that Maugham is not a character in the 1984 version and thus provides no narration. Because Larry never did anything miraculous or spectacular, we needed Maugham’s commentary to tell us that Larry’s spiritual nature was such as to inspire others to be better human beings. Without Maugham to guide our appreciation of this aspect of Larry’s personality, we are not likely to figure that out on our own. And even if there had been a Maugham in this version, I don’t think we would have believed him.
In the end, Larry’s wisdom concerning the meaning of life is that there is no reward for being good, but nothing matters anyway.
Murray cared a lot about this movie and was disappointed when it flopped. Little did he realize that the spiritual movie that he was perfectly suited for was a comedy, Groundhog Day (1993), which is every bit as much a classic now as the 1946 version of The Razor’s Edge.