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A Separate Peace: Perspectives on the Film

John Knowles' Essay, the Phillips Exeter Academy Photo Essay edited by ------- and other Academy related information about the book.

The first three pieces originally appeared in The Exonian on October 28th, 1972. Published under the title "Three Different Perspectives: 'A Separate Peace' Plays at Academy," they appeared as a response to the movie, which had recently been filmed at the Academy. The comments by Knowles were published three days later, on November 1st. The film is based on the novel by John Knowles, with screenplay by Fred Segal, produced by Robert A. Goldston for Paramount Pictures, and directed by Larry Peerce.

 

Life in the Forties
by Howard T. Easton, Morrison Professor of Latin

A Film Critic's Opinion
by Thomas L. Hinkle, Former Instructor in English and Film

A Student's View
by Seth Kaplan '73

John Knowles on A Separate Peace
Intro by Ralph K. Brunswick

 

A Faculty Perspective


To get the "feel" of the time of A Separate Peace at Exeter, it is necessary  to remember that it was war time. We all had to adapt to unusual circumstances, some of them quite trying. Many of the regular faculty members were in the service; substitutes had to be trained in the ways of the school in the classroom, dormitories, and on the athletic and social scene. Faculty leaves were out for the duration. Classes were larger, and boys had to work harder, especially the seniors who wanted to get their diplomas before the age of enlistment or the draft. John Knowles himself gained his diploma by taking two math courses and French in the summer of 1944. Gas rationing curtailed travel by automobile; food stamps limited what could be bought in the stores or served in the dining rooms. In lieu of sports, boys could elect to pick apples in the fall, or in winter shovel snow for the Boston and Maine.

As far as possible, however, the Academy tried to maintain a normal program:  chapel was held every morning and church on Sunday, a practice which helped to keep the morale of the school high. Sadness could not be avoided as word of the loss of Exonians in the war was reported in the Bulletin and Exonian. The two-year Latin requirement for a diploma was still in effect; college board exams were taken; graduation exercises were held in February and August as well as in June to accommodate the Anticipatory Program graduates. The Exonian issues of the period show that athletic contests in football, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, and tennis were very much in the news--even riflery served as a non-letter sport in the newly constructed range in the Academy Building. The literary and other specialty groups maintained a nearly normal existence.

Dr. Lewis Perry at the trustees' request continued beyond the time of a richly earned retirement; Dean Wells Kerr and Treasurer Corning Benton carried the heavy load of day-to-day existence with their usual skill and devotion; department heads and faculty worked without stint in dormitories, classrooms, and on the playing fields to insure that the students have as proper a learning and living experience as the tense times would allow.

We were an enclave living as best we could in a stormy world which could not help but disturb our separate peace.

- Howard T. Easton

The Exonian, October 28, 1972

A Critic's Perspective


If an armored knight were needed to defend the purity of John Knowles' A Separate Peace, I dare say I would be among the first to volunteer, so let me reassure those who are afraid to see what that fire-eater Larry Peerce has done to such a subtle and essentially un-filmic novel.  He has, in fact, not made a film of the novel; he has created a parallel masterpiece. 

You cannot "film a novel" and have an honest film.  Knowles' language is lyrical, reflective, often daringly abstract for fiction.  When Gene returns as man to his old school, scene of painful experiences, he feels "fear's echo."  The voice-over words of the film's opening are simpler, for now it is the camera which is creating the hard, gray atmosphere.  Gene thinks of his pal Finny, long dead, and suddenly the past bursts back into reality.  Finny lives, the film has begun.  Not all film-makers make use of the unique poetry of film, but these opening shots establish the fact that Peerce and Director of Photography Frank Stanley are making a true film. 

Given the beauty of our local countryside, Stanley does not indulge himself, but makes the camera embody and enforce the montage, with images of Oriental clarity.  Details of costume and interior capture the tone of the World War II years and the distant, romanticized echoes of the war itself which invade the boys' rooms in posters and photographs. 

The boys don't quite believe that the war exists, and no wonder:  they hear about it from their elders, they stare at troops on a train, there is talk of enlisting.  Then one of them does enlist, the gentle, innocent Leper, and the war catches him up and flings him back at them, a deserter from training camp, psychotic and broken.  Ideally, a film based on another work should illuminate its source (as Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet" does), and Peerce gives Leper's tragedy an impact and prominence which one may overlook in reading the novel.  What happens to Leper is as crucial as Gene's unwitting destruction of his best pal Finny.  The film is about three boys -- perhaps they can be viewed as three facets of a single personality. 

Peter Brush's performance as Leper is film acting at its best:  intense, incredibly contained, haunting.  His reunion with Gene after his desertion is the finest scene in the film.  Leper cringes in the snow, as though he might make himself disappear, and Gene looks down at him, and the truth that is in tragedy and horror and pain begins to dawn.  That heartbreaking moment with its image of the two figures against the white Vermont field will endure in my mind as long as any of Knowles' wonderful prose. 

The style and tone of Brush's acting epitomize what Larry Peerce has achieved in this film.  Like Knowles, but in his own medium, he penetrates the hearts and minds of these boys caught in a crisis which they have not the experience to comprehend nor the words to articulate.  So their interplay is either boisterous and athletic, or, in the tough moments, halting, low-keyed, desperate to understand and be understood.  Film actors speak about all with their eyes and faces, and how appropriate that is for this youthful cast.  At first John Heyl may not strike you as a likely Finny, but when you see his eyes, the Finny magnetism is every bit there.  His fine performance is most eloquent in moments of silence. 

If Parker Stevenson seems to play a rather dense Gene, it may be that the viewer is still hearing the mature voice of the novel, that of the older Gene.  The boy is a good student, but intelligence and insight don't always develop simultaneously.  Gene is dense enough to believe that Finny is out to destroy him, to wreck his studies through the escapades he dreams up for the two of them.  Stevenson projects ingenuous, wide-eyed confidence, even as he blunders into disaster. 

In the supporting roles, Victor Bevine does it again with his sharp performance as Brinker, the big wheel, and Don Schultz shows that he is secretly an actor as well as a producer in his tender but unsentimental handling of the difficult role of the doctor.  The other faces we see have been chosen with a sense of artistic rightness, so that scarcely an image fails to enhance the whole. 

Filmgoers are not so conditioned, I hope by the crassness of so much contemporary cinema that they will fail to be joyfully surprised by the honesty, taste and restraint of this exquisite film.  The Exeter community, those who took part, or merely watched, with puzzlement or apprehension, Paramount's invasions of their town and campus, can gratefully acknowledge that Larry Peerce, Bob Goldston, and all their crew really understood the place after all. 

- Thomas L. Hinkle

The Exonian, October 28, 1972

A Student Perspective


A Separate Peace in its form as a novel has been an institution in itself at the Academy for quite some time.  It is usually read in the tenth grade English course, and is studied fairly intensely with a great deal of attention paid to symbolism and character portrayal. 

So it was with a great deal of apprehension as to my capacity for objectivity that I viewed the film.  It strikes one almost immediately that Larry Peerce and Fred Segal have been very faithful to John Knowles' novel, and much of my personal reaction to the movie was an examination of the director's success in attempting to change the medium by which the story is conveyed, without changing the story itself.  I think that Mr. Peerce was only partially successful. 

There is, for one, the question of dialogue, and this was one of the movie's major weaknesses.  "We're all enemies," says Finny to a group of his friends.  He is explaining the rules of a game that he has just made up, but the symbolic significance of his words is emphasized by a pan of the other boys' faces, to the point of embarrassment. "Have you come here to abuse me?" asks Leper of Gene.  The words are unbelievable when spoken, even for a disturbed personality. 

There are incidents in the book which, when transferred to the screen lose a great deal in terms of the audience's understanding of the issues at stake.  When Finny tells Gene that he is his best friend in the film, it appears to be a simple act of tenderness.  But the significance of the incident is the courage which this declaration requires in the competitive atmosphere of Devon.  Knowles makes this point quite explicitly in his book, but it seems to have been missed in the film, perhaps simply because of that medium's unsuitability for straight exposition.  What could be transferred from the novel to the screenplay was the plot and dialogue; unfortunately.  Mr. Knowles' fine, poetic descriptions were lost in that process. 

Another important change in the tone of the story was the way in which Gene's behavior at the tree was handled.  Upon reading the book, I was left with a certain sense of ambiguity as to whether or not he did indeed jounce the limb.  The movie retains this ambiguity in the scene itself, but with Leper's vision of the action which we are allowed to see when he gives his testimony in "Court," there is little doubt as to Gene's guilt.  In any case, this issue is not of major importance, as the theme of his initiation into the adult world of sin remains the same. 

On the other hand, certain incidents were developed very powerfully, particularly the courtroom scene and the "blitzball" game, where the violent, almost orgiastic quality of the action was seized dramatically by Frank Stanley's fine camera work.  There was also a great deal of power in the symbolic tableaux which Mr. Stanley composed, for instance, the crutch which is propped between Gene and Phineas upon the latter's return to Devon.  Mr. Stanley also managed to keep the scenery in its place as background, and I don't think that it interfered with the story of the boys. 

Much has been said criticizing the acting, but I think that if one can keep in mind that they are after all amateurs, then they should be given credit for doing a good job in rather complex roles.  John Heyl (who does, as one critic pointed out, bear an uncanny resemblance to the young Burt Lancaster) manages to project all those qualities which Finny possesses:  aggressiveness, honesty, and a very agreeable arrogant beauty. 

Parker Stevenson as Gene is also good, though at times he tended to overdo the character's pensiveness.  Brinker, played by Victor Bevine, is the very epitome of evil and is thoroughly believable.  Special mention should be given to Peter Brush (Leper) who, despite a particularly difficult part and some very poor lines succeeded in giving the viewer a very strong sense of the character. 

It was enjoyable to watch this film, if only because it did take place where we spend nine months of our year.  I know that I personally spent a great deal of time identifying people I knew in the film, and relating the buildings and the scenery that I saw on the screen to my knowledge of the real physical layout of Exeter.  For a long time during the 1970-1971 academic year, the filming of A Separate Peace was the major focus of attention on campus, and it was exciting to see the end product. 

The movie director did not have as his goal a documentary of prep school life; it is a story about growing up and the discovery of evil, and the fact that the action takes place at a New England boarding school is somewhat incidental.  Yet it is interesting to note in what ways it failed.  The faces of the boys in the movie all somehow convey a healthy, Caucasian, Christian image (I counted exactly one black in the entire movie); and while this image is certainly less true today, it probably is a fairly accurate description of what Exeter was like in 1942.  The cold, desolate New Hampshire winters are rendered very faithfully in the film. 

What I think was lacking in the movie's picture of student life was a certain subtlety.  It appeared as though the film makers were attempting to create the atmosphere of the students' rooms and the butt-rooms through a dialogue that was hastily conceived of as being "typical conversation."  The result was something that was only very vaguely familiar and basically artificial. 

One feature of life at a prep school that was reflected well in the movie was the almost total absence of the faculty from the boys' lives.  "None of you has ever been asked to kill before," declares the commencement speaker as Gene walks away from the scene.  If somewhat overdone, the words do serve to symbolize the teachers' ignorance of the personal lives of their students, an ignorance which still exists today.  I will not attempt here to label this separation as either good or bad; it is rather a natural result of an institution that stresses certain values, such as respect for authority and age. 

For Exeter still attempts today to emphasize those same values that existed in Gene and Finny's time, and despite a more integrated student body, the premises upon which the school was founded have not been altered significantly. 

- Seth Kaplan '73
 

The Exonian, October 28, 1972

 

Reflections of John Knowles about his Novel


The following is the first part of a series of reflections by John Knowles. Knowles graduated from Exeter in 1945 and is the author of A Separate Peace, now a movie about Exeter students in the forties.
 

All the faculty here were between fifty and seventy years old when I first entered Exeter in the fall of 1942. I had a young French teacher and one other young teacher but they had left for the war by midyear. All of the faculty on the campus were so much older than we were, that we had no connection with them. They just were too old, too tired, and too busy. One of the reasons that Gene and Finny develop this intensely close friendship is that they had no one to relate to; no older person to pattern themselves on, to look and talk things over with, they only had each other. All the students really had to relate to each other.

I was happy to be on the swimming team and Dan Fowler was the only faculty man I could begin to think I had any connection with as far as rapport. A faculty member might drop in once a term to a club or organization meeting, but that was rare. The master of Sleeper House was inaccessible. I was in Peabody with Mr. Galt and Mr. Bissell. This situation of the faculty explains a lot about the book. The students were thrown back upon themselves. One faculty member I mentioned in the book is a reference to a real person. I wrote about old Mr. Wittman, Doc Wittman, as Mr. Patchwithers. He is the very old professor who gives the party in the book. I think Doc Wittman is no longer living.

Also the school minister in the book was George Carhart. Mr. Carhart was in the English department, but I liked the sound of the name.

Mr. Galt might be construed as having said the remark:, "Is it raining in your part of town?" in the book.

It is true that I put part of myself into all four main characters in A Separate Peace:  Phineas, Gene, Leper, and Brinker. In addition to using someone for Brinker, and myself for Gene, I had to, as most novelists do, draw from myself for everyone in the book. David Hackett never went through all the experiences of Finny, and I had never spoken to Gore Vidal. So that is what a novelist has to be:  someone with many facets.

I did OK here at Exeter academically. I was not a really good student. I was not Gene Forrester in that department. I do think I could have been, but I wasn't interested in studying. All I wanted to do was to get through. I didn't want any trouble from my family, the Dean, or anybody. There were certain things I was interested in. I really liked French and other languages. I enjoyed English. I was the only person in my senior year English course. They made a special class for me.

The character of Brinker in the book is based on Gore Vidal. I know Gore quite well now, but I didn't know him when I was at Exeter. I think I did rather a good job on Gore. I was a lower-middler and Gore was a senior as I observed him. He made an impression on me and I said, "Now that's a very unusual and thriving person." And when I had to write about that kind of person, I used what I imagined Gore to be like. Years later he is quite a good friend of mine and he is very much like that.

David Hackett was a full-time Milton student but was my model for Phineas. But he was here at Exeter. He came here in the summer of 1943 for the six weeks that the book is really based on. That was when we had the Super Suicide Society of The Summer Session. Hackett wasn't my roommate since there were so few students in the summer session everyone had their own room. Hackett lived across the hall. In effect, though, he was my roommate.

David Hackett did recently see the film before it opened in New York. He lives in Washington and was very close to the Kennedys. I had invited David to several private showings, but he chickened out every time. I think he was afraid to face the film for complex reasons which I understand. One night Ethel Kennedy said, "And now we are going to see the latest Jerry Lewis movie."  The guests, including David, went to the projection room at Hickory Hill and they walked in and there was A Separate Peace. I think David Hackett liked it very much.

John Heyl and David Hackett do not resemble each other physically on the screen, but they are the same type.

There was a boy who died while I was here, Bob Tait. He died on the operating table. The PEAN was dedicated to him. I knew him but I wasn't using him as a model. It is a question of the subconscious. Gore reminded me of Tait, a wonderful human being who died on the operating table during his senior year on Christmas day. I never knew what he was being operated on for. So, maybe I did subconsciously remember him, but I never thought of him directly when I was writing the book. Tait died when the marrow escaped from his broken leg. I might have known that, but I never remembered until Gore Vidal reminded me. 

Actually, I didn't have anyone in mind specifically for Leper. I just knew there was a Leper somewhere, although I put him together from different impressions. Let's face it, there are Lepers in this world, so I felt I didn't need a model for that character.

I never went through old PEANs to write A Separate Peace. It was an uncalculated, subconscious creative process.

 

The Exonian, November 1, 1972


 

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