From stanza to screen: How a Keats poem is inspiring 21st-century film-makers

By Suzie Grogan
In the twenty-first century it sometimes seems that only the things that are ‘up to date’ ‘relevant’, or ‘on trend’ matter. Our fast-paced lives leave little time for contemplation and today’s new technology is next year’s museum piece. We have to learn ‘mindfulness’ to appreciate the moment, drink in meaning and appreciate the sublime beauty of the planet.

So – contentious question – how can the Romantic imagination hope to ‘speak out loud and bold’ to a new generation, as Chapman’s Homer did to John Keats nearly 200 years ago?

As someone with a long-standing love of Keats’s poems and letters, it is an issue I contemplate quite regularly as I seek to encourage an appreciation of his work. Of course, each generation is in some way influenced by long dead forbears. Keats read widely in Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare for example, learning his craft through inspiration and imitation. Contemporary poetry speaks the language of the present day heart, taking new forms and perhaps breaking old rules; so can new creative and innovative methods inspire enjoyment of long dead poets in those who might never have considered them as having anything significant to say?

As I write regularly on Keats and his life on my blog, I am lucky enough to hear from those keen to share their own thoughts and have in the past year been contacted, on separate occasions, by two graphic novelists and two film-makers who have taken Keats’s poetry and exposed it to new treatments, testing its importance to today’s audience. Interestingly, all four have used the same poem – La Belle Dame Sans Merci – and although the graphic novels were fascinating, it was the films that most interested me. One is completed and ready to view, the other cast and ready to go, but still in need of funding. I thought I would find out why this poem had so caught the imagination of two independent film makers, and in the past few months have interviewed them both.
Christopher Smith began his career with Addictive TV, where he was Production Manager of the ITV1 series Mixmasters, the Optronica Festival at the British FiIm Institute and he has produced a wide range of experimental films. He has also been involved in the creation of award-winning ad campaigns for big brands but in 2012 he left the advertising industry to focus on film, launching the production company Modern. 2014 saw the release of his short film Arterial, based on La Belle Dame.

I asked Chris to tell me a little more about the background to the film, why he chose the location, and what it is about the poem that so inspired him:
I grew up in Essex which imprinted me with a lasting impression of the landscape. In constant view from my home was the huge Shell Oil refinery that features in this film, a twisted metal monster that sits between the mouth of the Thames and the overgrown hinterlands.

This clash of natural and synthetic and ancient and modern can be found all over this part of the world carved by the industrial and suburban spill of London. I’ve made a fair few brand and more experimental films, but for my first narrative film I wanted to explore not only this landscape, but the impact of such a landscape on its inhabitants.

I had always wanted to adapt ‘La Belle Dame…‘ and thought this was a great opportunity to do that in combination with exploring those themes. This poem itself evokes nature in a powerful way and has, over time been interpreted with multiple meanings. I decided to eschew dialogue and incorporate certain repeated motifs to give the entire film a feel of reverie.
Had he, I asked, experienced any negative responses to his treatment of a classic work?

The negative responses I have had (which are few luckily) were general – relating to the fact that I had updated the poem and explored (what the critic considered to be) my own themes into the poem. Or more specifically, relating to my casting of an actor that was too young, as the critic had previously interpreted the knight in the original poem to be older and more weary.
Chris has explored the audience response widely, on online forums and face to face. I have shown the film to a number of friends – poets and readers of poetry- who find the film visually stunning. Those who claim not to like poetry (and there are still some out there to be converted!) also found it powerful and didn’t need to read La Belle Dame to appreciate it.

The second film, entitled The Merciless Beauty, is in pre-production and will be made by film maker Michael Groom. The cast is in place, and the location settled. It will be filmed in the Lake District, a place I love and which Keats acknowledged as an environment that would nourish his poetry.

Michael’s approach seems quite different to that adopted for Arterial. Michael graduated from the University of York in 2003 and went straight into the film industry, working with Michael Winterbottom and other high profile directors. He has written and directed short films, most recently the award-winning The Selkie’s Lover (Georgina Strawson, Jason Langley, Shirley Henderson), which was shot entirely on location in Caithness in the far north of Scotland.

I asked him why he had chosen La Belle Dame:

I first studied Keats in secondary school and was instantly enchanted by his work. I studied him more intensely at university and the enchantment grew. LBDSM struck me as soon as I read it, during my A Levels, probably because of the archetype of the strange mysterious female; but more than this, I loved the Gothic tone and the vivid imagery and the fact it harkened back to those oral tradition fairy stories of old in which someone is spirited off to another realm.

He is updating the setting to the modern day, saying:

It’s as if what Keats wrote about happens cyclically and my story is just the most recent instance of it. The Gothic, medieval feel will still be there in the tone of the piece and the fact that the Beauty’s costume will have medieval influences.

Michael grew up in the Lakes and instantly envisaged the events of the poem to take place in the Lake District – from the very first line of the poem. He feels there is a link to Arthurian legend, as Carlisle has claims to be Camelot and Bassenthwaite Lake the lake from which the lady of the lake came. He is keen to draw on the paranormal belief that lakes and caves are portals to other realms and dimensions, and express that dream (or nightmare) like quality that pervades the poem.

He still needs about £1500 to ensure the film is made as he would like it but is determined it will happen in any event, his love of John Keats fuelling his ambition. ‘We have enough to make it more guerrilla style, which I’ll do if necessary’.

John Keats Guerrilla style – now there’s a thought.

It was really interesting to hear why two young men felt so drawn to Keats as a basis for their films. These are no amateurs, utilising high production values and ambitions for wider distribution, which I think they deserve.

Yes, La Belle Dame taps into the current focus on the supernatural in young adult fiction, and offers countless opportunities for interpretation in relation to gender roles and relationships. But surely it is more than that? To return to the original question; what can the romantic imagination, and specifically John Keats, offer to the twenty-first century psyche? Michael Groom sums it up well:

Keats is truly a poet of the senses and we’re still the sensual beings today that we were back then. He’s very spiritual, at least in my understanding, and I think he was a metaphysicist as well as a humanist and naturalist. He talks of moments of time and elevates seemingly everyday things into marvellous wonders, sometimes epically. I know many poets do this, but Keats does it on such a level that resonates with us still today.
Suzie Grogan is a London-born professional writer and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety was published in 2012 and her second, Shell Shocked Britain, will be published by Pen & Sword History in October 2014. She has two further commissions, including one on the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century.Suzie Grogan
A lover of the written word in all its forms, Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and also presents a local radio show ‘Talking Books’ . Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage….