Until my daughter told me about this 1994 film, I didn't know of its existence. She mentioned it because she knows how much I love the novel Silas Marner and the movie adaptation that stars Ben Kingsley.
In the Eliot novel Silas Marner is a weaver. As a young man he is a member of a fundamentalist religious group. When his best friend steals the girl Silas is engaged to marry, Silas leaves his community and takes up residence among strangers.
Silas directs his frustrated capacity to love towards the coins with which he is paid for his weaving. When his hoard is stolen, Silas transfers his love to the golden-haired little girl who wanders into his cottage.
The trauma in the Martin adaptation seems trivial compared to the one in the novel. Silas is an ignorant weaver. The Martin character, Michael McCann, is a college-educated teacher, yet he reacts to life's inequities as if he were as ignorant and superstitious as poor Silas. When McCann's wife tells him that the baby whose birth he is looking forward to is not his, Martin promptly leaves her. His behavior might be more understandable had they been casual lovers and not partners in a marriage of apparent long standing.
The landowner in the Eliot novel, Godfrey Cass, is secretly married to Molly, a barmaid whom he got pregnant in his thoughtless youth. Godfrey is spoilt, short-sighted, and selfish, but basically decent. Many men of his social class would have paid the wench some money and been done with her, but Godfrey does "the right thing."
After the marriage and the birth of the baby, Molly becomes addicted to opium. Godfrey supports her in another village, visiting her and the baby on a regular basis. In those days, the affairs of each country village were largely unknown to people living only a few miles away. In Godfrey's vicinity, only his younger brother Dunstan knows of the marriage, and blackmails him over it.
Godfrey's father cannot understand why Godfrey won't ask Nancy, the daughter of a neighboring landowner, to marry him. Godfrey wants to, but is prevented by the fact of his marriage.
Events conspire to open the way for Godfrey to marry Nancy. Dunstan goes out drinking one night and doesn't come back. When Molly fortuitously freezes to death in the snow, Godfrey makes the second most terrible mistake of his life: he pretends not to know the dead woman or the child. He feels the deception is necessary so that he can at last make a suitable marriage.
The Godfrey character in the Martin film is called Tanny Newland (Stephen Baldwin). Tanny is a sleazy politician. He sends his brother Keating to take money to the child and her heroin-addicted mother. He apparently knows the child only through photographs.
In the novel, the foundling Eppie grows to womanhood before learning the identity of her birth father. Since Nancy has been unable to provide Godfrey with an heir, Godfrey at last tells her about Eppie. They break the news and invite Eppie to come live as their daughter. Silas makes no effort to prevent Eppie from accepting the life of wealth and privilege. In one of the most moving scenes in the novel (and in the Kingsley film) Eppie rejects Godfrey's offer because of her love for Silas and her desire to care for him in his old age the way he cared for her when she was a child.
In the film the part of McCann's adopted daughter Mathilda is played by six different children:
Mathilda McCann - Age 1 Victoria Evans and Eliabeth Evans
Mathilda McCann - Age 3 Callie Mobley and Alaina Mobley
Mathilda McCann - Age 5 Alyssa Austin
Mathilda McCann - Age 10 Alana Austin
The transitions between ages is not smooth and the oldest version is played as a smart-mouthed sit-com type of girl. Whereas Eppie grows up to be honest, open, and generous, Mathilda is capable of lying to her foster father and pretending to emotions she does not feel.
In the novel the choice between living with Godfrey or with Silas is up to Eppie; in the movie the custody choice is left to the judge. Although the judge can see that McCann's love for the child deserves to be rewarded, he decides to award custody to Newland because Newland can provide the girl with more material advantages. When the missing gold is found with the skeleton of the younger Newland brother, the judge awards custody to McCann, presumably because McCann can now offer the same luxuries as Newland.
Where's the moral in all that? Children belong with the man who has the most money?
Martin has created an entertaining modern version of Silas Marner, but it lacks the irony and depth of novel from which it is taken.
A Simple Twist of Fate is more than an adaptation of an English classic. It's a study in the shift in moral sensibility that has taken place in Western culture since 1861.
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Silas Marner starring BenKingsley
A Simple Twist of Fate