Don’t Look Now was originally a short story written by Daphne Du Maurier and published in a collection of stories titled After Midnight . The story focuses on a couple, John and Laura, who have recently suffered the bereavement of their daughter, Christine, and are on holiday in Venice, trying to return their lives to normal. While there, they encounter two twins, one of whom claims to be psychic, and from there on strange events start to happen. Nicolas Roeg’s film follows the main outline of the story very closely, however, many of the specific details have been altered with the result that the film story becomes Roeg’s rather than Du Maurier’s.
The first scene in Nicolas Roeg’s film is probably the scene that differs most from the book, and the scene that contains the most symbolism. Instead of watching the film passively as we would normally, Roeg forces us to concentrate and question and argue what we are seeing on the screen. He teaches us that, in film especially, our eyes can literally deceive us. This is the essential point of Don’t Look Now; nothing is what it seems and Roeg doesn’t want us to believe the illusion – questioning it is all part of his fun. The film contains an amazing amount of red herrings, which send us down the wrong alley in the same way that John and Laura get lost and blinded in the film. Venice for them is a confusing maze of eerie alleys and dead ends, and the film is the same for the viewer.
Du Maurier’s story is much more simple to read and understand. She does not aim to confuse and contradict which means that there is not the variety of readings that the film has. This makes the story much easier to follow but also less interesting in a way. The film, however, has so much information that the viewer is overloaded and cannot possibly understand everything that is happening on first viewing.
For example, when John asks Laura what she is doing, she replies that she is trying to find the answer to Christine’s question; “If the earth is curved, why does water freeze flat?” It wasn’t until the third time I saw the film I realised that the question was about water. In fact, John gives a hint to the audience about how to approach the film – he responds to Laura’s answer that in fact Lake Ontario has a 0.3 curve when it’s frozen, with the line: “Nothing is as it seems”. Although it is not possible to compare this scene with a corresponding scene from the text, it is interesting to look at for this precise reason. It sets up the story for the film in a way that the scene from the short story would not.
Whereas Du Maurier starts the story in the present, with Laura and John in Venice and Christine already dead, Roeg uses what could almost be a flashback. It is always difficult analysing a story that is both written and filmed because whichever you come to first will thus colour your view (for better or worse) of the second. For those who had read the text first, it would be understandable if they thought Roeg’s ‘flashback’ maybe slightly unnecessary. After all, within a short story Du Maurier managed to convey a sense of paranoia, suspicion and eeriness perfectly well without having to either explain Christine’s death or make more of it than she actually did (Christine’s death within the text is from meningitis and it seems almost unimportant in itself- in fact, Du Maurier almost skips over it).
However, by changing the way Christine died to an accident, Roeg highlights the feelings of guilt felt by Laura and John in a way that was not as accessible in the text. Although it is understandable that parents will feel guilt whenever a child dies, whether down to an accident or natural causes, the fact that in the film Christine’s death was wholly preventable, makes the guilt almost tangible, reinforced by Laura’s accusing “you let her play near the water” later in the film. Roeg sets up, from the very beginning, the feelings that are going to spiral later in the film, resulting in such dire consequences as John’s death.
Furthermore, the way that Roeg portrays Christine’s death introduces a vague idea of misadventure. When I first saw the film it did not occur to me that Christine’s death could be anything more than an accident; however, after further viewings I started to consider that Roeg has left a kind of ambiguity to the first scene. The amount of symbolism contained within that first scene, with the elements of premonition and the supernatural, means that there is a possibility that Roeg was trying to suggest to the viewer that there was more to the accident than meets the eye and to illustrate the inevitability of fate.
The first scene is a furious montage of images, which reinforce, alter and corrupt what has gone before. There are a few occasions where it seems as though John is expecting something to happen – his attention is elsewhere and he looks puzzled and concerned. Then there is the constant image of a figure in a red coat – both Christine and the figure in the slides. The fact that the figure has found it’s way onto the slide lends itself to the idea of horror. In the same way that Freddie Kruger is able to get into people’s dreams and thus kill them, the suspicion that somehow the red figure is responsible for Christine’s death is raised.
To add to this, when the water spills onto the slide, the shape that it makes both resembles blood and the image of Christine in John’s arms. In this there are the intertwined ideas that, first, the spillage on the slide indicates or pre-empts what is about to happen to Christine and second, that for John at least, Christine and the red figure (who, we later find, is the murderous dwarf) are the same – they both signify death for him. It is as though the dwarf is Christine avenging her death – John effectively (in his mind) has killed Christine and the figure, who represents Christine, kills him. There is a neatness about this circle of ideas that becomes evident only when the film is studied in detail.