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Distorted Dreams: Peter Ibbetson from Illustration to Adaptation

Rêves et variations : Peter Ibbetson, des dessins au film
Maxime Leroy


L’article montre comment les illustrations de George du Maurier dans son roman Peter Ibbetson ont inspiré Henry Hathaway pour son adaptation filmique de 1935. L’hypothèse est que les correspondances visuelles masquent un changement de paradigme culturel : les références de 1891 (Butler, Laycock, Barrett, Youmans, les théories de la mémoire ancestrale ou du corps électrique) sont remplacées dans le film par celle à Freud et à la psychanalyse.

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1Peter Ibbetson is a perfect example of adaptation ‘in just about every possible direction’ (Hutcheon xiii). George du Maurier’s 1891 novel was turned into a play by John Nathaniel Raphael, a close friend of the author’s, in 1917, a silent film—Forever, now lost—by George Fitzmaurice in 1921, and an opera by Deems Taylor and Constance Collier performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1931 to 1934. Henry Hathaway’s film, also titled Peter Ibbetson, came out in 1935. A radio adaptation was broadcast on CBS on 10 September 1939, in the Campbell House series hosted by Orson Welles. Sixty years later, it inspired a musical by Tina Landau and Ricky Ian Gordon, Dream True, which opened at the Vineyard Theatre in New York on 17 April 1999.

2The novel was originally published in six instalments in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in Britain and the United States from June to November 1891, with eighty-four drawings by the author (fourteen per issue). These drawings are not always reproduced in book editions, although most critics are now working from the assumption that in ‘self-illustrated fiction . . .  text and illustration contribute jointly to a novel’s meaning’ (Mann 161). Du Maurier’s Peter Ibbetson is a hybrid which must be read and viewed through the whole spectrum used to categorise word-picture interaction, from parallelism to enhancement, complementarity and even contradiction. In this article I will focus on the ‘connections between novel illustration and novel adaptation to film’ (Elliott 55), an aspect of Peter Ibbetson so far left unexplored. As I will show, Henry Hathaway and cinematographer Charles Lang drew inspiration from some of Du Maurier’s drawings, but the two works are set in different frames of reference: while the Victorian author-artist worked in the context of the dominant scientific and spiritual dream theories of his time, the American director reoriented the story and its visual atmosphere towards a post-Freudian aesthetics.

  • 1  ‘On a consacré, contre ce qui relèverait simplement de l’illustration, la création d’œuvres accéda (...)

3Using original illustrations to recreate the atmosphere of classic novels was not uncommon practice in Hollywood in the 1930s. DeBona has drawn attention to the importance of Phiz’s drawings for MGM when the company adapted David Copperfield (the film was produced by David O. Selznick, directed by George Cukor and released the same year as Peter Ibbetson): ‘The Phiz illustrations . . .  were meticulously paired to the actors and were used as guides for set designers . . . MGM went to great lengths to duplicate Victorian reproductions of nineteenth-century illustrations for David Copperfield . . . Phiz’s original drawings were enlarged, and then the characters were made to pose to conform to them’ (DeBona 128). Du Maurier’s drawings for Peter Ibbetson being far less popular, Paramount Pictures did not organise such re-enactments, but another, and more fundamental, difference is that however closely Dickens and Phiz collaborated, the resulting work was not self-illustrated fiction. My interpretation of Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson is supported by the idea that adapting a novel equipped with the author’s own visual images raises a number of specific issues, both practical and theoretical, especially as the distinction between adaptation and illustration is not a clear-cut one in the vocabulary of film studies. Since the 1950s, Serceau writes, ‘the creation of works elevated to the level of writing has been promoted over mere illustration’ (Serceau 8).1 The word illustration, as a sub-category of adaptation, had been used pejoratively since the 1920s by critics like Ricciotto Canudo to describe films which do not rely on the specific language of cinema, consisting in camera movements, light effects, the play of shots and other distinctive techniques, but rather on narrative prose, filmed theatre and the mimetic reconstruction of places. Filmmakers who worked in this frame of mind were ‘expecting from the “photographic camera” only the “illustration” of a text’ (Macovaz, webpage).

  • 2  ‘Le cinéma est à l’intersection d’un espace littéraire et d’un espace plastique traditionnels qu’i (...)

4A double disparagement is therefore attached to the word ‘illustration’: for most publishers, illustrations are optional, if not irrelevant, even when they were made by the author, and illustration is an inferior form of film adaptation. Illustration(s) is/are subject to the primacy of the written word, the kinetics of readers’ imagination and truly original film-making. One can thus distinguish ‘between illustration-films and creative works which offer interpretation’ (Serceau 52). Yet, this usage leaves open the possibility of a re-evaluation of the concept, precisely because ‘cinema is at the crossroads between traditional literary and visual spaces that it articulates and combines rather than subsumes … Adaptation is at the crossroads of this crossroads…’ (Serceau 51).2 The adaptation of a self-illustrated novel such as Peter Ibbetson goes a third crossroads beyond, as it must adapt text and images into a combination of sounds, new texts (dialogues) and new images.

5In reference to Wagner’s typology of film adaptations, Hathaway’s film is a commentary, that is to say ‘where an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect… when there has been a different intention on the part of the film-maker, rather than infidelity or outright violation’ (quoted in McFarlane 10-11). The first noticeable difference is that in the novel, story and plot do not exactly coincide, whereas the film reconstructs the story through ‘linearization’ (McFarlane 43). Thanks to Madge Plunket, the fictional editor whose words frame Peter’s narrative, readers are aware from the start that Peter committed a crime and ‘died at the —— Criminal Lunatic Asylum’ (Du Maurier I, 1). As a result, readers will wonder about whom Peter killed and why, and how reliable he is as narrator. The film works differently upon the viewers, who are subject to a deepening emotional power as story and plot unfold concurrently.

6Other alterations can be accounted for in terms of simplification in the narrative. For example, in the film Peter is hired by the Duke and Duchess of Towers to build their new stables, whereas in the novel he is hired by Lord and Lady Cray who then invite him to a social event at which he meets the Duchess (Mary). The Crays, like other minor characters, do not appear in the film. But the most significant change is that in the novel Peter kills his uncle (in reality his biological father, as he discovers), whereas in the film he kills Mary’s husband. The parricide becomes a crime of passion. The outcome is the same (Peter is imprisoned) but beyond the fact that Louis D. Lighton, who produced the film for Paramount, may have thought this could create greater appeal for moviegoers, the change reshuffles the ‘mythic and . . . psychological patterns’ (McFarlane 25) in the story, as novel and film encapsulate different myths (Oedipus on the one hand, Dido and Aeneas on the other). However, the core of the narrative, that is to say Peter and Mary’s ability to connect in their mutual dreams, is retained in the film. Hathaway’s script also keeps the obstacles that the two lovers have to overcome (she is a married woman; he goes to jail), thus reproducing the narrative form of myths and fairy tales on which the novel is partly built.

Shifting Frames of Reference

  • 3  For copyright reasons, stills from the film could not be reproduced in this article. Readers may w (...)

7I will give four examples of how Hathaway shifted the original frames of reference of the novel by using and distorting some of Du Maurier’s illustrations.3 The first example is ‘La mare d’Auteuil’ (fig. 1 and 0:00:30, 0:00:52), a pond near Peter’s childhood dwelling to which he keeps coming back in the novel, both physically and in memory. In the film it is mostly seen during the opening credits, which show different views directly inspired by Du Maurier’s drawings.

Fig. 1 – La mare d'Auteuil

Fig. 1 – La mare d'Auteuil

8The shape of the trees, the curve of the grassy bank and the reflections in the water are very similar in both images. However, the absence of characters and the misty effect in the background of the still create an ethereal atmosphere which introduces the dream motif, whereas Du Maurier’s illustration foregrounds character interaction in reference to a particular moment in the narrative. The function of the still is best defined by a line used as caption to the illustration in the novel: the place has ‘a magic, from all the associations that [gather]’ (Du Maurier I, 20) in the viewers’ minds. Although the narrator’s words sound pre-Freudian in tone, they stemmed from Samuel Butler’s idea in Unconscious Memory (1880) that ‘our identity is […] continuous with and inseparable from the memories of all those who have come before us, whose “germ plasm” we share. While these memories are latent, Butler argues, they can be “rekindled” by a recurrence of associated ideas’ (Vrettos webpage). This is what happens to Peter on revisiting the pond during his dream journeys to the past. Hathaway left out these encounters with Peter’s and Mary’s forebears but he retained the notion that free associations and dreams were connected as forms of unconscious thinking.

9The second example shows Hathaway’s transformation of a visual symbol. Bars are a recurrent motif in the film. Mimsey and Gogo (that is to say young Mary and Peter) are first seen together on each side of a railing; Peter walks through the bars of his prison to join with Mary, as he walked through the bars of the railings when he was young; in many scenes, shadows, light effects and objects reduplicate the form. The origin of the motif lies in one of the book illustrations showing Peter sitting on his bed (fig. 2):

Fig. 2 – "O nightingale!"

Fig. 2 – "O nightingale!"

10The narrator uses the multiple meanings of the word ‘bar’. As Peter can hear the song of a nightingale, the drawing outwardly illustrates ‘the strange capacity of a melodic bar for preserving the essence of bygone things’ (Du Maurier I, 29) but it proleptically shows the young boy behind bars, evoking the prison cell from where he will lead his double life for more than a quarter of a century, and where he will die. Hathaway shifted the original occurrence of the motif to the garden, with the baby carriage in the foreground as reminder of sleep and dreams (0:03:22, 0:03:47).

11For late Victorian readers, Du Maurier’s narrative would have extolled ‘memory’s power to escape the prison house of the mind’ (Vrettos). The image evokes Francis Galton’s 1880 study of ‘Mental Imagery’ and its description of those ‘admirable minds’ who are able to exert ‘complete mastery over their mental images … [and] call up the figure of a friend and make it sit on a chair or stand up at will’ (quoted in Vrettos). Forty years later, the formative metaphor would have been Freud’s prison, in which ‘disturbing memories are locked up by a censor-jailer… [with] the unconscious as imprisoning not only troubling memories but harmful fantasies as well’ (Margalit 2-3). The reinterpretation of the story by Hathaway, and its reception by the audience of the mid-1930s, were necessarily determined by psychoanalysis at the time when it ‘entered the cultural mainstream’ (Hinton 294).

12The third example is the moment when Peter and Mary meet again after Mary has died. In the novel, after her accidental death, Peter lives on and they see each other again several times as she visits him from beyond: ‘I have seen Mary again—seven times’ (Du Maurier II, 231). Their first post-mortem encounter mostly consists in a long monologue by Mary, which brings Peter’s narrative to an optimistic philosophical conclusion, until Peter’s sudden death, caused by an unexpected ‘effusion of blood on the brain’ (Du Maurier II, 234), as Madge Plunket explains, bringing the narrative to a close. In the film, they only meet once after her death and Mary has just time enough to confirm to him that there is an afterlife before vanishing for ever. Peter dies almost immediately, and unsurprisingly, because of bad treatment previously inflicted by his jailers. In the novel, the effect is clear discordance between preceding ‘causality’, in the sense of ‘linkage of localized causal lines [in the narration]’ (Bordwell 21)—Peter's last words express his hope and future projects—and the abrupt denouement which resultantly stands out as ‘an ideological difficulty’ (Bordwell 21) in that it leaves the readers wondering whether, as Madge Plunket says she believes, he has ‘told the truth all through’ (Du Maurier I, 6). Peter’s rapid death in the film is partly a side-effect of compression, but the time-scale is not the only difference. The still (1:18:49, 1:19:11), compared to Du Maurier’s rendering of the same moment, shows not only elision or omission but, once again, a modification in the ‘philosophical coordinates’ (Serceau 100–101) of the scene. Hathaway and Lang shot a night scene, with a strong use of chiaroscuro. Peter alone is visible. Mary is only present as light and voice, speaking from beyond. Peter, not Mary, is sitting on the bench where they used to meet. The rays of light evoke the three-rayed nimbus in Christian imagery. The atmosphere is supernatural, symbolic, and conveys a sense of deep spirituality. The book illustration (fig. 3) also shows a moment of great intensity, as Peter’s tautness suggests, but Mary’s solid, secure position suggests a source of physical comfort rather than a spiritual connection.

Fig. 3 – "It is Mary Seraskier!"

Fig. 3 – "It is Mary Seraskier!"

13This is a day scene mixing the attributes of a proposal (in the drawing) with the idea of motherly love (in the text): ‘I sobbed like a hysterical child, while she tried to soothe me as one soothes a child’ (Du Maurier II, 198). Yet the moment is made cruelly ironic as Peter and Mary are shown as old people (his hair is grey and her face is visibly older than in previous drawings), and the reunion is a communicational failure, not a mystic apparition: ‘The old circuit is broken, and can’t be restored—not yet!’ (Du Maurier II, 200). The circuit metaphor is an indication that the frame of reference is ‘the analogy of the “electrical body” [which] was pervasive in late Victorian culture’ (Luckhurst 83), for example in the writings of William Barrett and Edward Youmans. When Mary tells Peter: ‘Sound and light and heat, and electricity and motion, and will and thought and remembrance … all that comes to the same’ (Du Maurier II, 206), she directly echoes Edward Youmans’s 1865 statement that ‘Heat, light, electricity, and magnetism are no longer regarded as substantive and independent existences … but simply as modes of motion’ (quoted in Luckhurst 84-85). According to Youmans, the discovery should have forced men of science to ‘fix [their attention] upon the invisible and the supersensuous’ (quoted in Luckhurst 85). By 1935, these ideas had become outdated, and Hathaway chose to reframe the scene within the more familiar debate on the existence of life after death. For his viewers, Peter’s line ‘Then there is something else, Mary, beyond?’ more likely came as a response to Freud’s ideas as developed in The Future of an Illusion (1928 for the first American edition): ‘It would be very nice … if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be’ (quoted in Palmer 80). In ‘Timely Thoughts on War and Death’, Freud had already argued that the ‘persisting memory of the dead’ in the human mind was ‘the basis for assuming other forms of existence and gave … the conception of a life continuing after apparent death’ (quoted in Spellman 83). Ironically, this notion was partly rooted in the Victorian concept of ancestral memory upon which Du Maurier based his novel, but the overall paradigm had changed nonetheless.

14The fourth example is the scene of the concert. In his illustration (fig. 4), Du Maurier shows it at viewer’s eye height, with a clear horizontal divide between the audience filling the lower half of the drawing and the paintings and pieces of furniture filling the upper half:

Fig. 4 – Parigi, O cara

Fig. 4 – Parigi, O cara

15These decorative elements play a narrative role as they show the social status of the household and obliquely refer to key scenes in the story (especially the lady sitting on a garden bench). The atmosphere is one of congenial decorum, which induces Peter into a mistaken sense of belonging: ‘There were crowds of people—but no crowd … I could have shouted out loud. I could almost have sung myself!’ (Du Maurier I, 181). The equivalent scene in the film (0:36:00, 0:36:23) shows notable variations. The crowd is much sparser, emphasising the relative emptiness of the room and putting the walls and furniture into more relief; distance makes facial features indiscernible; light and shade effects create a strong contrast; the low-angle shot reveals the ceiling, totally absent from the drawing. This last aspect was relatively unusual at the time as the powerful lamps needed to light interior scenes were usually hung above the set. Only six years later, Orson Welles famously filmed ceilings in Citizen Kane. ‘The sets have ceilings,’ cinematographer Gregg Toland wrote, ‘because we wanted reality, and we felt it would be easier to believe a room was a room if its ceiling could be seen in the picture. Furthermore, lighting effects in unceilinged rooms are generally not realistic because the illumination comes from unnatural angles’ (quoted in McDougal 12). Here, the resulting effect is that the scene looks ritualistic as much as realistic with the candlelight and the five men standing erect at regular intervals to the left of the seated ladies. Unlike in the novel, detachment prevails, and Peter stays apart from the event most of the evening. This is a codified performance for a private aristocratic audience, which could be another sign of the growing influence of Freud’s theories on the American scene. As Michael Hinton explains, citing Joel Pfister: ‘By the 1920s and 1930s in America … not only did psychology play a crucial part in “glamorizing the lifestyles of the rich,” but magazines such as The Masses promoted psychoanalytic language as a “script for new everyday rituals for middle- and upper-class social interaction and identification”’ (Hinton 294).

Visual Atmospheres

16One of the most striking ways through which Hathaway expanded the psychoanalytical dimension is the numerous architectural plans and models for the new stables that Peter and Mary study in great detail and which can be seen as metaphors for dreams and the unconscious. In the novel Peter’s work at Cray’s is barely mentioned. By giving more importance to Peter’s profession, Hathaway developed another set of metaphors also informed by psychoanalysis. The dream, Freud writes, is ‘like the façade of Italian churches, placed in front without any organic connection to the building behind it’ (quoted in Frieden 35). For him, dreams and childhood memories are ‘approximately in the same relation as some baroque places in Rome to the ancient ruins, whose slabs and columns have provided the material for the construction in modern forms’ (quoted in Frieden 35). In direct resonance with Freud’s metaphors, the film gives great importance to the preliminary discussions between Peter and his clients about the façade of the old stables and whether it should be kept, and about the style of the new building.

17Here again Hathaway uses and transforms Du Maurier’s visual imagery. In a sequence showing the work in progress, Peter and Mary are studying models and plans with their bodies appearing in transparency upon images of scaffolds and builders (0:38:11, 0:38:34). This is a reinterpretation of some of Du Maurier’s dream illustrations representing the characters as semitransparent figures visiting the past, for instance ‘The giant fier-à-bras’, ‘Maman m’a donné quat’ sous’ and ‘The Pasquier pedigree’ (fig. 5). Contrary to the previous examples, the still is not a variation on specific recognizable illustrations, but an overall ‘metaphorical transfer’ (Ryan webpage) as moment, place and secondary characters have been changed.

Fig. 5 – The Pasquier pedigree

Fig. 5 – The Pasquier pedigree

18Hathaway did not include these scenes in the film and his heroes’ dreams are turned towards the future, not the past, but the sequence also transfers and condenses a crucial development in Du Maurier’s narrative, in which Mary welcomes Peter in a dream house that she has constructed for them out of her memories. The house gives them access to distant times and places and its passageways close after Mary’s death. Mary has robbed ‘every palace in Europe of its very best’ (Du Maurier II, 107) and took ‘a long time to build and arrange’ (Du Maurier II, 108) the interior of the house. In the novel, it is less a metaphor for unconscious desires than a second world duplicating the first; every piece of furniture, every painting, every slice of bread has its double: ‘everything here is a duplicate’ (Du Maurier II, 106). Unlike the characters in the novel, Hathaway’s heroes do not travel to Saint Petersburg or to prehistoric times, but their fantasy house, fifteen years before Walt Disney picked up the idea for Cinderella, is a replica of Neuschwanstein Castle, a possible hint at the two lovers’ excursions in the book. Its destruction by lightning (1:11:14, 1:11:37) prefigures the tragic ending so clearly that in his analysis of the film Gilles Deleuze described the scene as the climax of the story, curiously ignoring the final scenes and the deaths of the protagonists: ‘Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson is less an American film of dream than an implied dream, culminating with the avalanche of rocks and the collapse of the castle made of clouds’ (Deleuze 57). The scene exemplifies Antonin Artaud’s idea of cinema as a ‘dissociative force’ widening every ‘crack or fissure’ (quoted in Deleuze 167) in reality—in this case literally causing the castle to collapse, despite the buttress and the arch that Peter puts on a model at his office on his first apparition as an adult.

19Artaud intended dream images to be ‘raw and disjunctive’ (they are at this moment in the film) and claimed that ‘the cinema calls for extraordinary subjects, climactic states of mind’ (Artaud 181). However, although the dream scenes are the obvious extraordinary element in the film, Hathaway shot them as real ones, in accordance with the paradoxical experience of the two protagonists whose dreamed visions were ‘unmistakably true as the remembered ones, and all bathed in that ineffable light, the light of other days—the light that never was on sea or land, and yet the light of absolute truth’ (Du Maurier II, 31). This paradoxical notion, as Vrettos has shown, also stems from Samuel Butler’s theories expressed in Life and Habit (1878) and Unconscious Memory (1880). ‘As in Butler’s concept of memory as “matter,” … memories in Peter Ibbetson become the raw material of creation. Once the narrator has learned to “dream true,” he and Mary use their individual memories to construct new lives together’ (Vrettos). Du Maurier was also influenced by the works of Thomas Laycock, who developed the concept of ancestral memory, arguing that individual consciousness was not self-enclosed but rather connected ‘whether in dreams or when waking … [to] long-past or ancestral memories reproduced according to the law of reversion’ (Vrettos). Hathaway redirected the architectural metaphor to illustrate the Freudian idea that the dream work, not the manifest content of the dream, is the central element. Freud wrote in 1925 that the dream ‘is at bottom nothing but the particular form of our thinking … It is the dream work that produces this form, and it is the only essential thing about the dream, the explanation of its peculiarity’ (quoted in Frieden 35).

20However, Hathaway must have been aware of Du Maurier’s pre-cinematic vision, which appears in his evocation of the mammoth, ‘blurred and indistinct like a composite photograph’ (Du Maurier II, 185), and mostly in this paragraph recognizing the cinematic quality of the mind. Our brain, Peter says, is an instrument of record, a potentially unlimited receptacle for memory: ‘Evidently our brain contains something akin both to a photographic plate and a phonographic cylinder, and many other things of the same kind not yet discovered; not a sight or a sound or a smell is lost; not a taste or a feeling or an emotion. Unconscious memory records them all, without our even heeding what goes on around us beyond the things that attract our immediate interest or attention’ (Du Maurier II, 31). Again, this passage shows how Du Maurier’s perspective ‘overlaps with broader scientific theories and debates about the nature of memory and consciousness from the 1880s and 90s, including comparisons between the mechanisms of memory and emerging technologies such as photography and phonography’ (Vrettos 6) as the pre-cinematic references to sight and sound indicate. Elsewhere, as he learns to master the art of dreaming true under Mary’s guidance, Peter compares his new ability to conjure up images from the past to optical devices such as the camera-obscura or the magic lantern.

21Obviously, one can find in these metaphors another reason to doubt Peter’s narrative, but they also echo ‘two important, yet competing, issues that shaped late nineteenth-century portrayals of memory: the failure of recollections to adequately recapture the past, and the power of memory to bind together the fragments of our consciousness’ (Vrettos). Here again, Du Maurier proves very much aware of ‘ongoing debates in the 1880s and 90s about the relationship between dreaming and memory—and particularly the ability to subject both dreaming and recollecting to scientific study and control’ (Vrettos). Paradoxically, the illustrations are beyond control as their narratological status in the novel is unclear. Peter boasts about making ‘descriptions and illustrations as I flatter myself the world has never bargained for’ (Du Maurier II, 183). His cousin writes about the ‘innumerable sketches he was allowed to make during his long period of confinement … These sketches (which are extraordinary) and [the] MS. are now in my possession’ (Du Maurier I, 5). However, most illustrations show Peter as a character seen from someone else’s perspective, and Madge Plunkett does not give any more details about the sketches (we do not know if they are the book illustrations). Although the novel is a first person narrative, it is impossible to decide whether the illustrations were made by Peter or by an external artist.

22Moreover, Peter points out two modes of visual representation, description or ekphrasis, and illustration. Both are found repeatedly in the narrative, and both gave Hathaway the opportunity to create variations on the novel’s iconotext. Many artists and paintings are mentioned or described in the novel. At Lord Cray’s party, Edwin Landseer, the famous painter, is present. Peter explains: ‘I had copied an engraving of one of his pictures for Mimsey Seraskier. It was called ‘The Challenge’, or ‘Coming Events cast their Shadows before them.’ I feasted my eyes on the wondrous little man, who seemed extremely chatty and genial, and quite unembarrassed by his fame’ (Du Maurier II, 41). In his day life, Peter regularly visits the Louvre and the British Museum, and in the dream house a ‘little door leads to every picture-gallery in Europe’ (Du Maurier II, 108). Even as a child he explained ‘Hogarth’s pictures of the “Idle and the Industrious Apprentices” to Mimsey’ (Du Maurier II, 89). Peter also uses various markers of pictoriality, for example when describing Napoleon ‘with all his staff around him, just as he has been so often painted’ (Du Maurier II, 180). A long description of Hampstead Heath is almost given a title: ‘Hampstead Heath at any time, but especially on a sunny morning in late October, is not to be disdained by any one’ (Du Maurier II, 130). The deep semantic structure of the first half of the sentence suggests the title of a painting: Hampstead Heath at sunrise, late October. The novel raises questions on the status of art as duplication. Mary asks Peter: ‘do you remember your little drawing out of The Island, in the green morocco Byron? Here it is, in the top drawer of this beautiful cabinet. Here are all the drawings you ever did for me—plain and coloured—with dates, explanations, etc., all written by myself … They are only duplicates. I have the real ones at my house in Hampshire’ (Du Maurier II, 105). Thus, everything is dizzyingly duplicated: world and art, day life and dream life, letterpress and illustrations. In a sense, Hathaway’s adaptation is another duplicate, and the film completes the general sense of (re)duplication. The American director hinted at the motif by showing a couple spotting their house in a landscape painting in the Louvre and saying (in French): ‘C’est notre maison … Mais oui, c’est magnifique’. This short scene, which is not taken from the novel, sounds like a counterpoint to the complex architectural achievements of the main characters, as dreams in the novel and as reality in the film.

23Although they admire Italian paintings and statues from ancient Greece, the imaginary museum that Peter and Mary build is mostly English, autumnal, melancholy, yellow—in a word pre-Raphaelite: ‘we were moderns of the moderns, after all’ (Du Maurier II, 125). Neither the original illustrations nor Lang’s photographs adopted pre-Raphaelite aesthetics, but they retained the idea that the endless duplication of art leads to a vanishing point, where things melt and disappear. The last image in Hathaway’s film shows Peter literally disappearing, as he falls slowly backwards into darkness, and finally vanishes (1:20:38, 1:21:01). In the novel, Peter writes:

There was Millais’s ‘Autumn Leaves,’ his ‘Youth of Sir Walter Raleigh,’ his ‘Chill October’; Watts’s ‘Endymion,’ and ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’; Burne-Jones’s ‘Chant d'Amour,’ and his ‘Laus Veneris’; Alma-Tadema’s ‘Audience of Agrippa,’ and the ‘Women of Amphissa’; J. Whistler’s portrait of his mother […]. Then suddenly, in the midst of all this unparalleled artistic splendour, we felt that a something was wanting. There was a certain hollowness about it; and we discovered that in our case the principal motives for collecting all these beautiful things were absent. (Du Maurier II, 127)

24The film generally recalls Artaud’s praise of cinema for its capacity to create ‘an atmosphere of vision’ and ‘a complete overthrow of optics, perspective and logics’ (quoted in Flitterman-Lewis 117). Peter’s longing for Mary after her death, when he comes everyday to the spot where he last saw her, shows the difference between Du Maurier’s bucolic representation (fig. 6) and Hathaway and Lang’s almost immaterial rendering (1:15:36, 1:16:00):

Fig. 6 – I am there every night

Fig. 6 – I am there every night
  • 4  ‘C’est chez les surréalistes que cette dichotomie est sans doute la plus explicite’.

25The surrealistic dimension of the film was noted by Breton who called it in Mad Love (L’Amour fou, 1937) a ‘triumph of surrealist thinking’ (quoted in O’Brien 312). The debate which sprang up at about the same time, in the 1920s and the 1930s, on adaptation as illustration vs. adaptation as creation, and to which I referred earlier on, is encapsulated by Serceau in a prose/poetry dichotomy involving secondary dichotomies such as narrative linearity vs. photography and representation vs. imagination. It is no coincidence that ‘more than anyone else, the surrealists made this dichotomy explicit’4 (Serceau 23) and Hathaway’s film, as shown by the image of the pond used in the opening credits, clearly favours photography and imagination. At first sight, Artaud’s conception of dreams as concretising ‘the dark truths of the mind’ and materializing ‘secrets stirring in the deepest part of consciousness’ (quoted in Flitterman-Lewis 117) seems irreconcilable with the ‘true dreams’ (Du Maurier II, 80) of the story, which are a form of telepathy. Yet, Peter could have written these lines: ‘Dreams are true. All dreams are true. I have a sense of asperities, of landscapes that seem sculptured, of undulating stretches of ground covered with a kind of cool sand, whose meaning is: “regret, disillusionment, abandonment, separation, when shall we meet again?”’ (Artaud 124). It is possible that Artaud had the novel in mind as he wrote this in 1925-27. What is certain is that for Du Maurier’s generation, these feelings would have been entrenched in the theories of Butler, Galton and Youmans, whereas for Hathaway’s generation they would have sounded like an echo to psychoanalysis and surrealism. In the film, the trip to Paris, framed by images of the architects’ office and images of a bustling London subway train, embodies the uncanniness of daily experiences, with the episodes of the girl met at the museum, the ghost house, and the encounter between the hero and his (then young) mother. This sequence prefigures the dream scenes and blurs the reality/fantasy divide.

Elements of Comparative Semiotics

  • 5  ‘Dans la mesure où l’acteur ne fait pas que figurer ou représenter le personnage littéraire, mais (...)

26The couple’s remarks in the Louvre do not only relay the novel’s questions on mimesis. They are also part of one of the striking aspects of both film and novel: their use of different ‘language codes (involving response to particular accents or tones of voices and what these might mean socially or temperamentally)’ (McFarlane 29). In his typology of British residents in France, Peter identifies a type whose accent, ‘when it spoke French (in shops), instead of being musical and sweet and sympathetic, like Madame Seraskier’s, was barbarous and grotesque, with dreadful “ongs,” and “angs,” and “ows,” and “ays”’ (Du Maurier I, 56). But mispronunciation can also be a sign of geniality: ‘My mother took the letter from the postman’s hand as he said, ‘Pour vous? Oh yes, Madame Pasquier, God sev ze Kveen!’ (Du Maurier II, 82). Comparatively, very little French is heard in the film, but linguistic identities are blurred in a different way as the two main actors, Ann Harding and Gary Cooper, were American. Similarly, in the opening scenes, Gogo (alias Peter) and Mimsey (alias Mary) are young English children raised in France, and no explanation is given as to why they have broad American accents (they are played by Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler). Hathaway and the producers relied on the viewers’ willing suspension of disbelief, but this raises the question of the semiotic function of the actor. Both Harding and Cooper were already famous in 1935 and in Peter Ibbetson ‘to some extent, the actor is not merely playing or representing the character, he [or she] also substitutes for the character, or at least is a double, superposing his persona to his [or hers]’ (Serceau 135)5. Hathaway chose to cast his main actor against type as Cooper had become a movie star mostly with Western films such as The Virginian (1929) and heroic dramas such as A Farewell to Arms (1932). For the viewers of the time, this created a horizon of change which increased the aesthetic uncanniness of the film, as a contemporary critic remarked:

  • 6  The New York Times, movie review by André Sennwald, November 8, 1935.

The striking thing about the new screen version of ‘Peter Ibbetson’ at the Radio City Music Hall lies in the identity of its director, Henry Hathaway. Known almost exclusively for his ‘Lives of a Bengal Lancer,’ Mr. Hathaway bridges the spiritual gulfs between that rousing super-Western and the fragile dream world of Du Maurier’s sentimental classic with astonishing success. With his directness and his hearty masculine qualities, he skillfully escapes all the lush pitfalls of the plot and gives it a tenderness that is always gallant instead of merely soft. The photoplay, though it scarcely is a dramatic thunderbolt, possesses a luminous beauty and a sensitive charm that make it attractive and moving. Under Mr. Hathaway's management Miss Ann Harding, who has been losing prestige lately, gives her finest performance, while Gary Cooper fits into the picture with unexpected success.6

27The critic’s insistence on the virility of both actor and director implicitly highlights the fact that Peter and Mary’s love remains purely platonic. Yet, although the heroic aspect of the character does not appear in the film, it is present in the novel and in some of its illustrations: Peter has dreams of chivalry and is apt to use his fists when it comes to ‘settling an old score’ (Du Maurier I, 59) in the French schoolyard. He also has a fight on Caledonian Road against a ‘gigantic drayman [who] was squaring up to a poor drunken lout of a navvy not half his size’ (Du Maurier I, 117). Both scenes are illustrated and have been left out from the film, but Gary Cooper was there to display comparable protective and ‘masculine qualities’ (fig. 7 and 0:52:17, 0:52:39), albeit only to protect his lover:

Fig. 7 – The big drayman

Fig. 7 – The big drayman

28The importance given to virility and physical contact is paradoxically reinforced by the impossibility or difficulty to touch things or people while dreaming true (this causes a sharp and brutal return to wakefulness). Mary teaches Peter how to touch things with his eyes only, prefiguring Gilles Deleuze’s ‘tactisign’, a ‘touching which is specific to the gaze’ (Deleuze 12) and which works ‘on condition that the hand relinquishes its prehensile and motor functions to content itself with a pure touching’ (Deleuze 12). Mary warns Peter as she teaches him how to dream true: ‘you must take care how you touch things or people—you may hear, and see, and smell; but you mustn't touch, nor pick flowers or leaves, nor move things about. It blurs the dream, like breathing on a window-pane’ (Du Maurier II, 12). Peter learns how to enjoy life exclusively through tactisigns, either because Mary (as part of an erotic game?) forbids him (‘I must not speak to her, nor touch her’, Du Maurier, II, 15), or because it puts an end to the dream (‘It had ceased to be like a dream, and had become an actuality from the moment I first touched the duchess’s hand to the moment I kissed my mother’s, and the blur came’, Du Maurier, II, 17; ‘We cannot even touch these dream people without their melting away into thin air; we can only hear and see them, but that in perfection!’, Du Maurier, II, 142). Later, as he becomes more expert in the practice of true dreams, Peter can use his power to connect with Mary, and he uses the same electric current metaphors from Youmans as were discussed in the first part of this article: ‘The touch of a finger was enough to establish the strange circuit, and wake a common consciousness of past and present, either hers or mine’ (Du Maurier, II, 110). The world becomes ‘appealing to the eye alone’ and soon ‘the things and people in [his] dream had the same roundness and relief as in life, and were life-size’ (Du Maurier, II, 19). It is no coincidence that the novel was published as the first motion picture cameras were invented by Le Prince, Edison, Dickson and their contemporaries. Peter and Mary almost inadvertently invented cinema.


29When studying the adaptation of self-illustrated novels, to start from the assumption that the novel ‘draws on a wholly verbal sign system’ (McFarlane 26) is inaccurate. The connections between images are fundamental and largely explain why, according to Hélène Cixous’s poetical reading, ‘there are two Peter Ibbetsons which make philippine from a distance, one being the one who dreams, the other the one who is dreamt, one returning from the other, to the other’ (Cixous 32). Yet, a fundamental shift occurred between novel and film: in the four decades that separated them, psychoanalysis had revolutionised the interpretation of dreams, the definition of identity and the common perception of social interaction. Strong evidence suggests that Hathaway’s film was informed by these new theories and Peter’s narrative was then detached from its Victorian frame of reference. In that sense, Hathaway distorted Du Maurier’s conception of dreams, but the distortion was not a mutilation. Intermediality has played a key role in each of the transformations of the novel. As Michael Chanan explained, ‘the illustrative paradigm’ first ‘took hold of theatre’ (Chanan 127) and Du Maurier was involved in the first stage adaptation of his novel. Peter’s successful attempt to visit the past through ‘technological mediation and commodification of memory’ (Zieger 31) even appears retrospectively as a prefiguration of cinema. Although book illustrations and film adaptations are often perceived as forms of perceptual concreteness competing with the readers’ own mental images, the multiplicity of signs eventually complexifies and enriches the work and its avatars. Hathaway revealed the pre-cinematic and pre-Freudian qualities of Du Maurier’s text and illustrations by placing his adaptation in a new aesthetic and cultural context.

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Artaud, Antonin. Selected Writings. Trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Berkeley, U of California P, 1976.

Bordwell, David. ‘Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures’. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. A Film Theory Reader. Ed. Philip Rosen. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 17–34.

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Cixous, Hélène. Philippines. Trans. Laurent Milesi. Cambridge: Politi, 2011 [original in French 2009].

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Hathaway, Henry. Peter Ibbetson. Available on Wild Side Video 2008 (Universal Pictures DVD), [Paramount Pictures 1935].

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1  ‘On a consacré, contre ce qui relèverait simplement de l’illustration, la création d’œuvres accédant au niveau de l’écriture… Cette idée n’est pas totalement abandonnée aujourd’hui’. Unless otherwise indicated all translations are mine.

2  ‘Le cinéma est à l’intersection d’un espace littéraire et d’un espace plastique traditionnels qu’il articule et conjugue bien plus souvent qu’il ne les subsume… [L’adaptation est située] à l’intersection de cette intersection’.

3  For copyright reasons, stills from the film could not be reproduced in this article. Readers may watch the film online or on DVD (see bibliography). Respective time references are given in parentheses.

4  ‘C’est chez les surréalistes que cette dichotomie est sans doute la plus explicite’.

5  ‘Dans la mesure où l’acteur ne fait pas que figurer ou représenter le personnage littéraire, mais tend à s’y substituer, ou tout du moins le dédoubler, superposant sa « persona » à la sienne’.

6  The New York Times, movie review by André Sennwald, November 8, 1935.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – La mare d'Auteuil
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Titre Fig. 2 – "O nightingale!"
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Fig. 3 – "It is Mary Seraskier!"
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Titre Fig. 4 – Parigi, O cara
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Fig. 5 – The Pasquier pedigree
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Fig. 6 – I am there every night
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Fig. 7 – The big drayman
Fichier image/jpeg, 120k
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Référence électronique

Maxime Leroy, « Distorted Dreams: Peter Ibbetson from Illustration to Adaptation »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 82 Automne | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 mai 2016, consulté le 04 août 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Maxime Leroy

Maxime Leroy is Senior Lecturer in English at the Université de Haute-Alsace (Mulhouse). His research mainly focuses on authorial prefaces and illustrations in 19th-Century literature.
Maxime Leroy est Maître de conférences en anglais à l’Université de Haute-Alsace. Ses recherches portent notamment sur les préfaces et les illustrations auctoriales dans la littérature du xixe siècle.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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