What began as a 1930s novel about troubled nuns in the Himalayas led, a few years on, to a film classic. Now as a new TV version begins, Neil Armstrong explores the story’s dark power.
There is nothing in the innocent opening sentences of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel Black Narcissus to suggest that the subsequent film version would be butchered by censors, banned, and eventually hailed as “one of the first truly erotic films” by one of the world’s great directors – Martin Scorsese.
Black Narcissus tells the story of a group of nuns who find themselves overcome by repressed desire when they move to a Himalayan retreat (Credit: Alamy)
That movie was made by an English director and a Hungarian-born writer-producer: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the celebrated cinema partnership revered for a series of groundbreaking and influential British films, of which Black Narcissus has become one of the best-loved. Now, there is a new adaptation, this time a joint BBC-FX production made for the small screen and starring Gemma Arterton and Aisling Franciosi.
The book, Godden’s third, and first bestseller, was praised by critics for its “rare beauty” and its “subtlety and freshness”, yet the story is not commonly described in such terms now. Rather Amanda Coe, the writer of the new three-part television version, says she thinks of it as “The Shining with nuns”.
Godden, who died aged 90 in 1998, was born in England but spent much of her childhood in India where her father managed a steamship company. She was a bestselling author who wrote more than 60 books, several of which were filmed. However her popularity has waned to the point where the most familiar Rumer to some will be the actress daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, apparently named after the writer.
Black Narcissus is Godden’s best-known work, partly because of the success and enduring popularity of the 1947 film. It tells the story of a small cadre of nuns from an Anglo-Catholic order sent to a remote mountaintop palace 8,000ft (2,400m) up in the Himalayas to establish a school and dispensary for the ‘natives’ – whether the ‘natives’ want one or not. The young, relatively inexperienced and rather self-important Sister Clodagh is placed in charge of this mission. Among the nuns is the highly-strung, difficult Sister Ruth.
The sexual themes are understated in the novel but when Michael Powell read it, he felt ‘the story, so coolly told in excellent prose, would be wildly exotic and erotic on the screen’
The palace is an unsettling place, perched vertiginously on the edge of a gorge and constantly buffeted by the wind. “I think you can see too far,” one of the nuns says. The locals know the building as the House of Women because, in the past, the region’s ruler kept his harem there. It is still filled with the ghosts of bygone days. The air may be thin, but the atmosphere is thick.