The Cement Garden Essay

Table of contents

1. Foreword

2. The 1978 novel „The Cement Garden“ by Ian McEwan
2.1. Life and works of the author
2.2. Summary of the plot

3. The 1993 film “The Cement Garden” by Andrew Birkin
3.1. Life and works of the director and screenwriter
3.2. Summary of the plot

4. Differences and similarities between the novel and the film
4.1. A short introduction into film analysis
4.2. Comparison of the storyline
4.3. Comparison of style and expression
4.3.1. Perspective, setting and language
4.3.2. Symbolism
4.3.3. Stylistic devices

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Foreword

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” (Francis Bacon)1

The story of “The Cement Garden” is clearly one of the third kinds. Every time I read the book or watched the film, I stum- bled upon more and more subtleties that have been built in.

“The Cement Garden” is not an ordinary story. It is a story about a bizarre relationship which you would normally not only frown upon, but Ian McEwan’s and Andrew Birkin’s work makes you understand the characters or even makes you sympathise with them. Although the plot is quite the same in both the film and the book, both authors have an individual way of telling the story. For this reason, I first want to sum up the plot of the book and the film and then go on to compare them, working out the differences and similarities between them.

2. The 1978 novel “The Cement Garden“ by Ian McEwan

2.1. Life and works of the author

Ian McEwan was born on June 21st, 1948 in Aldershot, England as the son of a soldier, which affected his young years causing him to spend a number of years in Singapore and Libya as a child. He studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a “Bache- lor of Arts” degree in English Literature in 1970. He received his “Master of Arts” degree in English Literature at the Univer- sity of East Anglia.

McEwan has won several prizes. The first one in his career was the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his collection of short stories “First Love, Last Rites”. Furthermore, he received Ger- many's Shakespeare Prize in 1999 and the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for “Amsterdam” in 1998. “Atonement” won several prizes, for instance the National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (2003). In the year 2000 he was awarded the title “Commander of the Order of the British Empire” (short: CBE). In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel “Saturday” and was named Reader’s Digest Author of the Year at the British Book Awards. 2010 he released his latest novel “Solar”.2

2.2. Summary of the plot

Jack is a 15 year old boy who lives in an English suburb togeth- er with his parents as well as his older sister Julie and his younger siblings Sue and Tom. In the beginning of the book he is sitting in front of his house whilst a lorry stops to deliver numerous bags of cement that his father has ordered. After din- ner Julie, Sue and Jack leave to go to Julie’s bedroom where they pretend to be doctors examining alien life forms, stroking and touching Sue’s genitals. She begs them to go on after they have stopped doing so. Jack states that he longs to examine his sister Julie, but he’s never allowed to do so. After their gro- tesque game Jack casually slips off to the bathroom to satisfy himself.

The following morning Jack goes down into the cellar to help his father carry the cement sacks upstairs into the garden. Jack, enjoying the work more and more, joins his father in mixing the cement and spreading it out. After a short time Jack runs off to the bathroom, making his father wait impatiently. Jack mastur- bates and takes a long time to go downstairs again. Having re- turned to the garden, though, he notices his father with his face lying in the wet concrete. Unable to move, Jack remains standing there until an ambulance rushes to help and the emer- gency doctors carry his father’s body away. Afterwards he pen- sively straightens the impression of his father’s shape in the concrete.

Later Jack notices that it was at the same time that he had stopped any acts of hygiene. No more baths, no clean clothes.

On his way to school, one of the following days afterwards, the surroundings are described for the first time. Their house is described as looking like a little castle and as the only one in their neighbourhood that is still intact and inhabited. The other houses have been put down for a motorway that has never been built in the long term.

When waking up in his bed a few days later, his mother enters his bedroom and tells him to keep lying there for a moment. She warns Jack about the supposed damages of self-satisfaction, though never actually mentioning the word.

One day Jack, wearing big filthy gardening gloves, slowly ap- proaches the visibly annoyed Julie to stretch out his paws and throw her onto her bed, tickling her until she urinates on her- self. Full of shame and shocked he stumbles out of the room.

Starting about that time, their mother is supposedly getting weaker. Even Jack’s birthday is celebrated in their mother’s bedroom. The children are visibly growing more independent every day.

Little time later, their mother almost never leaves her bed any- more and her bedroom somehow becomes a replacement for the liv- ing room.

On a sunny day, Julie is lying outside, sunbathing. At her request Jack rubs sun lotion on her, which arouses him. Also, Tom’s transvestism is introduced. One day, having been beaten up in school, he claims that he is fed up with being a boy. Jack seems confused by that statement.

The next day, their mother calls Jack to her room and hints at her worsening illness. Three days later she is dead. Julie, who has found her, tells Jack the shocking news, but he does not want to believe her. Jack, disturbed, shocked and close to cry- ing, demands from Julie to see the body, but she refuses. The other family members do not cope well with her death either.

Afraid of the authorities ripping the family apart, the siblings decide to hide their mother’s body in the cellar. In the middle of the night Julie and Jack put it into a trunk and seal it with concrete.

The following weeks they live on bread, cheese, fruit and choco- late. Jack does not attend school and spends each morning and afternoon masturbating, wondering what is wrong with him. Mean- while Tom’s transvestism is taking shape more and more. Continu- ally Jack’s hygiene is deteriorating and he is having more and more nightmares.

A short time later Julie’s boyfriend Derek is introduced to the story and they all have dinner together. Sue and Jack seem scep- tical about him, but Derek can soon persuade Jack to play a round of pool with him. When Derek and his friends start joking about him and his family though, he feels sick and demands to leave.

When Jack’s hygiene worsens even more, he starts washing again and stops masturbating, but the smell is supposedly not vanishing. Julie appreciates his better hygiene. Jack questions her about Derek, visibly curious, but she simply replies that they haven’t slept together yet.

The rotten smell now turns out to come out of the cellar. The trunk has been kicked down by somebody and the cement has partly been cracked open. Wanting to repair it, Julie and Jack run up- stairs to fetch cement, but Derek is not letting them out, wanting to know what is down there. The kids claim it is a dead dog and he distrustfully seals the concrete again.

Later that night, Jack hears Tom crying. Stark naked, he goes to Tom, who says he wants Julie to come up and be with him. Jack has a talk with his little brother until Julie comes in and makes fun of Jack for being naked. Jack excitedly looks into her unbuttoned blouse, but wants to run away at the same time. Ju- lie, however, only points out his erection. She longs to talk to him, so they discuss Derek and make small talk. They slowly start kissing and fall onto the bed they’re sitting on, caress- ing each other until suddenly Derek comes in, evidently shocked and disgusted, and screams at Julie. He runs out, after which they continue their fondling and have sex. Afterwards Sue comes in and informs them that Derek is smashing up the cement. They all seem untouched and talk about the past.

During their talk, cars are approaching and the blue light of police cars brighten up the room. Tom wakes up and Julie gives him a kiss.

3. The 1993 film “The Cement Garden” by Andrew Birkin

3.1. Life and works of the director and screenwriter

Andrew Birkin was born on December 9th, 1945 in Chelsea, London. He works as a screenwriter, director and actor. Among his sisters is the actress Jane Birkin3.

He entered films in 1966 as the production assistant in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 - A Space Odyssey”. He wrote his first screen- play in 1972, called “The Pied Piper of Hamlin” and his short film “Sredni Vashtar” (1982) was nominated for an Academy Award and won a BAFTA.4

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1 http://www.dictionary-quotes.com/some-books-are-to-be-tasted-others- to-be-swallowed-and-some-few-to-be-chewed-and-digested-francis-bacon/

2 Comp. http://www.ianmcewan.com/

3 Comp. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Birkin

4 Comp. http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/1800022713/bio

There can be nothing but praise for how Ian McEwan writes: in his short stories (First Love, Last Rites, 1975) and in this new novella, he glories in the secret of how uninflected, almost unbearably lean, plain prose can grip, can scream without a single exclamation point. What McEwan writes is perhaps less cause for dancing in the streets. Here he returns to some of the adolescent preoccupations that peeked through the stories--masturbation, sibling sex--and, though all this is handled with impeccable taste and invested with authentic bitter-sweetness, one longs for adult material to match the fully matured style. Still, except for one aggressively Oedipal coincidence and an incestuous finale, The Cement Garden's adolescent sensibility works, on its own terms, quietly and stunningly. The Oedipal coincidence: acne-infested, broody narrator Jack, second oldest of four children, has his first ejaculation just as his frail father drops dead outside--father has been surrounding their English urban house with an even plane of concrete to cover the dirt and grass. With father gone and mother taking to her bed, the children--Jack, older Julie, younger Sue, little Tom--tussle for power, for each other's affection, and for attention from their mother, who has tired of doctors and one day quietly dies in bed. As in so many similar stories, the children fear being separated and so bury mother in the cellar, surrounding her with wet cement left over from father's weird concrete project. Now parentless, the house fills with debris and the children deteroriate: Julie attracts a pool-shark beau; Sue drifts off into reveries about mother; Tom wants to be a girl (his sisters approve and dress him up); Jack becomes obsessed with a science-fiction novel, a gutted nearby hi-rise, and masturbation. Only Jack and Julie's ultimate sexual coming-together--which, seen by the furious boyfriend, brings on the end of the children's closed-off world--seems staged for effect. And, most impressive of all, this grim little tale is somehow suffused with light and warmth. Having worked such wonders with such intrinsically stunted material, McEwan calls attention to his undeniable talent. If he and his characters can stretch to measure up to that prose, we may be watching a major novelist in the making.

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