The Rocking Horse Winner
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   J O E   P E T T I T ,   J R .

DVD technology certainly impacts how home audiences view films. The near-mandatory inclusions of director commentaries and "making of" documentaries (for even the most ephemeral productions) provide the average viewer with a toolkit for cultivating an understanding of film and its "language" that previously was only hard won by those who devoted years of study to the craft of cinema -- namely film buffs, critics, and filmmakers. Yet for all the advances in the last ten years, there is still a sense that the possibilities for the form have hardly begun to be tapped. A release like Home Vision Entertainment's presentation of The Rocking Horse Winner heralds a clever step by presenting four different interpretations of D. H. Lawrence's classic short story: A full length feature film, a 20 minute short, excerpts from a chamber opera and a dramatic reading of the short story. It's an ambitious but tentative step. The main contribution of this set is to inspire more examples of this type of interdisciplinary outing.

Written in 1926 for a collection of ghost stories, Lawrence's original story (included as a booklet with the DVD) works on several different levels: As a searing indictment of the consumptive nature of rampant materialism, as an Oedipal nursery tale of a boy desperately trying to earn the love of his cold mother, and as a tale of the supernatural. A family living beyond its means resides in a house where the walls whisper, "there must be more money." The mother has a cold heart and an inability to love when it comes to her children. She goes through the motions of being a good mother well enough to fool her neighbors and friends, but she's unable to hide the truth from her children. Paul, her adolescent son, wants to prove to his mother that, unlike his father, he is lucky. So he frantically rides his rocking horse until he "gets there." That is, until the name of the winning horse in an upcoming derby pops into his mind. Paul becomes gambling partners with Basset, the family gardener, and his Uncle Oscar, winning enough money to alleviate his family's debt. He and his uncle set up a plan where he can get the money to his mother, but keep his identity secret: they concoct the death of a phony relative who bequeaths $1000 pounds a year for five years to his mother. Paul's plan backfires. His mother negotiates the immediate release of the entire gift and she and his father spend even more money. The whispers in the walls of the house become louder and more desperate, driving Paul to ride his rocking horse into a frenzy. Ultimately, he's able to divine the winner for a major derby, coming into a large sum of money, but he pays for the feat with his life. The story subtly moves through many shades of detail and meaning, more than can be adequately captured in one adaptation. The defining point of each film's interpretation revolves around what details are changed or left out.

In Anthony Pelissier's adaptation of The Rocking Horse Winner (1950), the depiction of materialistic greed is intensified. The father (Hugh Sinclair) has a decent, low-paying job, but the family's spending spins wildly beyond their means. Hester (Valerie Hobson), the mother, refuses to compromise on the lifestyle she expects as her due, thus driving her husband into gambling to try and boost his earnings. The slide into debt is painful to watch, bottoming out when Hester has to sell some of her good dresses to a shady pawnbroker to pay off a bailiff sent to collect a writ. The supernatural elements of the story are also handled well. Pelissier excellently captures the eeriness of the whispering walls. The rocking horse's features take on a demonic cast as Paul (John Howard Davies) desperately tries to "get there." When he succeeds, the room elongates and takes on a hazy quality. The special effects effectively convey the illusion that Paul really has broken through into another dimension of reality. Pelissier doesn't shy away from the sexual elements of the story either. Paul, with his nightshirt unbuttoned, frantically strains and sweats as he spurs his horse faster and faster. The scene where Hester discovers Paul riding his horse subtly refers to the masturbatory element present in the story. As Hester mounts the stairs, springs squeak and a low moan floats through the air. As she opens the door, Paul's looming shadow envelops the wall next to the door. A look of horror crawls over her features and she yells, "What are you doing?" It's a scene that will send chills down the spine of any man who, as a teenager, lived in fear of being caught by his mother in the act of masturbation.

The main liberty taken in Pelissier's interpretation is with the mother. Her emotional coldness and lack of love is very much present in interactions with her husband, but it is tempered into something presumably more palatable for a post-WWII British audience when it comes to the children. She's preoccupied with maintaining her lifestyle, but she honestly loves her children. Pelissier completely leaves out one of the defining incidents in the original story, which illustrates the mother's nature. In the original story Paul watches his mother open her mail on her birthday. He recognizes the lawyer's letter. As his mother reads it, a cold and determined look comes into her eyes. Paul asks her if she has received anything nice in the mail. Her reply is "moderately nice." Then she negotiates with the lawyer for the release of the entire sum of money. In the film, Paul goes over the details of their plan with the uncle. Afterwards a montage of Hester acquiring a host of extravagant things plays out, thus glossing over a major ethical point. This move softens the shrewd, manipulative edges of the character leaving the end of the movie open for Hester's moral awakening. After Paul's death, Hester learns where the money came from. She refuses to have any part of it, calling it "blood money." Pelissier wants to make it clear to the audience that she has "learned her lesson" -- money is no substitute for her family. In Lawrence's original story, the possibility that she might take the money (completely in character) is never ruled out.

Michael Almereyda's version of The Rocking Horse Winner (1997) is a 20-minute short shot in PixelVision with the Fisher Price PXL 2000 camera, which was then transferred to 16 mm film for film festival showings. Changing the locale and time of the story from the United Kingdom circa 1920 to present-day Southern California at first stretches credulity. The supernatural elements in the original story seem cheapened, especially with the inclusion of the Magic 8 ball as an oracular device. It is harder to imagine an adolescent boy wanting to ride a supernatural rocking horse in the land of sunshine, movie stars, and fast living, thus explaining Almereyda's decision to re-imagine Paul at about seven or eight years of age. Keeping the mother (Paula Malcomson) in the background of the story until the latter half of the short definitely diminishes this interpretation's potency. We never get the sense that the acquisition of money drives the boy into searching for luck. Here, the boy seems to stumble upon his gambling precognition by accident, and goes along with it as a lark. The latter half of the short does much to make up for the initial missteps. Almereyda utilizes spooky watery imagery (shadows and light reflected through the bottom of a swimming pool and warped television images shot through with static) to effectively represent the intrusion of the unseen world into present day L.A. By the end of the film, even the use of the Magic 8 ball turns out not to be so hokey. Eric Stoltz plays Uncle Joe (changed from Oscar, which was apparently too much of an old world name) as a worldly gambler interested in his nephew from more of a predatory aspect than from any familial bond. The short impresses with its imagery and the tools used to make the film, rather than from the performances of the actors or Almereyda's understanding of the source material.

The remaining extras are audio only: A fifteen-minute excerpt from The Rocking Horse Winner: A Chamber Opera In Two Acts highlights three pivotal episodes in the work: Uncle Oscar becoming convinced of Paul's precognitive abilities, Paul asking his mother if she has received a special card on her birthday, and Paul begging not to be sent away before the derby. The opera, which debuted at the 6th International D. H. Lawrence Conference in June 1996, features piano and voice, and falls squarely within the realm of modern opera.

If avant-garde music is not to your liking, then listen to the radio broadcast of The Rocking Horse Winner, as read by John Shea at Selected Shorts: a Celebration of the Short Story, recorded live at the Peter Norton Symphony Space. Shea's tour de force reading effectively captures the subtle nuances of Lawrence's story. The major surprise was the added dimension of humor in the early part of the story, which had eluded me during my reading of the story.

Overall, HVE's The Rocking Horse Winner succeeds as an illustration of the versatility of Lawrence's source material through its translations into different mediums. Hopefully, other companies will pursue the idea of inter-media comparisons through even wilder imaginative pairings and interpretations. At the very least, this move could herald the creation of a new line of DVDs geared towards college level literature and film departments as well as high school English classes -- interpretations of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, anyone?

The Rocking Horse Winner is now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment in new a digital transfer (aspect ratio: 1.33:1). Special features: Michael Almeryda's 20 minute short film staring Eric Stoltz based on "The Rocking Horse Winner"; an audio track of actor John Shea reading D.H. Lawrence's short story (20 minutes); three audio excerpts from a chamber opera based on the story (15 minutes); and a 24-page booklet including the entire text of the story and libretto excerpts from the chamber opera. Suggested retail price: $39.95 each. For more information, check out Home Vision Entertainment Web site.