by Johanne Elster Hanson (Unboxed)
After the success of films such as Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence and Persona in the 1960s, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman continued to explore the contradictive human psyche in his works. It was during this period that he first read Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Decent into Hell.
In 1974, Bergman wrote an admiring letter to Lessing in which he proposed a meeting between the two in order to discuss a potential film adaptation of one of her novels. The letter is dated September 1st 1974 and is held in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at University of East Anglia. In it the director expresses deep gratitude towards Lessing, and claims to have read almost all of the Swedish translations of her works. In Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, Bergman claimed to have found the material for more than ten different feature films.
Lessing’s reply on September 12th matches Bergman in admiration and enthusiasm: Pleased with his letter, she tells him how he is “the film-maker I most respect and admire.” She goes on to discuss her new book The Memoirs of a Survivor that is about to be published in the UK, and asks him to read it before their meeting. She also recounts how the writing of her last book The Summer Before The Dark was almost cinematic; “This is the only novel I have ever written when this happened to me – that as I was putting the word down, it was as if I were describing a film running before my eyes.” Lessing sent Bergman an English copy of Memoirs of a Survivor, and signed off by saying how she looked forward “very much” to hearing from him. However, the enthusiastic correspondence preserved in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing bore no fruits: Bergman never made a film based on Lessing’s book, although a film of Memoirs of a Survivor was later directed by David Gladwell and starred Julie Christie.
Michael Tapper, an affiliated researcher in film studies at Lund University in Sweden, writes in his 2017 book Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face that Bergman appreciated how Lessing gave “credibility to insanity and/or dream as a reflection of an absurd existence”. Lessing’s The Golden Notebook tells the story of writer Anna Wulf who attempts to tie together various aspects of her life through coloured notebooks. The book’s fragmented, post-modern narrative must have appealed to Bergman; his film Cries and Whispers, a psychological chamber piece about four women whose pasts are revealed through flashbacks, had premiered at the Cannes Film Festival the year before he wrote to Doris Lessing.
2018 marks the centenary of the Swedish filmmaker’s birth. The British Film Institute is celebrating the filmmaker, who died in 2007, with its very own Bergman-festival. Stretching across three months from January through March, the festival involves screenings of classics such as The Seventh Seal, Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny & Alexander, as well as some if his lesser-known films. Given Bergman and Lessing’s overlapping interest in the inconsistencies of the human psyche, any collaboration between them would no doubt have been one of the headlines at the British Film Institute’s Bergman-festival.
Johanne Elster Hanson is a second year undergraduate at the University of East Anglia, currently studying English Literature with Creative Writing and working as a volunteer blogger for the British Archive for Contemporary Writing’s Unboxed programme. A native Norwegian, she is particularly interested in translation and cases where Scandinavian and British culture overlaps.
Doris Lessing’s archive of correspondence is held at the University of East Anglia’s British Archive for Contemporary Writing. To visit the archive please email: firstname.lastname@example.org