The film, as most do, differs from the book. From the perspective I have established on the book, however, it does so with considerable risk; some of the political success of the novel is lost in the effort by the filmmakers to create a love story, a more acceptable plotline, perhaps, for a mainstream film.
The film version stars Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and one suspects immediately that the alterations were made that we might see a powerful chemistry between two fine and well-respected actors. Chemistry is, indeed, present, but not so much postimperialism.
In the film, the relationship between Miss Kenton, the housekeeper for most of the period of Stevens' reminiscences, and Stevens as head butler, is the central point; the political wheelings and dealings are present but their significance is altered. No longer do Mr. Harry Smith's comments that "If Hitler had had things his way, we'd just be slaves now. The whole world would be a few masters and millions upon millions of slaves" (186) hold an implicit assault on the colonial system, because he does not make that speech. He discourses to Stevens at the bar about politics, as in the novel, but he does not manage to use those words. Furthermore, Stevens' new employer is one Mr. Lewis, the American senator who was present at the conference, who described Lord Darlington as not only an old-fashioned gentleman but also as "an amateur,"(102) not qualified to be meddling in political affairs. This situation, just as in the novel, emphasizes the shift in international power to America over Europe, but the loss of Stevens' voice as narrator loses also his struggle with hegemony which underlies the entire novel.
That conflict, is, indeed, the central conflict of the novel, and, nominally, of the film, but the film's alterations occasionally lose track of that. In the novel Stevens can spend the entire first chapter discoursing on his notions of professional dignity, and make repeated and pointed references to his belief that "our professional duty is not to our own foibles and sentiments, but to the wishes of our employer" (149), but in the film, Stevens' narrative voice is quite lost. Instead, Miss Kenton reads on camera to provide the viewer with some relevant information. It is true, of course, that in the film Mr. Stevens repeats those words, but, lacking entirely his discourse on professional dignity and proper discharge of butlerian duties, the struggle to rationalize that noble hegemony is seriously undercut.
I do not wish to imply, however, that the movie is a failure; simply that it de-emphasizes certain of the political dimensions of the book. When Stevens in the novel meets Harry Smith and hears him speak of Winston Churchill, one of the staunchest defenders of colonialism (again, historical context), saying that he (Mr. Smith) does not "agree with many things Mr. Churchill says, but. . .he's a great man," (188) the reader perceives the fading hegemony of hierarchy in Smith's words, though Stevens seems not to. In the film, somehow, indefinably, with those and other words missing, one is left with a criticism of the fascist leanings of the British nobility prior to World War II, but there is little feeling of the critique of imperialism and Stevens' struggles with the hegemony that has controlled his life. Somehow, speaking the same words, he mourns two separate losses in the book and the film: the waste of his life, and/or his failure to love Miss Kenton [perhaps because he says them to two different people between media]:
Lord Darlington wasn't a bad man. He wasn't a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship's wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really -- one has to ask oneself -- what dignity is there in that? (243)
Stevens has here perhaps limned the difference between postcolonialism and postimperialism: the latter is a specifically rejecting perspective, a self-criticism and atonement, just as Stevens' odyssey is both personal and political.