The severed head

Does the truth matter in filming a real life story? By disregarding all the novelist's own words, <e

About halfway through Iris, the new film based on John Bayley's books about his wife, the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (and the Alzheimer's disease that first destroyed her brilliant brain, then killed her), there is a particularly poignant scene. The bewildered Iris is shown trying to work out how to get through an open doorway, as her husband sadly looks on. "Which side do I go?" she asks. It is one of the milestones in his realisation that she is indeed losing her mind. But Bayley mentions no such incident in his memoirs. At first, I assumed that Richard Eyre, the director, had perhaps heard Bayley describe the scene. Then I remembered reading in Eyre's own autobiography, Utopia and Other Places, published in 1993, an account of his mother's painful decline and death from Alzheimer's, one of the reasons much cited in publicity for Iris for his determination to film the Bayley-Murdoch story. The doorway drama is described thus: "When I opened a door for her and she stared at the door, then at the doorway, and asked me with undisguised terror, 'Which side do I go?' I knew she was losing her mind." Eyre has used his mother's confusion, and her words, to illustrate the decline of Iris Murdoch.

To people in the film business, this transposition will probably seem not only legitimate, but also moving and creative. For them, it is the image, not the reality, that comes first, and dramatic truth, not literal truth, is what matters. However, it is likely that for book people, and especially for biographers, to whom the facts about any human life matter a great deal, what Eyre has done with that doorway will seem self-indulgent and arrogant.

It must be admitted that those who, like me, have been passionately addicted to Iris Murdoch's novels from an early age, whose ideas about goodness, love and art have been partly formed by hers, who admire her as a thinker, who perhaps had occasionally met and liked both her and John Bayley, and heard them lecture around Oxford and London, were always going to be a tough audience for this film. Indeed, when it was announced, soon after her death in February 1999, that there was to be a film about Murdoch based on Bayley's two memoirs, it seemed too much. No matter how skilful and sensitive the script and the directing, no matter how remarkable the acting - and Dame Judi Dench's name was already attached to the project - there was something profoundly distasteful in the whole idea.

Some people, especially but not exclusively some of those who had known and loved Murdoch, felt that Bayley had already gone too far. Had he not exploited and exposed his wife, who had always disliked publicity and valued privacy, when she was at her most vulnerable? More than once, I found myself defending him and his account of her; I felt, and still feel, that Bayley had exposed himself just as much as his wife, and that his two remarkable memoirs were moving testimonies to the depth and complexity of married love. Moreover, both books - and the more controversial third memoir that followed, Widower's House - had clearly been produced by a man in extremis, whose way of surviving the prolonged and agonising experience of witnessing the destruction of his beloved wife was to use his own gifts to turn emotion into prose.

While the story of Iris Murdoch's decline and death was being made public by her husband, then, it remained in essence a story, shared with readers by the person most entitled to do so. But once it was sold as a film, it became a commodity, subject to all the pressures of the production, marketing and publicity machinery without which no film can materialise or survive; the story was thrown open, to be rewritten, reinterpreted and reinvented by scriptwriter, director, designer and actors. Among people who knew Bayley well, the obvious question was: why did he do it? The consensus was that it was not for money, nor for a taste of celebrity - although the most unworldly-seeming academics often have a soft spot for both - but because something in Bayley's nature made him easily flattered and overcompliant. The surprise success of his books about Iris had gone to his head; always naturally obliging and eager to please, he became the man who couldn't say no.

As Bayley must know better than anyone, Iris Murdoch was first and foremost a thinker and a writer. But we all recognise that films cannot show thought or writing; the private, solitary nature of the writer's life is essentially undramatic, which is why anyone shown on screen in the act of writing is usually simultaneously groaning, smoking, drinking, swearing and endlessly crumpling pieces of paper. It was therefore inevitable that the most important things about Murdoch - the way she thought and the way she wrote - would not feature much. The film would deal with her as a lover and a lunatic, or, as her friend A N Wilson has succinctly put it, it would take her from bonking to bonkers without much in between.

Thus my expectations of the film were not high; nor were they raised by reading the stories scattered through the newspapers by the publicity machine as the release date approached. It was disheartening to learn that neither Judi Dench (as Iris bonkers) nor Kate Winslet (as Iris in her bonking days) had actually read any books by Iris Murdoch; Winslet memorably claimed that she simply did not have the time. It was further reported that Professor Bayley had told Winslet that her nose, although quite like his late wife's, was preferable because not so permanently full of snot. Alzheimer's patients and those looking after them became, briefly, almost fashionable. Martin Amis wrote that the film reduced him to tears. Maybe, I thought as I set off to see it, my reservations would crumble as my emotions were unlocked by brilliant acting and directing, so that literal-minded nit-picking about factual errors and distortions would be swept away, at least temporarily.

In the event, Iris left me cold. The constant flashbacks seemed deliberately confusing, the script mediocre. "You love words, don't you?" is a line hard to deliver with conviction. The nude swimming goes on and on. The scene that most of the critics praised, where Dench sits on a beach and weighs down pages from a notebook with stones but then - guess what? - they all flutter away, struck me as clumsily predictable. The renowned squalor and grubbiness of the Murdoch-Bayley household and wardrobe appear softened and sweetened; in the film, Dame Judi is more Laura Ashley than bag lady - but then, the film-makers failed to take up an offer by one of Murdoch's friends to lend them some of Iris's old clothes.

The actors did their best, and all the lead performances were good; but for me, the whole enterprise rang false. I knew how much of the film was not true, and the changes introduced to the story by Richard Eyre seemed pointless and arbitrary. For example, the Stone family, great friends of Iris and John, lived not on a beach in Suffolk, but near the Dorset coast, which makes the arty shots of beach huts at Walberswick infuriating. Worst of all is Eyre's admission in a radio interview that he and the scriptwriter invented even the one serious speech about ideas that the screen Murdoch is allowed to make before dementia sets in. So, from all the intellectual effort, all the philosophical argument, all the lectures, all the essays, all the dazzling novelistic brilliance, not one phrase, not one single sentence that Murdoch actually spoke or wrote was deemed worthy of inclusion in the film. This makes Iris, the movie, a travesty and an insult.

It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: the truth about Iris Murdoch is not even partially in Richard Eyre's film or in skilful impersonations by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench. If human drama is what you want, the recent biography by Peter Conradi recounts a true story far more rich and dramatic than the film even attempts to tell. Above all, if you want to know about the real Iris Murdoch, before John Bayley and Richard Eyre took her over, read her books.

Iris (15) is on nationwide release

Anne Chisholm is a biographer and critic

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Take cover: evil is back