The film is loosely based on William Saroyan\'s novel The Laughing Matter, published in 1954. The novel is not part of standard Saroyan editions and was never republished. It tells the story of Evan Nazarenus, a university professor of English, who goes with his wife Swan and his children, Red and Eva, to a country estate that his brother Dade had built for his family. Dade is a gambler and his family has left him. Evan\'s family explores the surrounding locations—the vineyards, the river, the train station, and the nearby town of Clovis, and make the acquaintance of the Walz family with their three daughters. The crisis of the Nazarenus family is brought about when Swan tells Evan that she is with child, but “not ours.” Swan and Evan both want to keep the family together and Evan decides she should have an abortion, which is carried out by a doctor Dade finds in Fresno. When Swan dies after the abortion, Evan shoots Dade in a rage, injuring him seriously. Dade makes the funeral arrangements and dies on the way back from the cemetery, taking with him the secret of the note that had Swan left, which explains that she committed suicide with the painkillers the doctor had left for her; Dade had also hidden from Evan the doctor\'s testimony that Swan had a psychologically unstable character and was predisposed to suicide. Evan returns to his home, where he discovers that the colleague he had suspected of having an affair with Swan had in fact been pursued for attention by his wife. Evan dies in a car accident on the way back to the children. Saroyan\'s narrative is subtly constructed as the narrator adopts the perspective of the child, Red, to view the countryside with naivety, curiosity, and inquisitiveness. And it is the children, as opposed to the adults, who know precisely what they want.
The film preserves the basic plot-line of the novel, as well as numerous episodes (such as the headstand of one of the girls or Red\'s fine sense of smell), but there are also several departures: thus, for example, the fig tree becomes a solitary walnut tree; or the drive on the locomotive is replaced by a visit to a factory. The film also relinquishes the child-like openness of the narrator to the world he encounters and all references to the fascination with Armenian, which Dade and Evan speak and which Evan starts to teach his children. In the novel, Evan is a caring father, but he is a brutish character in the film, much in the style of the word-less, emotionally cold, and seemingly uncaring father of The Return, who is capable only of ordering the children around without much potential for understanding their world: his words are limited to short and snappy orders—“be quiet” (molchi), “it\'s got to be done” (tak nado), and “let\'s go” (poidem). He has no kind words for the children, unlike Evan in the novel who persistently asks the children what they want to do rather than imposing his own will; neither does the film\'s character help the neighbor\'s son find a job on a ship. Moreover, the mother figure in the film is presented as a saint, whereas Swan is a psychologically unbalanced and indecisive character, with an inherent flaw in her personality that may be the result of her growing up without parents—especially important considering that the concept of the family is at the heart of Saroyan\'s novel. Indeed, this change of the character of Swan is particularly interesting in light of The Return, where the two women (mother and grandmother of the children) are portrayed like Mary and Mary Magdalene, without psychological depth but as objects for contemplation and devotion (as the Madonna) and quiet servants to the Father. Finally, there are changes in detail: in the novel Evan shoots Dade in anger, whereas in the film the brother suffers from a heart attack. Evan\'s temper and his inherent violence are shown in the film in different ways—in his beating of his wife, in his obstinate and uncaring behavior towards the children, in his general lack of emotion (he smiles or laughs only once). While the film makes out the woman as a saint and the husband as a brute, the novel does not dwell on Evan\'s violence: he is a caring and benevolent man, ready to help others and able to listen to his children, but he is also angry. Swan\'s suicide is a result of her fragile mental state rather than of her husband\'s inability to listen.
Set in a remote location in the hills, with a mediaeval church and a simple white country house on the top of a hill by an abyss, The Banishment dislocates the family from its home in the industrial city: the urban scenes were shot in the Belgian mining town of Charleroi, with its typically dark brick buildings and concrete walls painted with placard-style workers. The house in the countryside, the small church on the hillside with a cemetery at the hilltop, as well as the wooden bridge across the abyss were specially built on location in Moldova, near Cahol.
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