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From fiction to film: the case of the adaptation of “The Innocent” by Luchino Visconti

L’innocente (The intruder) is a novel written by Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio in 1892. The author chose a first-person narrator and the book opens with a confession, from the main character Tullio Hermil to the reader, after a year since the crime was committed. The book tells the story of Italian aristocrat Tullio Hermil who, bored with his wife Giuliana, leaves her to indulge his affair with the wealthy widow Countess Teresa Raffo. When Tullio, sincerely chastened, goes back to Giuliana, he finds out that his wife has, in his absence, attracted the attention of a young writer Filippo. Returning to find his wife pregnant by another man, the situation develops into a struggle between husband and wife over family honour with tragic consequences which escalate up to the infanticide of the newborn.

The Innocent was adapted for the screen by Italian screenwriters Luchino Visconti (who also directed it), Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Enrico Medioli. From a visual point of view, the film is extravagantly lush and beautiful, in the set designs and in the costumes and the tone of the film is elegant and mannered. Just as in the book, the story of the film explores the theme of infidelity from both male and female perspectives and from the perspective that society judges the respective transgressions as well. Despite generally sticking to the main psychological features of the main character Tullio Hermil (a proud atheism, a super-hero attitude, a consistent opposition to conformism, a rational way of thinking), Visconti made some changes to the original novel by D’Annunzio, up to the extent of overthrowing the moral message of the original work.

The first-person narration was dropped and, despite conveying Tullio’s point of view, there is no voice-over in the film which guides the spectator’s judgement and comprehension of the story.

The personalities of the female characters are also very different from the ones in the novel. In the novel, Giuliana (Tullio’s wife) is extremely mild and docile and she passively accepts not only her husband’s errant behaviour but also their relationship, which is only based, as Tullio points out several times, on “mutual respect and brother-sister affection”. Both in the novel and in the film Giuliana reacts to her husband’s betrayal by starting an adulterous relationship with young writer Filippo D’Arborio. But differently from the novel, in the film the woman claims her right to keep control over her own body, refusing to commit abortion and she repeatedly states her independence up to the point of leaving her husband.

On the other hand, Countess Raffo, whose presence in the novel is so invisible that she is constantly addressed as “The Absent”, is presented in the film as an independent and sexually daring woman who eventually acts as a judge of the main character’s misdeed. In fact it’s her disdainful rejection of Tullio’s love which forces him to commit suicide.

Regarding the theme of women’s emancipation, some issues concerning the debate about abortion which, at the time when the film was released was particularly strong in Italy, are explored in the film during a conversation between Tullio and Giuliana: it’s Tullio who wants his wife to have an abortion and it’s him who thinks that the real crime would be choosing the baby’s life over his mother’s.

In the novel, Tullio survives his misdeed, whereas in the film he executes himself by committing suicide. This extreme gesture works as a real condemnation of the main character’s behaviour by Visconti, who seems to state that the only possible ending for the Italian aristocrat, who proves to be unable to accept and compromise with modernity and society, is death.