Why, when it comes to Call Me By Your Name, you should watch the film first

Call Me By Your Name book cover and film poster against a yellow background

Luca Guadagnino’s film diverges from Aciman’s novel in some interesting ways

I read Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name about four months ago now, and I’ve been toying with writing a The Reading List entry on it every since. It’s a fascinating, intense and completely immersive novel, which I devoured in a few days. Published in 2007, it found new popularity with the roaring success of Guadagnino’s 2017 film. As usual, this was a film I really wanted to see at the time, but which still managed to pass me by. Having finally read the book, I caught up with the rest of the world and watched the film.

It was in all honesty a slightly confusing experience. There was so much about it that I loved, but there were also elements that felt lacking, that didn’t live up to the intensity of the novel. The screenplay was written by the legendary James Ivory, and is a beautiful piece in its own right. Looking at the differences to the novel, I think what we’re left with is a fascinating example of the inherent differences between media, and what happens when you move a story from one to another.

Elio and Oliver are an iconic couple, and they are, despite their differences, equals

The novel is told in the first person, entirely through Elio’s eyes. It is just so incredibly intense. It is essentially the story of a very full-on late teen crush, and in that way keys into something we have probably all experienced – ‘will he notice me, does he care if I exist?’ But with this it pairs specificities that bring the novel to life: it is a perfect evocation of a hot Italian summer, with subtly realised characters, and intelligent and thoughtful (if at times verging on pretentious passages that raise it above the average. It would be easy to write-it off as a steamy novel (and indeed this is what the film was reduced to in some quarters), but its insight and understanding, and the intellectualism of its characters, bring a depth that raises broader and more universal questions. What stands out most in the novel is the relationship between Elio and Oliver. They are an iconic couple, and whatever uncertainties they face, we are always rooting for them. They are, despite their differences, equals, and we know that the experience is as deep and meaningful for Oliver as it is for Elio.

All of this sounds like a pretty good argument for reading the book. It is in its own way a masterpiece, a perfect little time-capsule of a book which will carry you back to your own experiences as well as opening your eyes to those of others.

The film shows the intensity of Elio’s feelings through the medium itself

The film is also something of a masterpiece, but for quite different reasons. The intensity and dynamism of Elio’s thought are replaced by an atmosphere, a mood, that saturates the film. It has the feel of sweet on a humid day – not unpleasant, but all-encompassing and inescapable. The film shows the intensity of Elio’s feelings through the medium itself – lighting, editing, soundscapes, setting, and an unbelievably good soundtrack courtesy of Sufjan Stevens. It is beautiful and mesmerising, but inherently more distant than the novel. Timothée Chalomet’s performance is brilliant, and he brings a realness to the role which is as close to the energy of Elio’s thoughts in the novel as we could hope for.

Armie Hammer gives us moments of subtle tenderness that cut through his cool and aloof facade

But for all its brilliance, the story of Call Me By Your Name in the film is quite different to that of the novel. I don’t just mean in terms of characters being cut (as some are), the move from a seaside town to an inland one (necessitated by the film’s small budget), and an abbreviated ending. The primary difference is in Oliver’s character. The switch from first to third person means that for much of the film we are looking at Elio – it is his face, his micro-movements, we notice, because we need to know how he is feeling. But from this Oliver gains a certain aloofness, and distance. We are not focusing on his every move and word with that desperate hunger of a someone falling in love. It is to his credit that Armie Hammer gives us moments of subtle tenderness that cut through this facade. We get glimpses of how he is really feeling, hidden away beneath an arrogant exterior. This aloofness is particularly uncomfortable when it comes to the early interactions between him and Elio. They are at quite different life-stages, and this is emphasised by Oliver’s superiority and coolness. There is a greater sense of power imbalance between the two of them than in the novel. Hammer’s performance redeems him, but the key of their relationship is different to the book, with intensity and abandon swapped for subtly and tenderness.

Two scenes that perhaps best testify to this difference are the in/famous peach scene, and the delivery of the eponymous line. Novel Elio masturbates with the peach, during a confused and searching self-examination about his sexuality and how he feels about Oliver. Oliver then finds the peach, and as an expression of their unity, he eats it. This is a running theme in their relationship: two people so in love that they are subsumed into one another, known to each other completely and totally. The toilet scene in Rome is another example, as is ‘call me by your name, and I’ll call you my mine’. In the novel, this is delivered as they have sex, and is again a vocalisation of the idea that they are completely entwined, their individualities abandoned to one another, their person-hoods forever linked. The emotion gets its depth from what they are doing together, the way they have overcome obstacles and broken down barriers.

In the film, the fiery intensity of their emotion is gone

Both of these scenes are present in the film, but are fundamentally altered. Elio stops Oliver from eating the peach, and Oliver holds him as Elio laments his tortured feelings. This element is present in the novel, but in the film it is the main point, and the scene becomes about how Elio feels as an individual, rather than the sense that they are giving up their individuality. The ‘call me by your name’ line is delivered post-coitus in the film, and serves a similar role – they gaze into each other’s eyes, accepting of their love. But its depth has been lost, reduced to a slightly odd expression of love, rather than an acknowledgement of their unity. The fiery intensity of emotion is gone.

This is not really a criticism of the film, more a reflection that the story of their relationship is difference. And if I could choose, I would have watched the film first. You can’t miss what you don’t know, and the depth of their relationship is missing in the film. There are ways the film improves on the novel. The ending is far more impactful, if less hopeful, and the outside view we get of Elio makes us aware of his vulnerabilities in a different way. It has subtleties and a quietness that doesn’t come across in the book, but which are deeply moving.

It is refreshing to watch a film where characters are dominated by personal emotional fears, not external ones

The film and the novel also share many of their greatest strengths. Elio’s father is remarkable, and has arguably the best speech in the film. There is also a kind of openness and acceptance throughout both. Elio and Oliver are troubled because they don’t know what they mean to each other, not because they are worried about their sexuality. The film contextualises this story of love between two men set in the 80s slightly more than the book, with the heartbreaking farewell scene being lent great pathos, but it is refreshing to watch a film where these characters are dominated by personal emotional fears, not external ones.

We are given two very different experiences in reading the novel and watching the film of Call Me By Your Name, but ultimately each plays to the strengths of its media. But for once, I would recommend dipping your toes into the cool pool of the film, before plunging headfirst into the white water of the novel.

What did you think of Call Me By Your Name? Do you prefer the book or the film? The novel is so intense and all-consuming, but the film is so beautiful and subtle. I love how they each tell the story in their own ways, and the film has the bravery to pare things back and take a quieter approach. I think I need to re-watch it a little further out from having read the novel, because that will help me to see it in its own right. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please do leave them in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

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