Kiss of the Spider Woman works better for me as a film than as a novel. I wasn’t keen on the novel and may have evaluated it unfairly, but I think the ways Manuel Puig chose to tell the story are actually more effective as a film. An unconventional film, mind you (particularly for the time), hence why this was independently made, and an unlikely success. The following successes of the stageplay and musical adaptations are proof of how effective this story is when it’s made visual.
Much of the book is presented through dialogue with no description at all: more pared down than a script even. The conversations are, unsurprisingly, more complete when they are being acted and seen. I’m impressed by how much Puig manages to convey entirely through dialogue – but in this case, I actually prefer to have less left to the imagination and see William Hurt and Raoul Julia expressing who the characters are and what they feel.
Some parts of the book involve Molina describing films that he’s seen. So, we get two films within a film, and the visualisation of Molina’s words works wonderfully onscreen. (I suspect that this is the key to the adaptations’ success.) Of the five films in the novel, we only see portions of two which, again, I prefer: there’s merit to the novel’s analyses of Molina’s films, some of which actually exist, but I eventually got bored with the descriptions and skimmed through them. The two films are also selected with care and made more relevant to Molina’s situation.
Other portions of the book are told through official reports, which added to the feeling of detachment that I felt as I read. However, I didn’t feel detached from the film, which is full of emotion. The government doesn’t care one bit about Molina or Valentin so, of course, reading descriptions of events written by its employees is different to seeing our protagonists take their actions and make their choices.
When Molina makes his most significant decision in the book, in my half-hearted interpretation he surrenders himself to a fantasy, making himself into an imitation of the heroines he wishes to be. Onscreen, however, there’s something more real behind his choice, something vital. The two films he describes directly parallel the situation he and Valentin are in and this strengthens, not lessens, the importance of his choice. Meanwhile, when Valentin says that one day the revolution will be won, Molina says, “Now who’s living in a fantasy?” The relationships between reality and fantasy are complicated, and love can exist within both.
Kindness in this film is as just as valid a resistance to oppression as political revolution. It’s just as dangerous, as revolutionaries are necessarily cruel. And each may be as ineffectual as the other. Molina’s greatest kindness to Valentin is teaching him that dreams are an ever-present saviour.