Well, so I sat down and watched Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. I’m not here to talk about the film — it’s good, Raul Julia as Valentin is as great as you’d expect, William Hurt is good (if a little broad) as Molina, the score is fantastic, the look is unexpectedly and delightfully gritty, the ending is tragic — but more about how the movie interacts with the book that it’s based on.
Kiss of the Spider Woman has been adapted a number of times: translated from its original Spanish, turned into a play, turned into this film, then into a musical (which I have a hard time picturing, but then Little Shop of Horrors makes absolutely no sense if you just describe it as a musical version of a Roger Corman film about a man-eating plant). The book likes to play around with narrative conventions, dispensing entirely with any description whatsoever up to and including dialogue tags. All the information we have about the protagonists and villains we gather from the conversations themselves. It’s a very theatrical approach, stripped of the faces and voices which would normally help the audience separate Valentin from Molina, Molina from the Warden, the Warden from his subordinates. It casts an ambiguity over the whole book, especially in scenes where the personalities of the characters are suppressed or where they don’t refer to each other by name. The love scene between Valentin and Molina benefits particularly strongly from this; the assumptions you bring to the scene and your understanding of who’s doing what to whom is all internal.
Obviously, all of that ambiguity goes out the window when you pin Valentin and Molina down to this particular face, this particular voice. There’s never a question of who’s speaking and when; Raul Julia is clearly not William Hurt and vice versa, so what was crucial to the novel — the blending and exchanging of personalities between Valentin and Molina — just evaporates. In the book, the line between the two is sharpest at the beginning of the book, when you have Molina the gay aesthete spinning out a movie for the hardline revolutionary Valentin; as the book develops, the boundary blurs. Valentin softens, becomes more willing to accept small pleasures and fantasy, and Molina is spurred into action and out of his apolitical escapism. Without a narrative framework to overtly place the characters, this exchange of personalities and narrative voices effectively transposes the characters. Molina becomes Valentin, Valentin becomes Molina. The film faithfully follows the arc of the book, but the transition is simply less effective when you’re looking at huge, blond Hurt and not the small, dark Julia. The physical distinction is simply too great to admit to any ambiguity.
All of which isn’t to say that the film is bad in any way. It isn’t. It’s great! But something of what made the novel so compelling is inevitably lost when it’s taken away from the page, and any understanding of the Kiss of the Spider Woman has to be grounded in this recognition.