Having read my first Harry Potter book at what is called an impressionable age, the film adaptations became a natural extension of my desire to further inhabit the world of magic and Hogwarts. But more often than not, the images of literary characters in one’s head do not match with the people who play them in films. If the book and the films ever met at a harmonious intersection, for me it was through Rickman’s Snape. Then again, from an adult hindsight, the films were crowded with the who’s-who of British film industry. Michael Gambon, Dame Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters were some of the staple names and the illustrious list kept growing with every instalment of the franchise. In this brilliant galaxy of accomplished actors, it was as if Rickman knew exactly how millions of Potter fans saw Severus Snape. The narrative trajectory of the Potter universe lends itself to make Snape one of its most human characters. Rickman’s brilliance, thereafter, lay in the fact that through the films he lay in our imaginations subtle clues of what to expect from the Potions Professor. I hated him, feared him, waited for him and in the last film wept for him.
People might actually be forgiven for remembering Rickman as Snape because he made the experience memorable, but it was to my joy as a movie buff that after having seen him as Snape, and almost forgotten the memory of Hans Gruber, I rediscovered him again. On a serendipitous rainy afternoon of bored channel surfing I came across An Awfully Big Adventure. Set in post-war Liverpool the film peeped into the backstage of British theatre. Rickman was no longer either Gruber or Snape, but the tortured actor P L O’Hara who accidentally sleeps with his own daughter and literally drowns in his grief when he discovers it. Long before I would actually read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the film gave me an introspective space to understand Sigmund Freud’s otherwise radical theories on Oedipal complex.
Talking about literature and cinema, it was perhaps Rickman’s strong understanding of both that let him so easily step into the shoes of Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s cinematic adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. If women swoon over the Darcys and Heathcliffs of the world, then it was the tortured love of the much older Colonel for the young and gutsy Marianne that made the adolescent me fall for a literary character. On a different strain, the Harry Potter films are not the only examples of Rickman making his own niche in an ensemble cast. The romantic comedy Love Actually might have had too many stories going in it, but as the vulnerable middle-aged man who contemplates cheating on his wife with a young sultry office colleague, Rickman not only held his own but also had my sympathies.
It is however difficult to pick any one trait in Rickman that made him the consummate thespian that he was. His grave voice, the sad eyes that enriched his quiet acting, his general gravitas that gave a solemn dignity to all his characters. If at all, it was a combination of these elements that made Rickman stand out despite having acted in a far lesser number of films than he had the potential to. Having played Vicomte de Valmont to much fanfare and critical acclaim, in a Broadway production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, he eventually passed up the offer to play the character in the film adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons, choosing Die Hard instead. John Malkovich, another veteran actor stepped in, but one cannot help but wonder how Rickman would have done it.
It is a little morbid and quite disrespectful to dig up on a person after their death. But googling threw up the fact that Rickman was truly a man of multiple talents, having directed two films of his own. The Winter Guest in 1997 with the legendary mother-daughter duo of Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson, dealt with a widow coping with her loss and the return of her domineering old mother. His last directorial venture A Little Chaos in 2014 starred Kate Winslet as a landscape architect in the male-dominated milieu of France when the gardens of the Palace of Versailles was being spruced up by Louis XVI. I can only but admire the choice of his subjects that smoothly glide across the Bechdel test.
Rickman leaves an irreplaceable void in my experience of cinema. If only one could believe in the wish-fulfillment of Truly, Madly, Deeply where his character returns from the dead to unite with his soulmate.