Having been published in three separate volumes, then as a collected trilogy (winning a National Book Award and a Pulitzer along the way), James Merrill's "The Changing Light at Sandover" has now become a film.

Merrill adapted a scenario from his 17,000-line poem, a mystical epic stimulated by his "20 year adventure around an Ouija board." Produced by Peter Hooten, who also plays one of the roles, VOICES FROM SANDOVER -- after final preparatory stages were completed in Cambridge, Mass. -- was shot over several days and completed within a week.

"I worked on the poem five or six years," Merrill said. "It details a particular experience, my 20 year adventure around a Ouija board with my friend David Jackson. We talked to not only human shades, such as our dead friends like Auden and Maria Mitsotaki, but also to voices you could either think as fallen angels, or as volatile subatomic particles, who took the aspect of rather intimidating bats, a sort of kindly demon. These voices would educate us to the point where we were capable of receiving instruction from four archangels. There's a point in the poem -- and the script -- when we hear the voice of God singing outward into the universe to the pantheon.

"The gradual story is not only (about) our instruction but the adventures of Auden and Maria who, at the end of our lessons, are going back into a world in one form or another. The final episode is our farewell."

In 1988, he decided "to extract strands" from his poem that eventually became a scenario titled "An Evening at Sandover," a version of which was read two years ago at the Hasty Pudding under the auspices of Poets Theater. The cast included Merrill and Leah Doyle. They are now in the film, along with Elzbieta Czyzewska (a recent Obie winner), Keith David and James Morrison, and William Ball (formerly artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco) in the role of W.H. Auden.

The film is a collage drawn from this mysterious Miltonic epic, which some critics have ranked above T.S. Eliot's "The Waterland." "It's a way of explaining the universe through the personification of gods and angels and devils. But I'm very clear -- always -- that these are personifications and that we are doing this through language. As for the doctrine -- or the belief -- behind the poem, well, I've always tried to be of two minds, skeptical about what comes over the Ouija board; accepting of it's metaphoric beauty and validity," Merrill said.


VOICES FROM SANDOVER was directed by Joan Darling. PBS showed interested in seeing a rough cut and there was a plan to preview it for BBC. Synopsized from review by Kevin Kelly for The Boston Globe

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