Why is Graham Greene so difficult to adapt to film?by Neil Sinyard / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
“Just as landscape was behind Walter Scott,” Graham Greene once said to Anthony Burgess, “film has been behind me. It’s the visual art of our day and it’s bound to influence the novelist.” No novelist had a deeper involvement with the cinema than Greene, and there are two current reminders of this fact. Last year a British Film Institute poll voted The Third Man (1949), scripted by Greene, as the best British film of the century. In February comes Neil Jordan’s version of Greene’s The End of the Affair, which has already been ripped into by US critics for devastating the original by, among other things, leaving out the religion. What, then, was the importance of film to Greene as a novelist? And why is this most cinematic of writers so difficult to render on screen?
Greene’s involvement with the screen went even further than writing screenplays and having almost all his fictional output adapted for film or television. He was a full-time film critic for the Spectator and Night and Day between 1935 and 1940, and his collected critical writings on film are fatter than his collected short stories. Also, unlike George Orwell who wrote film criticism in the 1930s but who had little feeling for the medium, Greene took film reviewing seriously and acquired a high reputation for his visual sensitivity and brutal honesty. “The best critic we had,” said John Grierson of him. He certainly had his quirks. He remained obstinately unimpressed by most of the early work of Alfred Hitchcock, partly, I suspect, because he felt that Hitchcock was trespassing on his territory: the thriller with dark psychological and religious undertones. He wrote a notorious review of John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie (1937) in which his insinuations about the sexual provocativeness of the screen moppet, Shirley Temple, prompted a libel action by the film company. He even wrote a hostile review of a film-21 Days (1940)-that he had scripted.
Further film activities included his adaptation of Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957) in an Otto Preminger film universally deemed disastrous but which Greene claimed at least contained more jokes than the play. He turned up in a brief acting role in Fran?ois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973); and recalled being asked to do some rewriting of the ending for the Biblical epic Ben-Hur (1959) because, the producer told him, “there’s a bit of an anti-climax after the crucifixion.”…