Why is Graham Greene so difficult to adapt to film?by Neil Sinyard / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
“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.” He also wrote unsolicited letters to the press on film matters. He defended Chaplin in the early 1950s during the latter’s troubles with the US immigration authorities at the height of McCarthyism. In 1965, he wrote to the Daily Telegraph offering a solemn interpretation of a new Tom and Jerry cartoon as an allegory of the Vietnam war. Film was a pervasive force in Greene’s life, but how did it affect his writing?
One thing he learnt from watching films was the handling of descriptive passages in a novel. Think of description as being like a moving camera, he said: in that way the description becomes active and not static. (The opening paragraph of The Power and the Glory is a good example.) Because he was writing action novels, he thought they should not be slowed down with tranquillising adjectives and adverbs; they should be conceived visually. Philip French has argued that a scene like the one in Brighton Rock, where, after Spicer’s murder, Pinkie takes Spicer’s girlfriend to make love in a carpark, seems almost like a cinematic sequence, with verbal equivalents for an establishing long shot, tracking shot, point-of-view shot and even an indication of lighting. James Agee, the great film critic, described Greene’s novels as “verbal movies,” and suggested that his greatest talent as a novelist was for “the look and effluence of places, streets and things.”
Yet if the style is so cinematic, why is adapting him for the screen so hard? Greene himself wrote the screenplays for what are regarded as the best film versions of his work: the Boulting Brothers’ Brighton Rock (1947), and Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). Even this formula was not foolproof, though: his adaptations of Our Man in Havana (1959) and The Comedians (1967) were much less successful. Greene sometimes puzzled over the paradox that the worst films of his work tended to be made by the best directors. A favourite director of his, Fritz Lang, made such a travesty of the Ministry of Fear (1944) that he personally apologised to Greene. The great John Ford did a version of The Power and the Glory called The Fugitive (1947) which was so bizarre an interpretation that some have thought it was Ford’s revenge on Greene for his review of Wee Willie Winkie. The adaptation of The Quiet American (1958) by Joseph L Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s most literate directors, was regarded by Greene as an act of treachery, transforming the novel’s anti-American message into an anti-communist one: his public disavowal of the film helped to sink it at the box-office. George Cukor’s Travels with My Aunt (1972) offered the rare spectacle of a completely misconceived central performance by Maggie Smith which Greene found so grotesque that he stopped watching the film after only a few minutes. It should be said in fairness that these films have their admirers, but none of the interpretations shed much light on Greene.
Were these film personalities too strong to subordinate themselves to Greene’s vision? Not being English, did they have difficulty in picking up Greene’s tone? The author was never too dismayed because the money he made from selling the rights helped finance his writing; and a bad film, after all, does not make the novel that inspired it less good. As Greene put it: “They massacre your ideas… they trample on your artistic integrity, and what do you get out of it? A fortune.”
There are three main problems in adapting Greene for the screen. One was identified by the director Peter Duffell, who made a very creditable film of England Made Me (1972). “The core of Greene’s work,” Duffell said, “is the inner demon driving his characters, so that the plots and places in Greene are correlatives to states of mind: if you don’t get that over, you fail.” Greene films tend to be good on plots and places, but less good on people and psychology. The writer Guy Elmes thought the problem was simply that mass cinema audiences would be uninterested by the religious agonising of Greene’s characters, preferring something more cheerful and escapist. A faithful adaptation might be too depressing, but a modification of the misery, like the endings of Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter (1953), dilute the power of the author’s vision. Greene himself thought that the difficulty lay in the fact that “one cannot tell a story from the single point of view of one character in a film as one can in a novel.” This is debatable (Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho, for example, show that it can be done), but it is a rare Greene adaptation that has the intensity and psychological density of the novel.
The supreme example of Greene on the screen remains The Third Man. Somehow the interaction between character, setting and situation meshes to create one of cinema’s most poetic expressions of our fallen world. Devastated postwar Vienna is the very image of a tarnished European soul, and Harry Lime’s amoral cynicism a convincingly dispiriting legacy of a genocidal war. Director Carol Reed’s distorted camera angles suggest a world out of joint, while even the Great Wheel serves as a metaphor for the wheel of history against which the individual looks so puny. Yet Greene always said that his aim in the script was not to move people’s political emotions: he wanted simply to entertain them, frighten them, and make them laugh. For him it was a thriller of corruption and betrayal in which two former schoolfriends (who may be two sides of the same personality) finally confront each other after a pulsating chase through the Viennese sewers. Greene loved the idea of the sewers, “this strange world, unknown to most of us, that lies under our feet,” as he put it-dark, unknown, subterranean, rather as he saw people. In short, we had three great artists (Greene, Reed, Orson Welles) operating at the height of their powers, resulting in British cinema’s Citizen Kane and proving, for all subsequent adapters of Greene, an impossible act to follow.