Do We Need the Author’s Approval in a Film Adaptation?
It seems gently ironic that John Huston received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on the 1946 film noir classic The Killers. The motion picture debuts of both Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, the film purports to be based on an Ernest Hemingway short story of the same title. In Hemingway’s story, penned in 1927, neither the killing nor the motives behind it are explained. The story ends with the doomed ‘Swede’ (Lancaster) waiting for the killers and the narrator, Nick Adams (Phil Brown), being admonished that it was “better not to think about it.”
The script opens with a faithful recreation of the Hemingway story, but Huston then proceeds to “think about it” for another 90 minutes, inventing two new major characters along the way. Did Hemingway know when he signed over the film rights to Universal Pictures producer Mark Hellinger how drastically his story would be changed? In all likelihood the answer is “no.” But Hemingway’s involvement with the production did not end there. Indeed, he would go on to offer John Huston advice on his screenplay. The two men were contemporaries and, having common interests, they became good friends — both were avid hunters and both were taken with Ava Gardner. A strong argument could be made, however, that Hemingway’s stamp of approval on the production was ultimately irrelevant to the film’s artistic success.
Let us now move to another studio, another crime story, another source author and another screenwriter — respectively: Paramount Pictures, Double Indemnity, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. Cain, a newspaperman-turned-screenwriter, was inspired to write this novella after covering a murder trial for The New York World in 1927. In the actual case, Ruth Snyder and her lover plotted to kill her husband Albert after having him take out an insurance policy with a double indemnity clause, which is to say that the payment on the life insurance policy would be doubled if death appeared to be accidental. That the woman’s lover should be employed as an insurance agent was a contrivance of Cain’s imagining. Mrs. Snyder and her lover were apprehended shortly after the murder and Mrs. Snyder’s later execution at Sing Sing was captured in a well-known photograph. So influential were the details of the trial on Cain that he wrote the tale twice — the same basic story and themes are revisited in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
By most accounts, director and co-writer Billy Wilder’s first choice to write the screenplay was Cain himself, but he was under contract to another studio at the time and consequently unavailable. Raymond Chandler was available, though, and he was a Paramount contract writer at that time. By the end of their tumultuous collaboration, the resulting screenplay was more “Wilder and Chandler” than it was “Cain.” Even the lead characters’ names had been changed in their adaptation.
For what it is worth, Cain was pleased with the result when he saw the film as a member of the general public. He said that it was “the only picture made from [his] books that had things in it [he] wished [he] had thought of.” Cain also conceded that the Wilder and Chandler ending was much stronger than his own, and even acknowledged the wisdom of increasing the prominence of the insurance investigator (played by Edward G. Robinson).
Perhaps all it takes is a great screenwriter to properly adapt someone else’s work. In that case, one could justifiably call John Huston the master adapter, so to speak. His astonishing directorial debut came in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon, adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel. By the time Huston got around to it, Warner Bros. — which owned the property — had filmed it twice prior, in 1931 under the original title and in 1936 as Satan Met a Lady, the latter of which starred Bette Davis of all people. The ’31 version is notable as detective Sam Spade’s most uncensored and only pre-code movie appearance. Yet, it was screenwriter Huston who, ten years later, adapted the novel most faithfully, taking Hammett’s dialogue and oftentimes incorporating it verbatim into his script.
It was an innovative idea in an era when literal adaptations — such as Erich von Stroheim’s mammoth production of Greed (1924) — had given way to looser translations of literature that interpolated events while eliminating and combining characters — case in point Wuthering Heights (1939), which only covers material from the first seventeen of the thirty-four chapters in Emily Brontë’s classic novel. Remaining faithful to the source author’s spirit was a principle which informed much of Huston’s future literary adaptations, ranging from his treatment of Melville’s Moby Dick (1956) to Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Late in his life, John Huston even tried his hand at adapting to film the rather unwieldy prose of James Joyce with The Dead (1987).
Now, it is one thing for a screenwriter to adapt an author’s work during his or her lifetime. But it is very different to do so once that author has passed away. The great promoter of British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling died in 1936. The following year director John Ford, under contract to 20th Century Fox, helmed the screen version of Wee Willie Winkie, ostensibly based on Kipling’s short story. In 1939, director George Stevens, over at RKO, turned his attention to the 1888 Kipling poem Gunga Din. Both films paint terribly flattering, if wholly inaccurate, portrayals of British India and one therefore has to assume these adaptations would have met with Kipling’s approval.
In the decades that followed, though, film adaptations of Kipling’s work took on a slightly more subversive tone. It is difficult to say what Kipling would have thought of Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book (1967), but it is logical to assume that his Baloo would not have sounded like Phil Harris, his vocal mannerisms far removed from the erudite educator portrayed by Kipling’s character. In addition, it is easy to imagine Kipling’s displeasure upon hearing the great Sean Connery’s line in Huston’s Man Who Would Be King; introducing natives to Western methods of warfare he says “we’ll teach you how to slaughter your enemies like civilized men.”
Rudyard Kipling never went to Hollywood, though he did spend time in Connecticut. It is surprising how many great American and British authors did spend some time toiling in the motion picture business — among them are Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Raymond Chandler, James Hilton, Graham Greene, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller. The list just goes on and on and on. But the experiences of a few writers are worth exploring further.
First and foremost, it is important to return to Raymond Chandler. What was it about the ‘City of Angels’. as he knew it, which was attractive to Chandler? It could be argued that Chandler neither loved nor hated Los Angeles and its inhabitants. Indeed, his writing captures the city and its citizens with an emotional distance that a native Los Angeleno would be hard-pressed to match. But what drew him to sunny Southern California in the first place? He could have written about Chicago, where he was born in 1888. He could have written about London, where he was educated. He might have written about Paris, where he lived after serving in the Canadian Army during the First World War. Still further, he might have turned his literary ambitions toward Vancouver or San Francisco, where he was employed as a banker. He first arrived in L.A. in 1912, living in an apartment on Bunker Hill, before that part of the city had begun to decay to the state in which it appeared when Chandler later wrote about it. He would return in 1919 for good, living at various times in Hollywood, Palm Springs and La Jolla.
The Big Sleep was Raymond Chandler’s first novel and it was published in 1939, when he was 51. The movies soon came calling and in the mid-40s Chandler was working, however briefly, at Paramount Studios. His first project there was the screenplay for Double Indemnity (1944) and his experience collaborating with director Billy Wilder was sufficiently stressful to drive him back to alcohol after some years of sobriety. It is said that Chandler’s drinking problem inspired Wilder’s subsequent film, the Oscar-winning Lost Weekend (1945). No wonder, then, that in his lifetime Chandler would produce only three more screenplays — including The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Strangers on a Train (1951), the latter of which was a collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Seven decades on from the original publication Chandler’s novels, the Los Angeles he knew has largely disappeared under a blanket of smog and the congestion of its many freeways.
Of all the dozen or so film versions of Chandler’s novels, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is certainly the most controversial. It is viewed by Chandler purists as a travesty and even its defenders must admit that Altman seems to intentionally stray from Chandler’s ambitions for the novel. For what it is worth, the screenplay was written by Leigh Brackett, who had previously collaborated on the screenplay for Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, often considered the best screen adaptation of a Chandler novel.
Altman himself has commented on his departure from the source material, saying: “I see Marlowe the way Chandler saw him, a loser. But a real loser, not the false winner that Chandler made out of him. A loser all the way.” In that sense, as one critic has argued, Altman’s film essentially retains the spirit of the Chandler novel, but plays with the form. This, of course, is exactly what Chandler and Billy Wilder did with Double Indemnity — they retained the spirit of James M. Cain’s novella, but were uninterested in remaining faithful to all the particulars of the plot. Likewise, Chandler did not expect other screenwriters to stick closely to the source material when they were adapting his work. In all likelihood, given the mood of Los Angeles in the ’70s, Altman’s claim that Raymond Chandler would have appreciated the film for what it is was a valid one. That Chandler’s novels can be successfully translated beyond the borders of time affirms the claim of former UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell — Raymond Chandler was the laureate of Los Angeles.
Two of the more popular films to come out of Hollywood in the early ’60s were the wildly divergent Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Both were adapted from novels, the former by Truman Capote and the latter by Harper Lee. At one time, Capote and Lee were good friends. By all accounts, Capote inspired the character of Dill in Lee’s novel; it seems quite reasonable that this peculiar secondary character could grow up to be Truman Capote.
An attention whore with an eye for the perverse, Capote wrote a novella in 1958 called Breakfast at Tiffany’s and it was much more downbeat and less romantic than the later Blake Edwards film. The film’s shift in tone to the more romantic works largely to its advantage, providing Audrey Hepburn with one of her most iconic roles and giving the world one of the all-time great soundtracks from Henry Mancini, including Moon River. In fact, the only aspect of the film that doesn’t hold up today is Mickey Rooney’s insensitive portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, a buck-tooth Oriental with Coke bottle glasses — it’s an excruciating stereotype. While Edwards no doubt takes significant liberties with the source, and Hepburn was hardly Capote’s ideal Holly Golightly, audiences were nonetheless captivated by the film’s depiction of this free spirit. It may be that the popular opinion is the only one that matters, the author’s feelings be damned.
The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prize-winning, semi-autobiographical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) was one of those rare screen adaptations that pleased fans of the book and its author as well. After seeing the film, Lee commented, “I can only say that I am a happy author. They have made my story into a beautiful and moving motion picture. I am very proud and grateful.” Set in Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird vividly captures a specific time and place when racial unrest was at its peak in the South. Yet despite its controversial nature (a black man is accused of raping a white woman), the real focus of the story is the relationship between Scout, a tomboyish six-year-old, her older brother, Jem, and their attorney father.
As with the novel part of the film’s huge appeal is seeing the dramatic events unfold through the innocent eyes of childhood. Gregory Peck was so perfect in the role of Atticus Finch that Harper Lee turned down offers in later years for television and stage versions of To Kill a Mockingbird, stating “[the film of Mockingbird] was a work of art and there isn’t anyone else who could play the part.” Once again, it is noteworthy that the screenplay for the film was from Horton Foote. At the time, Harper Lee was busy working on another novel — not Go Set a Watchman — which has yet to materialize. Therefore, Lee’s comments after the production of To Kill a Mockingbird have no bearing on the film’s artistic success.
It may be beneficial when a screen adaptation is written by a person who is interested in the same things that interest the author of the source material. Therein lies the success of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) from the work of Raymond Carver, for example, or the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) from the Cormac McCarthy novel. Certainly Horton Foote, in adapting Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, displays a profound understanding of prejudice, discrimination and the loss of innocence to an extent which rivals the novel. That is perhaps the only requirement of an adaptation, to approach its subject matter with the same level of seriousness and sensitivity as the source material. If Harper Lee had hated the film of To Kill a Mockingbird, that would hardly diminish its greatness.
Brackett, Leigh. “From The Big Sleep to The Long Goodbye and More or Less How We Got There.” Take One. 23 January 1974, Volume 28 Issue 3.
McGilligan, Patrick. (1986). Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Page 125. ISBN 978-0-520-05689-3.
Phillips, Gene D. (2000). Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press. Page 170. ISBN 978-0-8131-2174-1.
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