By Ron Miller

McFarland & Co. 220 pages. $41.50. ISBN 978-1-4766-6685-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“It isn’t a bit like the book”. How many times have I heard that over the years? I remember a good friend of mine saying he was bitterly disappointed when he saw the film of William P. McGivern’s  excellent doomed heist novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, and Shelley Winters. He’d read the book earlier and had looked forward to seeing the film, but it didn’t match up to his expectations.

I can’t recall now how far the film deviated from the novel. But seeing something and realising that the screenwriters have changed things has never surprised me. Film-making has its own demands. The changes may be minor, such as the abandoning of a scene that doesn’t seem to add anything of substance to the story, or a character who isn’t relevant to the forward thrust of it. A writer, with 200 pages at his disposal, can introduce sub-plots, background details, asides, but a film requires everything to be packed into a tight format where things are briskly paced and made fairly clear from the start. Being discursive on camera is not a good idea. It may sometimes work for an art-house audience, but most filmgoers want things to move quickly.

There is, too, the question of what is acceptable in a book, as opposed to a film. Writers can now get away with most things relating to sex and violence, and films have certainly loosened up in relation to the same subjects. Some people may not think this is necessarily a good idea. Perhaps both writers and filmmakers were more interesting when they had to suggest rather than state? It was always possible to circumvent censorship if one was imaginative enough and knew to employ words or a camera to infer what was happening, or likely to. It was often more fun, too. You didn’t have to be a genius to recognise what a shot of a speeding locomotive entering a tunnel was meant to signify when two people came together on a train.

There were, of course, certain subjects that Hollywood often steered clear of. Homosexuality was one of them. When Edward Dmytryk filmed Crossfire in 1947 the victim of a brutal killing  at the centre of the story was changed from a homosexual (as in the novel, The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks) to a Jew, which probably caused some consternation, anyway, as Hollywood tended not to make overt references to Jews in films. In the wake of the Second World War, however, there seemed a greater willingness to accept that Jews could be shown to be just that.With this in mind I have seen it suggested that the reason for the change was more to do with the fact that studio bosses were keen to see Crossfire in circulation before another film dealing with anti-semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement, was released. Perhaps the feeling was that an abused Jewish character would get more sympathy than a gay one.

Another factor that came into play when novels and stories were being adapted for films was the question of culpability. According to the code that applied in Hollywood, no-one could get away with committing a crime. They had to be shown to be guilty and punished, in one way or another. In Martin Goldsmith’s novel, Detour, the aimless and ill-fated “hero” is seen wandering down a night-time road after two people have died in bizarre circumstances he was involved in. The film had to make it clear that he couldn’t just walk away, and a police car draws up alongside him and he’s ushered into it. It probably doesn’t destroy the entertainment value of what is often referred to as a “classic” film noir of the “B” category, And it might even emphasise its overall fatalism.

A film that Ron Miller discusses and which had to have its ending re-written in order to satisfy the conditions imposed by the Hollywood Production Code was Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In the book we are never told the heroine’s name : “Du Maurier clearly wanted to diminish the young bride’s persona so thoroughly that she virtually has no personality of her own”.  She’s dominated by her husband, Max de Winter, by the unseen presence of his late wife, Rebecca, and by the housekeeper who worshipped the dead woman and obviously resents the attempt to replace her.

But it was felt that Max’s new wife needed to have a name for the film. Miller is informative about how Hitchcock and the producer, David O. Selznik, fell out about this and other matters relating to alterations to the story. As for the ending, Max in the book confesses that he’d killed his wife, and disposed of her body, but the screenplay changed it to her dying as the result of an accident while they were arguing. It was probably a better way of closing the film, anyway. As Miller points out, Max’s fragile new wife was hardly likely to have really been happy about carrying on living with a self-confessed murderer.

Another famous Hitchcock film that altered several things was his version of The Thirty- Nine Steps. There is a famous scene where the hero, Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) is handcuffed “to glamorous Pamela (Madeleine Carroll)”, so that a degree of intimacy is established. As Miller says “As  it turns out, Pamela never appears in the book, so there’s nobody handcuffed to the hero and no romance”. He further notes that “Hitchcock and his frequent screenwriter, Charles Bennett, had gutted the Buchan novel and fabricated all new contents”. The handcuff scene was presumably inserted to entertain and titillate the cinema audiences. It might be worth noting that what Miller describes as “the charming British music-hall sequence in which the hero discovers that an entertainer called Mr Memory has memorised all the secret plans the mysterious villains are trying to smuggle out of England”, is another Hitchcock/Bennett invention. I want to say that I’ve always enjoyed the film when I’ve watched it on TV. And it’s a British production, so don’t blame the Americans if you’re a John Buchan fan and feel aggrieved by the liberties the filmmakers took with the story.          

There have been extreme examples of changes to novels that are amusing to read about if you accept the fact that there were times when “anything goes” seems to have been the prevailing philosophy. Wilkie Collins’ great melodrama, The Woman in White, was filmed in Britain (I stress the point to make it clear that Hollywood can’t be blamed for every sin in the adaptation book) as Crimes at the Dark House, starring Tod Slaughter. I have boyhood memories of seeing him in films such as Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in my local cinema in the late-1940s. Wartime and post-war restrictions and austerities meant that many old films were still around in the kind of local cinemas I could afford to visit. If Collins wrote melodrama, albeit of a high quality, Slaughter could reduce it to the near-comical. He was almost a parody of the Victorian music-hall villain, strutting around, laughing wickedly,  making sidelong glances as if to the audience, gesticulating, and leering at any pretty young women.

There was another film version of The Woman in White from Hollywood in 1948, and Miller says that it largely keeps nearer to the original. though still making “wholesale story changes”.  One of them is to the ending when, in the novel, the hero, Walter Hartright, finally rescues his beautiful and beloved Laura from the clutches of the dastardly Sir Percival and his accomplice, Count Fosco, and marries her, much to the delight of  Marian, the plain-looking sister. The film alters the story so that, while Laura is languishing in the asylum Sir Percival has consigned her to, Hartright falls in love with Marian, who isn’t plain on screen, and marries her!

I have to admit that I can’t help wondering how much the screenwriters were responsible for changing story-lines, plots, and places?  They would often work closely with the directors. And it needs to be remembered that films are a team effort, involving not just writers but cameramen, set designers, composers, sound technicians, and many others. Also, the nature of film-making, and its commercial involvements, can bring about a situation where many people can interfere with what is filmed and how. Producers can demand changes, and so can actors, if they have the right status. There’s an amusing story about Paul Newman when hired to play the part of the private detective, Lew Archer, in the screen version of Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target. Newman, whose first big breakthrough came with his performance in Hud, had a thing about the letter “H” being lucky for him. So, Lew Archer had to be changed to Lew Harper. Not a major alteration, to be sure, and unless you were a fan of Macdonald’s series of novels about Lew Archer, probably of no significance. But it points to how someone with right “pull” is able to affect a film.

I suppose screenwriters could take the view that what they did was what they were hired to do. And as professionals they did what they could in the circumstances. They knew that films were not novels and changes were often necessary if a film was to succeed in its own right and not as an attempt to faithfully adapt a story for the screen. But what of the writers of the novels or short-stories that were bought by the studios? How did they feel about how their work was treated? The more practical of them took the prosaic view that the money was good, and the publicity could help to boost sales of their books generally, and the particular book that was being filmed. So, take the money and run, as one writer once said (I can’t recall who it was). Some novelists did, however, feel aggrieved by what was done to their books.

The popular crime novelist, Mary Higgins Clark, wasn’t too happy with the treatment of her A Stranger is Watching, and told the audience so at the premiere of the film. P.D. James was upset when Cordelia Gray, the detective “turned up pregnant and unmarried in the second season of the TV series, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman”. There was a simple explanation. The actress playing the part was pregnant. Sue Grafton, according to Miller, refuses to allow her books to be adapted for film or TV versions. Perhaps it was/is best to adopt the attitude that Robert B. Parker expressed when Miller talked to him about some changes made to details about his private detective, Spenser, when a TV series was built around him. Parker shrugged and said that the changes were “trivialities,” that “a TV show isn’t a book”, and “the business of television is to put on good television, not to replicate my book”.  Miller does add, “That’s a liberated attitude few mystery writers share”.

As the subtitle of Mystery Classics on Film says, Miller looks at 65 examples of the ways in which novels have been adapted for the screen. I’ve only mentioned a few of them, and among the others he discusses are Laura, The Big Sleep, In the Heat of the Night, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hangover Square, In a Lonely Place, The Asphalt Jungle, and several books into films by Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich. He’s usually perceptive and enthusiastic, while still pointing out the ways in which filmmakers have sometimes hacked and altered a book so much that it hasn’t improved the story, nor provided a basis for a good film. It’s always relevant to remember the words of Robert. B. Parker: “The book is still the book”.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mystery Classics on Film, and it triggered me into turning up Crimes at the Dark House on YouTube and revelling in Tod Slaughter’s over the top performance. It’s ridiculous, but gives you an idea of what Victorian melodramas must have been like on stage. And it made me want to watch a lot of other films as well. It’s a book for those who love films and the stories behind them.