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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Greene on the Screen, Part 2 (originally published 2/00)

Hollywood has long been a significant source of ancillary income for novelists. Production companies, hungry for good material, are forever paying writers for the exclusive right to develop a film project based on a given book. This right expires after a specified period, at which time the producer has the option to renew the agreement with an additional payment. Since the vast majority of these deals do not ultimately result in a released film, writers generally regard these "option" payments as found money.

Now and then, however, one of these options will actually mature into a finished film. That's when the writer discovers the downside of making a deal with Hollywood. All too often, the movie that results from such a deal will have little or nothing to do with the writer's book, and in most cases there will be little or nothing the writer can do about it.

We were looking last week at some of the many films adapted from the works of British novelist Graham Greene. Each of the films we considered was scripted, as is the norm, by someone other than Greene himself, and therefore represented another writer's interpretation of Greene's work, to say nothing of the creative input of the director. Greene, however, was unusual in that he was also an accomplished screenwriter. This week I'd like to focus on those adaptations of Greene's work in which he was an active collaborator in the creation of the film version. Here are some titles to look for on home video.

"Brighton Rock" (1947). During the Thirties, American films took the lead in revitalizing the gangster film genre by infusing it with a new level of stark realism in such releases as "Little Caesar" (1930), "The Public Enemy" (1931), and "Scarface" (1932). With this adaptation of Greene's novel, "Brighton Rock," British gangster films took a significant step in the same direction. A young Richard Attenborough creates a credible British incarnation of the sort of punk played so effectively by James Cagney. Greene collaborated on the screenplay with Terence Rattigan. The film was released in the United States under the title "Young Scarface."

"The Fallen Idol" (1948). One of Greene's most fruitful cinematic collaborations was with director Carol Reed. Their first project together was this adaptation of Greene's story, "The Basement Room." The story is told from the point of view of an eight year old ambassador's son named Felipe who idolizes the embassy butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson). When Baines is suspected of a crime that he did not commit, Felipe tries to help by misinforming the police to throw them off Baines's trail. In fact, however, his machinations only serve to throw more suspicion on Baines. Greene was especially adept at this kind of dramatic irony, and Reed was equally skilled at rendering it on the screen. Greene shared screenwriting credit with Lesley Storm and William Templeton.

"The Third Man" (1949). Greene's second collaboration with Reed resulted in one of world cinema's acknowledged all-time classics. Instead of being based on a novel, this was an original screenplay, written directly for the screen by Greene and later adapted by him into a novel. Set in postwar Vienna, the story involves an American writer, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) who has come to Vienna in response to a job offer from his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Shortly after arriving, he learns that Lime has just been killed in an accident. A few days later, however, he fleetingly spots his supposedly dead friend walking the streets and seemingly very much alive. This is one of those magical films in which everything clicks. The script, the performances, the camerawork, all seem to be hitting on all cylinders. The result is a film that has enjoyed widespread popular and critical acclaim from the time of its release right down to today.

I should perhaps mention that the fact that Greene had a hand in the writing of these films doesn't mean that there were no changes made in the process of adapting them from his literary works. Greene himself acknowledged that the screen and the printed page are very different media with different narrative requirements. Ultimately, as Greene apparently realized, the best way to bring one's narrative vision to the screen is by writing for the screen directly.

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