Sunday, September 9, 2007

Genre Adaptations: Westerns, Crime and Film Noir

American cinema is largely a genre cinema. Melodramas, westerns, crime and gangster films, science fiction films, historical and biblical epics, comedies, war films, and musicals have formed the staple of its offerings from the very beginning. A surprising number of these are based on written sources, but because most of these are not canonical in the way that the works of Dickens or Austen are, this goes largely unnoticed and scant attention is paid to whether they have been faithfully adapted or not. As almost all of these genres focus on action, movement, setting (urban or rural), and atmosphere, and generally offer little scope for complexity of character, elaborately phrased dialogue, or intense psychological analysis, they are eminently suited for film.

The inherently "filmic" genre of the western is far more dependent on written sources than is generally realized, ranging from some of the few acknowledged literary classics such as Jack Schaefer's (1907–1991) Shane, filmed by George Stevens (1904–1985) in 1953, to the more ephemeral magazine stories and pulp novels on which films like High Noon (1952) and Stagecoach (1939) were based. In these and similar cases, little more than a basic plot and some aspects of character and setting are generally all that is taken over from source to film.

Crime and gangster films, including films noirs, are also heavily indebted to literary sources, many of them now gaining belated critical respect. Here, too, a considerable laxity in transformation from book to film has been widespread, even with major writers such as Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) and Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961), where only The Maltese Falcon (1941) has survived intact in its adapted form. Less "reputable" writers such as James M. Cain (1892–1977), Jim Thompson (1906–1977), Cornell Woolrich (1903–1968), and David Goodis (1917–1967) have nevertheless provided the basis for some of the finest of American (and also French) films, once again in the form of loose or free rather than strict adaptations. Cain's Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice (filmed at least four times to date), and Mildred Pierce were turned into 1940s classics, and a sudden vogue for Thompson produced several adaptations in the 1980s and 1990s, the most successful probably being Coup de Torchon (Clean Up, Bertrand Tavernier, 1981), based on Pop. 1280, which, despite being set in French colonial Africa rather than the American South, brilliantly captures the sleaze, cynicism, and nihilism of the novel. Woolrich, under both that name and William Irish, wrote the original story that Hitchcock filmed, much altered and expanded, as Rear Window (1954), and also the novels on which Hitchcock's admirer François Truffaut (1932–1984) based La marié était en noir (The Bride Wore Black, 1968) and The Mississippi Mermaid (1969), as well as providing the source for such films noirs as Phantom Lady (1944). Truffaut also filmed, with considerable

fidelity, Goodis's despairing Down There as Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, 1960).

The Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) and his novel The Hound of the Baskervilles have been endlessly reworked (or, in some cases, invented) for both film and television, with critical debate centering mainly on who has been the "best" or most "authentic" Holmes or Watson; a similar fate has met Ian Fleming's (1908–1964) James Bond. And a rather neglected figure in crime fiction, W. R. Burnett (1899–1982), provided the original stories on which such classics as Little Caesar (1931), High Sierra (1941), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) were based.

b. Chicago, Illinois, 23 July 1888, d. La Jolla, California, 26 March 1959

Educated in England, Raymond Chandler worked as an accountant and in a bank on returning to America before turning to writing pulp fiction in the 1930s. The success of his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), brought him an invitation to Hollywood. His involvement with film had two aspects: as screenwriter and as author of six novels adapted for the screen, some of them more than once. After a rewarding experience collaborating with Billy Wilder on the script of Double Indemnity (1944), Chandler became increasingly disillusioned with Hollywood and attacked it as a soul-destroying environment in articles written for Atlantic Monthly. Apart from receiving cowriting credit on two minor films in 1944 and 1945, his only further completed work for the screen was an original script for The Blue Dahlia (1946). He received only cowriter credit on Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) after disagreements with the director.

The first two film versions of his novels, The Falcon Takes Over (1942), loosely based on Farewell, My Lovely, and Time to Kill (1942), based on The High Window, retained only aspects of the plots and created a Philip Marlowe character very different from Chandler's original. A more serious attempt at adapting Chandler's work came in Murder, My Sweet (1944), again from Farewell, My Lovely, with Marlowe played by Dick Powell. This was followed by what is considered to be the finest Chandler adaptation, The Big Sleep (1946), directed by Howard Hawks, with Humphrey Bogart as the definitive Marlowe, even though he played the role only once. The Lady in the Lake (1947) made a largely unsuccessful attempt to use the camera as first-person narrator, with Marlowe seen only in mirrors until the very end of the film. The Brasher Doubloon (1947), a weak adaptation of The High Window, starred George Montgomery as an unconvincing Marlowe.

Twenty years passed before further adaptations were made, creating problems with attempts to re-create the very specific 1940s settings, themes, and ethos of the novels. Marlowe (1969), based on The Little Sister and starring James Garner, updated the story to the 1960s and presented the hero as a figure of integrity who was out of step with the times. Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) went even further by presenting Elliot Gould as a bewildered and largely ineffectual figure in 1970s Los Angeles—and treated as a figure of fun by most of the other characters. Although the film was disliked by many Chandler admirers, it remains a brilliant piece of filmmaking. The two most recent versions both starred an ageing Robert Mitchum. Farewell, My Lovely (1975) took great pains to re-create the settings and atmosphere of the book, and a Big Sleep (1978), directed by Michael Winner and set bizarrely in contemporary London, suffered fatally by comparison with Hawks's film.


Double Indemnity (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Lady in the Lake (1947), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Long Goodbye (1973), Farewell, My Lovely (1975)


Clark, Al. Raymond Chandler in Hollywood. London and New York: Proteus, 1982.

Gardiner, Dorothy, and Kathrine Sorley Walker, eds. Raymond Chandler Speaking. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Luhr, William. Raymond Chandler and Film. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982.

Pendo, Stephen. Raymond Chandler on Screen: His Novels into Film. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1976.

Graham Petrie

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