Monday, September 10, 2007

Graham Greene's the Quiet American in Literature and Cinema

An Analysis of the Original Text and Its Two Film Adaptations

Graham Greene's novel, The Quiet American, is a look at the ever-lasting dirty little secret of the Americans' involvement in the Indo-China War between the French, Communists and Vietminh.
Beginning as mere aid and escalating from there, the novel forms a sort of "what if it really happened" account in the use of Alden Pyle, a bright young man from the United States as the epitome of all that is both wholesome, yet horribly ugly about American foreign affairs. Yet the book is also about the concept of betrayal and how it can have different meanings in different contexts.In its wake, two films were made. But unlike more contemporary film makers who at least make an attempt to follow the main theme of the story the film is based on, the director of the first version, Joseph Mankiewicz, decided to eliminate any notion of U.S. involvement as far as political restructuring was concerned in Indo-China. Since the film was receiving government funding, it wouldn't have done for the cover to be blown since it was 1958, and the U.S. was about to become very involved in the military/political sense. The more modern 2002 version by Phillip Noyce serves as a source of retribution for Greene, at least in that the key focus of American interaction was re-instated. Even though this film is far superior to the 1958 version in many aspects, it is somewhat lacking in what the other attempted to achieve by exploring the concept of betrayal on numerous fronts. Noyce's version only really explored Thomas Fowler's betrayal to Pyle in setting him up with Hang and his "friends," while the Mankiewicz version did the same, but also explored how Fowler betrayed Phuong's loyalty by lying to her, and taking more stock in petty male competition than what was actually good for her.And because he betrays his wife in the first place by living with Phuong, he ultimately sets himself up when his wife finally grants him a divorce. This happens right after Phuong has proclaimed she will not return to Fowler even that Pyle is dead, because she has experienced what real love has to offer, particularly real love from a young man. In the end, Fowler has betrayed not only Pyle, Phuong and his wife, but also himself. Although this venue of interest is actually well done, it detracts from Greene's original vision, and is more of a cover-up to Mankiewicz's butchering of the real story. Although the multi-layered betrayal concept is an interesting one, it comes at a harsh price - the truth, which Noyce places back into his 2002 version.In Mankiewicz's 1958 version of The Quiet American, Pyle's character is simply referred to as "The American." For some odd reason, his name was omitted and was referred largely by the terms "young" and "American" as Fowler clarifies while being questioned by Vigot. Not only that, but Pyle is from Boston, whereas in the film he states that he is actually from Texas. There are few other slight discrepancies about Pyle's character in the '58 film, such as how Pyle is supposed to have a crew cut. They managed to get that right in the 2002 version, yet they had Duke as a brown dog, whereas in Greene's novel it's supposed to be black. However the greatest aspect that has had the largest impact on the film is that Pyle's affiliation with any United States government covert operations agency was virtually eliminated from the film. In the Noyce version, his covert affiliation is maintained, going along with Greene's insinuation in the novel that the Americans helped shape the outcome of the war in Indo-China and brought the Vietnam War more or less upon themselves. Yet another key difference is in choice of representation of General The's headquarters near the holy mountain. In Mankiewicz's version, the encampment is only referred to, whereas in the 2002 version, the headquarters is showed in great detail, even placing Pyle at the scene, somewhat red handed. Interestingly enough, Mankiewicz included the menacing Diolacton in his version of the film, but had Pyle's character stipulate that it was used for "making toys," just as in the novel. In Noyce's version, Pyle states it is used for making eyeglass frames, since his cover profession is that of an optometrist. In either case, neither story is correct, since Diolacton is actually used in the manufacturing of plastique explosives, the main menace at the time for the bombing at the Continental. But unlike Noyce's version, Mankiewicz's showed how the bicycles were used as bombs. Bicycle pump molds were used to manufacture pumps that carried a half charge of plastique explosive.Until the end of the 1958 film, Fowler is somewhat clueless as to what Diolacton really is. Only at the end when Vigot is giving him the third degree does Vigot explain to him that Diolacton isn't "plastic" so much as it is "plastique," and what its true purpose is. In Noyce's 2002 version (above), Fowler and Hang, who is his assistant, not a junk dealer, enter a warehouse where they discover the Diolacton, and Fowler discovers its meaning when looking it up in a book.Another instance where the 1958 version sides with the novel over Noyce's, oddly enough, is when Pyle follows after Fowler to the front on one of his stories. Fowler in the film is speaking to one of the French officers when Pyle suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere (unless one understands French and can hear the soldier announce that an American has arrived). In the novel, this sequence is relatively the same, however Noyce chooses to provide a somewhat comically suspicious instance where Fowler is on patrol with the French when a boat appears, being driven by a disguised Pyle. Although Pyle stated in the book that he got through by purchasing a boat, Fowler had not intercepted him as he did in the 2002 version. Mankiewicz has Pyle come off as an innocent young man with absolutely no idea what's going on. Even to the end, he has Pyle denying any involvement with any U.S. agency. Noyce presents Pyle as Greene would have him -- sharp-whitted and forthright. When confronted with the entire case Fowler has built against him, Pyle admits his real agenda.Opium seems to be a recurring factor in both the novel and in Noyce's film version of the novel. Noyce is unafraid of visually depicting the use of opium, as open simulated drug use in films has become fairly common in late 20th and early 21st century cinema. Pyle still remains the ever-wholesome figure he was in the novel, but instead of giving Fowler some b.s. story about it being against regulations, he simply asks, "Why would I do that?" Fowler seems unable to answer, or perhaps it's simply that Pyle hasn't been in Indo-China long enough and hasn't been as battle hardened as Fowler. Even so, Pyle would always have remained on the straight and narrow, hardly even drinking in Mankiewicz's version. When he did drink it was mostly soda with a hint of whiskey. But it was fashionable and politically correct at the time to avoid any confrontation with the topic of drugs, and if it were addressed, to have some authoritative figure denounce it as vile and poisonous to the spirit, lest any impressionable young people be a part of the viewing audience.Then there's the concept that even one's friend or ally can be a conspirator with "the enemy." In Noyce's version, re-instates Hang as Fowler's assistant instead of Dominquez like in Mankiewicz's, and allows Hang the luxury of coming to Fowler with the opportunity to set up Pyle. All this time, Hang has been involved, yet Fowler seemed unconcerned with that in Noyce's version, perhaps because he was too preoccupied with the notion that he could get rid of Pyle for good and have Phuong all to himself. Perhaps Mankiewicz used Dominguez as the assistant to add to the idea that Fowler was more of a pawn than a co-conspirator, further adding to the tragedy that was Fowler in the 1958 version. This similar theme is also explored in the Robin Williams comedy, Good Morning, Vietnam, in which Williams plays a radio personality on the armed forces radio network. In the film, Williams befriends a teenage Vietnamese boy who is always at the right place at the right time, but it takes Williams most of the movie to figure this out. But unlike Noyce's The Quiet American, this Vietnamese boy is more or less using Williams to his own advantage. When Williams confronts the boy and asks him why he'd do such a thing, he said "We're here to help you," yet the boy retaliates by stating that having his family and friends slaughtered innocently isn't considered "helping." It's nothing personal on the boy's part, but that's his own vendetta. And in true Williams fashion, he whips his hat off his head and yells, "This will NOT look good on a resume!"The phrase, "We're here to help you" is like something Pyle would've said while holding the limp body of a mutilated plastique explosives victim. After all, as Pyle stated in the 2002 version, he justified his and America's intervention at the time in that they were going to "save lives." In the end, it only added to another problem. In the case of Phuong, neither men were really good for her. Pyle did dangerous "possibly government-related work" which left him open to assassination, as it eventually did, and Fowler was a tired old man with a wife at home whose religion forbade divorce. Fowler had kept a secret from her before about the truth of the letter from his wife, and would keep yet another tremendous secret from her still of his involvement with Pyle's death. Anyone who gets more upset over getting their new pants and shoes ruined than being responsible for the deaths of many, many innocents places into question their ability to be able to care for anyone other than themselves in the first place. Although he says he loves Phuong, maybe he's really seeing her as yet another trophy, not unlike his dog that he scarcely pays attention to, yet keeps around for a little fun now and again. It's yet another point to say that perhaps the only one who really loves Phuong is her meddling sister, yet in her case it could be just a way to try and get money out of a rich American. Granted, she could've been asking him questions about his family wealth and stability to make certain he'd be good for Phuong, but perhaps she saw a greater way to benefit from Phuong being with Pyle over Fowler that she could cash in on. So, who really "loves" Phuong, in the sense that they look out for her own best interest? Perhaps nobody does. It is at the end of the 1958 version that Phuong begins to realize this, and starts to take over her own life, not settling for the worn-out Fowler who may or may not be able to help her have children, but certainly she is seeking true love and true stability. Her stability drowned in the mud under the bridge to Dakow. And her "love" may whither up and blow away within the next few years, leaving her broken and possibly childless, stranded at an age where the only way to make money is largely through prostitution.In the end, both films take a stern look at our harsh reality as Greene proposes it, yet one director chooses to turn one version into a modern-day tragedy, while another chooses to simply remake the film as best he can and present it in its most straightforward dramatic form. The 1958 version serves to demonstrate how a director's little touches can both add to the film in its deeper meaning, but can also end up detracting from it in original intent, and broader global relationship to politics and society. The 2002 version is more closely matched with Greene's novel in that the conspiracy angle is played out, and the greater attention to details and specifics are made. This is what, in the end, makes Noyce's 2002 The Quiet American the superior film, and serves as a sort of retribution for Greene's novel after the insult that Mankiewicz delivered.
By Jared DuBach
Published Jul 21, 2005

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