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A Look at Film and Classic Literature

{Ed. Note: This is an article from guest contributor Robert D. Bailey.  Mr. Bailey has had a long and successful career in the film industry, mostly in visual effects (including matte photography for Blade Runner and matte camera for Dances with Wolves, though also as a director, producer, writer and editor.}

Film and literature have had a long and often contentious relationship. Many classic films have been sourced from novels, plays and even journalism. Although the very earliest films were what would be considered today as documentaries (specifically early films by the Lumiere brothers and the Thomas Edison studios) these are today only appreciated for their archaeological importance. The earliest films of note which were inspired by literary sources were the French films of Georges Méliès, especially the Jules Verne-inspired A Trip to the Moon (1902). Although this film and his Robinson Crusoe were very loose adaptations (to say the least!), their success pointed the way for later filmmakers, and barely a decade after Méliès’ two-reel shorts (14-18 minute) came the first unquestionably important and successful film that attempted to faithfully retain the form and scope of the novel which inspired it, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen.

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’
D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’

It is virtually impossible these days to be objective about The Birth of a Nation; it’s racist aspects can’t be ignored, although the director denied intending to make a racist statement. There is no doubt, however, that it was a landmark in the history of cinema, and influenced every film that came later in its technique and in its scope. At three hours in length, it almost single-handedly lifted motion pictures from a novelty to an art form, and made possible the growth and development of an industry which has had an almost incalculable effect on society. As Mary Pickford, one of the greatest stars of the silent film pronounced, “The Birth of a Nation, was the first picture that really made people take the motion picture industry seriously.

One of its influences was that it opened the vast mine of world literature as source material for films. The reasons for this should be obvious: as the industry grew with astonishing celerity, and as audiences had shown they were eager for full-length features, there was an insatiable demand for material. Original stories took longer to script and had no author-recognition value. While the names of certain film stars alone guaranteed audiences would come (Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and Doug Fairbanks, for example), how better to attract a crowd to a feature film and expect them to pay a premium price to see it than to base it on a classic or popular work of literature? Thus many of the silent era’s biggest successes were based upon novels—Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (filmed as Lon Chaney’s huge success The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Laurence Stalling’s Plumes (King Vidor’s The Big Parade with John Gilbert), or popular plays such as Lottie Blair Parker’s Way Down East (Griffith’s film version with Lillian Gish).

Lew Wallace’s ‘Ben-Hur’, Laurence Stalling’s ‘Plumes’ (King Vidor’s ‘The Big Parade’ with John Gilbert)
Lottie Blair Parker’s ‘Way Down East’ (Griffith’s film version with Lillian Gish)

Still, the art of the silent film, was so dependent on techniques of photography, editing and pantomime, that just as many or more of what we term today as “blockbusters,” were original works developed for the screen with little or no reference to literary works: Chaplin’s features The Kid, The Gold Rush and The Circus, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last and The Freshman, Buster Keaton’s The General and The Navigator, Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro, Robin Hood and The Black Pirate, Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik, and, in Europe, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Abel Gance’s Napoleon and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria. For many critics, these represent the true art of the motion picture more than films which were literary adaptations.

But what was obvious to the studios, who came to dominate the production of motion pictures, was that more money was to be made, and more control was to be retained, by producing films that did not rely primarily on the draw of a popular star such as Valentino nor a man of cinematic genius such as Eisenstein, who could at most turn out one or two features a year. The appetite of the film-going public, who went to the theaters far more frequently than it has since the advent of television and other competitive entertainments, needed to be satisfied with ever more product. Soon, the major studios began cultivating relationships with East Coast publishers, often purchasing the motion picture rights to novels before they were published (and getting them at a lower price than they could if those books became huge successes). The smaller studios and the few independents would more often draw upon works in the public domain.

The story departments of all the studios were primarily involved in adaptations, and would often hire the best contemporary writers to rework the burgeoning library of literary “properties”—though seldom did it permit them to adapt their own novels! Thus you have William Faulkner adapting Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (but not his own Sanctuary or Intruder in the Dust) and Raymond Chandler adapting James Cain’s Double Indemnity and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (but none of his own Philip Marlowe stories). F. Scott Fitzgerald toiled for years in the studios as a staff writer, adapting Erich Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades and working on many other projects for MGM, but never received sole screenplay credit. (Fitzgerald, in an ironical payback, mined his Hollywood experiences for some of his own literary efforts: The Pat Hobby stories and the unfinished The Last Tycoon.)

William Faulkner adapted Hemingway’s ‘To Have and Have Not’ and Raymond Chandler adapted Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Strangers on a Train’

For almost a century after The Birth of a Nation, many still considered the most artistic and cinematic films to be the ones which were developed originally as motion pictures and not as adaptations of literary works. This attitude was encapsulated by America’s most influential film critic in the first half of the 20th century, James Agee, when, in writing about David Lean’s film version of Great Expectations, noted “it seems to me primarily unimportant how well or ill someone else’s classic is brought to film.” He considered in that same 1948 review, that every movie since Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933) and Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) was “so much child’s play,” save Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Those three films were not derived from literary sources. (It should be noted that one film in that period, originally developed as a film and not adapted, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, was underrated by Agee for reasons that might derive from jealousy, but that despite Agee’s dismissal, Citizen Kane perennially tops many critics’ lists as the greatest film of all time.)

The motion picture industry in the last decade or so has seen a resurgence in movies originally developed as movies without literary antecedents. At the same time, Hollywood in particular has been feeding on itself, remaking many classic (and some not-so-classic) films. All this has taken place as the movie-going public has shrunk, and as that public seems to be less well-read than it was in the motion picture’s first century. The recent remake (at least the third such) of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur landed in US theaters, not so much with a thud, but a shrug. The biggest commercial successes have been based on comic books (or their more-respectable cousins, “graphic novels” which generally feature comic book characters) or fantasy works such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Without coming down on either side of the argument about which is truer to the Art of Cinema, I would like to mention four categories of literature-to-film adaptations which seem representative of the ways the movies have treated literary works. For reasons of brevity, and because I am not familiar with the cinema of the past quarter century, I will restrict the examples to films made prior to 1980. I will also not include any films made from literary sources which are not considered as classics in their own right, as too many mediocre novels were made into respectable (or better) motion pictures. I should add it is a highly personal selection.

Emily Bronte’s ‘Withering Heights’, Directed by William Wyler
Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’, Directed by Richard Brooks
Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’, Directed by John Huston
Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Directed by Robert Mulligan
Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, Directed by Lewis Milestone
John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, Directed by John Ford
William Golding’s ‘The Lord of the Flies’, Directed by Peter Brook
Booth Tarkington’s ‘The Magnificent Amerson’s’, Directed by Orson Welles
William Shakespeare, ‘Falstaff, Chimes at Midnight’, Directed by Orson Welles

Again, a highly personal list of classic films and literary sources. My criteria for determining these works as classics is based upon my judgement of what is readable, watchable, and influential. I’m sure many will disagree with some of my selections, and I hasten to say this list makes no claims to comprehensiveness. Rather consider it as a prelude to further discussion. I have chosen primarily movie posters for illustrations as I find it interesting to see how the motion picture industry has chosen to publicize these adaptations, and the amount of space given to the original author. Notice that John Steinbeck and Truman Capote get their names above the title in rather bold type, whereas you need good eyesight to spot the names of Emily Bronte and Harper Lee, and Welles omits the Bard’s name altogether.

If there is sufficient interest on the part of the readers, and sufficient forbearance on the part of Chris, I would like to examine another work, not mentioned here, in greater detail at a future date. {Ed. Note: I think you will join me in the sincere hope that Mr. Bailey will contribute similar articles whenever he would like!}

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