10 great Graham Greene adaptations

With The Third Man back in UK cinemas for its 70th anniversary, we look back at some of the cinema’s finest trips into Greeneland.

3 September 2019

By Brad Stevens

The Third Man (1949)

Aside from being among the 20th century’s most important English-language novelists, Graham Greene was very much a creature of cinema, from his stint as a film critic in the 1930s (during which he was successfully prosecuted for libel after implying that Shirley Temple’s audience primarily consisted of paedophiles) to his pseudonymous cameo as an insurance agent in François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) – though Truffaut reportedly had no idea who this bit part actor really was.

And that’s before we even get started on the many films (the IMDb lists 82 titles) adapted from his work.

It has become something of a cliché to say that Greene’s writing was intensely cinematic: according to Evelyn Waugh, “the affinity of the film is everywhere apparent. It is the camera’s eye which moves about the room recording significant detail.” Perhaps too much has been made of this affinity; Greene seems to me no more inherently cinematic than, say, Thomas Hardy, whose last novel appeared shortly before the first public film screenings. And Greene’s intense seriousness, undiluted by even a hint of irony, has made him an unfashionable figure in modern cinema (almost a decade has passed since the last feature based on his work).

But there is little doubt that his vividly realised world — both an objective reality and a reality perceived from a specific viewpoint (usually, though not always, that of a tortured Catholic) – long held an irresistible appeal for filmmakers.

Greene was a tough critic of attempts to dramatise his books, and there is certainly much to be criticised. The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The Honorary Consul (1973), perhaps Greene’s finest novels, were both subjected to particularly desultory screen adaptations, the former, made in 1953 by George More O’Ferrall, being ruined by turgid direction and a compromised ending, the latter, made by John Mackenzie in 1983, never recovering from the miscasting of Richard Gere.

Yet in preparing a list of 10 essential titles, it proved more frustrating deciding what to leave out rather than what to include. John Ford’s The Fugitive (1947) and Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana (1959) were especially regrettable omissions.

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Director: Frank Tuttle

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Although Stamboul Train (1932) had been filmed as Orient Express in 1934, the first notable Greene adaptation was this American version of A Gun for Sale (1936), which used the book’s US title. Alan Ladd was an odd choice to play the social misfit protagonist, hired killer Raven. The harelip which makes him so easy to identify in the original becomes a deformed wrist here, a touch that functions primarily as a ghostly echo of the source text. And the relocation of Greene’s narrative from England to the US eliminates much of the detail that made the novel so memorable.

Yet the direction of Frank Tuttle (later a HUAC victim who named names after years of blacklisting) restores some authentically Greenesque atmosphere, and the result is a key film noir whose look influenced Jean-Pierre Melville’s hitman noir Le Samouraï (1967). A 1957 remake entitled Short Cut to Hell would be the only film directed by James Cagney.

Ministry of Fear (1943)

Director: Fritz Lang

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Greene despised this for the liberties it took with his ‘entertainment’ (published the same year), a crucial sequence in which the hero, played here by Ray Milland, suffers from amnesia having been removed. Yet surely no director was better qualified than Fritz Lang to visualise Greene’s world, a world nightmarishly distorted due to its being seen through the guilt-ridden eyes of a hallucinating protagonist.

Lang had little control over the production, and later apologised to Greene (or so the latter claimed). But, perhaps more than in any of this director’s other American efforts, the milieu is unambiguously that of Lang’s early German classics. As in Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and Spies (1928), shadowy figures exercise an almost supernatural power, all notions of logic being progressively erased (the spy plot the protagonist inadvertently becomes involved with in both book and film is blatantly nonsensical). The result is exemplary, both as a Lang film and a Greene adaptation.

Brighton Rock (1948)

Director: John Boulting

Brighton Rock (1947)

John Boulting was a generally undistinguished British filmmaker (though his 1951 film The Magic Box is admired by Martin Scorsese), but everything came together for him in this adaptation of Greene’s 1938 novel. Working from a screenplay by Greene himself, Boulting admirably catches the book’s meticulously evoked Brighton ambience, and by casting Richard Attenborough as Pinkie, a neurotic young mobster (recalling A Gun for Sale’s Raven) tormented by his Catholic faith, achieves something of a coup; even the actor’s subsequent reputation as the incarnation (both in front of and behind the camera) of decency somehow reinforces the sheer ferocity of his performance here.

The ending is necessarily compromised – the novel’s nihilistic finale, which has the innocent Rose walking happily away to confront “the worst horror of all”, would have posed a challenge to any commercial cinema – but, as Greene has noted, the solution settled on is both ambiguous and tentative.

The Fallen Idol (1948)

Director: Carol Reed

The Fallen Idol (1948)

On The Fallen Idol (made under the title The Lost Illusion, which distributors disliked), Greene found his ideal collaborator, director Carol Reed. Using the 1935 short story ‘The Basement Room’ (with a few echoes of the 1930 story ‘I Spy’) as a starting point, Greene crafted a fresh screenplay, incorporating an unusual amount of input from Reed (who suggested the embassy setting).

With its emphasis on the world as seen from a child’s perspective (the central performance by eight-year old Bobby Henrey is flawless), this feels more like part of Reed’s oeuvre than Greene’s, anticipating A Kid for Two Farthings (1955) and Oliver! (1968), and one might see the film as resulting from a fusion between two great artists. Greene later described Reed as “the only director I know with that particular warmth of human sympathy”, commending him for having “the power of sympathizing with an author’s words and the ability to guide him.”

The Third Man (1949)

Director: Carol Reed

The Third Man (1949)

This original screenplay by Greene (he also wrote up the material as a novella) provided the basis for a masterpiece that seems endlessly beguiling, no matter which perspective one approaches it from: as the cinematic equivalent of a Graham Greene novel, as a Carol Reed film, even as part of Orson Welles’s oeuvre. For if Welles did not actually do any directing, was only present for part of the shoot, and was playing a role originally intended for Noël Coward, the result, with its emphasis on betrayed friendships, can be seen as a gloss on the themes of Citizen Kane (1941), the casting of Joseph Cotten as Holly (originally Rollo) Martins cementing the connection. That Welles wrote Harry Lime’s “cuckoo clock” dialogue suggests just how ideal a collaboration this was, for this speech neatly encapsulates the cynical viewpoint of Greene’s character.

As with The Fallen Idol, Reed significantly influenced the writing (the ending was his idea), but this is nonetheless the finest of various attempts to present Greene’s vision on screen in undiluted form.

The Quiet American (1958)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

The Quiet American (1958)

Greene was understandably furious about how writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz changed his 1955 novel. The final scenes, in which it is revealed that the communists are behind those terrorist attacks taking place in Vietnam during the early 1950s, directly reverse Greene’s ending, which showed the Americans to be responsible.

The irony is that, up to this point, the film has been a conscientious and intelligent adaptation, Mankiewicz’s production beautifully capturing the book’s vivid south-east Asian atmosphere. One might not go as far as Jean-Luc Godard, who insisted that the script “improves a hundred percent on Graham Greene”, but, particularly from an auteurist perspective, there is a great deal here worth lingering on, including some typically self-conscious Mankiewiczian dialogue from Claude Dauphin’s Inspector Vigot, who insists: “I dislike happy endings of the type one finds in the older American films – or the newer European ones!”

The Comedians (1967)

Director: Peter Glenville

The Comedians (1967)

Greene’s 1966 novel was inspired by his experiences in Haiti under the tyrannical rule of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. The author’s screenplay, written immediately after the book’s completion, sticks closely to the original but changes the ending, in which the central character, Brown, returns to a life of mediocrity. In the film, Brown (Richard Burton) is talked into substituting for the dead Major Jones (Alec Guinness) and leading the rebellion against Duvalier’s dictatorship, the final scene leaving us uncertain whether or not he has been killed.

In  many ways, this is a more satisfying conclusion, and the fact that it was entirely Greene’s idea positions the film as in some sense a final textual revision of the novel. The cuckolded ambassador Pineda (as played by Peter Ustinov) comes across as a far more complex character than he does in the book, and it seems likely that director Peter Glenville’s homosexuality (he was one of the few openly gay filmmakers working in Hollywood during this period) helped him connect with a character so conspicuously failing in the heterosexual arena.

The Human Factor (1979)

Director: Otto Preminger

The Human Factor (1979)

Greene’s novel, inspired by his experiences in the secret service, was begun during the late 1960s and subsequently abandoned, partly because Greene disliked the idea that his protagonist, a British spy working for the Russians, might be seen as based on Kim Philby (whom Greene had been acquainted with). When the book eventually appeared in 1978, it was rapidly adapted by Otto Preminger, whose final work it proved to be.

The novel is in many respects atypical (it reads far more like one of John le Carré’s interventions in the spy genre), and its surely significant that Preminger’s film came after a decade devoted to such eccentric works as Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), with their tone of hysterical overstatement. By contrast, Preminger’s The Human Factor is distinguished by its atmosphere of total calm, matter-of-factly reproducing Greene’s narrative (it would hardly be an exaggeration to describe screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s contribution as limited to retyping the novel in screenplay form) in a manner which faultlessly catches the distinctive flavour of the author’s language while, in its very Premingerian emphasis on moral ambiguity, suggesting something highly personal directorially.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva (1984)

Director: Michael Lindsay-Hogg

Doctor Fischer of Geneva (1984)

It was watching this television film, based on the short 1980 novel Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party, during its initial broadcast on ITV that inspired me to start reading Greene’s work (something not even The Third Man, with its more obviously cinematic qualities, had been able to do).

Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s typically workmanlike direction splendidly serves the fable-like qualities of Greene’s narrative, ensuring that our focus is always on dialogue and performance. James Mason and Alan Bates are perfectly cast as the eponymous protagonist, a rich ogre who holds dinner parties at which he humiliates his guests, and Alfred Jones, a penniless translator who marries Dr Fischer’s daughter. Yet, as superb as Mason’s interpretation is, it’s difficult to avoid wondering how effective The Third Man’s Orson Welles (who died the following year) might have been in this most Wellesian of roles.

The End of the Affair (1999)

Director: Neil Jordan

The End of the Affair (1999)

Although Greene’s 1951 novel had already been very adequately filmed by Edward Dmytryk in 1955, this remake by screenwriter-director Neil Jordan is the more interesting attempt. Jordan turns Greene’s militant atheist Smythe into a Catholic priest and gives his facial blemish to another character, the son of private detective Parkis. This restructuring oddly recalls the deformity that moved from face to wrist when A Gun for Sale became This Gun for Hire, but also places the film in a line of textual revision initiated by Greene, who reworked the novel in 1974, turning Smythe’s birthmark into a condition that may have been psychosomatic (thus rendering its disappearance less miraculous).

Jordan also allows the two central characters, Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) and Sarah (Julianne Moore), one last romantic fling in Brighton, a location that evokes another Greene novel, but also figures prominently in Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986). God may have decided to end this couple’s illicit affair, but they are now at least permitted to lodge a protest. If Jordan is as much a tortured Catholic as Greene, his adaptation suggests a critical engagement with the text that’s continuous with the author’s own changing feelings about both his novel and his religious beliefs.

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