Fans of British novelist Graham Greene are said to live in GreeneLand, a place where I take up a happy residency.
While film buffs will always remember Greene for penning the screenplay to one of the greatest movies ever made, The Third Man, it becomes easy to overlook the myriad of film adaptations that sprang so effortlessly from his novels at the time of their publication and later. In fact, it was a recent mini-Greene-to-film-Renaissance that first introduced me to the man who would become my favorite writer. I would’ve never turned to his short stories and novels had it not been for the most recent film adaptations of The End of the Affair and The Quiet American. Many of the earlier film adaptations are unfairly forgotten or simply hard to find and deserve to be brought to light for classic film buffs and faithful GreeneLand residents alike.
The following is a ranking of the Graham Greene book to film adaptations I have seen.
The End of the Affair (1999, directed by Neil Jordan, adapted from the novel of the same name)
- The Gist: Greene’s alter ego, Maurice Bendrix (a perfectly cast Ralph Fiennes), takes up with a married woman (Julianne Moore in an Oscar-nominated performance), and the end of their affair becomes a matter of mystery blurred by multiple points-of-view and an Unknown third party.
- Why it Works: Though two minor but pivotal characters from the novel become one on film, this is a daringly faithful adaptation of one of Greene’s greatest works that doesn’t shy away from the unorthodox literary technique and hangs the film on the same voice-over narration, non-linear chronology and shifting POV’s. Visually, director Jordan captures the right mood and atmosphere with his period-perfect details and rain-soaked and bomb-riddled WWII-era London tableau. The performances are both nuanced and emotionally wrenching, at it’s all accentuated by a sublime film score from Michael Nyman.
- Why You Need To Watch It: This is a three-fold stunner: An overlooked gem from the talented Jordan who is sadly best know for his most overrated films (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire), one of the “forgotten” films of the banner year that was 1999, and a near perfect adaptation of a world renowned novel.
Ministry of Fear (1944, directed by Fritz Lang, adapted from the novel of the same name)
- The Gist: One of Greene’s most psychologically complex “entertainments” gets the royal treatment from the man who masterminded German Expressionism and Film Noir. The plot is too convoluted to run through here, but it involves London in the Blitzkrieg, spies, bombs, a seance, dames, guns and one helluva dangerous cake.
- Why It Works: Lang didn’t “adapt” Greene’s novel, he interpreted it into his own signature film language. Quibble if you want over the liberties taken with the source material, it still follows the psychological framework quite closely, and the reason this works is because it’s Lang, baby — the pacing, the shadows, the darkness, the framing, the camera movement, the taut action — he is the master. The seance scene and the final gun shot are killer.
- Why You Need To Watch It: Though the British writer and the German auteur were big fans of each other, neither one was pleased with the end result (artists are their own worst critics) which has lead to this being shelved and scarcely available in the States (though it is readily available in Europe). Thus this becomes one of those “lost classics” you need to find.
The Quiet American (2002, directed by Phillip Noyce, adapted from the novel of the same name)
- The Gist: A laissez-faire British diplomat (Michael Caine, superb) becomes entangled with an over-eager American businessman (Brendan Fraser) and a local woman they both love in pre-war Vietnam.
- Why It Works: While the novel was prescient, this modern film adaptation is elegiac — and suspenseful when it needs to be thanks to the tactful hack Noyce. Christopher Hampton’s screenplay hits all the right notes and Caine’s performance is possibly the best of his career. When he closes the film with his voice-over stating something to the effect of “…and I wish there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry”– well, that’s the tortured Catholic Greene in a nutshell.
- Why You Need To Watch It: Caine’s tour-de-force (and his reading of Greene’s exact words) should be enough of a sell for anyone.
Brighton Rock (1947, directed by John Boulting, adapted from the novel of the same name)
- The Gist: Greene’s classic tale of small-town hood Pinkie and his fall from grace hits the big screen.
- Why It Works: When I read the book, I expected something a bit more stylish, but this film adaptation is extremely faithful despite a nuanced change to the closing coda and anchored by a breakthrough performance from a young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie.
- Why You Should Watch It: Yes, the book is better…but if I were teaching a class on Greene, it would be a no-brainer to tell my students, “After you read the book, we’ll watch the movie and discuss.”
The Fallen Idol (1948, directed by Carol Reed, adapted from the short story originally titled “The Basement Room”)
- The Gist: An obnoxious little British kid (a lisping Bobby Henrey) grows up fast when his idol, the family’s butler (a very good Ralph Richardson), gets involved in some adult shenanigans while the parents are away.
- Why It Doesn’t Work: Look, Reed is a great director, and this film is well made and well liked in many film circles. A lot of those biting Greene witticisms make it to screen because he did his own adaptation, but unfortunately he also had to pad his short story to achieve a proper film runtime, which means what was a brutal and poignant closing act on page becomes a long, drawn-out affair on screen where any sense of dramatic irony is rendered mute.
- Why You Should Still Watch It: It’s a good movie. It’s just I am a huge fan of the story, and I thought Reed and Greene did a disservice to it by casting a horrible child actor and stretching out the ending resulting in a deadening of the intended dramatic impact.
This Gun For Hire (1942, directed by Frank Tuttle, adapted from the novel A Gun for Sale)
- The Gist: A hit-man (Alan Ladd) trying to track down who passed him stolen banknotes gets involved with a lounge singer (Veronica Lake) who also happens to be the lead detective’s babe in this Americanized version of Greene’s classic “entertainment.”
- Why It Doesn’t Work: Transferring the film’s setting from pre-WWII England to sunny California sucks out all of the story’s charm, atmosphere and wit. Fans of the novel will also notice a major change to the lead character’s signature physical trait to make him more tolerable to look at.
- Why You Should Still Watch It: As a Greene film adaptation, it’s pretty lousy (though the opening scenes and certain suspenseful moments are translated well by Tuttle), but as an example of early-40’s American noir and a Veronica Lake vehicle, this thing works like gangbusters.
Our Man in Havana (1959, directed by Carol Reed from the novel of the same name)
- The Gist: A vacuum cleaner salesman (a smartly cast Alec Guinness) becomes an unwitting participant in British covert ops as a way to fund his spoiled daughter’s schooling in this final Greene/Reed collaboration.
- Why It Doesn’t Work: Something was lost in translation. First off, this thing should’ve been shot in color to capture the vibrancy of pre-revolutionary Havana that was so vividly described in the book. Secondly, Reed approaches the material too seriously…this was a comedic satire…and though the characters do and say the same things as they do in the novel, the humor doesn’t translate.
- Why You Should Still Watch It: Though this film proves the old adage “the book is always better than the movie” — this is still Greene, still Reed and still Guinness, which means it’s never anything but watchable.
Written by David H. Schleicher
In My Queue:
- The sure-to-be-confounding Liz Taylor/Richard Burton 1967 version of The Comedians.
- The 1945 adaptation of The Confidential Agent (which I have also yet to read)
Still Hoping to Find:
- Otto Preminger’s 1979 film version of The Human Factor starring Richard Attenborough (again).
- The 1983 version of The Honorary Consul (also in my reading queue) starring Michael Caine (again) and Richard Gere.
***And a Special Thanks to DeeDee (aka DarkCityDame) who helped me secure hard to find copies of Ministry of Fear and The Confidential Agent!