AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY weighs in at a staggering 828 pages. That is because its author, Theodore Dreiser, is in the words of a critic, “endlessly faithful to common experience” (emphasis on “endlessly”). To read a paragraph from the novel, scroll down to the bottom of this blog.*
I did not read the novel cover to cover. I read about one-quarter of it and used online chapter summaries for some of the gaps.
AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1925)
An American Tragedy brought Theodore Dreiser both popularity and acclaim. It was based on a true story and follows the facts of the case closely, even down to the setting of upstate New York.
Dreiser’s prose style is a sea of sand. But in that sand lies psychological acuity. Dreiser knew people. He is the kind of person you would avoid at a party because a minute after he met you, he would have your number—and probably put you in his next novel.
There are three central characters—Clyde and the two women he is involved with, Sondra and Roberta.
Clyde’s parents are fundamentalist Christian street preachers. It is a poverty-stricken, itinerant existence. His sister runs off with the first man who gives her a line of smooth talk. Like his sister, Clyde is clueless about who he is or how to get anything worth having in life, but unlike her, he catches a lucky break. He ends up working at his wealthy uncle’s factory, the Griffiths Collar & Shirt Company, in Lycurgus, New York.
Clyde meets Roberta, who is hard-working, pretty, and poor. She has a tender heart. When she dreams of a better life, she does not dream of being rich. She dreams of being loved. He enjoys sleeping with Roberta (novel is fairly frank about this), but soon he meets Sondra, who is rich, beautiful, generous, and kind. She is the Other—the dream girl who embodies everything he thinks he wants.
When Roberta becomes pregnant, Clyde tries to arrange an abortion for her. Roberta agrees because she is terrified. But the remedy provided by a druggist only makes her sick. The doctor who performs abortions for his wealthy clients on the side refuses to help her. She then pleads with Clyde to marry her, accepting that he will leave after the baby is born. He puts her off.
Clyde takes her out in a canoe intending to murder her, but he has a last-minute change of heart and cannot go through with it. She stands up and walks toward him. He hits out at her (with a camera, for some reason), and the canoe tips over. Once they are in the water, he does nothing to save her.
Clyde is convicted of murder on partly manufactured evidence. After nine months on death row, he is executed by the state of New York. What happens to Sondra? She just sort of disappears. After Clyde’s arrest, she sends him a kind but bland letter to which she does not sign her name.
Okay, got the picture? Roberta loves Clyde. Clyde loves Sondra. Sondra thinks Clyde is interesting.
A PLACE IN THE SUN does not play the story quite that way.
A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)
This George Stevens movie was a critical and commercial success. It won six Academy Awards and a Golden Globe Award for best picture. It stars Elizabeth Taylor as rich society girl Angela Vickers and Montgomery Clift as the poor and enterprising George Eastman. They look very much as Dreiser describes Sondra and Clyde, by the way. Sondra is a dark-haired beauty; Clyde is darkly handsome.
Shelley Winters plays Alice Tripp, the girl who becomes pregnant by George. She does not sound or look like Dreiser’s Roberta. Alice is deliberately made unattractive so George’s rejection of her will not seem so bad.
With Clift and Taylor as the leads, the movie plays like Romeo and Juliet. To play it any other way with those two stars would have been crazy. They have spectacular chemistry; this is a story they can tell. Angela does not find George “interesting.” She is passionately in love with him, as he is with her. They reach across the walls of their respective classes.
Alice tries to blackmail George into marrying her. George wants her dead, but does not kill her. That scene plays just as it does in the book.
In the novel, Clyde has a death row conversion. He accepts Christ as his personal savior and writes a farewell letter to the world that exhorts young men to lead good Christian lives. Dreiser plays this scene cynically: the conversion is a measure of how thoroughly Clyde has been destroyed.
It is impossible to imagine the movie ending that way, and a good thing it doesn’t. I like the movie’s ending better. It is simple and straightforward: George takes responsibility for what he did and accepts his fate.
A good story raises questions.
Is movie saying that you need to know your place in life and stay there?
If George and Angela had run off together, would it have worked?
What if George and Alice had married?
What kind of movie would A PLACE IN THE SUN have been if Taylor and Winters had played each other’s roles?
There is an earlier film version from 1931 that seems to have vanished. Josef von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY stars Philips Holmes as Clyde, Frances Dee as Sondra, and Sylvia Sidney as Roberta. Dreiser did not like it.
About chemistry—here is the “Do I make you nervous?” clip from A PLACE IN THE SUN:
Here is the trailer:
*From An American Tragedy:
So astonished was he that he could scarcely contain himself for joy, but on the instant must walk to and fro, looking at himself in the mirror, washing his hands and face, then deciding that his tie was not just right, perhaps, and changing to another—thinking forward to what he should wear and back upon how Sondra had looked at him on that last occasion. And how she had smiled. At the same time he could not help wondering even at this moment of what Roberta would think, if now, by some extra optical power of observation she could note his present joy in connection with this note. For plainly, and because he was no longer governed by the conventional notions of his parents, he had been allowing himself to drift into a position in regard to her which would certainly spell torture to her in case she should discover the nature of his present mood, a thought which puzzled him, not a little, but did not serve to modify his thoughts in regard to Sondra in the least.
Lindsay Edmunds blogs about robots, writing, life in southwestern Pennsylvania, and sometimes books and movies at Writer’s Rest. She is the author of a novel about love in the age of artificial intelligence: Cel & Anna.
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I read AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY in high school and thought it was plodding prose with an interesting plot. I can’t recall seeing the film, but the clips you provided make me want to rent it. Taylor and Clift are amazing together! Thanks for comparing these two works. By the way, there is also a relatively recent opera adaptation of AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY which was commissioned by and presented at the Metropolitan Opera.
— Susan Dormady Eisenberg
I will defiitely have to see the opera!