ON THIS DAY in 1954, the Communist national independence coalition, the Viet Minh, took control of North Vietnam during the First Indochina War. The 1958 film, THE QUIET AMERICAN, with Michael Redgrave, based on the Graham Greene novel, was set during the period immediately preceding this event.
AFTER I SAW the 2002 film version of THE QUIET AMERICAN, I read the Graham Greene novel on which it was based. Then I saw 1958 film version. To see both movies is an odd experience—not good, just odd—because they use the same story structure, the same characters, and sometimes the same dialogue to tell opposite stories.
The Book (1955)
The Quiet American was published in 1955. Greene based it on his experiences as a Saigon-based war correspondent in Vietnam from 1951 to 1954. At that point the French were fighting the First Indochina War. The American government was starting to take an interest in the place.
The plot concerns a clash of world views: the cynical, burned-out, middle-aged British journalist Thomas Fowler versus the idealistic, Harvard-educated young American Alden Pyle. It is implied that Pyle works for Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. Pyle makes Fowler crazy with exasperation, not least because Pyle is in love with Fowler’s beautiful young Vietnamese mistress Phuong—an enigmatic character.
Because Pyle and his ideals cause a lot of harm, the book was widely and unsurprisingly perceived as anti-American. After its publication Greene—a British citizen—was watched by US intelligence agencies for about 35 years.
One wonders what Greene thought was going to happen when he sold the rights to MGM. Did he really believe they would film his book as written? Whatever his motives, he hated the finished product, saying that it was “deliberately made to attack the book and the author.”
The First Movie (1958)
Filmed in Saigon, the first version of THE QUIET AMERICAN conveys a strong sense of place (its cinematographer, Robert Krasker, also shot THE THIRD MAN). It features a brilliant performance by Michael Redgrave as Fowler.
Pyle is a private citizen on a mission for good. He is honorable, brave, and always right. Fowler is an adulterer and an atheist. Worse, he is a bad reporter who is easily duped.
The clash of world views and the love triangle are the same as in the book. The difference is that writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz gave Pyle the last word, every time. Even after Pyle is dead, he manages to get the last word: Fowler loses Phuong for good (in the book he gets her back).
The Second Movie (2002)
The 2002 remake of THE QUIET AMERICAN is more faithful to Greene’s characterization of Pyle. How faithful? Although the movie was completed in 2001, US distribution was held up more than a year because of fears of seeming anti-American after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
The filmmakers simplified the plot and turned up the heat a bit under the main characters: Pyle is more obviously up to no good, and Fowler is more sympathetic.
Like its predecessor, this movie has at its heart is a brilliant performance: Michael Caine was justly nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Fowler. The book’s sensuality, drained out of the 1958 version, was restored. The 2002 version is more graphic than the 1958 version; this too represents fidelity to the book.
I like the 2002 version because it uses the power of Greene’s story rather than working against it. “Isms and ocracies,” Fowler says wearily to Pyle. “Give me facts.”
in 2002 Michael Caine talked about his role in THE QUIET AMERICAN in this interview.
The Quiet American is available in several editions, including one that includes essays by Greene, historical writings, and reviews.
WHEN I FIRST SAW Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING, which was adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, I had a writerish reaction: how dare they change her book so much? It wasn’t until I saw the movie the second time that I realized how brilliantly the novel had been adapted for the screen. If screenwriter Nelson Gidding had been faithful to every detail of the book, the result would have embarrassed everybody.
For this guest blog, I decided to write about the rocky road from print to screen, using the examples of NIGHT FLIGHT, THE THIRD MAN, and THE HAUNTING. (If anyone wants to know the alternate ending to THE THIRD MAN, just ask.)”
I don’t remember why I recorded NIGHT FLIGHT, but when I got around to watching it, I was surprised to learn that it had been kept out of circulation for more than 70 years because the author of the book on which it was based, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, hated it.
How Saint Exupéry was able to suppress this film for so long is a mystery. Why he did it is less of a mystery, at least to me. The movie makers were unfaithful. His book Vol de nuit was not on the screen. In its place was a good movie—smart, emotional, and tough, with spectacular aerial photography. But Saint Exupéry did not see the movie. He saw the book that wasn’t there.
The Third Man
Graham Greene wrote THE THIRD MAN as a movie treatment in response to a specific request by British film producer Alexander Korda. When director Carol Reed changed the ending, Greene could have been offended. Instead, he recognized that Reed was right and thanked him publicly:
One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right.
Nelson Gidding’s screenplay for the 1963 movie THE HAUNTING is a masterpiece of adaptation. Gidding was not all that faithful to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, although Jackson was a major author and the novel was a best seller. He knew when to stay true to her intentions and when to ignore them.
What Was Kept
The House as the Star. Hill House is the source of the terror and the mystery. If you read the book, you will find elements that do not match up with the movie, but you will recognize that spectacular house in every detail.
Eleanor, the Main Female Character. Eleanor is the most tormented visitor to Hill House. She and the evil presence in the house are drawn to each other. If Gidding changed her, he would also have had to rethink the house. He left her alone.
What Was Changed
All the Characters Except Eleanor. Theo morphed into a lesbian. Luke became a character meant to provide comic relief. Dr Montague—a bookish scholar in the novel—became the charming, handsome, and witty Dr Markway. Dr Montague’s wife, too, underwent a major transformation (more on that below).
The Event That Pushes Eleanor Ever the Edge. In the novel both Eleanor and Theo pursue Luke. In the movie Eleanor falls for Dr Markway, who is married but keeps quiet about it and sees through her as if she were made of glass. When he rejects her, the humiliation is intense. By making Eleanor’s pursuit of Dr Markway delusional, Gidding sets up the scene where she loses her grip on reality entirely.
The Funniest Part of the Novel. This really is a loss, although Gidding had no choice. In the book Mrs Montague blazes into the house with a ouija board and an assistant named Arthur, ready to give the spirit inhabitants of Hill House perfect love and compassion. She has a session with the ouija board where the spirits definitely communicate and she definitely misunderstands them (the other people in the house understand perfectly, and are terrified). In the movie Mrs Markway is a no-nonsense debunker of all things ghostly.
If you watch THE HAUNTING this October, there is another change to appreciate. The novel takes place in June. Gidding moved the time to just before Halloween.
Lindsay Edmunds blogs about robots, computers, 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.