HOLLYWOOD HAS RESURRECTED GRAHAM Greene and perhaps not a moment too soon. A dozen years after his death the mid-20th century novelist who tracked the wanderings of the human heart through the borderlands of colonialism, communism, and Catholicism is Tinseltown's new wunderkind.
Greene's ghost, quartered in that realm of heaven reserved for agnostic Catholics, must be amused by this sudden turn, given that the author thought Hollywood misunderstood him even worse than Rome. Still, prophets are often honored posthumously, and a pair of modern filmmakers have doffed their caps to Greene with remakes of two of his best works.
First Neil Jordan brought Greene's The End of the Affair to the big screen in 1999 with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, then Phillip Noyce offered a fresh translation of The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. And suddenly a new generation of moviegoers is being introduced to the magic of "Greeneland."
Despite his distaste for many of the movies fashioned from his stories, Greene enjoyed a great deal of success from Hollywood. A former film critic, he crafted novels with a cinematographer's eye, and more than 40 films were made of his stories, many of them popular and critical successes, including This Gun for Hire, Ministry of Fear, Confidential Agent, Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, and The Comedians.
Still, it is hard to think of one now that matched the caliber of The Third Man, Greene's most outstanding film, and the only one he wrote as a screenplay. And it is harder still to find more than two or three of these movies at the neighborhood video store. Until very recently modern audiences had all but forgotten Greene's movies.
Greene's disappearance from the box office seems particularly ironic when one considers that the self-described author of "penny dreadful novels" and dark "entertainments" tended to write stories about espionage and illicit sex, ever popular staples of American cinema. Like Ian Fleming, Greene had worked for British military intelligence, and many of his stories centered on the intrigues and violence of espionage. And like Andrew Greeley, Greene regularly explored the terrain of sexual infidelity, among both couples and clerics. Throw in the troubles he had with the Vatican censors and one would expect Greene to be a perennial Hollywood darling.
But Greene's espionage tales have more in common with Eric Ambler and Joseph Conrad than Fleming or Tom Clancy. His stories have none of the pyrotechnics or gadgetry of the modern thriller, and his "agents" lack the moral certitude of cardboard cutouts played by Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis. The Quiet American or Our Man in Havana could never have been made into a Bond film directed by Jon Woo, nor was anyone going to peddle action figures from these movies at the local burger barn.
And Greene's tales of adultery and infidelity have little of Hollywood's prurient interest in sex or revenge. In Greeneland adulterers are often lonely, depressed souls groping for a bit of solace, company, or pity, and betrayed husbands or lovers rarely seek the vengeance that so excites Michael Douglas in A Perfect Murder or Antonio Banderas in Original Sin.
The spies and spouses in Greene's fiction inhabit a grey world, where the boundary between innocence and guilt is moveable, where all the saints are more than a little sinful. His characters are haunted, introspective souls in search of redemption, not victory or vengeance.
Indeed, Greeneland is populated with the sorts of characters novelist John Gardner once called "freaks," ethically fractured souls lacking the discipline or virtue to be saints or heroes. Greene's protagonists are "whiskey priests," unfaithful wives, corrupted police officers, and philandering and opium-addicted journalists. Gardner argued that a steady diet of such freaks undermined the moral purpose of serious …