In May 1933, Darryl F. Zanuck bought the rights to Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts for Twentieth Century Pictures. By Hollywood standards at least, the novel did not appear to be a very promising acquisition. And with good reason. For one thing, the first printing had sold fewer than 200 copies. Moreover, the initial studio reader's report, submitted on April 26,1933, summed up this "saddist" (sic) novel in the following fashion:
This is a book which could not possibly be translated to the screen. Great stress is laid on fornications and perversions, and on disgustingly intimate details which seek to define the psychopathic character but which do little to further the slight plot. The convention [sic] reader of fiction would class this novel as vile and without apparent purpose save to shock (Twentieth Century Fox Studio files, 2-4).
It is difficult to know just what Zanuck's interest in Miss Lonelyhearts could have been. He may have wanted to acquire the rights to the title. Or perhaps he was hoping to cash in on its slightly scandalous reputation. If that was the case, then the strategy would eventually backfire on him. It is more likely that Zanuck simply wanted to capitalize on the success of movies like The Front Page (1931 ) and hti Nelly ( 1932), which initiated a cycle of newspaper movies that culminated in His Girl Friday (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), and Meet John Doe (1941).
Whatever Zanuck's reasons for buying the rights, the adaptation of the novel shows quite clearly how little interest there was in pursuing the novel's "vile" themes or "slight plot." Leonard Praskins, the man charged with adapting Miss Lonelyhearts to the screen, was fairly successful in eliminating most of its (sad and sadist) "fornications and perversions." In his hands, Miss Lonelyhearts becomes a story about "doing the right thing," of "one man's redemption," of "true love lost and found."' That is to say, West's novel is turned back into the comic strip from which it originally took its point of departure and inspiration. But if these descriptions sound hackneyed, it is too easy to dismiss his adaptation as a mere "hack job."
The adaptation of a novel or of any other material into a screenplay is always a complicated affair involving a web of determinants. It is, in the truest sense, a collaborative effort in which writers, producers, and studio executives struggle-sometimes in sync, sometimes at cross-purposes-to give shape to a screenplay through a succession of story conferences, rough drafts, more conferences, and still more drafts before receiving the studio's final imprimatur. What emerges is the result of local pressures (budgetary restrictions, exhibition practices, available talent), generic expectations (prescribed mise-en-scene, plot devices, beginnings and endings), and cracker barrel theorizing on everything from character motivation to projections of "what America wants"-which is in turn shaped by still larger ideological constraints that quite literally make certain possibilities unimaginable.
This process is often mystified under the sign of "entertainment," but it is not at all innocent. The disassembly and reconfiguration of certain privileged cultural codes in a persuasive manner is an essential part of any society's ability to respond to shifting historical circumstances and their resulting social pressures. During the difficult years of the Depression, Hollywood was given unprecedented power in this regard. The films it produced were instrumental in providing the ideological groundwork necessary to reimagine the country during a time of crisis. Consequently, the process of honing and refining a screenplay, especially material as recalcitrant as Miss Lonelyhearts, provides an unparalleled opportunity to watch that ideology at work. Praskins's adaptation, in particular, provides us with a guide to the remarkably parochial weltanschauung of middle-class America in 1933, or, rather. …