Graham Greene at the Movies: A Novelist's Experience with the Film

By Joseph T Skerrett, Jr. | Literature/Film Quarterly, Fall 1974 | Go to article overview

Graham Greene at the Movies: A Novelist's Experience with the Film


Joseph T Skerrett, Jr., Literature/Film Quarterly


Graham Greene's long and fruitful career has brought him to the edge, if not within, the magic circle of the twentieth century's literary magi. His work has drawn the attention of many scholars, and much excellent criticism has gone into the delineation of his powerful themes of belief and betrayal, sex, love, loss and emptiness.

But when we turn to consider other elements of Greene's career and works, the paths are neither so well worn, nor so easily discernible. Though there are two full-length critical studies, there is as yet no biography at all. We can only guess, in however educated a fashion, at the relationships between the author's .life experiences and the situations and characters set forth by his imagination. Greene's recently published partial autobiography, A Sort of Life. rather more sharpens our appetite than satisfies it; Greene breaks off just before the period of his first literary maturity. Similarly, though Greene's style is a striking one, very few critics have seriously attended to questions of style, language, and structural patterns in his fiction.

A particularly | intriguing | question regarding Greene's literary output is related to both of these problematic areas of inquiry: Greene's relationship with the cinema. In terms of biography, Greene seems never to have been outside a filmic world. In his autobiographical essay "The Lost Childhood" he notes in passing that one of the first films he can remember seeing, in "about 1911" when he was six or seven years old, was a film adaptation of a popular novel. 1 This was perhaps a presage of his own career, for nearly twenty films have been made from various Greene works. He has himself written a half-dozen screenplays based on his own works, as well as film adaptations of the work of other writers. In addition, he served as film reviewer for the Spectator from 1935 until the outbreak of war. For six months during 1937 Greene was film reviewer for the short-lived journal Night and Day. at which post he received a certain amount of notoriety when he and Night and Day were sued for libel in response to some tartly Freudian remarks by Greene on the proto-sexual appeal of the (then) juvenile Miss Shirley Temple. The lawsuit killed Night and Day, and Greene returned to the Spectator where, after about 1940, his reviewing turned more and more to prose and drama and away from the movies.2

This, the decade of Greene's most important development as a writer, is thus a decade in which he was deeply involved with watching, writing and criticizing films. The related stylistic question is obvious: what effect have these various forms of film work had upon Greene's writing? That the intense visuality of the Greene prose style owes something to the movies has been pointed out time and time again; Walter Allen described Greene as possessed of "a technique of montage which he owes to the film"; Dominick Consolo compares Greene's use of the catalog to the pan shot of a movie camera.3 And while neither of these critics finds the alleged filmic qualities of Greene's prose a negative characteristic, several others - John Atkins, Richard Hoggart, Arthur Caldwell-Marshall - feel that the film influence has had detrimental effect on Greene's writing, contributing to a "thinness" of characterization, an over-emphasis on excitement and circumstance.4

Some clarification of the relationships existing among these various Graham Greenes - moviegoer, film reviewer, screenwriter, and novelist - is called for. Fortunately, the novelist has left a trail. In an essay of 1958, "The Novelist and the Cinema: A Personal Experience," Greene poignantly notes his disillusionment with a medium he once loved:

At least the Cinema, like a psychiatrist, has enabled one to do without it. But that last sentence which slipped off the pen has a certain sadness. Am I the same character who in the 1920's read Close-up and the latest book on montage by Pudovkin with so much enthusiasm, who felt in Mother, The Gold Rush, Rien que les heures. …

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