A Photogenic Horror: Lewton Does Robert Louis Stevenson

By Telotte, J P | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1982 | Go to article overview

A Photogenic Horror: Lewton Does Robert Louis Stevenson


Telotte, J P, Literature/Film Quarterly


Before becoming a story editor for David Selznick and then going on to produce his famous series of B-films at RKO, Val Lewton had embarked on a writing career, working first as a reporter and then churning out a broad range of historical novels, romances, and thrillers.1 That literary background apparently served him well in his film work, for according to his associates he "rewrote everything that his writers turned in; the last draft [of each script] was always his."2 Perhaps more importantly, he made that literary atmosphere felt everywhere in his productions; as Mark Robson, director of five Lewton films, recalls, "we were sort of brainwashed, in a way- brainwashed into thinking in poetic terms."3 However, that almost tangible literary quality for which the Lewton films are justly esteemed has often made for a strangely uncinematic evaluation of them. They have been praised as "ambitiously literary," "poetic," and have been lauded for what they did not show, as if their success were largely due to Lewton's prizing literary techniques over established film practices. Certainly he sought to tone down the conventional grotesquery of the horror genre in which he most frequently worked, eliminating the spectacular monsters and ghouls with which his competitors at Universal Studios had been so successful. In place of what he termed those "masklike faces hardly human, with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end,"4 Lewton strove for a subtler form of the grotesque; yet it was one which indeed thrived on distinctly cinematic techniques of narrative.

Lewton's adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's story, "The Body-Snatcher," may best exemplify what he added over and above the "literary" and testify to his mindfulness of cinematic practice. In order to bring that Victorian horror story to the screen, Lewton fully reworked the tale's structure and characterization to such an extent that, for one of the few times in his career, he took screen credit for the final script, using the pseudonym Carlos Keith, a name under which he had previously penned several novels. What he had to work from was a complex tale in which an anonymous narrator introduces an older acquaintance named Fettes and then proceeds to relate this character's past history as it was told to him. Distanced by time from the actions he reports, that narrator inexplicably breaks off his account with one horrific scene, the description of a grotesque vision or visitation once experienced by Fettes. While that frame structure involving several time periods, an intrusive narrator, and the single-effect shock ending are devices hardly alien to film narrative, they do present some obstacles in translation to the screen. Flashbacks, voice-over narration, and arresting imagery have long been the stock-in-trade of film story-telling, though each imposes limitations particularly unwelcome for the horror genre. A frame tale most often brackets the grotesque, keeping it at a less alarming temporal remove, just as a voice-over intrudes a "safe," rationalizing buffer between the audience and those horrors it recounts. The shocking image trades on film's immediate visual impact, but almost inevitably at some cost in ambiguity and complexity. The narrative effects found in Stevenson's short piece would, therefore, pose a test of cinematic skill for any adapter.

Although with far greater complexity and to more point, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw employs generally similar elements and narrative structure as does "The Body-Snatcher," and its famous screen adaptation, The Innocents, is quite effective. That film beneficially eliminates both the framework and narrator of James's story, but at the end it capitulates to our curiosity, providing an objective view of one of the tale's "ghosts," and thereby fails to achieve quite the complex and troubling ambiguity of its literary source. Given far less to work with, Lewton fares somewhat better overall with The Body Snatcher, creating a film perhaps less understated than The Innocents, but one more complex and original in conception. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Photogenic Horror: Lewton Does Robert Louis Stevenson
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.