We Never Liked That Damn Book Anyway!

Here’s an interesting paradox–Hollywood likes to purchase literary properties, then films unfaithful versions of them. It’s rather like that scene in “The Magic Christian” where Peter Sellers’ satanic multi-millionaire wants to purchase only the eye cut from a valuable painting. At first the gallery owner is aghast at the notion of destroying a great work of art, but in the end, business is business and he agrees to let Sellers cut the eye from the painting–after payment of course. Always after payment.
So it is that Hollywood comes calling on the esteemed writer’s agent. Yes, yes, they want the right to film the work–but only the eye of it, as it were.
Thus when we finally get around to reading Alan Le May’s “The Searchers,” we are shocked to discover that the Ethan Edwards character actually gets shot by the “white squaw”–who doesn’t even turn out to be the long-lost Debbie. In Glendon Swarthout’s “They Came to Cordura” we learn that Maj. Thorn is killed by his handpicked group of heroes, none of whom for various reasons wants the Medal of Honor he has nominated them for. In James Warner Bellah’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” virile young attorney Ransom Stoddard actually beats the crap out of Liberty in a brutal fist-fight.
All of the above examples are westerns, but I don’t mean to imply that this disrespect is accorded to novels in the western genre alone. By no means. Katherine Windsor’s “Forever Amber” was a celebrated historical novel in its day–celebrated for its racy scenes as Amber ascends from common prostitute to famed courtesan to mistress of King Charles II himself. Well she certainly rises and falls in Otto Preminger’s film version–but it’s all done discretely off-screen. Rafael Sabatini’s historical novel/romance “Scaramouche” was filmed twice–and the silent version was more faithful to the book! By 1952 M.G.M. was all ready with a gorgeous Technicolor redo, with top-notch sets and costumes, a memorable score by Victor Young and one of the all-time great duels between Stewart Grainger’s player/duelist/politician Scaramouche and Mel Ferrer as his nasty aristocratic bête noir–and it all fell flatter than a pancake. Why? Because M.G.M. thought it knew better Sabatini what made for a satisfying denouement. Despite Ferrer’s being built up as one really nasty guy, and the audience waiting with baited breaths for Grainger to run him through, he bests him–then allows the cad to live. Oh yes, the venerable Lewis Stone–who played the vile noble in the silent version–is brought in to explain to Grainger that the reason he couldn’t kill Ferrer is that, unbeknownst to him, they are half-brothers! As if to celebrate this victory over the audiences’ expectations, they further slap on a ridiculously unfunny “comic ending” in which Grainger’s cast-off lover, a fiery actress played by Eleanor Parker, is seen to be the new mistress–of Napoleon! (Who seems to have arrived on the scene a few years too soon and already clad in his classic blue-and-white uniform.) what makes it all the more interesting is the fact that the Sabatini ending would have suited the politics of the McCarthy period even better than the botch-up they presented. In the book and the silent film, Scaramouche does indeed spare his half-brother, but goes on to become a leading orator of revolutionary France–and he sees the result of his oratory when his arrogant half-brother is mobbed and murdered by revolutionaries inspired by Scarmouche’s soaring rhetoric. One would think that the M.G.M. brass would like that ending just fine. Be careful what you wish for–and who you hand power over to.
The list goes on and on, with M.G.M. holding a position of rare honor. Sir Walter Scott’s famed romance “Ivanhoe” is filmed–but you’ll go blind looking for a white-robed Templar among the villains. Now it seems that Brian de Bois-Guilbert, Maurice de Bracy and the gang are simply guilty of being arrogant Normans. Much of the power of Scott’s concept, that two knights, members of a monastic order vowed to chastity are willing to throw it over in pursuit of attractive damsels is lost. Gen. Lew Wallace, as a Christian, thought it just swell that Ben-Hur, having witnessed first hand the crucifixion of Christ, should experience an on-the-spot conversion from Judaism to Christianity, but the M.G.M. folks, as they earlier proved when they converted two warrior-monks into simple skirt-chasing knights, were loathe to sully the other fellow’s religion. So instead Hur is “converted” to a vague notion of the Brotherhood of Man. And let’s not forget the masterful bowdlerization they decreed for John Huston’s film of Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” Huston’s original cut apparently had scenes in it so strong that they made WWII veterans weep. But who wants a weeping audience anyway?
The sad thing here is that audiences are constantly fed pap rather than the sort of stronger fare that may cause audiences to think. A glossy surface with nothing underneath seems to be the essence of Show Biz.

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