My paperback edition of Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” runs to 456 pages, but when Monogram Pictures decided to film the famed novel in 1934, they boiled it all down to 62 minutes. Here’s how they did it.
First, they updated the plot to modern times, thus eliminating all need to deal with Victorian bric-a-brac and mores. Next they eliminated all those Gothic trappings of The Wicked Colonel and stolen, cursed jewel. In 1934 it’s just a valuable hunk of rock that invites the attention of thieves. And if there’s no Wicked Colonel and no curse, there’s no need for a trio of debased Brahmins roaming the English countryside in search of their sacred, stolen gem.
Characters were promoted, demoted, unsexed and re-named. The heroine Rachel Verinder becomes a more modern-sounding Anne. Her mother Lady Verinder is pronounced dead and Sir John Verinder, dead before the novel ever begins, is resurrected, made a medical researcher, and given Ezra Jennings–now promoted to “Dr. Ezra Jennings”–as a colleague. Since World War I had concluded a mere sixteen years before, and since veteran bad-guy Gustav Von Seyffertiz was cast in the role, Mr. Lucker the unscrupulous money-lender becomes Carl Von Lucker, a money-lender and a crook. Rosanna Spearman, plain-faced and malformed, becomes young and pretty–but still a ex-convict and former thief, now employed as a maid in the Verinder establishment. The gabby house steward Mr. Betteredge becomes a tart-tongued grandma. The three lurking Indians become one, Yandoo, loyal servant to the hero Franklin Blake. Lastly, Sergeant Cuff gets promoted to Inspector Cuff and is a bit more effective in cracking the Moonstone Caper. (Probably because he doesn’t give a damn about Horticulture or country-living.)
With all these changes it’s fair to ask what did Monogram retain, other than the title? They kept The Big Victorian Thrill, that upright Franklin Blake, moving like a sleep-walker, has stolen the Moonstone under the influence of a surreptitiously-administered dose of opium, but was witnessed by Anne, who must now deal with the fact that she may love a thief. As in the novel, in his trance state he hands the gem to Geoffrey Abelwhite for safekeeping–who in turn makes a bee-line for Lucker/Von Lucker.
For here on, the novel and the film diverge dramatically. In the novel, Abelwhite, working with Lucker who had deposited the stolen gem in a bank vault, attempts to sneak the Moonstone out of England, past the ever-watchful Indians, but he is observed and killed by them. They eventually succeed in restoring the Moonstone to the temple from which it was stolen years before. In the film, Cuff, who knows that Abelwhite has heavy gambling debts and that Von Lucker is a known receiver of stolen goods intercepts the pair in Von Lucker’s office before the stone can be removed to Holland for re-cutting. In terms of timing, Collins’ novel plays itself out over several years, whereas the Monogram film manages to wrap things up in a few days. “Thrift, Horatio, thrift,” as the poet once wrote.