My Top 10 Adapted Screenplays:
- Greed (1925)
- The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
- Faust (1926)
- The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
- Ingeborg Holm (1913)
- Oliver Twist (1922)
- The Birth of a Nation (1915)
- The Avenging Conscience (1914)
Greed is the best American film of the pre-Oscar era. I have already written one review of it here. If you have still never seen it, then you need to see it. It’s not only a masterful film, not only a brilliant vision in cinema, but it might be the single best example, on film, of bringing a novel vividly to life, exactly as it was on the page.
McTeague: A Story of San Francisco by Frank Norris (1899)
One of the Top 100 Novels of all-time. I have already written about it in depth here. I had the good fortune to have it assigned to me as an undergraduate. If you have not been so lucky, you really need to seek it out.
Director Erich von Stroheim knew exactly what he wanted to do with the novel. Indeed, he not only did a script with extreme fidelity to the original novel, but he story-boarded the entire script as well. The novel provided such an intricate detailed description of San Francisco that von Stroheim simply needed to follow the action and many of the shots would come on their own. In fact, the parts of the book that don’t appear in the film aren’t because von Stroheim didn’t intend for them to be in the film. The film was rather famously originally edited by von Stroheim as a 9 hour feature. Then, after much whittling down, it was presented as a 4 hour film. But MGM was unwilling to present the film at this length and the film was further cut down to 140 minutes. Discussion over the fate of Greed have been the subjects or partial subjects of a considerable number of books, a whole list of which can be found at the end of this article. Von Stroheim brought the novel to life and changed very little – he updated the time from 1899 to 1924, more because it was easier to use the present scenes in San Francisco (so much of the city is so well-described, that it was easy to figure out where everything takes place) and he moved the background scenes of McTeague’s early life to the front of the film, rather than having them come as flashbacks. Great adaptations of great novels are rare (Lord of the Rings, A Passage to India, The Grapes of Wrath, A Clockwork Orange and The Maltese Falcon head the list – ones that end up on both Top 100 lists), but that this adaptation is so close to the original source material as well takes it to a different level.
Directed by Erich von Stroheim. Scenario credited to Erich von Stroheim and June Mathis with titles by Joseph Farnham, though Mathis didn’t actually write any of the script, instead simply making suggestions for the edited version.
I watched this film for the first time sometime around 1991 when I got to see the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version of Phantom onstage in L.A.. Watching the musical was magnificent, but getting a chance to watch this film was a revelation. Because the musical is a great spectacle and the book is enjoyable. But the film is one of the best examples of one of the great eras in film – Universal Horror. Though it technically began two years earlier with Hunchback and wouldn’t really begin in earnest until the release and success of Dracula in 1931, this is still the height of Universal’s works in horror films – the best film they made in that period and, except for King Kong, the best English-language Horror film made until Psycho.
The film begins with shadows on the wall, only the bare hint of what horror is to come. Then, with people moving between the wonderful sets, in and out of shadows, we set the mood and the atmosphere for what is to come. We hear hints of the Opera Ghost, who so many people seem to be afraid of. There are accidents and strange things that happen. And then when Christine has a successful night singing in the lead, her angel of music comes to her and leads her to his underground lair. And she wonders who this man behind the mask could be, and so do we. Unlike with the later musical version, we never get to hear the voice that might be entrancing her – we have to just watch the hypnotic movements of Lon Chaney, that master actor, pulling us all closer with his performance (in the very good documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces, Michael Blake, who has written three books on Chaney, points out that you can always tell Chaney, no matter how much makeup he has on, just from the way he moves his hands).
And then comes that amazing reveal – the Phantom at the seat of his organ, Christine sneaking up behind him to see who this mystery man could be and why he would hide behind a mask. And then we have it, a full reveal for the entire world to see of that horrific face. Or, conversely, of yet another incredible Lon Chaney makeup job. And even if we recoil in horror, just like Christine, we are also pulled closer by his magnetic performance.
But Chaney’s makeup job isn’t all there is to the film. There is the first-rate direction, as everything flows together so well. There is the expert cinematography, lighting exactly what we need to see and keeping everything else in the shadows. And there are the technical achievements – look at the wonderful tinting on the masquerade scene. This is a horror film, yes, but it is a first-rate film as well, one of the best of the Silent Era.
Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux (1910, tr. 1911)
Of all the classic novels that are now grouped together as horror novels, mainly because of their successful film adaptations at Universal, this may be the one with the lowest reputation. Certainly Leroux never had the ability that Stoker, Stevenson, Shelley, Hugo or Wells had. At times the novel was even out of print, especially in his native France, where it has never had the reputation it holds elsewhere. Were it not for the first film, this great film, would this book have been consigned to the dust of eternity? It is perhaps telling that my copy, the Signet Classic edition from the mid 80’s (probably printed to coincide with the success of Lloyd Weber’s musical) doesn’t even credit a translator – clearly this wasn’t a book that people cared about who translated it. They just wanted the story.
The story is a marvelous one, the story of the Phantom that lives below the Opera House, of the singer that he falls in love with, of the vengeance that he seeks when he is rejected by her. It has been the basis for many films over the years – 8 feature films and 6 for television – not the mention one of the most celebrated musicals to ever grace London and Broadway. But there are things here that people forget – the Persian that knows about Erik’s past and has been following him – the sordid history behind Erik that we learn in the book but is only hinted at in most adaptations. The book is well worth reading, even after all this time. I first read it in 11th Grade – we were required to read a book originally written in a language other than English and were forbidden to read Les Mis (our teacher knew we would just listen to the musical, as the book is so long). I have gone back to it from time to time because it draws me in and I re-read it again just last year.
There is also a new translation that was just released last year by Penguin Classics, which is what the link goes to.
This is the closest to Leroux’s original novel as any film has gotten and somehow I think it’s as close as any adaptation is going to get. It does change certain things – it makes Erik an escapee from Devil’s Island, for example, and the titles make the Persian seem like a French policeman (in spite of the fez). But it gives a fairly faithful rendition of the affair between Christine and Raoul. It actually would have even had the original ending from the novel, with Erik dying of a broken heart, but it didn’t test well, so the version we know, of him being hunted down along the river, is what the audiences preferred.
Directed by Rupert Julian, with uncredited direction from Lon Chaney, Ernst Laemmle and Edward Sedgewick. There were no writing credits other than “from the celebrated novel by Gaston Leroux”. The treatment was by Bernard McConville and Jasper Spearing, the adaptation by Elliott J. Clawson and Raymond L. Schrock, with titles by Walter Anthony and Tom Reed and other work by Frank M. McCormack and Richard Wallace.
I already wrote a good long review of the film here. But I want to mention again, the brilliant way in which Chaney is first revealed to the audience. It is not a quick shock, like it would be two years later in Phantom, but a simultaneous slow and quick reveal, moving in closer, but giving us titles in between that give us a chance to brace for the shock. And I also must mention the poetry of Chaney’s movements, the graceful way that he jumps down the building, leaping and climbing, pure poetry in motion.
Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (1831) (usually published as The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Victor Hugo had great stories to tell, which makes his novels somewhat ironic. There are great stories there, but he gets so into the extraneous details that he keeps losing sight of the story itself. Granted, he isn’t as bad with this on Notre Dame as he is on Les Miserables, but you still get an entire book of the novel on the city of Paris.
In a lot of ways, this is probably Hugo’s best novel. No, it doesn’t have the same kind of epic scope as Les Mis. But, as a novel, it flows better, it is focused better, and you don’t feel the need to skip entire chapters which are simply digressions from the plot. Here, with far fewer characters to keep track of (really, you only need to know four – Quasimodo, the hunchback who is also the bell-ringer in the famed cathedral, Frollo – the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, Esmeralda, the beautiful Gypsy, and Phoebus, the Captain of the King’s Archers – there is a fifth major character, Frollo’s brother, who rarely figures into film adaptations other than this one) you can keep more focused on the story. And part of the story, of course, in a sense the whole focus of the story, is not the poor hunchback, but, as the actual French title indicates, the cathedral itself.
Something that many don’t remember about the book is the ultimately tragic ending. Quasimodo, torn emotionally over the death of Esmeralda, decides instead to join her in death. And so, in a final chapter, rather hauntingly titled “Quasimodo’s Marriage”, his skeleton is eventually found, with hers in its embrace: “The man to whom it had belonged had therefore come there of himself and died there. When they tried to detach this skeleton from the one it embraced, it crumbled to dust.”
This is one of the best 19th Century French novels, a list that includes Stendahl, Hugo, Dumas, Zola and Balzac. If you have never picked it up, it is time to do so. This ended up on my list of the second top 100 novels.
This is a decently close version to the novel. There are two major ways in which this version differs from the novel. The first is in the use of the two Frollo brothers – in this film, rather than have a corrupted priest, it is only the brother who is so desperate for Esmeralda and who functions as the villain – Claude himself gets to be the pure bystander to his brother’s actions (though, that also means we don’t have to have Quasimodo kill him by pushing him off the ledge). We also get a different ending – we get a rather silly happy ending for Esmeralda and Phoebus, and a poignant tragic ending for Quasimodo, who, instead of dying of a broken heart (two Chaney films with characters who essentially die of broken hearts and he got a more violent death scene instead in each, which is ironic, since Chaney, in films like He Who Gets Slapped is so good at showing his broken beart), gets stabbed by Frollo as he throws him off the cathedral and dies ringing his own funeral march on the bells. Yet, at least we have Quasimodo die, which is far more faithful than many adaptations.
Directed by Wallace Worsley. Scenario by Edward T. Lowe, Jr. Adaptation by Perley Poore Sheehan.
I wrote once about Lon Chaney: “no death before Chaney had robbed cinema of so much” Yet, just a few months later, we had one that did, and possibly more. For, while Chaney was 47, F.W. Murnau was only 42. He had directed 18 films, seven of which are now lost to us. Yet, in spite of that, he still managed to make it to #41 on my Top 100 list of directors and #32 on my second version of the list. And Faust is one of his best films, a visionary spectacle of the old German legend and the Goethe play, with things that astounded audiences and showed his range as a director (and by the time it played in theaters, he and his star, Emil Jannings were already in America, making their Oscar winning films The Way of All Flesh and Sunrise).
Look at the opening moments of the film (not hard to do – it’s available streaming on Netflix and can probably be easily found online). Watch the metaphysical struggle between the archangel and Mephistopheles, complete with flames and wings and all of humanity hanging in the balance (and with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding through the air). Watch the grand gestures of Emil Jannings and remember the actor that he was rather than the caricature he would become as a stooge for the Nazis (and bullet fodder for Tarantino), with grand sweeping gestures in his struggle, but also subtle machinations of Faust, and a sly smile on his face when he dies and reappears to kill his killer.
This is Faust in all its splendor, in a way it never could have been performed on stage. Murnau, a master behind the camera, gives us not only German expressionism (look at the strange tilt to the buildings in the village where Faust pursues Gretchen), but epic effects, with Faust and the Devil soaring away through the window and over the towns. Look at the great effect of the fire writing appearing on the bargain, the bargain that Faust gladly signs. That this is the same director who had made the brilliant and disturbing Nosferatu is easy to believe. That he’s the same director who directed the poignant and heart-wrenching The Last Laugh (and would plumb the depths of the human soul in Sunrise) makes you wonder what might have come if he had lived.
One more thing to remember – critics like to talk about how a film looks well-photographed as an insult, as if to have beautiful cinematography implies a flaw somewhere else. But there are few directors who are as in touch with the camera as Murnau. Faust, like Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, all brilliantly photographed, would be ineligible for the Oscars. But of the four films that Murnau directed that were eligible, one would be nominated for Best Cinematography and two others would win the award. That maybe says all it needs to about his talent.
Faust Part One by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1808)
This is probably the most famous German play in history. Goethe worked on it for most of the last 30 years of his life. The first part was completed in 1806 and first published in 1808. The second part wasn’t completed until 1831 and would not appear in print until after Goethe’s death the following year. Most productions of the play (and the opera adapted from the play, which, ironically, is featured in the novel Phantom of the Opera) only make use of the first part and the film itself only uses the first part.
The play is a masterwork of drama. Granted, much of the story was not new – even when Kit Marlowe wrote his Dr. Faustus in the 1590’s it was already a well known legend – but, like with Shakespeare, it is not the story that makes Goethe’s play such a masterwork. It is possibly the most important work of German literature and it has a massive influence on the German language. And it is beautiful to read, even in translation.
The film almost entirely comes from the first part of Faust, with just the very end of the second part coming into play at the conclusion of the film. Since the start of the motion picture industry, they had been filming plays. But this might be the first visionary opening up of a play – the first time that any limits from the stage were completely dropped by the wayside. So, things that would have been tricky on stage (Faust going from old man to young man, flying through space and time) can be done on the screen without a problem. With a lot of plays, when they become films, they simply feel like staged plays. With others, you can feel them being deliberately opened up, with scenes moved around just to free things up. This, like Ingeborg Holm (see below) doesn’t ever feel like a play. But, even more than Ingeborg, it uses the medium of film to transport us into something that the stage’s limits keep out of reach.
Directed by F.W. Murnau. Titles by Hans Kyser and Gerhart Hauptmann.
Most serious students or lovers of film can tell you the importance of this film – that it made an almost instant star of Rudolph Valentino, that the tango scene ignited audiences and that before long Valentino and the latin lover image he projects (certainly in the tango scene) would make him a matinee idol. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve actually seen the film, and that’s a shame. Because this might just be the first great anti-war film.
There is a title card on The Birth of a Nation that talks about the ravages of the Civil War and how the filmmakers hope for peace; yet, the film itself, with the power of its cavalry charges and stirring scenes probably inspires more violence than it would help suppress. There is none of that in Horsemen.
At heart, this is a story of a family, torn by loyalties at first, then torn by war. The family lives in Argentina, on the ranch owned by the grandfather. We meet the grandfather in an early scene, with his adored grandson, with them at a dive in Buenos Aires, where the grandson, played magnificently by Valentino (he would be an idol and loved for his other films, but his performance here is better than in all his other films put together) dances the famed tango, but then shows his love for his grandfather, tossing aside his dance partner when she laughs at the drunken old man. When the grandfather dies, his two daughters, one married to a Frenchman (Valentino’s parents) and one married to a German, leave for their respective European homes of their husbands just as the Great War is breaking out on the horizon.
In Paris, in the prime of his youth, Valentino falls in love with Marguerite, who is married to a much older man. She is about to become free to marry him when the war intervenes and she leaves to be a nurse and her husband to be a soldier (where he is later wounded). When he sees his lover caring for her blinded husband, Valentino realizes the folly of his youth and joins the army. But, much like Paul Bäumer would in a later novel, he finds the war to be a greater horror than he could conceive, and also like Paul, he dies on that battlefield, side by side with his German cousin in the desolation of no man’s land, fighting on opposite sides.
And that is where the power of the film really comes in – the torn apart families, the hopeful futures that will never come to fruition. The final shot of this film is a masterpiece. In those early days, before film reels became a form of journalism, what could have prepared crowds for that ending, with those rows of crosses, spreading outwards towards the horizon, almost reaching to those fabled Horsemen themselves. That would have been the image that audiences walked out the theater with – that horrible cost of what had seemed like an endless, and fruitless war.
Los cuatro jinetes del Apocalipsis by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1916)
This novel was one of the first to deal with the Great War, namely because it was written and published in the middle of the war. Ibáñez managed to combine the naturalism of Zola with the world going to war to produce a novel that immediately became a big hit (according to Publishers Weekly, it was the biggest selling novel in the U.S. in 1919). While there is a romance at the heart of the book, it is the cost of the war that is the key focus: “Tombs . . . tombs on all sides! The white locusts of death were swarming over the entire countryside. There was no corner free from their quivering wings. The recently plowed earth, the yellowing roads, the dark woodland, everything was pulsating in weariless undulation. The soil seemed to be clamoring, and its words were the vibrations of the restless little flags. And the thousands of cries, endlessly repeated across the days and nights, were intoning in rhythmic chant the terrible onslaught which this earth had witnessed and from which it still felt tragic shudderings.”
The book is still in print, but probably only because it has long passed out of copyright and any publishing house can print it. It is not something that has been kept in print by literary imprints like Signet,Bantam or Penguin Classics. Yet, while All Quiet on the Western Front has always remained in print and continues to be taught, this book has been left out to dry. I would say that those who still read it are those who came to it because of the movie (which is actually how I came to read it, well over a decade ago), but how popular is the film anymore outside of film buffs?
If you want to simply read the book, you can find it here.
The famous tango scene in the film isn’t in the book, which is likely the one thing that you can find about the adaptation on any list of trivia about the film. What people don’t tell you is that the book actually opens in France, after Julio’s grandfather has already died and with the love affair with Marguerite having already begun, then flashes back to the tell the story of the family. The film does a good job of bringing the book to the screen, of envisioning this story of a family destroyed by the Great War.
Directed by Rex Ingram. Written for the screen by June Mathis.
This is a very good film, with a very strong performance from John Barrymore as the infamous doctor who ends up turning his experiments upon himself and freeing the evil within. Doctor Jekyll is an idealist – a scientist and doctor who helps the poor and devotes himself to others. But after a taunt from his future father-in-law (Sir George Carew) after dinner one night, he decides to see what is on the other side of life – he begins to experiment with the idea that the madness buried within can be released through chemicals. To that end, he turns himself into Mr. Hyde. Hyde is freed from all moral constraints – he takes a dance hall girl as a mistress and leaves a wanton life. But the dual life begins to take its toll and it eventually ends up in the murder of Carew when Jekyll, harangued by Carew, turns to Hyde in front of him. No longer able to control his transformations, things become overwhelming for Jekyll, and eventually, when changing in front of his fiancee, he kills himself rather than deal with the life anymore.
The film is very well done – well directed, well put together. It has strong cinematography and good sets. But the performance from John Barrymore is the key to the film (it might actually be his best performance available on film). He manages (without makeup in the early scenes) to perfectly convey the transformation from the rather quiet Jekyll to the insidious Hyde. Hyde gets more brutal and depraved with each appearance, as does his actual physical appearance. The death scene of Carew is suitably depraved. And there is a wonderful scene, late in the film, where Jekyll is asleep, and we see a ghostly spider, with the face of Hyde come crawling through his room and up onto his bed and then Jekyll awakes as Hyde.
The film itself is very easy to find, because it has passed into the public domain.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Luis Stevenson (1886) (usually published as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
I remember in high school telling my friend Jake that I wanted to do a screenplay for Jekyll and Hyde. He commented that a storyboard might better serve such a project, as the novel is so short and there is so little in the way of dialogue, that you don’t necessarily need to proceed from a typed script. You need to have images in your head for what you want to have happen on the screen and you need to be able to convey those images to others.
It is indeed a short book. My Bantam Classic copy runs 118 pages and the text itself ends on page 103. But it does an incredible job of providing images and mood in that short time. Look at a line like “It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March, with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her, and flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture.”
What people forget about the novel is that Dr. Jekyll is such a background character to his own book. We get the story of what has happened through the eyes of the lawyer, Mr. Utterson. It isn’t until the final quarter of the book, when we finally hear the entire story of what has happened to poor Jekyll, this time from his own words, after he has already passed from the mortal vale.
Stevenson’s book is a true short classic. It is often overlooked on lists of classic works of horror. But it is as well-written as almost any horror novel ever written, and might be the finest piece of writing of a truly great writer who had too little time to pass on these grisly tales to us. I included it on my list of the second top 100 novels.
The credits here are part of an early trend that becomes a problem when trying to discuss adaptations. Though credited with being an adaptation of the novel by Stevenson, this film is really an adaptation of the 1887 stage production by Thomas Russell Sullivan and Richard Mansfield (though Sullivan is credited with the play, Mansfield was the impetus for its adaptation and worked feverishly on it). So, this is why we have a love interest and motivations for the murder of Carew (in the book, there are no prominent female roles, as opposed to most film versions). And we also have the dance hall girl – again, not something that was present in the original novel, though this would be a key addition that later films would use, and if not for this character, we wouldn’t have Miriam Hopkins in the 1932 version or Ingrid Bergman in the 1941 version.
So, the hard part had already been done long before this film was made. The novel itself was never particularly suitable to the stage without considerable changes. The story is mostly conveyed through Utterson until the end, when we get the two first-person narratives that fill in all the blanks. It would provide a great challenge for staging, with the transformation (which would make it ideal for filming, however). And to make the story more broad and fill out the time (remember – it is an extremely short book), they added the two female roles – essentially, a love interest for both versions of the main character. So, when Hollywood would come calling, they didn’t need to worry about going back to the book – they could follow the stage version, which also meant they could get some females into the cast as well.
Directed by John S. Robertson. Scenario by Clara Beranger. Uncredited adaptation from the dramatized version by Thomas Russell Sullivan and Richard Mansfield (who was uncredited on the play). The IMDb suggests it also contains elements from The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The Birth of a Nation is often talked about as if it was the first feature film. But, two years before Griffith’s film was released, Victor Sjostrom had already made Ingeborg Holm, a poignant, tragic drama, one that would point the way for Ingmar Bergman to start following 40 years later.
It it is the tale of a woman, Ingeborg Holm, and the tragedy she lives through. She is doing well, with her husband and their store and their three children. But when he dies, she can’t make ends meet anymore. Public assistance isn’t enough and she loses the story, her house, and even her children. In the end, she even loses her sanity, after a visit with her young son, who no longer recognizes her. But, the finale of the film is the return of her son (played very well by the same actor who played her husband) and who manages to bring her back to reality, talking with her, showing her a photograph of herself when she was younger.
The film is well directed and well written, a great example of how good a director Sjostrom was, one of the best of the silent directors, who, sadly never had much of a career after sound came in (though Bergman would use him as the star of Wild Strawberries). It contains a very good performance from Hilda Bergstrom in the title role. And it has a final scene that works extremely well, so poignant and heart-wrenching, as the young man desperately tries to bring his mother back to reality and finally manages to break through the haze of fantasy she has built around herself and brings her back to himself and to reality. A reality that has been too harsh for her in the past, but now she has her son back with her. It’s not hard, really, to see why Bergman himself would have such praise for this film.
Going back to watch this film, I was also really stunned at how good it looked. I’m not talking about the technical achievements. I’m talking about the quality of the print. Except for the last couple of minutes, which are in pretty bad shape (which is very unfortunate since they’re the most poignant), the print looks really good. I don’t know if it’s because of the source, of how well KINO has transferred it to DVD or what, but it looks really good. And that’s very rare for a film that’s so old.
Ingeborg Holm by Nils Krok (1905)
Ingeborg Holm is a Swedish play, which, as far as I can tell, hasn’t been translated. Certainly it does not seem to be in print in any language at the moment. Likely this is a play that would be completely forgotten today (and is mostly forgotten today) were it not the film. And even the film itself lingers in quite a bit of obscurity.
If I didn’t know that this was adapted from a play, I wouldn’t believe it. This never feels like it’s a play. It’s not just that it’s opened up, in the way that good films are able to open a play up. It’s that it never feels like a play – the scenes flow from on to another, inside and out, through different locations. It feels like a genuine film (or, very believable as being adapted from a novel). So that is to its credit. Because I’ve never read the play, I can’t really know how much Sjostrom changed. But whatever they have done, seems like it has been done for the better.
Directed by Victor Sjostrom. Written by Victor Sjostrom.
When I did my second Year in Film piece, covering the years from 1912-1926 (the whole era I am covering in this post), I originally began writing about Oliver Twist as my under-appreciated film. But, here is what I ended up writing to start my piece on Hunchback: “I had actually planned to write about the 1922 version of Oliver Twist, also starring Lon Chaney. I had begun with talking about how if you have only seen Chaney in horror films, then your film horizons need to be expanded, how Chaney was one of the greats of the Silent Era, how he was the first great film Fagin but in spite of his acclaim, today it is easier to find a still of Ben Kingsley or Alec Guinness (or even Timothy Spall) when you Google the words “Fagin” and “Chaney.” But then going through all the lists I came to a realization. Hunchback is obscenely overlooked.” So, in the end, I wrote about Hunchback rather than Oliver Twist. But that doesn’t change any of the previous part. This version of Oliver Twist is a very good film, a good realization of the novel. It has mood and atmosphere. It has a suitably menacing Fagin, in Lon Chaney (in fact, if there is a problem with the performance, it is that he seems more menacing than George Siegmann, who plays Bill Sykes, all the way up until the point when Bill brutally murders Nancy). It also has a distinct advantage over the sound adaptations of the novel, most notably the wretched 1933 version and the Best Picture-winning Oliver! – because it is a silent film, we don’t really know how good of an actor Coogan is and it doesn’t matter. He can’t possibly whine through his lines or make us cringe as he delivers them. We can watch his eyes and either be taken in or not – but his voice and delivery can’t bring the film down like it does in other adaptations. And we do have Chaney, the first of a long line of strong Fagins (do you remember who played Oliver in the various adaptations? – I certainly can’t – but it’s easy to remember Lon Chaney, Alec Guinness, Ron Moody or Ben Kingsley), with his makeup kit here at work, though not as hard as it would be in the next couple of years as the Phantom and the Hunchback.
Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy’s Progress by Charles Dickens (1839)
Here’s what I wrote about Oliver Twist three and a half years ago after my Year of Reading Dickens: “Well, there are two problems with the novel. The first is Oliver himself, who can be quite clearly annoying, which is not exactly what you want from your title character. But Oliver seems to be less the hero than simply the focal point. There is the other problem of the coincidence that marks Oliver’s familial history, probably the most absurd plot point that Dickens ever came up with. But in the end, they don’t actually matter that much because there are the characters, and they are brilliant from the beginning and stay that way until the end. There isn’t just Fagin, a nasty depiction of a Jewish stereotype, yet a fascinating character nonetheless. There is the Beedle, there is the deadly Bill Sykes and his faithful dog. There is the tragic Nancy, who finally makes a decision to justify her life only to have it cost her that very life. And there is, of course, the Artful Dodger. While Dickens’ books are full of colorful characters, ones whose legacy will last for centuries, Oliver Twist is interesting in that it is all the morally devious characters that are the most worth reading about. Nobility holds no sway in this novel.”
I did rank it 5th among the Dickens novels (although that was including A Christmas Carol). It is an enjoyable read. What’s odd is it is so often used to bring kids into reading Dickens when you consider some of the awful parts of the novel, especially the brutal murder of Nancy. And just look at what is in store for poor Fagin at the end: “Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all – the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope , and all the hideous apparatus of death.”
Oliver Twist shows off one of the advantages that silent films had in adapting novels to the screen – the action didn’t have to be slowed down by the dialogue. In this version, we get most of the action of the book, all of the major characters exactly as we know them and the story pretty much in its entirety. And yet, it manages to do all of that in 74 minutes. It does that because so much of the story can be shown by the action. They don’t have to stop that often for an intertitle. Of course, we get certain moments so we can be sure of what is happening, and key moments of dialogue, such as the revelation of Oliver’s parentage and of course, “Please sir, can I have some more?” But this film, even at 74 minutes, is a very faithful adaptation of the novel, complete with Fagin in prison, likely awaiting execution.
Directed by Frank Lloyd. Adaptation by Lloyd and Harry Weill with intertitles by Walter Anthony. This film was lost for decades and after it was found in the 1970’s without the intertitles, star Jackie Coogan and producer Sol Lesser helped to provide new intertitles.
“To understand The Birth of a Nation we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.” That’s what Roger Ebert had to say about this film. And the Mythical Monkey adds this: “And there’s the rub: if you don’t bring an inate fear of blacks into the theater with you, if the thought of blacks voting, owning property, marrying whomever they want and even, gee whiz, running the country doesn’t inherently scare the pants off you, the last ninety minutes becomes unbearably tedious.”
And so, where do I come in on a film so important in the history of the medium and so repulsive in its beliefs? Well, I wrote once about this film and essentially didn’t say much about it. I wanted to do more than Roger Ebert had done, which was skip it in his initial Great Movies series and go with Broken Blossoms, and only go back to it later. But I wasn’t quite certain what I wanted to say about it. And I don’t know what more I can to what I have already said and what Ebert and the Monkey have said.
It comes down to this. I admire the art that went into making this film. It is very well put together, it has some very good acting (especially from Lilian Gish). It has some inspired direction in it. And the structure of the film itself works quite well, which is how it made it into the top 10 of my adapted scripts for the year while Broken Blossoms, which is also a great film, isn’t there. But all of it is aimed towards a purpose that is totally foreign to me. Racism is something that is taught – no one is born simply believing that one race is inherently inferior to another. And it was never taught to me – not because I didn’t grow up in the South, but because I had parents who taught me otherwise. And I would like to believe that I would have ended up believing that anyway – racism can be taught and clearly is taught, but we have the ability, as the human race, to move beyond what we are taught and think for ourselves. This film teaches racism, in the way it distorts history. And so I pull away from this film. I admire its technique and despise its principle.
So, I will leave it at this. The first half of this film is expertly made and has the same strong acting as the second half, but, because of the way the story proceeds, does not nearly have the same sense of vileness about it. So, if you want to watch a piece of art, stop watching once the war ends.
The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon, Jr. (1905), as well as the play of the same, also by Dixon and parts from The Leopard’s Spots, the first volume in the trilogy by Dixon
This should give you an idea of what to expect from this novel; the back cover of the copy I am looking at describes the KKK as such: “an organization formed with the intention of restoring the pride and prosperity of the South.” On the other hand, the introduction hits the nail right on the head: “The first thing to be said in discussing Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s novel The Clansman is that no person of critical judgment thinks of it as having artistic conception or literary craftsmanship.” Or, you can put it this way: this novel is a piece of vile, racist trash.
Why has he read it, you think to yourself. Clearly he can’t have read every book just because of the film version? Well, no. But I actually read this for a class that dealt with race and literature (not a very good class) – we also read The Sound and the Fury (the reason I took the class), The Marrow of Tradition (a good book) and Passing (a very good book). But I have long had the belief that just because a book can be taught, just because a book fits a particular subject, that doesn’t mean it merits inclusion. The Clansman is poorly written – with plot and dialogue forcing the action forward clumsily, without much interest in its language. It is a blunt hammer that Dixon intended to wield about his views on what he saw as an inferior race. Other than those who are very interested in the film and want to see where it came from (don’t bother – the book is quite bad, while the film is quite well-made) or those who are forced to read it for a class, the only people I can possibly imagine this appealing to are vicious racists. So, if that fits you, then by all means, go for it.
“The Clansman might have fallen by the wayside as another third-rate novel, even though it was for a while widely read, had it not been for its subsequent history.” That also comes from the introduction to the novel. And what the film does with the novel is quite amazing. The novel is nothing but trash – it has no style, no quality, no art to it. But what Griffith manages to do with the novel, at least in the first half of the film, takes what lies so dead on the page (after all, the war, for Dixon, is just something to get through in his story about the evil of blacks) and brings it vividly to life. But in the second half of the film, he is hampered by the ridiculous story that Dixon has given to him – well, let’s just let the Monkey have his say again: “Not only is it racist and an unforgivable distortion of history—a point we’ll get to in a moment—it’s also essentially ludicrous, because as the film presents it, the fate of the entire post-war South, indeed, the nation, pivots on the rival ambitions of two men—the former Confederate officer and the black lieutenant governor—to get into Lillian Gish’s underpants.” But, because Griffith, deep down, has the same kind of fears that Dixon had (if not, probably the same vicious hatred – that Griffith actually worked with blacks makes me at least think he’s a few levels above Dixon), he earnestly believes in this love story and that does keep the film down in the second half. And that’s why the direction makes it into the top 5 for the era but the script can’t quite reach that point. Because Griffith does such a good job with it in the first half, but in the second gets too bogged down trying to tell this ridiculous love story that the nation’s future is wound up in.
Production under the personal direction of D.W. Griffith. Story arranged by D.W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods. The credits only mention the novel The Clansman and not the play or any parts coming from The Leopard’s Spots.
In the time between leaving Biograph Studios in 1913 and the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, D.W. Griffith continued to expand his films, making them longer and longer (indeed it was why he left Biograph – because they wanted to stay with shorts). For this film, an adaptation of various works of Edgar Allan Poe, Griffith expanded to 84 minutes, the longest film he had yet made. It is the story of a young man, raised by his uncle, who wants to marry, but his uncle won’t allow it. Feeling closed in, with his options disappearing, he is inspired, watching a spider tackle its prey and a group of ants taking down a much larger bug to kill his uncle and free himself from his dilemma (the shots of the ants at work taking down the bug are especially impressive – a good early use of this kind of shot and looking better than miniatures would look, even decades later). He kills his uncle, strangling him, then hiding the body away behind a bricked in wall of the fireplace. But the guilt begins to overwhelm him – he begins to see his uncle’s ghost walking around, torturing him, accusing him (this is another good early use of visual effects – the ghost of the uncle is very effective; even more so when you consider how early this film was made). He gives in to the madness while his love, tortured by her own knowledge of the affair, takes her life, leaping from a cliff. Throughout the tale of their love and their eventual woe, we are treated to intertitles that quote directly from Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee”, with its beginning stanzas of pure romantic notions and its eventual tragic conclusions. The film as a whole is very good (it also makes early use of what would eventually become commonplace – the whole thing is just a dream and the lovers end up being able to marry and the man is reconciled with his uncle), showing the talent that Griffith has as a writer and a director, especially when he wasn’t using either for racist purposes.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe (1843, 1849)
There might not have been another short story writer who did with Poe did – grip us with terror and horror and intrigue, and always keep it short. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of his best stories (and best known), has been taught for decades in English classes and will probably continue to be taught. In just a few short pages, hell in just a few short lines, Poe establishes our narrator as being completely and utterly insane, yet determined to inform us of exactly how sane he was (because he is methodical in the way that he kills the old man (“You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.”). Of course, the beating of the man’s heart, echoing in our narrator’s brain, eventually forces him to give up the game.
Okay, do I really need to give the story of “The Tell Tale-Heart”? Are there really people who have never read it? And if so, why the hell not? Go find it here. It will just take a few minutes. Then go find a good collection of Poe’s (see the link above) and delve into the terror and madness that he brings to every story.
As for “Annabel Lee”? Well, it’s a magnificent poem, a haunting poem of the love of his wife, and yet the tragedy that would unfold upon them. It works well as part of the film here, because of the air of tragedy surrounding every line, how we can go in just a few stanzas from “And this maiden she lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me.” to “And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side / Of my darling – my darling – my life and my bride, / In the sepulchre there by the sea – / In her tomb by the sounding sea.”
This film is not a straight adaptation of either Poe’s story or his poem, of course. What it does it takes an idea from the story (the murder of a person which leads to overwhelming guilt) and the haunting love story from the poem and finds a way to combine them together in a story that is, in its way, true to both of them. With one major exception of course – in the end, all of the horrible events in the film – the murder, the guilt, the suicide – all turn out to be part of a horrible dream. That is something that Poe, with his tragic life and dark sensibilities, never would have gone for.
Written and directed by D.W. Griffith. Based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Those are the official credits. The poster itself mentions “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Poems of the Affections”. The film clearly uses “Annabel Lee” as it actually quotes the text in the intertitles. The IMDb specifically lists “The Pit and the Pendulum”, while the KINO DVD says it is “flavored with shades of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ and ‘The Conqueror Worm.'” Really, it uses “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee” and then simply is very Poe-esque.
Other Noteworthy Adaptations:
These are all films that are ***.5 (except Broken Blossoms, which is ****), mostly with pretty good scripts that I at least considered for my Nighthawk Awards. Unlike the list at the bottom, only two of these have I read the source material (Zorro and Monte Cristo).
- Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914, dir. Mack Sennett) – the first feature length-comedy and the first feature-length film with Chaplin (as opposed to a Chaplin film – this, in fact, would be the last film Chaplin would ever be in that he would not direct himself) – a wonderful comedy from the stage play
- A Man There Was (1917, dir. Victor Sjostrom) – another strong dramatic silent Sjostrom film, available on the same DVD as Ingeborg Holm, based on a verse poem from Henrik Ibsen that was written before his major plays
- Broken Blossoms (1919, dir. D.W. Griffith) – a great film, with a great performance from Lilian Gish, adapted from “The Chink and the Child” a 1916 short story by Thomas Burke
- The Mark of Zorro (1920, dir. Fred Niblo) – The first Zorro film, adapted from the story “The Curse of Capistrano” by Johnston McCulley, published the year before. It encouraged McCulley to write a number of more Zorro stories and the character would return again and again over the years. There would also be Don Q, Son of Zorro in 1926, which isn’t as good.
- The Penalty (1920, dir. Wallace Worsley) – A pulp novel by Gouverneur Morris, this was turned into a very effective silent film for Lon Chaney.
- Way Down East (1920, dir. D.W. Griffith) – adapted from the 19th century play and starring Gish again.
- Orphans of the Storm (1921, dir. D.W. Griffith) – based on the play The Two Orphans, another strong outing from Griffith and Gish
- The Phantom Chariot (1921, dir. Victor Sjostrom) – Another very good Sjostrom film, this one adapted from Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness, a 1912 novel by Selma Lagerlöf who had won the Nobel Prize (the first female to do so) in 1909.
- Monte Cristo (1922, dir. Emmett J. Flynn) – The first, and probably the best adaptation of the Dumas novel. Like many of the films on this list, it adapts the stage version rather than going back to the original novel. It stars John Gilbert in one of his most effective roles.
- Phantom (1922, dir. F.W. Murnau) – Another very good film, again adapted from a Nobel Prize winner, this time Gerhart Hauptmann, who had won the prize in 1912, and whose 1922 novel this is based on.
- Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924, dir. Fritz Lang) – this, along with the second film (which isn’t as well-written), Nibelungen: Kriemheld’s Revenge, are adapted from the epic High German poem
- The Merry Widow (1925, dir. Erich von Stroheim) – adapted from the musical comedy, of course, absent the music, and really, absent the comedy, but still good because of von Stroheim
Silent Shakespeare is a tricky thing. So much of what is key about Shakespeare is the language. Do you really want to be denied that poetic beauty? Well, if you do, here are three solid adaptations. All of them truncate massive amounts of the plays, but since they’re not speaking the lines, that is a lot easier.
- Richard III (1912, dir. James Keane) – The earliest surviving feature-length film. Very good, with a strong performance from Frederick Warde as Richard.
- King Lear (1916, dir. Ernest C. Warde) – A solid King Lear, again with Warde (whose son directed), who is even better this time around.
- Othello (1922, dir. Dimitri Buchowetzki) – It has a strong performance from Emil Jannings as Othello, but otherwise is not that notable.
There are a number of decent adaptations of major books in this stretch as well (all from books I have read, which is the reason I watched most of them). I don’t necessarily recommend or not recommend any of them. I give most of them a medium ***. They include:
- His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914, dir. J. Farrell MacDonald) – this, along with the Wizard of Oz listed below are available on the 3 DVD set of The Wizard of Oz
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916, dir. Stuart Paton) – noteworthy sets and visual effects for the time
- A Tale of Two Cities (1917, dir. Frank Lloyd)
- Tarzan of the Apes (1918, dir. Scott Sidney) – follows the book closer than probably any other version
- The Last of the Mohicans (1920, dir. Clarence Brown)
- The Three Musketeers (1921, dir. Fred Niblo) – fun, for Fairbanks enthusiasts, but not a great film
- Sherlock Holmes (1922, dir. Albert Parker) – with John Barrymore as the famous sleuth
- Peter Pan (1924, dir. Herbert Brenon) – one of the weakest pre-Oscar films I have seen – only gets **.5
- Ben-Hur (1925, dir. Fred Niblo) – not great writing, but the film, like the later magnificent version, is a good spectacle – the best film on this part of the list
- Cyrano de Bergerac (1925, dir. Augusto Genina)
- The Wizard of Oz (1926, dir. Larry Semon)
- Nana (1926, dir. Jean Renoir)
What We Don’t Have:
A number of silent films have been lost over the years (or are extremely hard to find). There are a number of silent adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens that we longer have available to see. But there are also the following, all of which I wish I could find at least once:
- Life Without Soul (1915, dir. Joseph W. Smiley) – The first feature-length version of Frankenstein.
- Les Miserables (1917, dir. Frank Lloyd) – Made the same year, and with the same star and director as A Tale of Two Cities, I wonder if this would be any less lackluster.
- The Darling of Paris (1917, dir. J. Gordon Edwards) – The first feature-length version of Hunchback, this starred Theda Bara in a version that focused on Esmeralda.
- Der Januskopf (1920, dir. F.W. Murnau) – Murnau’s version of Jekyll and Hyde, now lost. It has 59 votes on the IMDb even though no one younger than about 90 could have ever seen it. Starred Conrad Veidt and damn I wish it were around.
- Main Street (1923, dir. Harry Beaumont)
- Raskolnikow (1923, dir. Robert Wiene) – I have found the second half online (and possibly could have found the rest if I looked harder) and it looks intriguing but flawed, with a very disturbing lead performance. This is from the director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
- Babbitt (1924, dir. Harry Beaumont) – Sinclair Lewis was adapted a lot early on – his Arrowsmith was made into a Best Picture nominee in 1931, his Dodsworth the same in 1936 – but since the 30’s, there’s really only been the BP nominated Elmer Gantry. Beaumont, who would later direct The Broadway Melody (badly, I feel I should point out), the second film to win Best Picture, directed these two silent versions of two of Lewis’ best books that are now lost.
- The Great Gatsby (1926, dir. Herbert Brenon) – The first version of Gatsby, starring that incomparable ham, Warner Baxter. Now lost, and possibly for the best, given that it stars Baxter and that Brenon’s Peter Pan is one of the weakest silent films I’ve seen.