Words in Motion: Graham Greene as Screenwriter

Many people think of Graham Greene as a man of contradiction: a writer of great British novels who took a peculiar turn toward the lesser art of writing for the movies.  But a closer look at Greene’s prose will reveal that it always embodied the essence of cinema. His obsession with the movies began at the age of six when he was taken to see a film adaptation of Anthony Hope’s novel Sophy of Kravonia in the seaside town of Brighton.  From that day he was a voracious consumer of cinema, and went on to write film criticism for the conservative magazine The Spectator where he produced over 400 reviews in five years before publishing the bulk of his literary work. This prolific engagement with the movies is evident in his books: like a movie camera, the omniscient eye of the narrator in Greene’s novels is frequently in motion, bumping along a disused road in Haiti or running after the shadow of a wanted man in the sewers under Vienna. For Greene, writing and film were always intertwined.

Greene divided his books into two categories: “novels,” which were of a higher literary caliber, and “entertainments,” which were faster, pulpier.  But the line dividing these two classifications was frequently hazy, as even Greene’s more serious Catholic novels (Brighton Rock) have all the sex and grit of a film noir, and his spy thrillers (The Comedians, Our Man in Havana) examine issues like ethics and death with the austerity of Evelyn Waugh. Greene, then, was not so much a man of contradictions as he was a man of ambivalence; a resident of the grey area.

This ambivalence gave Green a kind of elasticity of perspective that enabled him to see many sides to every story.  As a result, he was open to changing his political and philosophical convictions.  He converted to Catholicism in his 20s, although he struggled with this faith for the rest of his life because couldn’t shake his natural cynicism and growing mistrust of religious sovereignty.  He also became a secret agent for the British Intelligence Service, a vocation that brought him to war-torn nations like Haiti and Cuba where he was exposed to poverty and governmental suppression. This exposure led to a gradual shift in his political views from conservatism (supporting the governing powers) toward sympathy for rebels and refugees. This ability to explore various points of view and adapt to new truths gave Greene a multiplicity of perspective that comes through in his novels and screenplays, often compelling the reader to sympathize with multiple dissonant characters at once.

Though his books have been adapted for film and television dozens of times, Greene himself only wrote screenplays for the five films featured in this exhibition: Brighton Rock (directed by John Boulting), The Comedians (directed by Peter Glenville), The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, and Our Man in Havana (all directed by Carol Reed).  It should be noted that despite the cinematic nature of Greene’s writing style, these novels were not easy to adapt for the screen.  Greene wrote characters who, like him, were multifaceted and grey; their interior complexity cannot be easily expressed through images or dialogue.  The directors of these five films had to create their own visual language to express inner turmoil: a shadow dividing or obscuring a character’s face, a stairway railing imprisoning a child, a camera precariously slanted to denote anxiety. Thanks to these artistic choices and Greene’s direct involvement as a screenwriter, these films are rare examples of cinematic adaptations that live up to the treasured books that preceded them.

Katherine Irving