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Twentieth-Century American Fiction on Screen


The essays in this collection analyze major film adaptations of twentieth-century American fiction, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The last Tycoon to Toni Morrison's Beloued. Combining cinematic and literary approaches, this volume explores the adaptation process from conception through production and reception Written in a lively and accessible style, the book includes production stills and full filmographies. Together with its companion volume on nineteenth-century fiction, the volume offers a comprehensive account...
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The essays in this collection analyze major film adaptations of twentieth-century American fiction, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The last Tycoon to Toni Morrison's Beloued. Combining cinematic and literary approaches, this volume explores the adaptation process from conception through production and reception Written in a lively and accessible style, the book includes production stills and full filmographies. Together with its companion volume on nineteenth-century fiction, the volume offers a comprehensive account of the rich tradition of American literature on screen.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Informative and well organized, this collection of essays on literary film adaptations looks beyond the theory of fidelity and privileging to aspects of narratology, intertextuality, and reading theory...Full of interesting insights, this collection could serve as either supplemental reading or stand-alone text on the historical aspects of film adaptations of 20th-century literature...Recommended."
- A. F. Winstead, Our Lady of the Lake University, Choice
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521542302
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 8/31/2006
  • Pages: 270
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

R. Barton Palmer is Calhoun Lemon Professor of English at Clemson University, South Carolina.

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Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-83444-5 - Twentieth-Century American Fiction on Screen Edited - by R. Barton Palmer


R. Barton Palmer

Since the early days of the commercial cinema, many, perhaps most, important works of literary fiction have found a subsequent life on the screen, extending their reach and influence. Filmmakers, in turn, have enjoyed the economic and critical benefits of recycling what the industry knows as “pre-sold properties.” No doubt, this complex intersection has deeply marked both arts. Keith Cohen, for example, has persuasively argued that cinematic narrative exerted a decisive influence on the shift in novelistic aesthetics from “telling” to “showing,” providing new depth of meaning to the old maxim ut pictura poiesis. Film theorists, in turn, most notably Sergei Eisenstein, have emphasized the formative influence on cinematic storytelling of the classic realist novel, whose techniques and themes, adapted by D. W. Griffith and others, made possible a filmic art of extended narrative. Modern fictional form has been shaped by filmic elements such as montage, shifting point of view, and close attention to visual texture. An enabling condition of this constant and mutually fruitful exchange has been the unconventional conventionality of both art forms, their generic receptivity to outside influence. As Robert Stam puts it, “both the novel and the fictionfilm are summas by their very nature. Their essence is to have no essence, to be open to all cultural forms.”

   Screen adaptations provide ideal critical sites not only for examining in detail how literary fiction is accommodated to cinematic form, but also for tracing the history of the symbiotic relationship of the two arts and the multifarious and ever-shifting connections between the commercial institutions responsible for their production. Until recently, however, neoromantic assumptions about the preeminent value of the source text have discouraged a thorough analysis of the complex negotiations (financial, authorial, commercial, legal, formal, generic, etc.) that bring adaptations into being and deeply affect their reception. Traditionalist aesthetic considerations have also foreclosed discussion of the place of adaptations within the history of the cinema. For this latter is a critical task that requires the identification and analysis of contextual issues that have little, if anything, to do with the source. In sum, the notion of “faithfulness” as the sole criterion of worth positions the adaptation disadvantageously, as only a secondary version of an honored work from another art form. An exclusive view of the adaptation as a replication closes off its discussion not only per se, but also in se. From the point of view of the source, an adaptation can only reflect value, for it does not result from the originary, creative process that produced its model. Traditional adaptation studies thus strive to estimate the value of what, by its nature, can possess no value of its own.

   For this reason, it is not surprising that literary scholars have too often viewed adaptations as only more or less irrelevant, if occasionally interesting, copies, as mere supplements to the literary source. From this viewpoint, the importance of adaptations is quite limited to the fact that they make their sources more available, extending the influence of literary masterpieces. Film scholars, in turn, have often viewed with suspicion and distaste the dependence of the screen adaptation on a novelistic pretext, seeing “literary” cinema as a less than genuine form of film art. The “grand theory” developed during the past three decades has emphasized the description and analysis of various aspects of cinematic specificity; grand theory, however, has not for the most part concerned itself with the intersemiotic relationships that generate and define the formal features of film adaptations. A nascent discipline, eager to establish its independence, perhaps could not afford such tolerance and breadth of critical vision. An approach that postulated films as in some sense secondary, especially as derivative versions of valued literary texts, would enact in microcosmic form the institutional bondage of film to literature. It would also reinforce the notion that the cinema was a parasitic art form, dependent on prior literary creation. Providing popular abridgements of literary masterpieces (to make the obvious point) hardly argued for the cultural importance of what Gilbert Seldes terms the seventh of “the lively arts.” Studying filmic adaptation ran counter to the new theorizing about the cinema in the 1970s – not to mention the academic respectability and independence for which such work implicitly campaigned. For literary and film scholars alike, adaptation studies encountered disfavor on both intellectual and institutional grounds.

   During the past five years, however, the increasing popularity in cinema studies of what is usually termed “middle level theory” has turned the attention of scholars back toward the analysis of, and limited in parvo theorizing about, the material history of films and filmmaking, including the cinema’s relationship with literature. A key role in this development has been the increasing institutional presence of cultural studies (or, in its more politically self-conscious British form, cultural materialism). Now recognized as a legitimate academic specialty, cultural studies ignores the formal and institutional boundaries between film and literature, even as it provides fertile ground for working on their interconnections. As Stam has recently remarked, “From a cultural studies perspective, adaptation forms part of a flattened out and newly egalitarian spectrum of cultural production. Within a comprehensively textualized world of images and simulations, adaptation becomes just another text, forming part of a broad discursive continuum.”From this point of view, treating a film as an “adaptation” is a matter of critical politics as well as of facts, the result of a decision to privilege one form of connection or influence over any number of others.

   Other recent developments in postmodern theory have made it possible for literary and film scholars alike to take a more nuanced and positive look at film adaptations. There is no doubt, in fact, that the field has been thriving, with a number of important theoretical works published during the past decade. In particular, intertextuality theory and Bakhtinian dialogics now hold prominent positions in literary and film studies. Intertextuality contests the received notion of closed and self-sufficient “works,” their borders impermeable to influence, their structures unwelcoming of alien forms. As an archly postmodernist critical form, intertextuality provides an ideal theoretical basis from which can proceed an account of the shared identity of the literary source and its cinematic reflex. More radically, intertextual theory can be used to challenge the very notion of a privileged source/adaptation relationship by identifying the potentially innumerable pressures that affect the shaping of the adaptation; these pressures can be considered “texts” and any distinction between such texts and the contexts of production is arguably no more than a matter of analytical preference or rhetoric. In any case, any consideration of filmic adaptation means speaking of one text while speaking of another. Adaptation is by definition transtextual, to use Gérard Genette’s more precise and inclusive taxonomic concept of textual relations. A peculiar doubleness characterizes the adaptation. For it is a presence that stands for and signifies the absence of the source-text. An adaptation refers to two texts with the same identity that are not the same. Such forms of permeable and shared textuality can be accounted for only by critical approaches that focus on interrelations of different sorts, including the (dis)connections between literary and cinematic contexts.

   In film studies the decline of grand theory has enabled the field to take the direction that theorist DudleyAndrew has long advocated: a “sociological turn” toward the consideration of the institutional and contextual pressures that condition the process of adaptation and define what role the adaptation comes to play in the history of the cinema. Critical studies of literary/film relations are beginning to focus on “how adaptation serves the cinema,” as Andrew puts it; and this new direction of inquiry has the added advantage of shedding light on how the literary source is affected by becoming part of an intertextual, intersemiotic, interinstitutional series. Robert Stam provides an anatomy of source/adaptation relationships; these are surprisingly varied: “One way to look at adaptation is to see it as a matter of a source novel’s hypotext being transformed by a complex series of operations: selection, amplification, concretization, actualization, critique, extrapolation, analogization, popularization, and reculturalization.”

   Comparing the source and adaptation draws attention to the specific negotiations of various kinds involved in the process of transformation. Consideration can then be given to the role the resulting film comes to play within the cinema. The foundational premise of the approaches taken by the contributors to this volume has been that adaptations possess a value in themselves, apart from the ways in which they might be judged as (in)accurate replications of literary originals. Because it is sometimes a goal that guides those responsible for the adaptation process, faithfulness has found a place in the analyses collected here more as an aspect of context rather than a criterion of value. The fact (more often, the promise) of fidelity in some sense can also figure rhetorically in the contextualization of the film, most notably as a feature promoted by the marketing campaign. But very often it plays no crucial role in the transformation process and merits less critical attention than more relevant issues.

   Undeniably, adaptations constitute an important area of modern cultural production, making them worthy and appropriate objects of study. But how to organize that study? Seeing a text as an adaptation means invoking its relations to two distinct but interconnected cultural series and its insertion within two divergent institutional histories; adaptations thereby become the analytical objects of two separate but not dissimilar disciplines in which topical, author-oriented, genre, and period forms of organization predominate. Film/literature adaptation courses are becoming increasingly prominent in university curricula, and they are usually housed within English or literature departments, where they are often organized, following the most common disciplinary paradigm, in terms of literary period. That practice has been followed in this volume and its companion, Nineteenth-Century American Fiction on Screen. This is by no means the only interesting or pedagogically useful way in which adaptations might be studied. In fact, Thomas Leitch, one of the contributors to this volume, in his essay on the various versions of The Killers raises an interesting challenge to such a privileging of the literary text and of the literary series more generally. Even so, it is indisputable that organization of the source-texts by period has the not inconsiderable virtue of offering literature teachers a familiar body of fiction with which to work. Additionally, this approach focuses narrowly on a selected stretch of literary history, permitting the analysis of how movements, themes, and dominant formal features have undergone “cinematicization.” In treating American fiction of the past century, this volume marshals a broad sweep of expert opinion, literary and cinematic, on an equally broad field of texts.

   Twentieth-Century American Fiction on Screen has been conceived to fill the need for an up-to-date survey of the important films made from these texts, with the book’s unity deriving in the first instance from the literary and cultural connections among the various sources. The fourteen essays collected here, written expressly for this volume, each address the adaptation (occasionally adaptations) of single literary texts, though discussion, where relevant, also ranges over screen versions of other works by the same author, other releases from the same director, or films that are otherwise relevant. This book has a focus that provides a ready organization for courses in adaptation, with readings and viewings easily coordinated with the essays. Despite their singular emphasis, the essays also open up discussion into broader areas of importance. Although the scheme adopted here is in the first instance literary, the different essays are also deeply cinematic, addressing specific aspects of the adaptation process, including details of production where relevant and usually seeking to define the role the film came to play within the history of the American cinema. Some contributors discuss the intersemiotic aspects of transferring a narrative from one medium to another, while others consider in depth the problems of authorship, an important question whenever the work of a valued author becomes part of the oeuvre of an important director or when the contributions of a screenwriter prove significant and defining.

   Much thought has gone into the selection of novels and films. My starting point was to review all commercial American adaptations of twentieth-century American fiction from the sound era, roughly 1930 to the present. The extensive corpus of cinematic material has made it possible to exemplify the varied fictional traditions of the period, from traditional forms of realism (The Color Purple, The Killers, The Last Tycoon, The Member of the Wedding, Ship of Fools, The Thin Red Line), modernism (The Day of the Locust, Intruder in the Dust, Lolita, Wise Blood), and postmodernism (Naked Lunch, Short Cuts, Slaughterhouse-Five). It has also proved possible to offer a cross-section of authors, with five works written by women. I thought it appropriate as well to include two works, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, that engage interestingly with the American film industry and with Hollywood as a cultural phenomenon. In the silent era not many feature films were adapted from twentieth-century fictional texts, and the few that were, in any case, are often too difficult to obtain for classroom use. Only films that had been commercially released in either VHS or DVD format and remain readily obtainable in either of these two formats made the final list. Full filmographies are included as an appendix.

   The writers represented here are all major in the sense that they have been and remain the subject of substantial critical work. They also continue to find a readership; their works, in other words, remain in print. While nearly all the writers on the list are what we would now term “high cultural,” I have decided to include one writer, James Jones, who might be described as a popular writer with substantial historical, but also literary, importance. In the final analysis, of course, both the criteria used and the particular choices made are subjective, in the sense that they are based, first, on my knowledge of and experience with literary and film study and, second, on my appraisal of what material would appeal to scholarly and general readers, yet also prove useful in the classroom. I do not know, of course, any more than anyone else, how to decide objectively what works, literary or cinematic, should be thought major. Among other prominent rankings, the American Film Institute has compiled a list of the “100 Best American Films.” A number of the films I have selected, but by no means all, are on this list. If there is a comparable list for twentieth-century American novels and short fiction, I am not familiar with it, but most of the literary texts chosen for this volume would likely be on it. But even if such a list did exist, its authoritative value would be dubious. The canon of literary study remains very much in dispute and can hardly be said to be fixed or stable, as scholars such as Paul Lauter have shown.6

   In planning this book, the status of both authors and works was in fact a preliminary condition. That I considered them major was a necessary but not sufficient reason for inclusion. Another important purpose of this volume is to exemplify the process of adaptation and provide detailed discussion of how adaptations have served the cinema. In making the selections from among major works by major authors, I have picked formally and culturally interesting adaptations, by which I mean those that can be shown to have served the cinema in some significant or revealing fashion. For example, the fictional text might offer technical challenges (e.g., how do you film a novel with prominent antirealist elements such as Naked Lunch?) or the context of the adaptation might be interesting from the viewpoint of Hollywood history (e.g., in the case of Intruder in the Dust, Hollywood’s renewed concern during the late 1940s with racism). The film might constitute an important part of a director’s oeuvre, with the source thus inserted into two expressive series, one literary and the other cinematic. In fact, most of the films selected here belong to the oeuvres of respected old and new Hollywood auteurs, a roll of honor that includes Robert Altman, David Cronenberg, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Stanley Kramer, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, John Schlesinger, Steven Spielberg, and Fred Zinnemann. As the contributors to this volume demonstrate, the films discussed herein all hold an interest that, while determined to a large degree by their status as adaptations, also derives from their insertion within the history of Hollywood and the larger cultural role that the movies played in twentieth-century America.

Filming an unfinished novel:
The Last Tycoon

Rober sklar

When F. Scott Fitzgerald (b. 1896) died of a heart attack at age forty-four, on December 21, 1940, in Hollywood, he left behind a novel-in-progress about the motion picture industry. A few weeks later, his companion, the Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham, sent the author’s draft materials to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, at Charles Scribner’s Sons. After considering several options, including hiring another writer to complete the work following Fitzgerald’s outlines and notes, Perkins enlisted the literary critic (and friend of Fitzgerald) Edmund Wilson – whom Graham had also contacted shortly after the author’s death – to shape and edit the manuscript for publication. As titles, Fitzgerald had considered “Stahr: A Romance,” after the novel’s central character, Monroe Stahr, a Hollywood studio executive, and “The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western,” giving the work a different, perhaps more ironic, genre connotation. Wilson’s version was published in October 1941 as The Last Tycoon: An Unfinished Novel, in a volume with The Great Gatsby and five of Fitzgerald’s most important short stories.

Image not available in HTML version

Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon is largely the story of a doomed romance between studio mogul Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro) and Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting), who resembles his dead wife. A 1976 Academy Productions/Paramount Pictures release.

“Unfinished works by great writers form a category as haunting as it is unsatisfactory,” the novelist Alan Hollinghurst has written. “In gratifying a curiosity about what might have been, they heighten the feeling of loss.” One certainly feels a sense of loss at Fitzgerald’s early death, yet in the case of The Last Tycoon what exists in published form seems almost more of a benefaction than a cause for regret. Perkins puzzled over whether what Graham had sent him was publishable at all. Fitzgerald had drafted little more than half of the planned episodes, and expected to rewrite nearly everything that he had completed. The unwritten sections were to have involved a turn toward violence and murder plots, and might have drastically altered the tone of what appeared in print in 1941. “It would require some re-arrangement, and it would not be well proportioned, and would chiefly tell a secondary story, a love episode in the life of the hero,” Perkins wrote to Wilson, and the critic, following the editor’s lead, changed words, moved scenes, and createdchapters, forging the work that we know now out of the author’s more-or-less raw material.

Matthew J. Bruccoli, who edited a scholarly version of Fitzgerald’s drafts more than half a century after the novel’s original appearance, criticizes the “cosmeticized text” that Wilson produced. “The Last Tycoon is not really an ‘unfinished novel,’” Bruccoli has asserted, “if that term describes a work that is partly finished. The only way to regard it is as material toward a novel.” Nevertheless, what Wilson accomplished for Fitzgerald should not be underestimated. As Fitzgerald’s first book publication since a short story collection in 1935, the 1941 The Last Tycoon once again brought before the reading public what Perkins called “those magical sentences and phrases and paragraphs that only Scott could write,” and launched the revival of the author’s reputation that catapulted him from neglect to preeminence as a twentieth-century American writer.

As a facet of Fitzgerald’s recuperation, the Philco Television Playhouse adapted The Last Tycoon for live dramatization on October 16, 1949, a few months after Paramount Pictures’ The Great Gatsby, the first sound film based on a Fitzgerald work, appeared in cinemas. John Frankenheimer directed another live television version of The Last Tycoonfor the Playhouse 90 series on March 14, 1957, with Jack Palance in the role of Monroe Stahr.In 1965 the producer Lester Cowan (who in 1939 had hired Fitzgerald to write a screenplay of his short story “Babylon Revisited” as a potential, but unrealized, vehicle for Shirley Temple), announced plans to film The Last Tycoonfor M-G-M release, with a script by the novelist and screenwriter Irwin Shaw.Nothing came of this, either, and the producer Sam Spiegel acquired rights to the novel in the early 1970s. Spiegel engaged the British playwright Harold Pinter to write the screenplay, even though he had heavily criticized Pinter’s script for Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967) and dropped out of producing that film.Eventually, Elia Kazan joined the project as director, and The Last Tycoon, with principal photography completed in January 1976, was released by Paramount on November 15, 1976. The relation between two collaborations – the Fitzgerald-Perkins-Wilson novel and the Spiegel-Pinter-Kazan film – is the subject of this essay.


“There is probably no more pathetic image in recent literary mythology,” writes Mark Royden Winchell, “than that of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.” The myth that Winchell interrogates is of Hollywood as corrupter and destroyer of literary talent. Yet Fitzgerald’s image, as he describes it, adheres closely to the known facts: the author’s literary and financial difficulties that led him in the mid-1930s to seek employment as a screenwriter; his contract with M-G-M beginning in July 1937; bitter squabbles with co-workers; limited success at his work; feelings of abjection and resentment at his status and treatment; renewed alcohol abuse. When M-G-M dropped him after eighteen months, there was fruitless freelance screen work and short story writing to pay the bills. Not to speak of his fatal heart attack and truncated novel-in-progress.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations     vii
Notes on contributors     ix
Acknowledgments     xii
Introduction   R. Barton Palmer     1
Filming an unfinished novel: The Last Tycoon   Robert Sklar     8
The texts behind The Killers   Thomas Leitch     26
The Day of the Locust: 1939 and 1975   Christopher Ames     45
Ship of Fools: from novel to film   Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr.     65
Intruder in the Dust and the southern community   Mark Royden Winchell     78
Dramatizing The Member of the Wedding   McKay Jenkins     90
Film and narration: two versions of Lolita   Robert Stam     106
World War II through the lens of Vietnam: adapting Slaughterhouse-Five to film   William Rodney Allen     127
John Huston's Wise Blood   Matthew Bernstein     139
Genre and authorship in David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch   Steffen Hantke     164
Screening Raymond Carver: Robert Altman's Short Cuts   Robert Kolker     179
The Color Purple: translating the African-American novel for Hollywood   Allen Woll     191
The specter of history: filming memory in Beloved   Marc C. Conner     202
Filming the spiritual landscape of James Jones's The Thin Red Line   R. Barton Palmer     217
Filmography     242
Index     248
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