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American writer Arthur Miller is best known for his plays, and in the case of The Misfits, probably for his screenplay. The 1961 John Huston film though, was based on Miller’s short story of the same name, dated to 1957 in the 2009 Presence, Collected Stories (Bloomsbury).

There is lot of documentation and testimony regarding the film adaptation. The story of the filming is as epic as the film itself and carries echoes of the short story’s themes. Huston was said to be addicted to gambling. His male lead, Clark Gable, pushed himself to the limits, and died a fortnight after filming finished. Marilyn Monroe was moving towards divorce from Miller, and she too died less than two years after the film was released. Montgomery Clift was said to be already experiencing problems with addiction.

Perhaps to cope with his unravelling marriage, Miller was re-writing the screenplay as the filming took place, adding more and more to the role that Monroe was cast in. In that sense the original story was progressively being left behind. Yet the short story remains the starting point for the film, and what remains of it, as well as what was removed, and added to it, can still hold the interest of the student of adaptation, and of story.

 

In several respects the short story is a much tighter construction. It takes place almost entirely within sight of the truck that belongs to the main character, Gay Langland, and that truck remains within the few square miles of Nevada desert where the three cowboys are hunting their wild horses. Only in the last page, when the cowboys have driven off towards the nearby town, does the story linger, and close, out in the desert, with the four tethered mustangs, and the colt.

It is not so much the addition of other places however, that marks the biggest change between text and film. That comes in the shape of Marilyn Monroe, for the character she plays in the film, exists in the short story only in the words of the narrator and in the thoughts and words of the two protagonists, Gay, and Perce Howland. Guido, the third cowboy, does not refer to or think about her.

Here is one of the clear cut differences between the shown story of the film, and the told story of the word. In the text version know what the narrator, and the two characters think she is, but the presence of the shown Roslyn, with her own words, her own actions, and her own observable character traits demands that we form our own opinions. It also tips the balance of the story away from the relationship between Gay and Perce and towards the relationships between each of them, and her.

 

In his introduction to the Bloomsbury collection – taken from the much earlier ‘I Don’t Need You Anymore’ (Viking, 1967) in which The Misfits was included – Miller makes several observations about the short story form, and also, at least by implication, about the film. Telling us that a short story tries to ‘catch wonder by surprise’ might give us a clue as to what we should look for, but more useful might be his assertion that the ‘great strength of a good short story’ is ‘to see things isolated in stillness’. He writes at length too about dialogue: ‘..when the author…stopped chattering and got out of the way;’ These three snippets alone would give us a reasonable approach to The Misfits in its text form, and one from which to  view the diverging road to the film version.

Before looking at some examples in detail, one other general point might be useful, which is that there is a difference between the way that metaphors in text, and those in film work. In film we observe, or hear, the actual sight or sound on which the metaphor is built. If the roar of an engine does not sound to us like a growl, then the metaphor isn’t brought into being. In the short story, the wheels of the light aircraft with which Guido chases the wild horses out of the mountains have ‘doughnut tires.’ How many of us, I wonder, would think of that when we see the tyres of the movie’s plane? That this is a story full of metaphor suggests much risks being lost in the adaptation.

The most obviously powerful scene of the short story, for me, is where the stallion is brought to the ground. Unlike the other mustangs this one is not neatly roped and hog-tied and tethered.

 

 

‘The stallion’s forefeet slipped back, and he came down on his knees

and his nose struck the clay ground and he snorted as he struck, but he

would not topple over and stayed there on his knees as though he were

bowing to something, with his nose propping up his head against the ground

and his sharp bursts of breath blowing up dust in little clouds under his nostrils.’

 

He goes down stubbornly, slowly and with a sort of dignity, resisting until the very end, when Gay ‘came up alongside the stallion’s neck and laid his hands on the side of the neck and pushed,…’

In the film, Perce frees the stallion, to please Roslyn who is present in the desert. Gay recaptures it, in the scene that may well have triggered Gable’s fatal heart attack less than two days after filming ended. This is the most action packed scene of the film, in which Gable was dragged, apparently behind the horse, but in fact behind a vehicle, for a distance of several hundred feet. Despite the padding, he was severely cut and bruised, and it’s said that he told his wife that it had been ‘an accident.’ Like the character he was playing though, Gable had made a choice; his being not to use a stand-in. His character then releases the stallion, telling Roslyn that he wanted to make his own decisions. Such a sequences would have no place in the textual story, and would in fact, undermine the essential metaphor of the piece, that the mustangs, whatever they are, cannot escape their fate, and neither can the cowboys. It is ironic that the actor in reality, was playing a role nearer to that of the character in the original story, than is the character he was portraying in the film.

 

There are nuances of dialogue and thought in the told story, especially where Gay recognises the futilities of his life, and the inevitability of his choosing to prolong them. Like the colt, trapped by its dependence, though un-tethered, by the side of its mother, Gay is tied to his own image of what a man should be, and specifically, what a cowboy should be. Perce too is trapped, and even as they recognise their situation, they support each other’s denial of it.

Gay’s sense of freedom is compromised by his dependence on the truck.

 

‘Gay owned the truck and he wanted to preserve the front end.’

 

‘The transmission fork was worn out, he knew, and the front tires were going

too.’

 

‘The time was coming fast when he would need about fifty dollars or have to

sell the truck, because it would be useless without repairs. Without a truck and

without a horse he would be down to what was in his pocket.’

 

At that moment, he has precisely four silver dollars, given to him by Roslyn. He has been taking money from her, for doing odd jobs and driving her around. She is an ‘Eastern’ woman, of means, in the short story. The film avoids the issue, having Gay and Roslyn restoring a house together. The dependence experienced in the short story irks Gay, and when Perce refers to it, Gay’s reaction is instinctive:

 

‘he felt angry blood moving into his neck.’

 

There is a deeper irritation though, which is the knowledge that his way of life is mistaken, and ineffective. He uses the younger man to help maintain the denial of this truth.

 

‘”Well, it’s better than wages.”

“Hell, yes.”’

 

This exchange, and variations on it, is repeated more than once, as both men struggle to avoid acknowledging their situation, which is comparable to that of the horses they are pursuing.  In fact, this is made explicit, for they refer both to themselves, and to the horses as ‘misfits.’ In the end though, it is an inescapable truth. Even the money they will make from the mustangs is poor: ‘there would be no way to explain it so it made sense,’. For the much younger Perce, the truth is held further at bay, which is how he can support Gay in the delusion. Even when he wins big prize money at the rodeo, Perce has no sense of needing to hang on to it: ‘the boy was buying drinks for everybody with his rodeo winnings…’

Perce in fact likes Gay because he ‘never thought to say he ought to be making something of his life.’ There is no suggestion, that I can see, that Perce understands in the slightest that Gay cannot make such a suggestion, because his own life demands that he remains in denial of such ideas.

All three of the short story’s cowboys could have ‘done better’ in that traditional sense, but have turned down the chance, opting instead for a freedom as fragile, and ephemeral as that enjoyed by the mustangs they have captured.

Perce, in fact, already knows his fate: ‘I’m never going to amount to a damned thing.’ As he allows Gay to convince him that this is acceptable, Gay needs Perce to do the same for him. They are at opposite ends of the same journey. When Gay tells Perce that the colt would not be saved, even if left to run free, because ‘He’d just follow the truck right into town’ if the mare were on it, we recognise it as a metaphor for their own compulsions. The Roslyn of this story ‘razzes’ them on their way of life, but cannot save them from it, though the implication is that somewhere soon, she will save herself. Certainly Gay is conscious of holding himself ready for that: ‘you never kept anything…’ ‘She would go back East one day, he knew, maybe this year, maybe next.’

This short story is one of those that sticks in the memory, because the more closely you read it the more you find in it, deepening, and refining the message it carries. Rather than pick out quotations here and there to support a point, one should be taking it line for line and explaining how each adds to the context in which we will understand what follows. The ending that the film works towards is not so much a consummation of that context, as a subversion of it, as Roslyn and Gay recognise the opposite of what the Gay of the short story recognises, and ride off into a Hollywood sunset together. Cowboys can, and will let you down, but film endings can’t!

In the short story, it is Perce, the fellow-loser, whom Gay needs to make his future with.

 

‘”You comin’ up to Thighbone with me, ain’t you?”

“Okay,” Perce said and went back to sleep.

Gay felt more peaceful now that the younger man would not be leaving him. He

drove on in contentment.’

 

This is the happy ending that might have finished the story. Three asterisks separate it from the page that follows, for it is not going to be Miller’s ending. He takes us back to the desert, where the horses have been left. His description of them is our extended metaphor for the situation of his cowboys, and its end is focussed on the plight of that colt, which will make what we know will be a fatal choice. Reading the Wickipedia entry for Miller, there is a reference to him asserting that circumstances drive the choices of his characters. Gay, and Perce, and Guido, act as if they were like the colt, beyond rational choice, but Miller is pointing up the human tragedy, which is that we are not beyond it, but only incapable through our own natures. The film cannot go this far, and one wonders to what extent it was the genre, or the personal circumstances of the writer, or the requirements of the studios, that placed this limitation upon it.

 

The film makes explicit, not only the character of Roslyn, but also the wider context in which the protagonists’ lives are lived. The memories that the short story Gay has, of bars and towns and rodeos, are made flesh, and are fleshed out with extra characters. His relationship with Roslyn is examined by that third person inquisitor, the camera, rather than by his thoughts and statements about her being eavesdropped upon by the reader. The film’s Perce and Guido too are shown in their interactions with her, rather than through the filters of memory, doubt and suspicions. In true Hollywood style, Roslyn is made significantly younger than Gay. In the story, we are told, she is ‘about his age’. Hollywood men, and their audiences, were presumably incapable of dealing with women of their own age, and perhaps still are. In the film, Gay does not have to confront his ageing, though the actor was actually doing that, with lethal results. In the short story, the character contemplates turning ‘forty six soon, and then nearing fifty’ and getting grey hairs. Clark Gable, looking, and behaving, fitter than he was, had already turned fifty nine. In fact the film has increased the gap between Gay and Roslyn to a quarter century, pushing her back about fifteen years, and him forward nearly as many. This alone changes what the story can be about, as well as what it is.

In the short story Gay ‘sensed the bottom of his life falling if it turned out Roslyn had really been loving the boy beside him’. In the film we see exactly what the relationship between Perce and Roslyn is, and her relationship with Guido is developed explicitly, from what, in the short story, is an equally explicit narrative denial: Thinking of the ‘yearning for a woman’, Guido is pleased that ‘he was free of that..’ It’s worth considering that in the short story, Gay’s fear seems not so much of losing Roslyn to Perce, as of losing Perce to Roslyn.

In the film, references made by  short story’s narrator, or in the thoughts of Gay, have to be shown. So we see Gay wanting to introduce his lost family to Roslyn, and becoming distraught when they vanish. But whereas, in the short story, these references are part of the context in which we consider his relationship with Perce, in the film, they relate to his relationship with Roslyn. Perce’s home life is referred to by the narrator in the short story, but again, has to be made explicit in the film, in which we seen him talking to his mother in a phone kiosk. The camera cannot tell an internal story, but only show an external one.

The short story, in contrast, tells us the internal story and evokes in our imaginations the desert in which it takes place, and the images of the events and the players in them:

 

‘A wild river of air swept and swirled across the dark sky and struck down

against the blue desert and hissed back into the hills.’

 

‘The jacket had one sleeve off at the elbow, and the dried leather was split

open down the back, showing the lamb’s-wool lining. He had bombed

Germany in this jacket long ago.’

 

All these changes stem from the introduction of Roslyn as an actual, rather than as a ‘thought about’ character. From that first step the film has to move away progressively from the agendas of the short story. She draws the focus towards her, and changes what the story is revealing.

The final section of the film shoehorns in much of the action of the short story. The cowboys, with Roslyn tagging along, do go into the desert. Guido flies his beat-up old plane, and in his beat-up old flying jacket, to drive the wild mustangs out of the mountains and onto the plains, but the significance of his doing that is quite altered. He is no longer the device by which Perce and Gay get the time and opportunity to talk, and for Gay to think. A different role has to be found for him. He cannot be simply written out, for the plane is the means of getting the horses onto the plain! So he too, in direct opposition to his character in the short story, becomes romantically involved with Roslyn.

The character of Roslyn too, changes the agendas of the story. No longer imagined she has to be ‘realised’ by the author, and Miller, for reasons we can only speculate about, makes her childlike and vulnerable. She is not a character for whom going ‘back East’ would be an act of volition, so much as a running away. In that alone she changes the story’s agenda, for Gay is not challenged, in his way of life, by her superior grip on it, as in the told story, but only in his ability to compromise in order to protect her from her own inadequacies.  Her driving force seems to be an inability to accept the nature of life and death. In particular she has a rising revulsion against the hunt for the mustangs. An already over the top performance – her face barely stays still for a moment, but is constantly twitching and grimacing – leads to a wonderful temper tantrum in the desert, as spectacular as a four year old’s in a mall! This precipitates the release of the captured horses, taking the shown story that final step away from the told one. Gay recaptures the stallion, exhausting both the fictional character, and the actor who portrays him, but then releases it, in a gesture of futile control, after which he and Roslyn ride off in to a Hollywood ending. The great differences are two-fold. The text has he and Perce make that exit. More importantly, the horses are free, and there is no equivalent to that final page of Miller’s original text, highlighting the metaphorical comparison with the misfit cowboys. In fact, at the end of the film it is hard to see either horses or men in that role. In the film, Clark Gable’s character has retained his freedom, and so have the horses. Miller’s short story was about him, and them, failing to do so.

 

John Huston was used to adaptation. His final film was a ‘faithful’ adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, and is especially interesting for its closing sequence. There, Huston understood that he could do no better than have the final paragraphs of the short story read in voice over, while a shot lingers on a landscape similar to the one being described. This level of sensitivity to what is important to the story seems at odds with the changes wrought in The Misfits. Was that because, in this case, the adaptation was being driven by the changed agendas of the writer? Or was it something to do with Hollywood’s need to present the stereotypical roles of man and woman? A character not even hinted at in the told story, is that of Roslyn’s female sidekick, an older woman with a veneer of cynicism over a seam of old fashioned romance, and played with show-stealing enthusiasm by Thelma Ritter. Her function in the story is to tell us, repeatedly and explicitly, throughout the first half of the film, that ‘cowboys’ are real men, and thus OK, even if they have a propensity for vanishing. Once she has got this message clearly across, and, presumably, fixed in our heads, she is dropped from the story: job done!

The New York Times gave the film, on its release, a damning review. Its characters were shallow, it said, and its ending was sentimental. There is no hint that the reviewer knew of the short story that preceded it. My interest isn’t to set one form above the other, nor to rate the success of an adaptation in relation to its ‘fidelity’ to the original, but to ask if the differences tell us anything about story and how it is used by storytellers.

The Misfits gives us a clear distinction, between a textual story, that examines the lives of, predominantly, two men, who are at different stages on the same road, and who use each other to avoid facing up to their failures, and an audio-visual one that strips the sense of failure from its male lead, and in fact validates that and other stereotypes by having him ‘get’ the girl in the end. In the former, the location, in time and place, and the events are used as a metaphor for the situations of the men. In the latter they become merely a visual accompaniment to the words and actions of the protagonists.

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