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There is a technique – trick if you prefer – used in TV and film, whereby a character is introduced by drawing them from the anonymity of a crowd. Before we know who they are, and without them having spoken or done anything noticeable, we have somehow had our attention focussed onto them.

Perhaps it to do wtih keeping them centre screen while the camera pans. Perhaps it is that they are in sharp focus while the others are in soft. Perhaps it is a nuance of dress or posture, but something pulls our eyes onto that character in particular before there is any obvious reason why it should!

I have often wondered, and once or twice have tried, if the same technique or one analogous to it, could be used in the writing of a story. The idea came back to me recentlky when I was re-reading Rumer’s Godden’s novel, Black Narcissus. Like many famous adaptations this is a story probably better known in its film rather than its original text version. Powell and Pressburger were faithful to the plot, with a few changes made necessary by the film form and its implied audience, but that’s another essay.

The opening of the novel can provide an interesting speculation on how a told story can, and perhaps even ought, to begin. The first few lines, a short paragraph, carries out several of the functions of a beginning:


‘The Sisters left Darjeeling in the last week of October. They had come to

settle in the General’s Palace at Mopu, which was now to be known as the

Convent of St.Faith.’


That capital S tells us they are nuns, rather than siblings,  and even from these two sentences we know a lot about what the story will be about. We have a location, in time and place, an embryonic plot – encapsulated in ‘settle’ and ‘now to be known as,’ and characters: the Sisters, and ‘the General.’

We might even detect the beginning of the ambience of the piece, and the importance of the building in, or from which most of the events will take place (which phrase itself, ‘take place’ tells us something about what story is).

‘St.Faith’, strongly implies Catholicism, certainly Christianity, when coupled with capital S sisters, and Darjeeling puts it in the Indian highlands, which we might feel is, for the nuns, ‘out of place’.

It’s the introduction of the characters that caught my interest though, and particularly of the Sister who is going to be the centre of our attention. By page 5 we should be fairly sure which one she is, but it’s curious the way that Godden gets us to that recognition. A surprise to me was how few times the particular nun is mentioned in those early pages, yet, as in my TV and Film ‘trick,’ our attention is drawn to her differently from the way it is drawn to the other named Sisters.

The first to be named is Sister Blanche – who will quickly become known as Sister Honey. She draws our attention, not to herself, but to the scenery, and does so in response to ‘Father Roberts’, who, we are told, thinks that the nuns will be lonely at Mopu.

‘“What is he afraid of?” asked Sister Blanche.”I think these hills are lovely.”

We will wait another page before another Sister is named.

‘Sister Clodagh rode in front with the clerk.’

We get more about Clodagh here: the way she rides; the way she talks to the clerk, and the snippet, that the other Sisters are ‘envious’ as they watch her. Next we get Sister Blanche again, and Sister Ruth. Their horses are unruly, and Sister Ruth panics, ‘She was terribly nervous…’

Over the next couple of pages both Sister Ruth and Sister Blanche are mentioned again by name, but it is until page 5 that we must wait for Sister Clodagh. Then, in two references, she reveals, or rather deepens our sense of her separateness from, and authority over the others.

‘…but Sister Clodagh said briskly: Come along Sister.’ And ‘”How she loves to exaggerate, “ thought Sister Clodagh’. In fact Sister Clodagh receives three named mentions on page 5, and after that, over the next few pages, we flashback to the chosing of which Sisters will ‘settle’ at Mopu, and here, on page 10, in case we haven’t cottoned on, Godden has her explicitly refer to being the Superior of the new Convent.

We have, by this time, been drawn not only into watching what she does, and hearing what she says, but we have been eavesdropping on her thoughts, and perhaps more importantly, we have been told what others think of her. The clerk, with whom she rides, for example, tells her that ‘the men are saying that the Lady-Sahib sits her horse like a man.’ That he does this ‘ingratiatingly’ adds to our sense of her.

What struck me about this introduction to the main character of the novel, was the tentative, almost surreptitious way, she was added into the story, like stirring in the few drops of chilli that will make a sauce truly hot!

If there is a second character in the novel, and I think there is, it is Mr Dean, who is insinuated into the story with similar sleight of hand. First mention comes on page 11, after our sense of Sister Clodagh has been well established. In a flashback, Sister Clodagh recalls her exploratory visit to Mopu: ‘..the General’s agent, Mr Dean, showed them over it.’

There’s is a richness to this novel. The General, though he appears only once or twice in person, is a dominating presence, almost like a God. He organises, manipulates, and sympathises with his characters. And Mopu itself is more than just a stage on which the action takes place. Its physical qualities mirror the emotional turmoil of the nuns as they strive to establish their school and hospital, aided by the destabilising presence of the morally ambiguous Mr Dean.

Assembling all these forces over the first dozen pages of the story Rumer Godden slips them almost un-noticed into our consciousness, and in an appropriate order of importance. In a strange mirroring of the ‘mystery play,’ these naturalistic characters seem to represent archetypal forces, with Mopu itself, and Angu Aya the caretaker from its days as ‘the House of Women,’ as a sort of pagan earth.   Both film and book are well worth getting to grips with, but remember, a film takes place in front of your very eyes (and ears), the book, behind (and between) them.

Ambiguous Encounters, ten short stories by Brindley Hallam Dennis & Marilyn Messenger


I was given a dvd of The Admirable Crichton this Christmas. The 1957 film, starring British actor, Kenneth More is set in Edwardian England and was adapted from the stage play by J.M.Barrie.

Barrie’s play has a contemporary setting, being performed for the first time in 1902. There are some details of the productions including illustrations from that first production, on Wickipedia, where it lists also the dates of later productions, and of several adaptations to film, TV, and radio. I’ve not seen the play, but it’s the dates that interest me, and three dates in particular.

The first is that date of first production (1902), the second that of the Kenneth More film (1957), and the third, (2016), the year in which I watched it. Co-incidentally around fifty years apart, these three dates can be viewed as giving onion-skin like perceptions of the issues raised by the story.

There is a fistful of well known novels, plays and films set in Edwardian England. The period is seen as the last, idyllic summer of the Victorian world, turning to the autumn of 1914, and the four year long winter of the First World War. The Importance of Being Ernest, The Go Between, and The Shooting Party are three of my favourites – the latter dating from 1983, a lifetime after the events it describes. As one who takes an interest in the English short story I’m aware of A.E.Coppard popping up on the scene in 1919, at the beginning of what was in many respects a new world at the end of that war. In Norman Nicholson at 100, (Matthews & Curry,eds.Bookcase,Carlisle,2014)  a collection of essays about the Cumbrian poet, I contributed an essay contrasting the seemingly opposite outlooks of the two poets Nicholson, born 1914, and Geoffrey Holloway, born 1918, the former looking backward, the latter forward.

In the case of The Admirable Crichton, play and film, we see an examination of the English, perhaps British, class system reviewed after fifty years during which a single world war, with an intermission of twenty years, brought forth our world. To watch that film, fifty years after it was made, gives another view. The Second World War has often been described as ‘the people’s war,’ but ‘The Great War’ has tended to be seen as one between the European Ruling Families. Perhaps what the families began the peoples had to finish. Here, play and film, look at the same issues of class, and, perhaps unconsciously, gender from different sides of that divide. From our present perspective we see both aspects from a distance.


The story is relatively simple. The father and three daughters of an upper class family, along with a couple of young suitors, and the eponymous butler and a ‘tweeny’ maid – my adoptive grandparents, and this makes, to quote Robert Frost, ‘all the difference,’ were ‘in service’ (not to be confused with being ‘in the services), are cast ashore on an uninhabited Pacific island. There, the competence of Crichton is contrasted with the incompetence of the others, leading to a reversal of roles. He becomes ‘the governor’ in a benign  patriarchal dictatorship that lasts until rescue arrives. Then the roles revert, almost to what they were before. That almost concerns the eldest of the three sisters, Lady Mary, with whom Crichton has fallen in love. In the film version – and I suspect, from clues in the Wickipedia entry, in the play too – she is keen to carry on their relationship, and to defy convention, but Crichton is, at heart, a conservative, and ‘falls back’ on the convenient ‘tweeny,’ who, cor blimey, is happy to get him. They set off for a new life, with a bagful of pearls he has saved from the island. Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets spring to an ironic life for me at this point, for several of those stories dealt with the disasters of working class people coming into capital! (I wonder, as we speak, so to write, how those two £33,000,000 winners will fare?). J.M.Barrie, apparently, wanted to have Lady Mary and Crichton continue their relationship, but felt that ‘the stalls’ would not accept it. The filmmakers too, balked at what might have looked like a Hollywood ending. I think if I were adapting it again today, and translating it into modern times, I’d have to say the same. Perhaps that would be a worthwhile experiment – to see if the story, with either ending, could be made acceptable to ‘the stalls,’ or even to the writer. The characters do seem stereotypical, and dated stereotypes too, but, when one becomes old enough to look back far enough, what seemed avant garde when we did it can look awfully stereotypical in retrospect!

What I’m left with, watching a fifty year old version of a fifty year old comedy of manners, is a series of questions. What was taken for granted, and what ironic in the two versions? What do we take for granted? What do we find ironic now? Is Crichton’s innate conservatism, and Lord Henry’s skin-thin republicanism to be believed in, or laughed at? And the sexism, the inverted snobbery? Where do they fit, in 1902, and 1957, and 2016? How far have we come, and what arc has the trajectory of social change left in our sky (poetic, huh!)?

Wincing, amongst the laughs. I found the characters both embarrassingly out of date, and reassuringly familiar – but not necessarily in the right order (to quote Eric Morecambe).

BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby….


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



‘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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt one of the Facets of Fiction workshops recently, we looked at a novel-in-progress that was set in the future; a here and then story, you might call it. With this sort of sci-fi (for want of a better term) there’s always going to be a blend of the ‘normal’ with the unusual, and the question arises, of whether or not that unusual is something that is going to be revealed slowly, or is going to be part of the starting point from which we set off into the story.

In the case of the story we were looking at, that unusualness was in the form of magic. This was a world in which magic was not only commonplace, but was rather obsolescent. It was so much taken for granted by the people in that world that they were turning away from it towards technology. For that reason alone, it seemed, that the reader should not be taken by surprise by its arrival even as late as a few paragraphs into the story. It would be so much a part and parcel of the fictional world that the reader had to know it was there right from the beginning.

I remember decades ago, being told that a problem with stories is what the author assumes we will take for granted. I’ve quoted a favourite example of this before…the raising of a hat, in an A.E.Coppard story, that he assumed we would expect to be there. Reading this story in a ‘post-hat’ world, I was taken by surprise when it appeared. His original readers would have assumed its presence. If this can happen with a story based in ‘reality,’ how much more so can it happen in a story set in a created unreality? If there is something abnormal to us, that we want the reader to take as being normal – and therefore hardly worth mentioning in the fictional context, in the created world, how do we introduce it, and when?

Looking at our magic story, in the FofF workshop, it seemed that the best way to avoid it being ‘a surprise’ to the reader, was to get it in early, before assumptions about the nature of that world had set in, assumptions that would almost certainly be based on the reader’s experience of his or her current realities.

Presumably, if you were trying to present an unexpected quality in the created world – something that took its inhabitants by surprise – you would do the opposite, creating their norms first, so that the exception to them was equally surprising to the reader? On the other hand, you might not! You might choose to tell us that whatever it was you were presenting was anomalous in the fictional context. I wonder which would work better?

Perhaps there’s another writing exercise here, in embryo at least – to experiment with creating unrealities within unrealities, and to manipulate the reader into taking them for granted, or being surprised by them.    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis week Radio 4 aired the first part of a dramatisation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel, Cloud Howe, the second in his A Scots Quair trilogy. I’ve read only the first novel (and made a start on the second since hearing the dramatisation), but have become a fan of LGG’s writing.

Several Facets of Fiction hallmark this writer, not least his use of punctuation. Commas are used to connect, rather than to disconnect, strings of complete sentences. Full stops are used to break up the clauses of long sentences. Even paragraphs fulfil the same function from time to time, beginning with such no-noes as ‘but’ and ‘and’. The effect of this is to speed up the reader’s progress through the text: the commas keep us going where a full stop would halt us. The full stops slow us down, making us take in the image of each clause or group of clauses, but the logic of the sentence as a whole carries us forward. It’s like having a present, first person narrator inside your head, though the narrator is in fact third, and sometimes second person. The voice is that of a garrulous conversationalist, and he has a strong – though not precisely authentic apparently – accent. In fact, the regional dialect that LGG presents is utterly convincing, to the outsider, but apparently mediated to make it more palatable, and perhaps more persuasive. LGG issued a glossary with the American edition of his work, which suggests to me that he expected his reader to struggle. In fact, I suspect that he wanted his reader to have to pay attention – which seems like a bold, but good idea!

Similarly, in both Sunset Song, the first book of the three, and Cloud Howe, he precedes the story with a breathless resume of the entire history of the places in which they are set. Apparently some readers skip these. Bad move. They aren’t there just for show. By the time we have read them we have become locals of those imaginary locations. We have those prejudicial thumbnail accounts, our personal mythology of what they are like, and perhaps of what they ought to be like, and of how we ought to feel about them. LGG is a storyteller who wants us, I believe, to hear the story he is telling, in the voice he is using. He is not doing the Joycean thing of refining himself out of existence, so much as making sure we are getting our ear in, for what he has to tell us. Readers of the blog will know I have issues with the tag ‘show, don’t tell’. Here is an author who is telling us the story. He is not giving us the option of seeing it the way we might want to, but doing everything he can to tell it the way he thinks it was (or is!).

Another facet of the writing is the sparsity of dialogue, made more potent by LGG’s trick of hiding it among the text. Of all his techniques this is perhaps the one dearest to my own heart, though I picked the idea up from George Moore, long before I’d read any LGG. Thoughts, and direct speech is buried in the paragraphs of narrative, among those seemingly misplaced commas and full stops. We have to pay attention there too!

All of which is of necessity, missing from the dramatisation. What we are left with is the speech alone. It’s good to listen to. The voices are engaging, the words powerful. The story, or rather the events that the characters are commenting on, is well evoked. But the storytelling itself is missing. So, however much you enjoy the radio 4 version, make a point of reading the novel too, because, to borrow a line, it ain’t what he says, it’s the way that he says it!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriting on this blog a couple of weeks back, about the narrative voices of the book, and film of ‘Barry Lyndon,’ I asserted that the film was grimmer…

That was after reading the first few pages of the novel, having seen the whole film. Having read the whole novel, I find my first impressions have to be revised. Yet I cannot say simply that the novel is grimmer. Rather it’s that the comic element that I detected in Thackeray’s narrator, an element entirely missing from Kubrick’s film, has worn thin by the time we have worked our way into the book.

I’ve long been a fan of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but he went up further in my estimation as I reached the end of Barry Lyndon. Lyndon is a first person narrator, and one that is used by the author in that most enjoyable of ways, for the reader, by which it reveals far more of its true character than the speaker realises; more in fact than the character has even been aware of.

A consequence of this, is that as we read Lyndon’s account of his own life our perception of him becomes progressively at odds with his own, and perhaps also, we begin to recognise where the author is using this self-obsessed bully to highlight some of the ills which he, the author, perceives within his own society. Lyndon’s self-indulgent and myopic narcissim begins to grate. The events of the written story are not so much grimmer than the filmed one, but they make the novel profoundly sad, for Thackeray shows us a man whose self-regard not only damages those around him, but which also, ultimately, leads to his own downfall. The fact that that he never recognises this, rather than saving him from its consequences, adds to his tragedy. In the film, the Lyndon character is redeemed, to some extent, by the action. His opinion, his understanding of what has taken place is not an issue. This redemption is most obvious in the scene, entirely absent from the book, in which Lyndon tries to save his stepson from the consequences of the duel that he has demanded. That this backfires on Lyndon, leading to an injury and amputation not suffered by the book’s hero, turns the character into one with whom we can sympathise in a much less subtle way, than we might be able to sympathise with the broken, imprisoned Lyndon of the book.

Here is a difference between text and image. We are shown, in the film, a sequence of events, such, as one of Lyndon’t many duels. We are told, in the novel, his version of those events. In the film the shown events have an objectivity that strips the telling of those events of the irony – a darkly comic irony – that Lyndon’s verbal account of them, in the text, supplies.

Most trenchant, for me, was the second half of the novel, in which the eponymous hero, stalks the woman who will give him his Lyndon name. Having trapped her, his cruelty towards her during their sham marriage is shocking, but more so, is his self-justification of it, and his total inability to see the truth of her, and his situations. Even when brought down by her eventual rescuers, Lyndon can see himself only as the innocent victim of fools and knaves. The word stalker hadn’t, I think, been used with the meaning we imbue it with today, when the book was written – nor, probably, when the film was made – but that was the word that sprang to mind, as I read Lyndon’s account of how he had ‘wooed’ his wife!

He is a monstrous character, far less likeable than the character presented by Ryan O’Neal in the film, and we know this, purely from the dissonance between what we perceive him to understand by the words he uses, and what we perceive them to mean. There is no equivalent to this in the film, neither in its mis-en-scene, nor in the measured narrative of the third person voice-over.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA fellow writer recently passed me a copy of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon. I’d just watched the film version, made in the nineteen seventies by Stanley Kubrick. In my days as a second-hand bookseller, selling books to wargamers, this was a film that came highly recommended. Finally getting to see it, I could understand why. The early battle scenes are as good a training manual for an eighteenth century re-enactor as you are going to find anywhere.

Having seen the film I was eager to get on and read the book, looking, as always, to see what changes had been made, and to speculate about why, and with what effect. I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed, within the first few pages I had enough grist for the mill of this little blog posting! The immediately noticeable difference was in the telling of the story – for the story is told rather than, or in the case of the film, as well as, shown in both versions. The film has an intermittent voice over narrative spoken by Michael Horden. The book has a first person narrator, in fact, the eponymous hero himself.

Barry Lyndon’s voice, however, is not Michael Horden’s. You might remember Horden. I certainly do. He played in popular movies – Theatre of Blood, a Hammer Horror riffing on Shakespearian themes, springs to mind as well as in more serious fare. I saw him play Prospero at Stratford in the late nineteen seventies. His passion was fishing, and he provided voice over, as well as his own fly-rod, for a reading of Isaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler. In the film of Barry Lyndon, Horden provides an omniscient narration, in a patrician, authoritative voice. In the book, the Barry Lyndon that speaks for himself is a bombastic self-aggrandising braggart, as blinded by his own rhetoric as he intends us to be. The two voices alone, without the further distancing of the ‘third person’ camera lens, separate the two tellings, and perhaps inevitably, rob the film of some of the humour inherent in the bragging.

There is a quirk in this first person novel though, and that is in the provision of footnotes, in an authorial voice, not unlike Horden’s, which offers a third person perspective on some of the facts , and fictions, offered by Lyndon himself. One effect of these is to give the narrative the sense of being a ‘real’ narrative, however flawed or unreliable, set in a real time and place, but it also, in relation to the later adaptation, brings film and novel into closer harmony. The footnotes validate the use of the voice over, but they don’t alter the fact that the film has turned the story into an external narrative, rather than a personal account. We see Lyndon as he is, but not through the screen of how he wishes us to see him, which is where the comic aspects of the novel lie. This makes the film a grimmer story.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One further comparison is worth considering, not between book and film, but between Thackeray’s novel, and later works by, for example, Fielding, where the novelist has stepped forward, so to speak, to address the reader, not through mere footnotes, but, as in Tom Jones, through whole chapters of direct, conversational engagement, in which the progress of the story, and the development of the characters is discussed. With a little encouragement from pundits like Barthe we’ve been turned away from engagement with storytellers, preferring to sink into a gloup (sorry to be so technical) of self-absorbent pseudo-reality from which the narrator, and his or her irritating personal understandings and insights, has been. allegedly excluded – or should I say refined?  I myself rather like an author who talks directly to me (albeit not in his or her true voice), opinions and all.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Islands of the Imagination: Taking Another Look at Adapting H.G.Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau

H.G.Wells’ long short story – rather than novel, or even novella – The Island of Doctor Moreau, tells the story of Edward Prendick, shipwrecked there, an unwelcome guest of Moreau and his sidekick Montgomery. Under Moreau’s leadership the pair are experimenting on the creation of humans out of animals, by the process of vivisection, and have created an island population of beast-folk in their quest for a perfect human being.

There have been several adaptations and one of the earliest, and arguably the best, Erle Kenton’s 1933 version, was recently re-issued, digitally remastered and generally tidied up by the BFI. Dr John Flynn, in a postscript to the Signet ePub edition, cites the later, 1977 adaptation, starring Burt Lancaster, as the best, but I’m not convinced.

A curiosity, in both these adaptations, is the way names are changed. Moreau, and Montgomery remain, though in each version they are quite different, but Prendick becomes Parker, and in the later film, Braddock, though he remains in many ways the same man. The Puma, becomes Lota, The Panther Woman, and again later, Maria. M’ling, perhaps because his role, rather than only his character, is unchanging across all three versions, keeps his name too. Even the title of the story, in the 1933 version is different. It was released as The Island of Lost Souls, yet carryies Wells’ name as the source in the opening credits. An authorised adaptation, Wells, who was still alive at the time, nevertheless hated the piece, saying that it ‘vulgarised’ his story. I wonder if he had other reasons for the dislike; at least one has been suggested – that one of its writers had, Wells believed, plagiarised him in the past.

Wells was familiar with adaptation. Many of his stories have, and had by then, been turned into films. Wells himself wrote the screenplay for his short story The Man Who Could Work Miracles, extending and broadening the scope of the original in the process. Could his distaste for this adaptation have been partly due to the fact that he would have, and could have, adapted it differently himself?

The charge of vulgarisation doesn’t stick for me. Perhaps I am less sensitive than Wells. In fact, Erle Kenton’s film, with Charles Laughton as Moreau, seems to capture the ambience and deal with most of the issues raised in the book.

As with the 1977 adaptation, Kenton’s has the additional figure of the created woman. In the later, and probably more well known, Burt Lancaster version, Barbara Carrera – as Maria – takes the part, and sails away with hero Michael York – here called Braddock -at the end. In Kenton’s version it is an unknown Kathleen Burke who plays ‘The Panther Woman’, with feline grace. This additional character is often dismissed as being Hollywood playing the sex card, but there is more to it than that, especially in the earlier film. There is a Puma in Wells’ original, that is being worked on as the action unfolds. This is the creature that escapes, in the novel, and kills Moreau. In the second of two chapters more or less devoted to it, we learn that it is a she.

In the book, Moreau has made beast women as well as men, and their behaviour, within beast folk society, and in relation to Prendick – Edward Parker in Kenton’s film – forms an important part of Prendick’s experience of the island after Moreau’s death. In film versions the story ends with the overthrow of Moreau by the beast-folk, and so the issues raised by Prendick’s post-Moreau life on the island have to be either abandoned or fitted in before his death. The provision of a ‘completed’ female character, which can also act as a love-interest for the film hero, solves this problem.

Speaking on the BFI dvd specials, film critic Jonathan Rigby, in an interesting lecture on the history of Gothic and Horror novels and the movies they spawned, makes the statement that there is no sex in Wells’ original (hedging with ‘as far as he could see’). Well, I don’t think he saw very far. The sex is there, subtly, faintly, implicitly, but very definitely. It is a nagging background to Prendick’s story, and goes on to haunt his post-island life in London, where women ‘prowl’ and ‘mew’ around him in the society of ‘real’ people that he returns to. This ending makes me think of it as more like a long short story than a true novel, and its concentration on a single theme, with a restricted cast, puts me in mind of the classic novella. In this interpretation Moreau’s death would be the wendepunkt, or turning point, rather than the culmination: Prendick’s altered awareness of the society of his own kind being, not the tying up of a novelistic loose end, but a short story ending. In its classic, rather than in its current meaning, as merely a shorter piece of long fiction, the novella is, in essence, a long short story. There is that unity, of theme and character, and tone, which is the hallmark Poe said we should look for in the short story, and films tend to tip their stories in that direction, even when, perhaps especially when, they are taken from longer fictions. There are no subplots or parallel storylines, no converging but separate groups of characters to offer alternatives or comparisons. We can hold the story, as a whole, in our minds. To use an analogy I have favoured, it is a crossing, not a cruise.

The film, ending very shortly after Moreau’s death, cannot incorporate Wells’ reflective ending, because Parker never lives among the beast-folk. In Kenton’s film we have a ‘bolt-on’ scene of Montgomery (who doesn’t survive the book), Parker, and the second additional female character (Parker’s fiancee) escaping in a small boat as the island, and Moreau, burns behind them. Montgomery lights an incongruous pipe – considering the traumas they have just witnessed – and tells the other two not to look back, which of course, is what Wells’ Prendick, who has no fiancee, spends the rest of his life doing. The later adaptation takes a similar tack. Both adroitly avoid Wells’ concern with Prendick and beast-women, Kenton, by killing off the Panther Woman, and offering us the entirely ‘normal’ fiancee, and the later film, by fudging the origins of Maria. The issue of the ‘beast-flesh’ growing back, that haunts Moreau in both written and film tellings is not even raised in regard to Maria, let alone addressed in this later film, whereas in Kenton’s it has been made explicit, as the Panther Woman’s claws have grown back!

Wells’ story is presented as a first person narrative, framed by the commentary of the nephew to whom it has been entrusted as a written document. Film can do framing, but Kenton’s camera does not try to be a first person one. This alone changes our perspective on the story. We do not get the story through Parker’s eyes, but through that of the excellent cinematographer Eric Struss. As the narrator, Prendick dominates his own account, and is the central figure in his nephew’s foreword and epilogue, but reduced to a character among other characters, Kenton’s Parker plays accompanying fiddle, as do all the others, to Charles Laughton’s Moreau.

Again, this is a shift of focus, but if the story is about enabling us to reflect upon, and to react to what Prendick has encountered on the island, then watching Laughton as Moreau gives us ample opportunity to do the same.

Laughton’s performance is convincing, and Simon Callow in another interview for the BFI dvd gives us an actor’s analysis of it. Laughton presents a boyish and rather effete type, whose gleeful laughter at his own cleverness and sly glances at the other characters is entirely credible. Not so much a child who has never grown up, but rather one that has grown up without maturing properly, his Moreau shows cleverness without morality. Throughout the film, bars of shadow have fallen across Moreau’s face, mirroring the iron bars at the doors and windows of his fortress house, deepening our sense of both the evil within him, and of his entrapment within his own psyche. His experiments are not to solve any problem, nor even to to satisfy his an innate curiosity, but to showcase his own brilliance. When he faces the beast-folk at the end, it is not so much bravery, as that unshakeable belief in himself. It is only when they drag him to The House of Pain and smash their way into the cabinets of ‘little knives’ that his will is broken. That ‘little’, spoken by one of the beast-folk, as the idea of using the knives on Moreau strikes him, makes the scalpels seem even more horrifying to my way of thinking, and I found this scene very reminiscent of Wells’ ending to The Invisible Man, though of course, it is quite different to his ending of Moreau!

The Lancaster version has been updated. Scalpels are swapped for drugs, and a deal of pscho-babble and flapdoodle about changing the psychology of the beasts. Sliding into a more conventional action story, Lancaster’s more restrained Moreau eventually attempts to convert Braddock into a beast in the same way. Presented as being romantically interested in Maria, this Moreau is not quite so convincingly self obsessed, and is jealous of her relationship with Braddock. Laughton’s doctor sees the liaison of Lota with Parker as merely another possible experiment, to validate his own success.

As with many adaptations there are nuggests of almost exact similarity among the changes. Prenidick, Parker and Braddock all hear the screaming, and enter the House of Pain to see its victim strapped to Moreau’s vivsectionist table. The beast-folk lurk in all three undergrowths, and have their Sayer of the Law, and chant to his litany. In all cases, the doctor hosts a generous and refined table, served by the dog-like M’ling; but it is what happens at the end of short stories that matters.

Tinkering with the ending of short stories (and films) fundamentally alters their message. Moreau’s death is the turning point in the written story, but not its point. It is the impact that living among the beast-people has had upon Prendick’s psyche, and by extension, our own examination of the relationships we have in the real world that Wells is prompting– for we too have lived, are living among the beast-people. In the Lancaster film I could raise not much more than a half-hearted hope that the nominal hero got away, and, I suppose, with the girl. Kenton’s film, by its ending, reveals another purpose, one that Laughton himself, Callow seems to be suggesting, brought to the project, which is a study of the character of Moreau.

This adaptation has not merely changed the story, but has changed the focus and purpose of the story, shifting it from an examination Prendick, and the reader, to one of Moreau. We can identify with Prendick and his issues, but we see Moreau as different from us – I assume! In a sense, both adaptations, because of their endings, externalise and therefore lessen the horror of the island. We sail away from Moreau and his experiments, being purified by fire, along with Parker and Braddock. But in Wells’ original we do not, for Prendick takes his island with him and brings it into our world.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI recently picked up a copy of Professor Walter Allen’s The Short Story in English (Oxford, 1981), and spent a pleasant evening taking his Cook’s tour around a hundred or so short stories he describes and analyses.

He’s writing about the ‘modern’ short story, seeking to disconnect, rather than re-connect it with ‘the earlier form’, and he dates that disconnection, as do others I have read, from the generation of 1809…Hawthorne, Poe et al. His analyses are thoughtful and thought provoking, and there are a good many stories he touches on that will go on my ‘must read’ list, some of which I have seen referenced before, and others that I was surprised not to have heard of.

As with all these compilation books, what’s put in and what’s left out might tell us more about the putter and the leaver than it does about the genre as a whole, and recognising that led me to wonder what it is we make of such studies, and what we could, or even ought to make of them. What provoked me in this volume (and something always does, quite properly I expect) was Professor Allen’s dismissive reference to O Henry.

In barely a page, and referencing one story only of Henry’s massive output, Allen calls him a ‘bad influence’ on American writing, and a master of the ‘trick-ending’. This tag has been used by others in dealing with O, whether following Allen or preceding him, I’m don’t know. I blogged recently about several adaptations of O Henry stories ( ), and have written elsewhere about what is probably his most famous tale, The Gift of the Magi. In popularity this must rival Dickens’ Christmas Carol, though it is without doubt on a much smaller scale of ambition, and reach. But popularity cuts no ice with Allen, and neither should it, yet, I find something irksome in the professor’s closing remark on this remarkable American storyteller:

“He reduced the short story precisely to a trick, his reward being the naïve reader’s gasp of surprise at the end.”

Well, I’m not sure he did, and I’m not sure it was, always. What I am sure about is that getting a response from the ‘naïve’ reader is no bad thing. Perhaps Professor Allen had a different background to me, and all children are different, but I do wonder didn’t all readers, however knowing, or even cynical – which might be thought of as just a darker shade of naivety – begin as naïve readers? The remark reminded me of an outraged party-political friend, who after a table-turning election back in the 1970s, complained to me that people ‘who had never voted before’ were responsible for the losses his party had incurred. I’ve quoted elsewhere C.S.Lewis, from his book of essays ‘Of Other Worlds’, in which he berates the ‘non-literary’ reader for ‘flooding wretched material’ with his own imagination. There’s something unwholesome in this approach, whether it is to politics, or to literature, I feel. We have to see things through our own eyes, however weak or unfoccussed they might be.

Perhaps some O Henry stories might evoke a wry chuckle, rather than a gasp and not only from the naïve, and perhaps, to assess his achievement more fully, we have to consider more than one of the hundred stories of his that are still in print.

A deeper concern that emerged as I read this scholarly book, and make no mistake, it is scholarly, and reveals an encyclopaedic knowledge of its subject; a deeper concern was that those of us who have less knowledge, and who have retained, perhaps more of our naivety, may feel that we are in the position of having to trust the Professor Allens of this world; whereas, in fact, what we can do is to read the stories for ourselves…..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIssued on dvd in the Silver Screen Collection this compilation of short story adaptations, features and shorts was Fox’s answer to Gainsborough’s portfolio films of Somerset Maugham stories.

There’s much to be interested in, in both the films and the surrounding extras, including the useful printed history of the production that accompanies the dvd. The presence of John Steinbeck, taking the role that Maugham himself was able to take with his own stories. The presentation makes the connection between the two productions clear, with Steinbeck introducing both the series and the individual films as did Maugham.

Seeing Steinbeck on film was as interesting as seeing Maugham. He adds, intentionally, a gravitas to the whole proceeding – something subtly different to what Maugham added. Sitting behind, or casually upon a desk in a book lined study, he presents a solid, respectable, and essentially serious mien. Fox wanted O.Henry to be taken seriously, despite his undeserved reputation as a literary lightweight.

Perhaps in pursuit of this, the books in front of which they film Steinbeck carry the titles of O.Henry stories, in gilt lettering on their broad, leather spines. There is an unintended comedy here, which Henry himself would not have missed, for while those spines are novel-wide, the stories they purport to contain are often only a few pages. This doesn’t prevent Steinbeck from lifting down the relevant volumes and leafing through them until the camera zeroes in on the first page of the story, from which he begins to read…

This is a direct steal from Gainsborough, or should I say, homage to? There is something about visual humour that does not always translate into pictures! O. Henry’s stories are often visually comic, and his words stimulate our imaginations to create those images. When someone tries to to replicate them in actual images it is not a simple equation. What words evoke, when seen in reality, may not evoke the humour that was in the words. A classic example of this must have been the late 20th century TV adaptation of Peter Mayall’s A Year in Provence. It was, sadly, often ‘the way he told ’em’, and in at least one of these adaptations O. Henry’s tale suffers a similar fate.

I’m thinking of The Ransom of Red Chief. This is a screwball tale of two incompetent kidnappers who seize a brat-like child who runs rings around them, and whose father they have to bribe to take him back. It cries out for filming, and there have been several subsequent films on the same theme, but without any reference to O Henry! But Fox knew they had a porker on their hands with what they turned out, and the film was dropped from the original 1951 compilation, being put back in only in a nineteen sixties TV re-run. Even the bear, which cover notes point out was of a species not native to North America, seems to walk through the piece as if under sedation. Of course, it may well have been, but were the actors too?

If you’d like to read the story but don’t fancy the 100 tale edition of his work, look out for the TravelMan edition (short stories on single sheets, folded like traditional road maps).

My favorite was The Cop and the Anthem in which a tramp, played with relish by Charles Laughton, seeks to get arrested so that he might spend the winter months in a warm and well fed custody. His plans go awry, despite his attempts, but turn out all right in the end, or not. I don’t want to give too much away. It’s worth saying though, that Marilyn Monroe gets a walk on – should that be a sashay on? – part, at a little over a minute, but star billing with Laughton and his sidekick who are present throughout the film.

O.Henry’s tales are tight little vignettes, famed for the twists in their tales. It is difficult to adapt them without being faithful, and in some ways pointless to do so if they are! Unless of course, you’re aiming for an audience who can’t read them, or who can’t imagine what they are reading. One of the twistiest of tales is the famous The Gift of the Magi and Fox capture not only its sugar sweet sentimentality, but also its powerful denouement in which the Christmas gifts of a poverty struck married couple are complementary in an unexpected way. Unexpected of course, only if you have been living on Mars, for the story had become the American Christmas Carol for the generations between of Henry and my own. This story also features on the Travelman sheet along with Red Chief.

The Clarion Call with Dale Robertson and Richard Widmark is remarkable for Widmark’s riveting performance as a deranged hoodlum, played so far from the credible character that the story requires as to undermine the dramatic integrity of the whole. Yet, undeniably, a masterpiece of acting, in the wrong place.

The fifth film is The Last Leaf in which a drunken and failed artist pulls off a minor miracle and finds his true worth at the end. Despite the crude outline of the story, this has nuances of character and motivation that make it worthy of the original.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We can judge the success of the series, perhaps, by the fact that Fox went on to make no more, whereas Gainsborough got three bites at Somerset Maugham’s cherries. I think there is an affinity between the short story and the film, but in these O.Henry adaptations, I don’t find the best of evidence for it.