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The Dvd cover blurb for this solemn Danish film must have been written by a copywriter who either hadn’t seen it, hadn’t understood it, or simply thought it wouldn’t sell well if sold the way it was.

It’s the slowest developing film I’ve ever seen, but not slow in the way paint dries. It’s more like the slowness of a rich, intricate coral growing. It’s a dark film, and brings out the darkness of candlelight. The exteriors are shot on grey days, and reminded me of the stark black and white landscapes of the film Nebraska. The Jutland coast is layered with almost monochrome horizontals of land, sea and sky, and the scenes in the village street seem hemmed in by the simple boxes of the houses: dark, colourless thatch, white walls and grey timbers, the untidy grass ‘to the very door’, but grey rather than Wordsworth’s green.

The interiors are gloomy, the light tightly controlled. Think of the ‘pinhole’ setting on a digital camera and you might get the idea. Light falls on the faces of the protagonists, and shadow crowds behind them. It sparkles in the facets of the wine glasses, and in the eyes of those who drink from them. It vanishes into the darkness of the corners of the rooms.

The costumes of the old people whose story this is, are dark: blacks upon which the panels of white lace are not so much highlights, as skeletal. The story is simple and remorseless, and heartbreaking. I woke this morning in tears from a half-sleep, thinking about what I would write for this review.

The eponymous feast is a luscious counterpoint to the pious, consciously un-sensual lives of the villagers, and through it they awake, not only to these pleasures of the flesh, but also to a renewed sense of celebration of, and in, those pleasures. More than that, for some particular characters there is the revelation, perhaps the reminder, that love is all we have, and that we have it, by reason not only of what we do, but also by the simple recognition of it.

I’m not going to tell anything more about what happens, and fear I might already have told you too much. Watching the film, I thought how like a short story it was, and how difficult it would be to write such a story. It was, of course, I soon discovered, the adaptation of a short story originally written by the Danish writer Isaak Dinesen (better known as Karen Blixen).

I was surprised to see the date on this masterpiece. If you had told me it had been made earlier this year I would have seen no reason to doubt you. Perhaps that is a measure of the timelessness of the story (or of my insensitivity). I’m glad, though, that I didn’t see it when I was thirty years younger, but at an age when I can see myself more clearly in its characters. 


There’s nothing new in the idea of a visual prompt to kick start a piece of writing. I have a folder of random images, from the post card of a red faced eighteenth century farm worker, to a twelve by fifteen inch landscape of the Lincolnshire fens, via some grainy black and white character studies and full colour night time shots taken at Carlisle’s railway station.  Workshops all over the world use the technique. Our own Liars League recently ran a competition in which punters chose a painting from the National Gallery (online) and wrote a story sparked by it. I had a punt (unsuccessful, of course) with Gainsborough’s Mr & Mrs Andrews, whom I might have been thought to have slandered unmercifully…but really, she does look a sharp faced little minx and he a gormless galloot (not sure of the spelling there, but the computer sure doesn’t like it!).

The question the technique raises is whether one is interpreting the picture or sparking off from it. Both are possible, and possibly in the same piece of writing I shouldn’t wonder. What is unusual, at least in my experience, is to couple up the resulting story with the originating image. Of course, that National Gallery/Liars League competition did just that, and I can remember using a photograph by a friend of mine to stand alongside the story The Three Billy Groughs and the Owld Goat (in Talking To Owls, Pewter Rose,2012).

But I recently came across a whole collection of short stories written around the paintings of Jack Vettriano. I’m a fan of Vettriano’s art, not least because, as someone pointed out in a video shown at the recent exhibition of his work at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery, Vettriano speaks directly to his audience, not requiring the intercession of academic interpreters. Maureen Oxley’s Myself and Other Strangers (the title aping that of Vettriano’s own book, Lovers and Other Strangers, Pavilion, 2002 with a text by Anthony Quinn) appends a story to each of 14 Vettriano paintings, and has one for its front cover too.

I think it’s rather splendid that the artist agreed to this, but I have misgivings about the coupling of the stories to the paintings in such a permanent way. Of course, if they are interpretations of the images, rather than stories inspired by them, it makes perfect sense, but if the images have been starting points for story making – as they usually end up being in those workshops – then making that permanent coupling seems to me to risk diminishing the stories as pieces of art in their own right. In this particular case that coupling is double locked, the stories carrying the same names as the paintings that accompany them.

Titles, whether for paintings or written stories, can be powerful indicators of how the artist or writer wants the work to be interpreted. Certainly for told stories they can set traps for the reader or listener, wrong footing the response until some key fact or alternative meaning is revealed later on. At the very least they seem to suggest that reader and viewer, in this case, are setting off down the same, or at least a similar road.

Vettriano’s paintings are all a moment in story, but which moment? Do they crystallize the beginning, the middle, or the end? Are they the moment of crisis? The turning point? The resolution or, to borrow Mckee’s term, the inciting incident? For each of us, I suspect, each painting will be a different point in a different story, one that we have recalled, or fantasised about, and each of us could write down our own version, a version that would be as valid and meaningful – especially to us – as anybody else’s.

Oxley’s stories won’t prevent or even discourage us from doing that, even though the paintings might seem to be as linked to them, as they are to the paintings. The question is rather, will Vettriano’s paintings tie the stories to them, hi-jacking our imaginations, and limiting our readings of them? Or will the stories – and I think one of them at least achieves this – subdue the paintings to mere illustration of one of their passages, if only for the duration of the reading?

You can’t argue with the commercial sense, though, of coupling the writing to the paintings of one of the country’s most popular and successful artists! Oxley’s book is available on Amazon, which is where my copy came from.

There’s a short essay by me just published on the Thresholds International Short Story Forum

Arthur Miller is best known as a playwright. I know his short stories better than I do the plays, and fine stories they are too. But here I found a short story embedded in his autobiography Timebends. It’s an account of an unexpected meeting with a friend of his mother’s, and like a ‘proper’ short story, it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

I wrote about Miller’ short story The Misfits, in the second of my collections of essays on the genre and its writers, Love and Nothing Else, examining the differences between the short story and the screenplay, also written by Miller, that was based upon it.

I recently discovered myself reading Charles Dickens’ ghostly short story, The Signalman. In fact, I have it now beside me, in a folding paper copy of the ‘Travelman Short Stories’ series. In this story a visitor to an unspecified railway cutting meets a signalman in charge of a box guarding the entrance to a tunnel. The man tells of an apparition that appears to warn him of impending disaster.

I’ve read the story several times. It is one of the writer’s better known short pieces, so well known in fact that in 1976 – the year of the Lynerd Skynerd air crash – it was turned into a BBC TV movie by Lawrence Gordon Clark.

It’s an almost ‘perfect’ adaptation, if by perfection you mean that it adds nothing to, and takes very little – save for the act of imagination, which Mr Dickens might have thought worth something – from the original. One curiosity, and an amusement to me, was the fact that in the shown story, the unfortunate signal man – and here’s a spoiler – is driven down by the engine whilst standing in the centre of the tracks and facing it. In the told story, we do not see the accident happen, but the narrator arrives afterwards, and has it reported to him -in the shown story, we get both the incident and its report – including the detail that ‘his back was towards her’, which seems to me to make the whole thing a little more believable, if not quite so dramatic.

There is another aspect of the adaptation that struck me as I watched. That was the detail of the train. I have a book on railways in film (Railways on the Screen, by John Huntley, Ian Allen, 1993). There, taking up a mere sixth of a page, is the information that the film was made on the Severn Valley Railway using the Kidderminster Tunnel plus a faux Signal Box. I would have guessed that it was a GWR engine – I know a little bit about that sort of thing – but the genealogy of the coaches would have defeated me (they were GWR too). Of course, in Dickens’ story no detail of coaches or locomotive was included. A problem of the shown story, is that it cannot be, where the told story can, non-specific, but must locate itself where, in this case, the stream train was to be had. Both the writer and the film-maker will strive to get in what they need to get in, and to keep out what they need to be out, but the wordsmith has an easier job of the latter than does the cameraman. The signalman in Dickens’ story refers to the train crash in the tunnel in a dozen or so words: the TV version has flames and wreckage and rescuers searching for bodies. We see the event (or at least its aftermath) directly, rather than getting the signalman’s report of it (and thereby its effect on him – how we describe a thing often tells more about us than it, as in ‘what sort of car was it? Oh! a Great one!’). As the story is about him, rather than about the train, this is a watering down that appears to be a beefing up!

More ghostly, perhaps, than anything in the short story, is the uncanny fact that Denholm Eliot, playing the signalman in the TV version, whistles the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Tit Willow’, which, of course, was not written until several years after Dickens’ death! Mind you, that would put the story (at 1885 or after), more nearly into the time at which that particular locomotive and carriages were in use! Another show/tell conundrum here, for you, as a writer can say ‘he whistled a sad tune’, and the reader will imagine it, but the filmmaker, must either leave it out or pick one – one that perhaps, who knows, following an unexpected event in a cinema, makes you laugh every time you hear it!

The told story, of course, is located in your mind, and on a railway of your remembering, as it no doubt was in Dickens’ mind, for we must not forget that he was involved in the dreadful rail disaster at Staplehurst in the summer of 1865, as it tells me on the cover of that Travelman sheet. What it doesn’t go into is the detail that he was travelling back from France with Ellen Ternan and her mother, whom, for propriety’s sake, he had to pretend during the rescue, were strangers whom he had merely encountered in the debris. Peter Ackroyd, in his 1990 biography of Dickens gives an account of this event stretching over several pages. He also, very briefly, mentions the short story as being included among the Christmas stories for 1866.

Yet the purpose and enjoyment of the two stories seems untouched by the adaptation. In both it is a mood piece, a shiver down the spine, as the fears of an isolated man in a shadowed cutting near a tunnel mouth are played out in reality.








I’ve tried writing ghost stories myself, but they always disintegrate into comedy…some even start that way! Insubstantiality and The Hotel Entrance’ – that ‘ance’ and its pronunciation being significant – are the type, and both to be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD


I’ve spent a lot of time considering the changes that adaptation can make to stories, but of course editing, even slightly, can have similar effects: sometimes changing the focus, or even the implied intent of a story.

Last weekend Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom was shown on terrestrial TV here in the Untied Kingdom. I’ve mentioned it before, and particularly the very short sex scene: as the two runaway children go into a clinch, he says, it’s hard, and she replies, I like it. This pithy analysis of sexual attraction resonates with more than just the characters of the film, but in the context of the film makes explicit what might otherwise be left implicit, and thus subject to being ignored, denied, or even not noticed.

And yet, and yet, the ratfinks and fuckwits who put out this stuff saw fit to remove that scene, and what’s more they did it professionally (i.e. for pay!). Wouldn’t it be a good idea, seeing as we can’t stop these people committing this sort of butchery on works of art, couldn’t we at least insist that they include a real time insert of blank screen where the intended content has been excised? Then we would get to see, not what was missing, but at least that there was something missing, and we would know that we have been sold an adulterated product.

The better the story the more difficult it is to make any changes without profoundly affecting it, and Moonrise Kingdom tells a very good story, when it’s allowed to.---_0261

And while I’m at it, I thought it must be may age, being unable to make out what was being said by the ‘Archer’ character in SS-GB…relieved to read that others – younger than me – had trouble too! Good novel. Shame about the adaptation (which looked like a good storyline. Never thought of using the subtitles, but wouldn’t have anyway).

img_8098 img_8099There are several – some might say many – pairings of books and their film adaptations on my shelves. One pair that gets taken down and watched and read more often than most is Isabel Colegate’s novel The Shooting Party and Geoff Reeve’s film of the same name. I’ve written about this pair before as an example of the ‘faithful’ adaptation, but that fidelity doesn’t mean it is a slavish copy, a filmic re-enactment of the scenes readers might be expected to imagine (as has been said of the film version of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, for example).

Recently I watched and read, the Colegate/Reeve pairing with a closer eye than usual, looking, to begin with, for what I thought of as filmic equivalents to the told story’s content. Perhaps because Reeve has captured the tone and characters of the film so well and in many cases has replicated word for word the dialogue of the told story, I was surprised to recognise just how many changes I had not been conscious of when the watching and reading were weeks and perhaps months apart – or when the attention to detail was overwhelmed by the enjoyment of absorption in the story, told and shown!

In fact, even where those dialogues had been lifted ‘faithfully,’ they had often been placed differently in the film to where they lay in the original, both  in time, and place, and on several occasions had been put into the mouths of different characters. Many had been turned from internal monologues, to comments made in public.

Speaking on the DVD ‘specials’, Rupert Fraser, who played Lionel, remarks that there is only one scene in the film that is not in the book – the fancy dress scene that takes place on the stairwell at Knebworth (which took the role of Nettleby). I have said as much – and written it! But it is not, in fact, the case. There is at least one other – where Lionel and Olivia, in the film alone, go riding and have a faithfully reported conversation from the book – but not at the same point in the story nor in the same location. Other scenes have their conversational and incidental content switched around, the dinner party, in the film, for example, allowing words that are only thought to be exchanged aloud and thus made available to the watcher as they were to the reader.

The point I want to make is not so much about the particular novel  and film, but about the fluidity of of stories – how conversations can be manipulated, moved from place to place, and time to time, and mouth to mouth, without obviously changing their significance in the story, and, at first glance, or indeed any ‘glance’, without changing our perception of the characters that speak them.

Yet on a close examination it might be that a story is changed, subtly, and that its characters will be different, and not so subtly? One case I would give is where, in both versions, Sir Randolph, the key reader-proxy and opinion touchstone of the story, talks to Aline, the mistress of Charles Farquhar (in the book), and of Sir Reuben Hergesheimer (in the film), and accuses her of ‘wickedness’ in her speculations about the ‘affair’ between Olivia and Lionel. In the former version this is quite a long conversation, but in the latter is equally brief. More sharply potent perhaps, is where, in the film, Sir Randolph confesses to Hergesheimer that copying the Sandringham shoots almost bankrupted the estate. In the book, though the rest of the conversation does take place, Sir Randolph only recalls this to memory. He does not share it with his house guest. The shift in our perception of Sir Randolph may be slight, but is in a definite direction: In the first case what he is shown taking an interest in seems to me to be narrower and more focused in the film, broader in the novel. In the second, the told Sir Randolph’s reticence seems more in keeping with his character than the film’s more expansive version – yet, without that remark the audience of the shown version could not know that particular detail.

This isn’t offered as a criticism, only as an observation, and one that might support the contention that the business of shown, rather than told stories is one of sharper focus – streamlined is a word I have heard used by film-makers in relation to the adaptation process. With a novel our imaginations, sparked by what we are told, might run more freely, than with a film, where we must observe what is put before us.

Of course, whether or not considering this helps, when it comes to writing a story, might be a moot point. Another story set in the past but not made into a film (yet) is BHD’s A Penny Spitfire,  available here (but only for a couple of months more).


There’s lots going on….

Did you know BHDandMe are putting on a Workshop as part of the Colonsay Book Festival (April 23/24th)?

Before that, BHD hopes to be at the Big Lit Weekend at Gatehouse of Fleet, on Friday 15th April to Sunday 17th.

Also we’ve been busy putting up books on Amazon. There’s a second volume of the Readings For Writers sequence: Love and Nothing Else  begins with a look at a story by Stacy Aumonier, and there are eleven others – some have appeared on the Thresholds website and some on this blog, including the final essay, comparing Huston’s film with Arthur Miller’s original short story of The Misfits.










I’ve also finally got around to publishing ‘An Early Frost‘. These 10 poems (with the additional ‘Ullswater Requiem’ sequence) were written during my time working at Bank House, above Howtown pier on Ullswater in the English Lake District. All the poems except one, have appeared in magazines, on websites or in anthologies, and the Ullswater Requiem was one of a group of poems that won a Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust award – the first, I think, made to a piece of Creative work.


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.