Graham Greene’s “worst horror”: Adapting to the Conventional Ending

(Warning—spoilers ahead.)

“She walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all.”  So ends Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, Brighton Rock.   Greene’s readers know exactly what awaits the sixteen-year old Rose in the squalid flat she had briefly shared with the novel’s razor-wielding anti-hero, Pinkie Brown: she will listen to a recording made by the boy gangster just days earlier.  However, instead of the expression of redeeming love she expects, Rose will hear Pinkie’s venomous hatred for her, which, according to her Roman Catholic beliefs, means implacable damnation for the unrepentant killer and a lifetime of despair for her.  Of all the changes that Greene incorporated into his screenplay for the 1947 film adaptation, none is more significant, or more disturbing, than those for this final scene.

No other twentieth-century novelist, not even Raymond Chandler, is more identified with the cinema than Graham Greene: his short stories and novels have provided the source material for more than forty films (with two new releases planned for 2012, remakes of This Gun for Hire and The Fallen Idol); as a young film critic, he reviewed hundreds of movies, establishing himself as a respected and demanding cinéaste; and, once invited to try his hand at screenwriting, he worked on more than a dozen film projects—adaptations of his own works and those of other writers as well as original screenplays, one of which is perhaps the most celebrated ever written, that for Carol Reed’s The Third Man.   Greene also succeeded like no other novelist of his time in attaining both highbrow acclaim and popular success, incorporating dark moral ambiguities in entertaining thrillers, making them a perfect literary complement to the mid-century appetite for film noir.   Given his own dark tales and the expectation of pessimistic themes and tragic ends for these “black films,” Greene’s inclination toward lighter endings for his screen work is all the more perplexing.

The process of adaptation—I prefer to think of it as translation—is, of course, filled with compromise and change.  In the case of the John and Ray Boulting production of Brighton Rock (1947), budget concerns would confine the film’s action to the titular setting, shifting the climax from the high cliffs at Peacehaven to Brighton Pier, thereby losing one of Greene’s dark, verbal ironies—there is no “haven for peace” in Greene’s bleak vision.  Objections from the censors eliminated Pinkie’s vial of disfiguring acid, its loss undercutting his menace and more importantly altering the manner of his demise, a point I will return to later.  However, it was the censor-mandated elimination from the script of Pinkie’s recurring quotations from Catholic Mass that most disappointed Greene.  Their deletion obscured the film’s theology and all but eliminated the novel’s link to Paradise Lost: Pinkie, as Brighton’s fallen angel, cast in the mold of Milton’s anti-hero, Satan, hurtles toward damnation because that is what he chooses.  In the novel, after intoning, “Dona nobis pacem” (“Give us peace”), Pinkie thinks, “he wasn’t made for peace, he couldn‘t believe in it.  Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust.”   For the final shooting script, Pinkie’s refusal of divine grace is reduced to “you can have your Heaven by yourself.”

An illusionary Heaven-on-earth is exactly what Rose enters in the final scene.  After a nun’s homily about the “appalling strangeness” of God’s mercy, Rose listens to the damaged recording Pinkie made for her: instead of the vitriolic “truth” we heard him record, the needle sticks, playing over and over, “I love you,” as the camera tracks into a close-up of a crucifix on the wall behind her.   It was playwright Terence Rattigan who introduced this change from the novel in the first treatment for the film.  When Greene took over from Rattigan, he insisted on a major rewrite but kept this particular change, arguing that the novel’s ending was too harsh for moviegoers.

This was not to be Greene’s only softened ending.  His work with Carol Reed on The Fallen Idol (1948) the year after Brighton Rock and his even more celebrated collaboration with Reed on The Third Man (1949) involved questionable choices about plot resolutions.  For The Fallen Idol, based on his 1935 short story “The Basement Room” about a young boy exposing his family’s butler as a killer, Greene added not just a happy ending but an entire third act, in which the police investigate and ultimately exonerate the mannerly servant.  The film is justly celebrated for its visual panache (anticipating the glories of The Third Man); a fine performance from Ralph Richardson as the butler, Baines; and the theme of adult deceit confounding childhood innocence.  Still, the toughness of the original ending—the boy’s willful renunciation of his idol and the disillusionment that will be his future—is sacrificed for a conventional resolution.

For The Third Man, Greene, allied now with American producer David O. Selznick, argued for the same kind of upbeat ending.  In his first treatment for the screenplay—published as a novella the year after the film’s release—Rollo (Holly in the film) reconciles with his love interest, Anna:  after Harry Lime’s true burial, “He caught her up and they walked side by side.  I don’t think he said a word to her: it was like the end of a story except that before they turned out of my sight her hand was through his arm—which is how a story usually begins.”  Reed insisted that the film have a darker ending, and thankfully prevailed: in a suspenseful long take, Anna walks past Holly, without word or gesture of acknowledgment.  Instead of another near miss, the film became a masterpiece, still hailed by the British Film Institute as the greatest British film ever produced.

On the same list, the 1947 Brighton Rock is ranked at #15.  To avoid head-to-head comparisons with the original, writer-director Rowan Joffe says his 2010 Brighton Rock is a new adaptation, not a remake.   To further distance the new film from the Boulting version, Joffe has moved the time period from the 1930s to the 1960s, setting Pinkie’s mob war alongside the larger cultural turmoil in Britain between the Mods and Rockers, which culminated in the Brighton riots of 1964. Consistent with Joffe’s claim about using the novel as his source, the new version does reintroduce the sea cliffs for the climactic physical and moral struggle between Pinkie and Rose.  It also reintroduces the vial of acid, forbidden to Greene and the Boultings, the burning agony of the novel that offers a final link to Milton’s Satan.  And yet for the most important aspect of Pinkie’s end, Joffe seems to look to Attenborough’s performance for inspiration rather than the novel: instead of running toward his doom, both Attenborough’s and Sam Riley’s Pinkie fall by accident, the deaths more pitiable than tragic.

And most significantly, the final scene of the new film, despite Joffe’s claims, does not look to the novel as source, but again takes its lead from the Boulting-Greene version: with Rose listening to the record.  Rather than give away the new ending, I’ll let you discover for yourself whether the record skips or she hears the crushing words of Pinkie’s venom, whether the film takes pity on Rose or delivers Greene’s “worst horror of all.”