Monday, April 25, 2022

A Place in the Sun?

I read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy some time before coming to George Stevens' famous adaptation of the film. The book was, and has remained, a literary touchstone for me, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Karamazov Brothers, or Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, or Honore de Balzac's Pere Goriot and Cousin Bette.

Naturally I had high expectations for the film--the more in as it was so well-received in its day, and so much of the criticism since has been of the hypocritically sneering "Movies shouldn't have any social comment in them" varieties (from persons who, invariably, applaud movies that contain comment of which they approve; it's not "comment" unless it's someone else's comment). The distaste of people who engage in that kind of stupid hypocrisy is, for me, practically a seal of approval.

Alas, when I actually did see the film I found it a deep disappointment, and predictably so. The entire book before the arrival of the protagonist (Clyde Griffiths has been renamed George Eastman) in town to take a job with his wealthy relations--the whole of Book One and early portions of Book Two, a hugely formative, and frighteningly powerful, near-fifth of the novel--are simply excised, reference to their events reduced to a few hints later in the movie. As might be guessed given the movie's being made in the days of the Motion Picture Code, the crisis into which the protagonist is thrust by his girlfriend's pregnancy is treated in highly censored fashion. Far more problematic, Dreiser's unrelenting naturalism is compromised by the transformation of his relationship with the rich socialite (Sondra Finchley is now Angela Vickers) into a "romance," which, especially light of the excision of the earlier material, makes that part of the drama more central and leaving less room for the social panorama that gave the book such force. It is even the case that the bleakness, the horror, of the aftermath of the death at the center of the book, in which the hero is not damned for what he is but what he is not, is considerably blunted.

David Walsh has called Dreiser "arguably this country's greatest novelist" and An American Tragedy "the greatest work of fiction ever produced in this country", not implausibly, and it deserved a film worthy of it. Sadly A Place in the Sun is not it--though in fairness I am not sure that a two or even three hour movie could ahev done it justice. Perhaps in this day and age of 10-part prestige projects it would have a chance--but I would not hold my breath for a contemporary version which would get the adaptation of this extraordinary work right. It is simply too remote from the concerns animating contemporary "prestige TV."

But maybe there is hope for a Korean version. After all, Korean producers seem to be more willing to back this kind of thing these days, and find audiences for it, even as the cultural mandarins at the likes of the New York Times sneer . . .

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