Friday, March 22, 2013

The Ethics of War

If I told you that Graham Greene’s 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear featured a plot that included a cake that contained World War II military secrets, murder, bombings, euthanasia, a seance, suicide, amnesia, espionage, the Blitz (featured here as both atmosphere and plot), a sinister hunchback, a suspicious mental hospital, betrayal, grief, terror, and shame, and stuffed all of this into about 210 pages, you could be forgiven for assuming that the book played out, intentionally or otherwise, as some manically incoherent pulp nonsense. If I then told you about Geoffrey Household’s 1937 thriller Rogue Male, and, feeling uncharitably towards it (which I don’t especially, but in the interest of highlighting the differences between the two works, I’ll end as I began) described it as being about a man who is caught playfully aiming his hunting rifle at Adolf Hitler, then escaping, then hiding in a field for 180 pages, you might reasonably conclude that Rogue Male is an eye-straining bore. As I say, this would be reasonable, but, in both cases, wrong, not least because that rhetorical description of Rogue Male is wildly unfair, though it does help to illustrate, to modern sensibilities, my own set of which I seem to be trying desperately to shed lately, how unusual it is.

But the truth is, while Rogue Male -- an acknowledged classic – did occasionally test my endurance and ability to put up with long descriptions of landscape and so on, by the end it is a hugely effective piece of suspense, while managing at the same time to be subtly emotional and mysterious in ways that linger after the book is closed (Household never says that it’s Hitler the unnamed narrator drew a bead on, but given the year and certain geographical and political clues, it’s not hard to figure out; plus if you’re reading, as I did, Penguin’s 1981 reprint with a picture of Hitler framed by cross-hairs on the cover, this provides a helpful tip, as well). Meanwhile, holding up his end of the agreement he apparently had with Household to take their ostensibly quite different in tone premises and somehow make the resulting novels meet in the middle, Greene’s The Ministry of Fear is as somber and contemplative as anything else I’ve read by him. The lack of distinction is worth noting because The Ministry of Fear belongs to that group of his novels that Greene referred to, rather dismissively, as “entertainments.” Of the half dozen or so Greene novels I’ve read, The Ministry of Fear is the first “entertainment” I’ve gotten around to, and I find it amusing that he should regard this book as so different from, say, The Quiet American. The Quiet American is a good deal less plotty, I suppose, but in terms of artistry, and even seriousness of tone, its six of one, half dozen of another. Like Rogue Male, The Ministry of Fear is a wonderful novel that takes as its subject, if you want to look at it that way, the concept of “the ethics of war,” a phrase from Rogue Male. This is a simplification of both books – Greene’s novel, in particular, has a lot of other stuff going on, and many of the best and most psychologically acute passages have to do with the fact that Arthur Rowe, the hero, spent time in a mental institution after murdering his wife – a mercy killing, it was officially decided, to end his wife’s suffering as she slowly succumbed to a terminal illness. Because while Rowe does believe that was his intent, he can never be sure that his motivations were as pure as all that. Was it her suffering he was ending, or his own? Though she sometimes spoke longingly of death, would she in fact have preferred to experience every scrap of life available to her? The decision to kill her was his alone; it wasn’t arrived at jointly. There’s also much made of Rowe’s day-to-day, or minute-to-minute, existence as a man who has murdered, and how this separates him from almost everyone else, and how a murderer, even an ex-murderer, sees things differently, and thinks differently – the one thing a murderer needn’t fear, Greene tells us Rowe had thought before events teach him otherwise, is being murdered.
As far as “the ethics of war” goes, Rowe finds himself thrust into it all, despite his typically Greene-ian apathy. Rowe is not capable, for a variety of reasons, of taking part in the war as other men his age do, but he feels so removed from the geopolitical element that if it weren’t for the bombs raining down nightly World War II might as well have been something regrettable he’d heard about on the radio. But suddenly, there he is, doing his part, as it were, and as The Ministry of Fear progresses, certain villains are taken down, all the way down, but Greene’s tone is never celebratory, or satisfied. Greene was never a rah-rah patriot, or much of any kind of patriot, I guess, at least not in the way we currently define the word, and as a result The Ministry of Fear’s quality as “entertainment” – and I found it very entertaining – is of a particularly mournful type. This man is dead, and while it’s not bad that he’s dead, it is sad that he’s dead. Everything is just so terrible sad. So, too, is Rogue Male, in a sense, but it’s quite a bit more rousing by the end, in Household’s cynical and beaten-down kind of way. Really, the call to arms that comprises Rogue Male’s final moments is almost shocking, which is not to say undesired, when you consider this book was written before there even was a World War II, and it’s ultimately not at all surprising that Household chose not to refer to Hitler by name. Household writes “The ethics of war? The same as the ethics of revenge, old boy!”, and it’s not only easy to understand why the unnamed narrator would feel this way, but what Household is getting at in a larger sense. Rogue Male is a revenge fantasy, in a way, but what’s being avenged is not just the stated motivations of the narrator, but also something that, in 1937, hadn’t happened yet, but would happen, and very soon.
Meanwhile, over in movies, Fritz Lang directed adaptations of both novels: Rogue Male became Man Hunt in 1941, and The Ministry of Fear retained its title but dropped the "The" in 1944. I read both novels recently, and watched both films in the last couple of days, a point I mention because if this experience has taught me anything it's that I might need to rethink my policy on reading novels and then very soon thereafter watching the films they were adapted into, if such films there be, or even of reading the novel first, ever. On an intellectual, or formal, or aesthetic level, or some kind of level somewhere, I understand that films based on novels must stand on their own, and should be judged separate from the source, and that a fidelity, any kind of fidelity, to that source is, or may be, irrelevant. I have understood this as a workable theory for some time now, but have repeatedly failed to put it into practice. If I'm listening to someone complain about a film adaptation that I liked, based on a book I haven't read, I'm able to make the case pretty forcefully. Similarly, on the rare occasions that I read the book after seeing the film, it's impossible to whip up the same kind of frustration over changes made, because no changes have been made. If I liked the film, and later see how many liberties were taken, my enjoyment is pretty much unaffected because I got to the film first. The book and film are safely independent of each other. But I can't apply that logic when coming at it from the other direction. All of this is a lead up to saying that I found watching Man Hunt to be an exceptionally frustrating experience. Lang and screenwriter Dudley Nichols took Household's story of a man hiding alone in the English countryside and they removed the countryside and gave the guy some buddies. So the isolation is gone, which in Rogue Male is not just immediate to the character's situation, but something of a state of mind he'd lived in, even when other people were around, for some time. Why the narrator is like this is actually the novel's mystery, and so the tone of Man Hunt is completely different. It's downright jolly at times, or at least Walter Pidgeon, who plays the hero (here given a name, Alan Thorndike), is. (There's also a thing in the film with Walter Pidgeon, a Canadian, playing an accent-less Englishman, and Joan Bennet, an American, playing an unfortunately accented Englishwoman, but I'm not overly interested in bitching about that sort of thing. Besides, George Sanders, an Englishman, plays a Nazi, and if you're forced to trawl for your Nazis among a pool of English and American actors, I'd say George Sanders counts as a dream come true.) In Rogue Male, the narrator makes the unlikely claim that while out hunting in the hills of an unnamed European country, one that is pretty close to Poland when you get right down to it, he spotted -- well, let's just say Hitler -- he spotted Hitler in the distance, on the grounds of a Nazi-occupied estate, and he thought, great hunter that he was, it might be fun to see if he could get close enough to take aim at the terrible man, just to see if he could do it. He insists he never had any intention of pulling the trigger, he had no political or moral force driving him, and the whole thing was just what he calls a "sporting stalk." Much of the novel plays out with this as the at least tenuously accepted motivation.
However, it turns out later that, no, the narrator is lying to himself, as he slowly realizes. He would have pulled that trigger, had he not been stopped, and he would have been right to do so, and he had every reason under the sun to want to. What Lang and Nichols had to face was how to give a sporting type of fellow like this that angry fire. Because I've realized two things about Man Hunt, despite the frustration I felt while watching it. One is that Pidgeon, all goofy charm not unlike a Long Chaney, Jr. character, is acting the part as some approximation of what the narrator in Household's novel keeps claiming he is, but isn't, or no longer is. The second is that as a technical challenge, adapting Rogue Male to film is no small thing. As I read the novel, knowing there was a film version, I thought that something really interesting, something very quiet and slow, could be done on film with the material (a Malick adaptation was my perhaps too-obvious fantasy). This approach would, in its own way, misrepresent the novel, but it could be great, and would be truer to Household, at least on a surface level, than Man Hunt. But even if Lang envisioned something like that himself, he wouldn't have been permitted to do it, and in any case in order to get the hero in Man Hunt to the same place as the hero at the end of Rogue Male -- which, in my frustration, I was rather surprised Lang and Nichols did -- some big changes had to be made, and the solution they hit on was about as clean and viable as I can imagine. The key is Joan Bennett's character (I refuse to back away from my opinion that she is not very good at all here; accent aside, her grown woman acts like she's about eleven years old), and to function as her equivalent does in Rogue Male you'd have to resort to flashbacks, at a point in the film where that might not be such a hot idea. Household achieves what he achieves through the novelist's freedom of drifting in and out of a narrator's mind, with thoughts dropped like clues, meaningless at first, and picked back up later for examination. Household is also very vague on the matter of The Woman in his story -- we know precisely as much as we need to. To go the flashback route in Man Hunt would have involved almost as much invention from Lang and Nichols as we get with the addition of Bennett's character anyway.

Forgive me if I'm letting my fascination with the technical aspects of adaptation crowd out other, possibly more interesting points, but I felt more positively towards Man Hunt in its last few minutes than I'd thought would be possible during the previous ninety, and I had to figure out why (one reason, no doubt, is that Lang and Nichols kept Household's wonderful climax, pretty much intact). But in the wind up of all of this, there’s also something to Lang’s version of Household’s previously mentioned “shocking” call to arms. In the novel, the very ending of the novel can be seen as quite subversive, if you imagine yourself reading it in 1937, without the knowledge of subsequent history making it all easier to digest. In 1941, though, the conflagration was well and truly blazing, so Household’s concept – which, why beat around the bush, it’s right there in the premise, he’s going to take his rifle and finish the job he started – becomes, in Lang’s film, simply the dramatization of a fantasy the majority of the globe had by then started to entertain. It’s kind of amusing, though, to see Lang put an almost-official stamp on it by making Thorndyke join the military first, and turn it into war-time propaganda. Though of course there’s also a practical element – Household’s nameless narrator didn’t have a war to walk back through, after all. Which is sort of the point in the book, but could no longer be the point in Man Hunt.
On the other hand, Lang’s Ministry of Fear, which Criterion recently released on Blu-ray and DVD, is a bit harder to break down. Once again, you have an almost complete tonal shift, from Greene’s preferred dank, crumbling London that has absorbed the terror of German air raids into daily life, through which wanders a man who has similarly absorbed guilt into his constant make-up, to something not exactly jaunty, but certainly more light. Ray Milland (whose character is named Stephen Neale in the film, not Alan Rowe, in one of those arbitrary changes I’m never able to understand) is a bit quicker with a wisecrack than Greene’s take on the character – he even possesses charm and the gift for seduction. Neither of those attributes could be further from the mind of, or less missed by, the man in the novel who would much rather stick to his routine, depressing as he realizes it is, and not be bothered. Part one of Greene’s novel is called “The Unhappy Man,” for Pete’s sake (a subsequent section of the book is called “The Happy Man,” but in that case the man question has lost his memory and therefore finds regret a little harder to come by). This may be a function of being played by Ray Milland, I don’t know, but I’ve always liked him, and he plays the role well. The problem is that the role has been neutered. In the film, he didn’t feed his wife poison over a period of time until she died, leaving him to wonder over his own motives for the rest of his life. He bought the poison with that intention, but couldn’t go through with it, only later to discover that his wife had found it and deliberately poisoned herself. So he’s guilty of nothing more than a brash purchase, though he still landed in a mental hospital and feels the guilt of his share, and more, of the responsibility, as, I imagine, would anyone. But this makes it much easier for the audience to take him at face value, and there’s nothing about him that’s left to wonder about. All of which is a sign of the times the film was made, and while Ministry of Fear doesn’t have the air of propaganda about it that Man Hunt finally does, I’d say it’s safe to assume the choice to soften his crime came from the desire to not have the guy who was trying to stop Nazis be morally questionable himself. Other than this, the plot matches Greene fairly closely, with key sequences lifted straight from the page, but that one tonal shift changes everything.

And who cares? I do, apparently, but I think, in part, that’s my problem. Not to say the movie isn’t flawed (once more either the lead actress fails Lang or Lang fails his lead actress, because Marjorie Reynolds, as Austrian refugee Carla Hilfe, put me in mind of Joan Bennett in Man Hunt, which, see above), but Lang’s Ministry of Fear is constructed as a light, wrong-man suspense thriller and if I hadn’t read the goddamn book, it would've played like one, just fine. I guess. I'm assuming. It does have some terrific stuff, particularly Lang's use of darkness and point of view in the climactic shoot out (honestly, at least two of his choices in this sequence are just magnificent). Give it a year, and I'll check it out again. But whether or not I appreciate it more, I suspect I'll still miss what's gone of Greene's novel: the sad, determined whisper that "This is war."

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