A film inspired by classic literature is not uncommon. The stories and settings of great literature have directly inspired many movies. But a closer look reveals that there has been a gradual transferring of different dramatic arcs from words to screen. The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed) is a masterpiece whose character arc can be traced back to a classic literature work, George Elliot’s Adam Bede.
The film inspired by classic literature: parallels between Adam and Holly
Graham Greene first conceived the central idea of The Third Man as barely a three lines structure. He wrote this late 1947 at the back of an old envelope while meeting Alexander Korda. Korda repeatedly insisted Greene to write something with post-war Vienna as the backdrop. Alexander Korda was one of the men fighting for British cinema as waves of American films steadily damaged local film potentiality. He admired no writer more than Greene. The official story goes that the first few lines Greene wrote were this:
“I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.”
This initial seed shows that the central arc is the conflict between two male characters, The conflict arises when a sense of betrayal occurs through the distortion of identity. But this story arc of brotherhood to hostility is not new. A classic work of the great 19th-century writer George Elliot has this arc as the backbone. This book is Elliot’s 1859 novel, Adam Bede. Parallels are drawn to understand that film inspired by classic literature is a natural gradual process. Spoilers follow for both the novel and the film.
“I thank you all, my good friends and neighbors”
Adam Bede follows the life of a working man of the same name. Known for his strength, honesty, and sincerity, Bede is the quintessential working man. A man who is courageous in his dealings but too straightforward to notice the twisted treacheries of the powerful class. Adam Bede might be the source of inspiration for all Aki Kaurismaki’s protagonists.
The year is 1799. Bede holds Arthur Donnithorne in high reverence. As the next landowner, Donnithorne is likely to bring changes that can ease the lives of the tenants. Unlike his grandfather, the current owner, Arthur is not rigid and feels happy when the common people love him. Bede and Donnithorne are like best friends who have to behave themselves because they are in a strict class. They behave formally in public space and hide their frankness as if it’s a taboo. Anything that defies your rank and class will be deemed as a disgrace to your name. It is not written down, but the air spells it well.
“…it’s too hard to think she’s wicked”
Bede is in love with Hetty, a fellow village girl. Hetty is beautiful but wants to leap ranks and become ‘a lady’. The only way she can do that is by marrying an aristocrat. Thus, when Arthur falls in love with her, she finds a perfect match for herself. They keep the relationship secret. Her naive mind belives that Arthur will defy odds and marry her. She will reach the position where she actually belongs, or so she believes.
There is an amazing paragraph where Bede thinks of his relationship with Arthur. The writing skillfully evokes a melancholic nostalgia and simultaneously dread that something horrible is coming along. Bede discovers the secret love affair between Arthur and Hetty right after that moment.
What follows is something that one can easily predict. This love triangle arc has been used and reused innumerable times by movies belonging to all countries and languages. But Adam Bede the book has a character foundation, a strong logic behind each action, and deep enriching layers. Modern films rarely showcase these qualities.
“the name was Lime. Harry Lime.”
The Third Man is one of those rare films. The film begins with Holly arriving at Vienna in search of his old friend Harry Lime. Soon enough he is told that Harry is dead. During the funeral, he comes across Major Calloway. Calloway has some pretty mean things to say about Lime. Holly, naturally, does not take these well. His feelings for Lime can be paralleled with Adam’s feelings for Arthur at the beginning of Adam Bede. The distortion of the image is yet to occur.
Pretty soon Holly’s focus shifts from how Lime was to how he died. The accident raises some solid questions. During this stage, Holly’s enemy is not his friend, but the police and Calloway, who seem to make stupid mistakes and arrest the wrong people.
The first hour of the film is spent on developing the relationship between Holly and Anna. Anna used to be Lime’s love interest, but Holly is now developing feelings for her. Anna, along with some other characters, throws light upon who Lime was. This is important to keep us invested in Lime who otherwise is nowhere near the frame.
“Cat got your tongue?”
It is a few minutes after the first hour that we finally manage to see Lime. That is the moment from which his identity starts shifting in Harry’s eyes. In fact, identity or lack of it plays a major role throughout The Third Man. From this point, a series of events follow for the next half hour. They end with a scene that completely relies on the reactions of the characters. This scene takes place in the hospital ward, where Calloway shows Holly the damage Lime has done to the society.
This point in the film can be paralleled to Adam Bede’s recognition of the truth of Arthur. Both Bede and Holly are honest citizens who have sincere love for their friends. Both end up thinking ‘how could he?’ Bede knew that Arthur could not marry Hetty since society would not allow it. The only outcome of that relationship would be devastation for Hetty. Similarly, Lime devastates society through his actions. Holly hates Lime also because he feels Lime, Like Arthur, has been unfair to Anna. Brotherly love has now transformed into absolute enmity.
Both Holly and Bede would then spend the rest of their respective stories trying to make things correct and punish the man they once called a friend. Both the men fall for a woman who has loved the other man. Hetty and Anna like Bede and Holly respectively, but they love the ‘third man’ of the triangle. Both women suffer because of that other man. Our heroes cannot be anything else than mute spectators with hidden rage.
“Where shall I find their like?”
Stories centered around the transformation of identity did not originate in the 19th century. They date back to Roman classical literature. While those stories had religious and spiritual undertones, modern classics focus more on society and its denizens. By concentrating on the characters, they form a dramatic arc that also reflects the dynamics of civilization.
Filmmaking has utilized this arc and transported it to another societal backdrop. Conflict emerges from the same place. But the city, the culture, and most importantly, the medium, have altered. Thus, the film inspired by classic literature has resulted in a natural gradual evolution where the latter’s dramatic structure has blended with some great visual techniques contributing to exceptional cinema.