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This article seeks to supplement my academic paper on the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s own favourite of his novels The Honorary Consul, giving more detailed attention to the critical reception it received, some further narrative history of its production and focusing on the contexts of the personnel involved.

  1. His own and others’ worst critic: Greene, cinema and adaptations

As Hand and Pursell state, Greene was one of the twentieth century’s ‘most emblematic writers’.[1] They also argue that Greene was ‘one of the first British authors to be influenced by cinema’.[2] He opened A Sort of Life (1971), his first volume of autobiography, with an amused recollection of his father’s allowing his senior boys to go to the cinema to see Tarzan, ‘under the false impression that it was an educational film of anthropological interest, and ever after he regarded the cinema with a sense of disillusion and suspicion.’[3] Unlike his father Greene was a committed cineaste and twentieth-century man par example, admiring cinema’s unique possibilities. However, as his views on films as critic and as viewer of adaptations of his own works attest, he was often aghast at the medium’s shortcomings.

The Third Man (1949) won the accolade of ‘greatest’ ever British film in the BFI’s 1999 poll.[4] While Greene liked that film – which hadn’t been an adaptation as he had written the novelisation after his inspired ad hoc creation of the script based on a visit to Vienna – it wasn’t quite his own favourite of his adaptations. In 1984, he stated this was The Fallen Idol (1948) and also expressed a liking for The Confidential Agent (1945), Brighton Rock (1947), The Heart of the Matter (1953; ‘good film, but I didn’t like the book much’!), the ‘not too bad’ Our Man in Havana (1960) and England Made Me (1972).[5] Most of these were British-made, or Carol Reed directed.

In the same live Q&A interview with Quentin Falk, Greene expressed hatred for many adaptations of his work: This Gun for Hire (1940) and its remake, the James Cagney-directed Short Cut to Hell (1957), The Ministry of Fear (1943), The Man Within (1947), The Fugitive (1947), The Quiet American (1958), Travels with My Aunt (1972; ‘no money at all’) and The Human Factor (1979).[6] There were films he quite liked but felt were spoiled by acting performances: Van Johnson in The End of the Affair (1955). He also amusingly discussed the dreadful 21 Days (1937), which he himself adapted from a John Galsworthy short story, which he even attacked himself in a review for the Spectator!

Thames’ television drama anthology series of adaptations Shades of Greene (1975-6) – to be the subject of further research and analysis – was well regarded by the writer; he only disliked four out of the eighteen episodes. He also said that three or four of these were among the very best of his adaptations, specifically naming ‘A Dream of a Strange Land’, ‘Two Gentle People’ and ‘Under the Garden’.[7]

  1. A tortuous genesis: bringing The Honorary Consul to screen

High Noon director Fred Zinnemann was the first to express an interest in directing a screen version of The Honorary Consul.[8] Peter Duffell spent five years (1973-8) trying to set up a film version.[9] In the September 1984 ‘Guardian Lecture’ at the National Film Theatre, secretly filmed by the BBC against Greene’s wishes, he expressed his admiration for the Duffell-directed England Made Me (1972) and claimed that Duffell’s first-draft script of The Honorary Consul was ‘very good’.[10] In June 1974, Greene had no objection to Robert Redford being cast as Plarr, ‘if you have to have an American’ and a year later suggested Jack Nicholson as ideal for the part.[11] Greene had even went so far as to suggest locations; however, Duffell ‘faced obstacles at every turn’, while the likes of Redford and Pacino shunned the chance to play Plarr, and, after five years’ labour, he had to give up.[12] Orson Welles, Zinnemann again and Louis Malle were linked with the project, before, at Richard Burton’s urging, Norma Heyman secured the rights in 1978, with Duffell as intermediary. Burton, prominent again following the success of Equus (1977), had been keen on playing Fortnum.[13] Duffell’s ‘literal’ script was then abandoned, in favour of a new one from playwright Christopher Hampton.[14] Heyman had thought Hampton’s play Savages ‘remarkable’ and allowed the playwright to be ‘rather radical’ with the novel.[15]

Peter Duffell (b.1937- ) – one of Britain’s most underrated directors, according to Christopher Lee.

Approached by Heyman at the end of 1981, John Mackenzie was best known for Play for Todays such as ‘Just a Boy’s Game’ and ‘Red Shift’, and films The Long Good Friday and A Sense of Freedom.[16] Some of this work can be characterised as displaying some of the popular vulgarity and politicisation that Greene wanted to see in cinema. Mackenzie had been scheduled in 1981-2 to direct the BBC’s adaptation of Smiley’s People, but for ‘various reasons’ didn’t. When profiled in the Daily Telegraph, Mackenzie mentioned The Comedians as ‘absolutely awful […] It must have been the worst’ Graham Greene film adaptation.[17]

Caine, interviewed in the New York Times to promote the film, was settled in Beverly Hills, newly-married and learning to drive.[18] Of his performance as the titular Charley Fortnum, Caine states: ‘I’m here to make you feel his humanity’, expounding upon his acting technique of listening intently to the other actors.[19] He is invariably aided in this by using his humanising ‘lizard-like peepers’, as Andrew Pulver has described them.[20]

Michael Caine1

Caine refers heavily to his working-class upbringing and puts forward the very 1980s Tory ideas of social mobility, arguing that the working-classes often instil an attitude of ‘knowing your place’, and also that ‘now, the Socialists are trying to do the same thing: You were born into the working class and you’re going to stay there.’[21] Caine is a symbolic figure in many ways: he did national service, fought in the dangerous ‘First Cold War’ conflagration, the Korean War, became the grammar-school hero Harry Palmer, became the old pro in legions of mediocre films, building up a fortune he didn’t want taxing so heavily. Thus, he moved to California; and, by 1983, he was the middle-aged ex-pat and Thatcher endorser. Educating Rita (1983) fits the narrative in terms of social mobility, though the Wilson-created Open University autodidact path isn’t so Thatcherite. Notably, Julie Walters has made recent comments criticising the dominance of public school over working-class talent, saying: ‘people like me wouldn’t get the chance today’.[22] Michael Caine hasn’t, and endorsed the Tories in the 2015 General Election; it is very easy to see Harry Brown as a UKIP and Brexit voter. Indeed, upon that film’s 2009 release, Caine suggested that Britain should ‘bring back national service to give young people a sense of belonging’ and also threatened to leave Britain again if Gordon Brown raised income tax any higher than 50%[23] While Greene himself was a tax exile in Antibes from 1966, it is difficult to see him agreeing with such views, as a more globally-minded, self-identified social democrat.

  1. Critical reception and analysis of The Honorary Consul (1983)

Reaction to the film was almost entirely negative. In America, ‘Beyond the Limit’ – as it was renamed – was seen as ‘literal’, slow paced and overly faithful to the original.[24] Variety and Boxoffice reviewers both saw it as unsubtle compared with the novel; for the former it is ‘dull’[25] and the latter questions whether the novel is too ‘internalised’ for a visual medium.[26] The exception in US criticism was Marjorie Bilbow, who generally liked it and praised good performances all around.[27] Paramount studio’s spokesman claimed to have been ‘very surprised’ when the film didn’t do well at the box office, following its extensive release as an attempted winter blockbuster.[28]

In the UK, Derek Malcolm was mixed, liking the ‘brooding atmosphere’ and raving about Caine’s performance, comparing him to Trevor Howard in earlier Greene adaptation The End of the Affair (1955) and Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana (1960).[29] Patrick Gibbs, who’d slated the Burton-Taylor film of The Comedians sixteen years earlier, is generally negative. He liked Mackenzie’s ‘admirable clarity’ of Mackenzie’s way with the story but said it lacked ‘involvement’.[30] He opened his review by spotting a trend: Hampton and Dennis Potter, screenwriter of the simultaneously-released Gorky Park, were both ‘theatre playwrights’, untrue in Potter’s case, unless one accepts the conflation of TV drama with drama per se.

Nigel Andrews was negative about this ‘cod-Latin American adventure’ and deploys the scathing adjective ‘abysmal’. He is especially disappointed, as, in the context of early 1984, he sees cinema as his main cultural refuge from the ‘relentless flood of programmes on TV about George Orwell’.[31] David Robinson was generally negative: echoing US critics regarding its unsubtlety and drawing parallels again with Gorky Park with its director and writer coming from television. Philip French is the most wholly negative, assailing it as a ‘glum movie’, with Greene’s narrative ‘reduced to a triangular affair’.[32] He comments on the leisurely restructuring of the narrative – with the kidnapping occurring more than half-way through, proportionately far further on than in the novel. His review opens with a broadside against what he sees as the BFI’s absurd and self-defeating designating of 1984 as ‘The Year of Television’.

Castell was the most positive, praising a ‘lucid script’, Greene would like its ‘implosive’, not explosive nature. ‘The themes of religion and politics, courage and cowardice, spiritual and physical love, are adroitly woven together’. Yet, the vitriol returned in Barber’s piece, a withering diatribe against both Mackenzie and Gere: ‘“Efficient thriller” is, I believe, the phrase. Not quite so efficient, actually.’[33] In the excellent publication, the MFB, Tom Milne was generally very critical but with one or two caveats. For him, it is self-parodic ‘Greeneland’, with the climactic scene referred to as a ‘reductio ad absurdum of all Greene has ever written or stood for’. ‘Hampton’s script reduces the novel to a skeleton’.[34] Milne liked the very last scene with Fortnum and Clara, which he argued conveys some of the novel’s power.

Richard_Grenier
Neo-con critic, Richard Grenier (1933-2002)

The film of THC was accused by American novelist and critic Richard Grenier of being an ideological weapon. Grenier was notable for writing a review of Attenborough’s Gandhi, which savaged the reputation of the man Gandhi, and, in February 1984, wrote a stridently conservative piece in the Daily Telegraph, laying into what he describes as Hollywood’s preoccupation with ‘public affairs’ and political bias towards the left (or, in US terms, ‘liberalism’), criticising The Honorary Consul along with its fellow 1983 films Silkwood, Deal of the Century, Daniel , Testament and the Nicaragua-focused Under Fire.[35]

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

He characterises these films as preaching at audiences and unsuccessfully so, stating each film’s low chart placing in the Variety’s annual list of films that grossed over a million dollars as evidence and then saying these films had ‘been easily identified’ by the public as ‘anti-American.’[36] This review shows a kind of neo-conservative rhetoric that greatly influenced Thatcherite and Blairite neo-liberal cultural critics in the UK in their populist attacks on films, TV programmes and music that dealt explicitly with political issues.

Hampton and Mackenzie’s film fits Richard J. Hand’s formulation of the ‘Five Creative Strategies of Adaptation’ (2010).[37] It (1) omits Doctor Saavedra and all of the novel’s literary nature. There is the (2) addition of flashbacks to torture, which are given less context; as well as the specific naming of the setting as Argentina and Corrientes, in particular, which Greene had visited while researching the novel.[38] There is the (3) marginalisation of Sir Henry Belfrage and the British context, as discussed in my paper – despite the token efforts of Gere to speak in an English accent! There is the (4) expansion of violent and sexual scenes – the novel dwells more on the psychological aspect of love-making, not in describing its physical processes. There is the significant (5) alteration of responsibility for the torture, with Greene’s many references to the CIA’s implication made to seem a domestic South American matter. As Heyman said they wanted to suggest, but not spell out, the conditions of the Argentinian dictatorship that was in place during the film’s making in 1982-3.[39] The novel had been written when Argentina was theoretically a democracy, and its focus was on Paraguay being under the American thumb. As Falk comments, Hampton’s script has too linear and sequential a narrative, in contrast with Duffell’s more layered script which built up tension more successfully.[40] When it does manage to deviate from sequential order, this is via notably unsubtle and sensationalist flashbacks.

Perhaps Mackenzie learned from the experience of this film, with its occasionally sensationalist, watered-down politics, when he came to direct The Fourth Protocol (1987). In his paper at the September 2015 Spying on Spies Conference, Paul Lynch referred to Mackenzie’s contrary ideological take on Frederick Forsyth’s original text, angering the right-wing author. To conclude, critics found the ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing’ politics of The Honorary Consul either too pronounced or not emphasised enough; it was surely the Ed Miliband of Graham Greene film adaptations, trying to straddle an impossible line without the requisite skills.

[1] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) Adapting Graham Greene. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p.17

[2] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.134

[3] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader. London: Penguin, p.xi

[4] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.20

[5] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[6] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[7] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[8] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[9] Screen International (1984) ‘’Consul’ proves a box office draw’, Screen International, 21st January, p.8

[10] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[11] Falk, Q. (2014) Travels in Greeneland: The Cinema of Graham Greene. 4th edn. Dahlonega, GA: University Press of North Georgia, p.130-1

[12] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[13] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.131

[14] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[15] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.132

[16] Hodges, A. (1983) ibid., p.15

[17] Stringer, R. (1984) ‘Profile: man who put Greene on the screen’, Daily Telegraph, 9th January, p.8

[18] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ‘Michael Caine at 50: Testing the Limits of the Actor’s Art’, New York Times, 16th October

[19] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ibid.

[20] Pulver, A. & Clarke, P. (illustration) (1998) ‘Profile: Michael Caine – Now don’t mess abaht’, The Guardian, 23rd February, p.B4

[21] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ibid.

[22] Cadwalladr, C. (2016) ‘Why working-class actors are a disappearing breed – Once we had gritty TV dramas such as Boys from the Blackstuff; now we have glossy thrillers with public school-educated stars. How did British screens become dominated by the privileged few? And does it matter?’ The Observer, 8th May, p.6

[23] Anthony, A. (2016) ‘Michael Caine: the class act who enjoys the political fray’, The Observer, 24th January, p.32

[24] Canby, V. (1983) ‘Film: ‘Beyond the Limit’, From Graham Greene’, New York Times, 30th September

[25] Cart. (1983) ‘Film Reviews: Beyond the Limit’, Variety, 5th October, p.24

[26] Summers, J. (1983) ‘Reviews: BEYOND THE LIMIT’, Boxoffice, 1st December, p.145

[27] Bilbow, M. (1983) ‘Reviews: THE HONORARY CONSUL’, Screen International 17th December, p.11

[28] Goodman, J. (1984) ‘Integrity in face of the unlovable’, The Times, 4th January, p.11

[29] Malcolm, D. (1984) ‘Our man in the savannah’, The Guardian, 5th January, p.9

[30] Gibbs, P. (1984) ‘The Honorary Consul’, The Daily Telegraph, 6th January, p.13

[31] Andrews, N. (1984) ‘When only Caine is able’, Financial Times, 6th January, p.11

[32] French, P. (1984) ‘Murder in Moscow’, The Observer, 8th January, p.54

[33] Barber, L. (1984) ‘The Wrong Gere’, Melody Maker (59)3, 21st January, p.27

[34] Milne, T. (1984) ‘The Honorary Consul’, Monthly Film Bulletin (51)600, January, p.16

[35] Grenier, R. (1984) ‘Un-American activities’, Daily Telegraph, 11th February, p.16

[36] Grenier, R. (1984) ibid., p.16

[37] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.8

[38] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

[39] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

[40] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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