The release of Guillermo del Toro’s most recent film, a new adaptation of the novel Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, instilled an odd desire in me. I often watch films from source materials, like novels, that I never have any intention of reading. I’ll watch films that are remakes of other films and just keep the idea of watching the other version on the backburner (I still haven’t watched the original version of What Price Glory). However, with Nightmare Alley, I simply refused to watched the new film without first reading the source novel and then watching the original 1947 film starring Tyrone Power.
It was a concentrated dose of nihilism, brought on by a real man’s inability to find meaning in life, bouncing from one set of promises and beliefs to another his entire adult life, fueled in no small part by a major problem with alcohol. Over about three days, from when I started reading the novel through the completion of that task and passing through both film adaptations, I was granted a view into a worldview bereft of hope and even, possibly, happiness.
Reading and watching all three versions, I was struck by the differences and similarities in the tellings. So, I’m going to use this as a case study in how film adaptations have changed from the 40s to now. Be forewarned, I’m going to delve deeply into spoilers for all three. I’m going to be talking about plot twists, character fates, and the endings of all three. If you wish to remain unspoiled for a nearly 70 year old novel, a more than 60 year old movie, and a newly released film, then feel free to skip. Also, because the content is all spoilery, I won’t discourage any discussion of spoilers in the comments.
I think the best place to begin is at the beginning. William Lindsay Gresham was an American writer from Baltimore who had an early adherence to communism, fought with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. He would later go on to convert to Christianity after reading CS Lewis (his wife, Joy Davidman, would go on to marry Lewis after her divorce to Gresham) and even was active in the earliest days of Scientology. He was a lost soul, and that comes through clearly in Nightmare Alley.
It’s the story of Stan Carlisle, a young man who joins a rundown carnival where he learns the mechanics of mentalism. He takes the electric woman, Molly Cahill, as his girl, and they leave to start their own two-person act for a wealthier crowd, especially after Stan cold reads a sheriff out to arrest several members of the carnival to the point where the sheriff simply leaves. Miffed by the dismissal of him by the wealthy patrons of his act as beneath them, and, driven in no small part by his parents’ ill treatment of him as a youth (there are very heavy Freudian influences throughout the book), he becomes determined to take them for all they’re worth. With Molly at his side, he delves into spiritualism, acting as a medium to fraudulently connect the living with the dead. Using mechanical devices and his own ability to cold read people, he develops a pseudo-religion after convincing a rich widow to give him her mansion as a church to spiritualism. His great con is to go after the rich industrialist Ezra Grindle with whom he becomes acquainted through the kindred heart of a female psychologist Lilith Ritter.
Stan works Grindle up to the point where he truly believes that his lost love, Dorrie, a girl he, as a young man, had forced into an abortion that killed her, is communicating with him. Stan’s masterstroke will be to give Grindle one intimate encounter with Dorrie, played by Molly, but the irony is that Stan overestimates Grindle humanity. When Grindle tries to lay with Molly, convinced she’s Dorrie, a second time, scaring Molly to the point where she calls for help, Stan storms in and punches the industrialist, but the damage is done. Grindle knows everything, and Stan goes on the run. Ritter denies knowing anything about him, stealing nearly $150,000 from him in the process, and the rest of the book is Stan’s descent into the geek. He starves, a drunk in desperate need for his next bottle, and eventually gets offered the one job good for a drunk. A geek is someone so desperate that they’ll tear heads off of chickens with his bare teeth, and it’s the only place for Stan to go.
Tyrone Power read the book and loved it. He had gone to war as a marine and was struggling to recast his pre-war acting image from a swashbuckler to a serious actor, and he chose Nightmare Alley and the character of Stan Carlisle as his vehicle. It’s a serious part, but it’s also in a deeply nihilistic and hopeless book that in no way shape or form could reach the film screens of 1947 without serious changes.
Keeping as much of the hard edge as possible considering audiences of the time, the Hays Office, and producer Daryll F. Zanuck’s own preferences, a lot of the nihilism and grotesqueries got sanded down. That manifests in a few ways, the earliest example being the geek who is barely seen in the film, mostly just alluded to. There’s also a change when it comes to how Stan gets revealed to the industrialist. Instead of forcing Molly into a sexual encounter with a slightly drugged older man, he has her appear in an early 19th century dress in his private garden as a vision of his long lost love. Molly gives the game away by screaming in distress and sympathy as the older man falls to his knees. The largest change is the ending where Zanuck forced a coda that reunites Stan and Molly after Stan has taken the job to be the geek in the fair, offering him a hopeful way out of the movie.
In terms of how the film is built, this version feels like what you would expect from most movie adaptations of novels that are a bit too big to really fit inside a two-hour timeframe. It feels like getting in as many of the individual moments from the book was the top priority which provides a fast-clipped pace to the whole affair. Scenes are short and to the point without much fat, and then they move on. This allows the film to cover more ground of the original book, though the use of Mrs. Peacock ends up feeling like an unnecessary footnote in a story that doesn’t really involve her. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mainly mean this as a criticism, just a descriptor. Acting is also very much of the period, especially from Helen Walker as Lilith Ritter, creating strong characters with hard voices.
I think the film largely keeps the heart of the original novel except for its tacked on ending. It’s outright wrong to the story that came before it. Stan should never get a way out from his actions. He’s a monster, and where he ends up, as the geek, is where he belongs.
Guillermo de Toro, shortly after the release of The Shape of Water, decided that an adaptation of the novel was going to be his next film. Originally given to him by Ron Perlman in 1992, he felt like it was a fulfilment of some things he had been exploring in his short film days before he started on the supernatural bent of the bulk of his filmography. He says it’s a readaptation of the original novel and not a remake of the earlier film, but it does keep one of the major changes the 1947 made which seems to muddle things.
I’ve read complaints from some people who’ve seen both who feel that there’s no reason for del Toro’s version to exist at all since it keeps one plot point change and doesn’t cover much other ground from the novel that the original film fails to cover itself. And then they complain that it’s thirty minutes longer. It’s weird to me how people can watch two adaptations of the same source material that have such a runtime differential and feel like they’re the same movie because they’re very different. Most of that difference happens in the beginning.
One thing that the 1947 version of the story never really did was try to strike out on its own, to make the story work purely cinematically instead of a translation into another medium. It does the translation well (I really do like the 1947 version, mind you), but del Toro set out to make something uniquely his, and his craft is film. That really starts in the beginning where del Toro inserted a new episode where Stan, fresh off of being hired onto the circus as a manual laborer, is recruited to help find the current geek, who has escaped his cage. Stan goes into a carnival attraction full of eyes (an important motif) and passes through the mouth of the devil, foreshadowing his whole journey. It’s a creation of the film, but it also helps set the stage for what’s to come in a way that is rather uniquely cinematic.
The whole opening act, which takes almost an hour, is set in this carnival, and we get a lot of time with our characters. The one character who gets the most from this is Pete, the drunk husband of the female mentalist who teaches Stan the first steps in the trade. The relationship between Pete and Stan is paternal and almost sweet, giving Stan an almost likeable opening. This is a departure from the book in that Stan was never more than a con artist, and I think del Toro (based on an interview I watched with him) believes that his vision of Stan is the same. However, under Pete’s wing in del Toro’s film, Stan feels innocent. I suppose it’s all possibly a con (an abbreviated form of Stan’s backstory made it to this version involving him watching his father die), but his concern for Pete, especially when he accidentally gives him wood alcohol to drink, feels real to me.
In terms of the more major characters, the one character that feels best served by this adaptation is Molly. Molly, as played by Rooney Mara, feels like a fully-fleshed out character here where she was more minor in the 1947 version. Granted, she’s also a fairly minor character in the original novel, but del Toro retains a certain change the 1947 version made, the reveal to the industrialist. I’m actually kind of surprised that the original reveal wasn’t retained because we’re well past the whole Hays Office thing, but I assume the book’s version of Stan forcing Molly to have sex with the industrialist would have made Stan that much unlikeable that, he must have figured, the audience would have simply hated him. Well, it is kind of the point, but whatever. Stan arranges for Molly to dress up in the early 19th century dress, but the difference is that she has a scene with Stan in the car before the event where she asserts her independence, granting him one more use of her despite the cruelty she sees in him, and then she’s gone. When she sees the hurt Stan is doing to the industrialist, she rejects it and calls out in sympathy, as opposed to the shock of Molly in the 1947 version.
The film also retains the original ending of the novel, granting it a few more lines (also present in the 1947 version, curiously enough) where Stan, knowing full well what being offered the job of the geek means, accepts it with an insane laugh. There’s no salvation for him here.
The acting is also of the period. I don’t really have a preference of one actor in a role over the other. I suppose if forced, I would choose Power over Bradley Cooper as Stan, Mara over Coleen Gray as Molly, and Cate Blanchett over Helen Walker as Lilith Ritter.
Of the Three
I’m going to fall in with the regular assertion and say that the book is the best rendition of the story of all three. I love all three to different degrees, but the story in the novel has a certain breadth that the others can’t even try to match. There are more details about the practical efforts to con, especially around early wireless technology, that I found interesting and helped set the stage. There’s also the pseudo-religious aspect that takes the place into a far darker place. I also find the implication of the reveal in the novel to more naturally fit the story than giving Molly a crisis of conscience. The original form means that Stan’s fall is because he thought too much of the industrialist while the modified form in both film versions means that his fall is because he thought too little of Molly.
Of the two movies, I prefer del Toro’s version. The unnatural ending of the 1947 version works against it, but mostly I prefer the luxurious feeling of the slower pace of del Toro’s. The 1947 is a bit staccato in movement where the del Toro version is a steady flow. The newer version also feels more like a movie creation rather than an adaptation of another medium. I still think the 1947 version is very good, but being a product of its time holds it back some.
Still, it’s interesting to see how movie making conventions change the same story over time. The rougher structure of novel adaptation in the forties gave way to more auteur directed and languid production of today. Studio productions of seventy years ago were more producer driven generally than director driven, so it was more about getting the right people in place and getting the product out as quickly, efficiently, and cheaply as possible. Del Toro, having just won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for The Shape of Water, was able to use his clout to do what he wanted as the prime creative voice on his next project. This lead to a longer film that was happier to spend its time on smaller moments while creating a more fully visual world.
Having absorbed all three versions over the course of, essentially, a weekend, I thought it was just an interesting thing to consider.