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Adapting The Third Man

Graham Greene's script compared with his original novella.

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Graham Greene was to write the script for The Third Man, but before doing so he wrote a treatment in the form of a novella, which was published in its own right in 1950. In issuing the novella Greene was at pains, in an introduction, to point out that he didn't mean to imply that he disapproved of the film. Indeed, Greene wrote, he and director Carol Reed had worked closely together on the final script:

The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture. The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.

One of the most substantial of these "many differences" is the way the novella begins in the voice of Colonel Calloway (Major Calloway in the film, played by Trevor Howard), who is the narrator throughout. Calloway looks back on a sequence of events and, without giving away what's to come, cues the reader into the fact that the story isn't a pretty one, but "an ugly story if you leave out the girl: grim and sad and unrelieved, if it were not for that absurd episode of the British Council lecturer".

The story moves on to introduce Rollo Martins (Holly in the film, played by Joseph Cotten, who insisted the name be changed because it made his character sound like a homosexual) in Frankfurt, being mistaken for an eminent novelist when in fact he's a writer of pulp Westerns (under the psedonym Brad Dexter).

Greene has this incident in order to set up the lecture that Martins will give to an audience who think him to be his eminent namesake, even when he declares the Western writer Zane Grey to be an author. In the story the audience take him to be the real thing: "He didn't realize it, but he was making an enormous impression. Only a great writer could have taken so arrogant, so original a line."

In the film, the lecture does take place but Reed dispensed with the Frankfurt preamble, setting it up much more economically by simply having Martins be introduced to an overenthusiastic British cultural official (played by Wilfrid Hyde-White) as a writer. When the lecture does take place Martins is revealed to be ignorant of his subject, "The Contemporary Novel", and he makes a fool of himself. This is more in keeping with the film's depiction of Martins as a blunderer who thinks he's in one of his own stories.

There are various other changes similar to this one: Greene's basic idea was cut back and the emphasis changed slightly but often in important ways. Other differences were necessitated by external events. In the novella Martins and Harry Lime, who has invited him to Vienna, have known each other since school in England. Once Cotten was cast as Martins and Orson Welles as Lime, both characters became American: so the allusions to their English public-school high jinks in the novella were no longer appropriate. Also omitted was a sequence in which Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) is kidnapped by the Russian military police.

In addition, all sorts of nuances in the novella disappeared or where transformed. To take just one example: Greene's novella is worldly-wise about sex and accordingly there's some frank talk. When discussing the penicillin racket with Martins, Calloway says: "This isn't so funny, of course, if you are suffering from V.D." And Greene has Anna say of Harry at one point: "Why, when I have a sex dream, he's always the man." This is typical of the writer's realistic, slightly seedy touch, but novelists have always tended to have more freedom in such matters than film-makers and so, of course, there's none of this in the film.

In many respects, though, the novella bears quite a close relationship to the film. It includes most of the major set-pieces that are so memorable in the film, including Lime's first appearance, the discussion on the Great Wheel (to which Welles added the famous "cuckoo clock" speech), the chase in the sewers.

Indeed Greene anticipated the visual realisation of certain scenes, including Lime's first appearance: "a window curtain was drawn petulantly back by some sleeper he had awakened, and the light fell straight across the narrow street and lit up the features of Harry Lime." Likewise Lime's last moments, crawling towards a grille connecting the sewers to the street: "he was in great pain and just as an animal creeps into the dark to die, so I suppose a man makes for the light."

A relatively minor shift in emphasis, however, was perhaps the most important change. In the novella, after Lime has been finally buried Martins rushes after Anna. Calloway describes the scene: "I don't think he said a word to her: it was like the end of a story except that before they turned out of my sight her hand was through his arm."

In his introduction to the published novella, Greene recalled:

I held the view that an entertainment of this kind was too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending. Reed on his side felt that my ending - indeterminate though it was, with no words spoken -- would strike the audience, who had just seen Harry die, as unpleasantly cynical. I admit I was only half convinced... I had not given enough consideration to the mastery of Reed's direction...

The ending of the film, with Anna walking right past Martins without a look towards him, is one of the most memorable in all cinema.

Rob White

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