Middlebrow goes to the movies (again)

Review by Val H

After posting on the 1933 film Christopher Strong (based on Gilbert Frankau’s novel), I have done more research on middlebrow novels and the film industry.

What do screenwriters, directors and stars do with – or perhaps to – the novels we enjoy? And what do their films tell us about their period and audiences? Finally, do they do anything for us today?

Studios have always adapted – or mutilated – novels, from classics like Anna Karenina to the recent Twilight Saga films.  Reasons vary from cashing in on a popular phenomenon like Gone with the Wind to a desire for cultural respectability. It seems to be a rare author who wields influence once the movie rights are sold.

This time I am looking at Haunted Honeymoon (1940) and Mrs Miniver (1942).

They are both Hollywood adaptations of British middlebrow novels (Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) and Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver (1939)), produced at around the same time.  They were made under the Hollywood studio system, by MGM and with bankable stars, including some Americans masquerading as British.  Both get England – the look and the feel – wrong, even though one (Haunted Honeymoon) was filmed here.

But there the similarities more or less end. There are no principal actors, directors or writers in common.  One movie is a comedy, the other a very dramatic drama.  One was released before the USA entered WWII, the other after.  In fact, Mrs Miniver is famously credited with rallying American support for Britain.

Haunted Honeymoon can be kindly described as forgettable today.

Newly-weds Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane find a corpse in their honeymoon home and investigate.  Sayers sub-titled it, rather archly, as ‘A Love Story with Detective Interruptions’.

Busman’s Honeymoon started life as a play, on which Sayers collaborated with Muriel St Clare Byrne, was published as a novel and was then filmed. Sayers refused to see the movie:

‘I do not like the films and I do not want them…They have nothing to offer me…They will find it difficult to believe this, but it is a fact.’ (Dorothy L Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life, by David Coomes, Oxford, Lion Publishing, 1992, p.118)

Why?  Sayers was snobbish and protective of her character.  She had had a bad experience with a 1935 British film, The Silent Passenger, which she thought made Wimsey an idiot.

In Haunted Honeymoon – the change of name makes little sense by the way, unless perhaps the phrase ‘busman’s holiday’ is unfamiliar in the USA? – the plot is essentially unchanged.

The film was made in England, with a largely British cast.  But this is an American version of England – the interiors look wrong and the exteriors, though genuine, are chocolate-box pretty.  Wimsey and Harriet are played by Americans Robert Montgomery and Constance Cummings (in fact, Cummings lived and worked in England for most of her life).

But more important than any of this, the spirit of the piece is radically changed.  This is what Sayers would have hated most.  In her work she noted the balance between comedy and tragedy.  Yes, murder was a puzzle but there was a human cost.  Furthermore, she always gave Peter and Harriet interior lives and explored their coming together over several books.  She had Harriet say that she did not want marriage to alter Peter’s life, to stop his investigating.

Not in the film.  It is a crime caper with cartoonish villains and little real feeling.  It starts with the couple agreeing to give up crime, which is merely an entertainment.  At the end, off to find honeymoon bliss, they stumble upon yet another crime but speed off, ignoring the uproar.

Some find Sayers rather absurd and high-flown and so might prefer the light-hearted movie.  But if you buy into the Wimsey myth, it is hard not to see this as travesty.

Mrs Miniver won six Oscars including Best Picture.  It is to be preserved for all time by the Library of Congress for being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically’ significant.

It is an exercise in propaganda.

The film tells the story of an upper middle-class family in the familiar unreal England – all thatched roofs, climbing roses and open plan rooms.  The cast is mixed American and British, with London-born Greer Garson as Mrs Miniver and Canadian Walter Pidgeon as Mr Miniver and British character actors a-plenty (all US-based).

This is wartime, and there are air-raids, bombings, casualties.  Mr Miniver goes off to Dunkirk, while Mrs Miniver confronts a downed German flier.  The ending – almost unbearable because your emotions are wracked – shows villagers united in their bombed-out church, while the RAF flies overhead and their vicar says:

‘This is the People’s War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right.’

Then the congregation sings Onward Christian Soldiers.

Exciting, gripping, overwhelming.  But definitely not Jan Struther’s original (although there is one sketch from September 1939 about war).  Mrs Miniver appeared first in sketches in the Times in the 1930s, based partly on Struther’s own life.  The stories are very English and charming or rather twee, according to your view.  Their secret lies in the prose and the observation, rather than the narrative.  But – a big but – there is no war, no air-raid, no death.  This is fair enough in one way – there is no overarching narrative in the sketches.

The film was overtaken by events. It was developed in the early 40s, as the USA moved towards war, and the story seems to have been written and re-written to encourage pro-British feeling.  The scene between Mrs Miniver and the Luftwaffe pilot was apparently filmed before the attack on Pearl Harbor, then re-shot after so that she could slap his face.

Jan Struther was tactfully polite about the film – after all, it was obviously helping the war effort.  But, according to her grand-daughter Ysenda Maxtone Graham, she winced at the liberties taken (The Real Mrs Miniver, London, John Murray, 2001).

In 1950, Hollywood made a sequel, The Miniver Story, about post-war adjustment, which comes at a high price. Distressed by the treatment of her characters, Struther sued and was paid $18,000 ($180,000 today) out of court.

What do these two movies tell us?

They show us a society which never really existed, but which has enough of the reality to show how different our lives, attitudes and behaviour (e.g. deference) both were and are.  It’s arguable that their England still informs to some extent American expectations today.

They show how ruthlessly one medium deals with the other.  Studios cut, re-shape, graft to suit their purpose, changing relationships, adding drama, omitting storylines.  Some of this is necessary, as the media are different.  But it can be distressing to protective authors and devoted readers.

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4 thoughts on “Middlebrow goes to the movies (again)

  1. I loved the book of Mrs. Miniver, but i’m afraid the film just looks too saccharine for me. I’m of the camp that “The Book is Always Better”!

  2. A challenge! I’m trying now to think of a film which is better than the book. Maybe The African Queen? But I take the point. I too like the original Mrs Miniver very much. I’m interested in how the one was transformed into the other. And in a way I appreciate – I’m struggling over the verb – the construction of the movie and its impact but feel overwhelmed by it too. It’s a sledgehammer.

  3. For a film better than the book, how about Hitchcock’s version of ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’? It contains all the best bits of the novel, but deepens the character of Hannay through the relationship with Pamela (played by Madeleine Carroll). It also adds the splendid Mr Memory sequence.
    Apparently, when Buchan and his wife were shown a preview of the film, she protested because it was different from her husband’s book, but he liked it.
    I bet some on the list would disagree, but I also much prefer Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’ to Du Maurier’s book.

  4. Oh yes! I agree about The Thirty-Nine Steps. Interesting to compare the various versions of this, including the Robert Powell version which is closer to the original. None of them works as well as the Hitchcock film. I don’t agree with you on Rebecca. I like both film and book in that case.

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