Published in 24fps, February 2004.

Part Four (Dan Sallitt)

I found that book, and I read it between this post and my last - a fascinating experience.  It's really not bad at all: the dialogue is a little overwritten, perhaps, but Janeway brings emotion and intelligence to the material, and lots of the good dialogue in the movie is from the novel.

Still, I wound up maintaining respect for Hertz's adaptation.  The novel starts with a story quite similar to the movie's, but the two works diverge completely.  The book is explicitly a chronicle of the beginning of the war in the US, covering about the same period of history as They Were Expendable, but on the home front instead of in the Pacific. Obviously someone decided to keep the parts of the novel that could become a Joan Crawford vehicle, and scrap everything else: Janeway would have had every right to be furious at how Hollywood ran roughshod over her careful intertwining of the romance novel and the social chronicle.

In the movie, Peter Lapham starts out as a veteran in uniform; in the book, he enlists before being drafted, and for much of the story he is a remote figure being shuttled from one training camp to another.  Dan O'Mara's involvement with the court case of the Nisei whose land was stolen is a similar attempt to update the material: in the novel, Dan's big project was trying to get the Army to begin production on a plane engine that he was convinced would help win the war.  The novel puts great emphasis on Dan's machinations in Washington and his knowledge of how complicated political-economic machinery works.

There are also differences in censorship, or self-censorship.  People sleep together more naturally in 1945 novels than in 1947 movies.  Dan's attempted assault on Daisy in the movie is a consummated rape in the book.  And Janeway avoids what I consider the movie's primary defect, its capitulation to Hollywood family values in Daisy's final lecture to Dan about how leaving his marriage is running away from responsibility.

But the biggest differences between novel and film have to do with the love triangle.  Daisy's two loves are pretty much kept separate in the novel: they represent a choice she has to make, and the novel is more or less about the way that two important love relationships coexist in Daisy's mind, and how her choice is less about renunciation than about where in her psyche these two great loves should hold dominion.  Peter is caught in the machinery of war halfway through the book, and he and Dan meet only once, I believe, at the very beginning of the story.  All the interplay between Dan and Peter in the movie, all the maneuvers for advantage with Daisy, all the "modern combat tactics" which are the most important part of the film for me: these are all creations of the filmmakers.  Indeed, the unusual character of Peter in the movie, though inspired by a few hints in the book, is basically an original creation.

In short, what's striking here is not how well the novel was adapted - in fact, it was trashed, rather contemptuously - but how well Hertz and Preminger were able to improvise a new movie from the wreckage, and how thematically coherent that new movie would turn out.  The movie is more or less a fantasia inspired by a few suggestions in the novel.

This post is already too long, but let me add a note about the objectivity and ambiguity that many critics attribute to Preminger.  These ideas have some basis, but they've been exaggerated by Preminger's admirers to the point where they stand in the way of good Preminger criticism.  Nearly every Preminger movie contains characters (like Lucille's father in DAISY) who are plainly created to be on the wrong side of the audience's sympathies.

I prefer to think about Preminger in terms of things he connects and keeps together, things that classical Griffith-derived decoupage would normally separate for dramatic clarity.  So there is often a tension in Preminger between opposition (which is our natural way to make sense of a drama) and unity (which Preminger forces upon us).  One registers this tension in those tracking shots, which slide smoothly from one forced foreground-background opposition to another across rooms, characters, changes of mood.  And it comes across clearly in moments of small and large upheaval, like Peter's first disconcerting "I love you," filmed without the mandatory reverse shot or the almost-mandatory cut to a closer shot.  Sometimes Preminger will go the opposite route, and create a stylistic shift so great that it makes a separation in the storytelling.  A beautiful example of this is the very Premingerian aftermath of Daisy's car crash, where frantic cross-cutting, close-ups, and loud music all fall away at once, and we're left with silence, the palpable feeling of snowy nature, a slow track in from long shot, and the first stirrings of life among the wreckage.

- Dan