Thoughts on a Pair of Queens

By Adam Blair

If I had any lingering prejudices that the book version is always and automatically superior to the film made from it, they were exploded when I read the novel The African Queen, by C.S. Forester. Or to be more precise, when I finished reading the book, which has an ending it would be kind to call anticlimactic. After several hundred pages of struggling down the river with Rose and Charlie, almost being able to feel the bugs swarming around them and the sun mercilessly hammering down, Forester lets the plot dribble away like the leaky tire on an old Schwinn bicycle.

Read no further if you've never had the distinct pleasure of seeing the famous film version of The African Queen, (directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn), because I'll be discussing the differences between novel and film in some detail. In fact, go rent the movie right now. Go ahead! I'll wait. You'll thank me for it.

In a way, it was nice to be disappointed by the novel and its flattened ending. It didn't sour me on the film; I doubt anything but a lobotomy could. If I'm channel-surfing and happen upon The African Queen, I'll often watch it till the end even though I've seen it enough times to recite much of its pungent dialogue along with Bogie and Kate. It's one of those films that catches you, over and over. All real film fans have a few.

Reading the novel also made me admire the filmmakers all the more, particularly the screenwriting by James Agee and director Huston. In almost all cases, what the screenplay adds or invents are what make the film a richer, more entertaining, more romantic and -- dare I say it -- more artistic experience.

Let's start with the ending that bothered me so. The film, set during the early days of World War I in Central Africa, ends with the missionary's sister, Rose (Hepburn) and gin-soaked grease monkey Charlie Allnutt (Bogart) finally making it down to the lake to torpedo the German ship, the Louisa. After all they've been through (rapids, insects, leeches, malaria, mudbanks, premarital sex) the Queen capsizes on its final mission and the lovers are separated. Both are brought onto the hated Germans' ship and convicted of spying. They are about to be hung in a double ceremony when Allnutt gallantly asks the ship's captain to marry them (Hepburn's look of dawning joy at his gesture is worth the price of the rental). The delay saves the pair: As the noose is about to be tightened, the Louisa is sunk by the torpedoes Allnutt has essentially invented out of spare parts. Yes, the Louisa just happens to bump into the wreckage of the supposedly sunk African Queen, setting off the explosion that rescues our heroes.

O.K., this has always been more than a little hard to swallow, believability-wise. The Queen -- itself just a thirty-foot launch -- sank, right? And they're on a big lake, 40 miles long? It's a bright, sunny day, and presumably there are people keeping watch, right? So how in God's green earth does a big boat just happen to bump into the live end of a pair of torpedoes that should be fish food anyway?

Huston wisely doesn't give you much time to ponder any of this; the film ends a mere two minutes later, with Kate and Bogie swimming away into happily-ever-afterhood. As illogical as the ending is, it's dramatically satisfying; we've invested so much in these characters and their crazy mission that we want them to succeed, even to the point of ignoring, or just grinning at, the king-sized deus ex machina that ends the film literally with a bang.

Forester's novel is much more "realistic" and altogether less romantic. Strangely enough, it's better than the film in explaining just how Charlie and Rose are actually able to get down the un-navigable river. (Huston mostly just lets the scenery do the talking; he's far more interested in the relationship between the characters than in exactly how Allnutt fixes the broken propeller blade or how Rose magically learns how to steer down the rapids). Forester, who would go on to write the Horatio Hornblower series of naval novels, explains precisely what's at stake in each stage of these pilgrims' progress through the alien water. His knowledge of boating and shipcraft are evident, and far exceed his ear for dialogue.

In Forester, Rose and Charlie do try to torpedo the Louisa and are separated when the Queen sinks. Allnutt is tried for spying and is about to be convicted when Rose is brought on board. As in the film, she brags about their bringing the Queen down the river. What follows? I quote:

The captain had heard about the stoicism and ability of Englishwomen; here was a clear proof.

Anyway, there could be no question now of espionage and the death penalty. He could not hang one person without the other, and he never thought for a moment of hanging Rose. He would not have done so even if he thought her guilty; white women were so rare in Central Africa that he would have thought it monstrous. Beyond all else, she had brought a steam launch from the Upper Ulanga to the lake, and that was a feat for which he could feel professional admiration.

The captain's casual racism isn't even commented on, and probably wouldn't have been noticed by the reading public at the time. He hands Rose and Charlie over to a British Navy lieutenant commander who just happens to be a) nearby, and b) to have brought overland a surprise weapon; two light, fast boats that he uses to shell and sink the Louisa! So the foolhardy suicide mission of Rose and Charlie is matter-of-factly completed by the professionals. As Rose and Charlie prepare to rejoin civilization, she is the one who suggest -- demands, actually -- that they get married. I quote again, from the final three paragraphs of the book:

[Allnutt] thought of Rose's moderate superiority in social status. He thought about money; presumably he would receive pay in the South African army. He thought about the girl he had married twelve years ago when he was eighteen. She had probably been through half a dozen men's hands by now, but there had never been a divorce and presumably he was still married to her. Oh well, South Africa and England were a long way apart, and she couldn't trouble him much.

"Righto, Rosie," he said, "let's."

So they left the lakes and began the long journey to Matadi and marriage. Whether or not they lived happily every after is not easily decided.

Gets you right here, doesn't it? One gets the sinking suspicion that Forester doesn't really like these characters all that much. He understands them; pities their ignorance (Allnutt's) and monomania (Rose's); but he's just not that crazy about them.

Forester is also beating a set of very patriotic drums in the book, written in 1935, when Germany was a much more potent threat to England than when the film was made (1951). He refers so many times to Rose's motivation being her wish to strike a blow for England against the nasty Huns that I started to think he was being satirical about it (I'm still not sure). So his message could be along the lines of "patriotism is all well and good, kids, but don't try this at home! Leave blowing up the enemy to the professionals."

The ending is just the biggest example of how the film adds humor and heart where the book lacks it. Another example: Rose's missionary brother Samuel dies in the book's first few pages, with barely a few words of dialogue. In contrast, droll, rotund Robert Morley lives at least 10 minutes into the film and makes a strong impression. His weakness, hypocrisy but essential goodness are all deftly shown, and his feverish babblings about Rose's homeliness -- which she hears, to her dismay -- add to the complexity of her character.

Rose's character in the book is a mousy, pious little thing who finds unexpected strength in actually doing something brave. Soulful and innocent, but with a hint of steel. If one were casting the film based on the book, Katharine Hepburn would be low on the list of potential candidates. At the time one might have considered Greer Garson, Irene Dunne or Deborah Kerr (who played a similarly devout role as a nun for director Huston a few years later in the Queen-esque Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison opposite Robert Mitchum-another good flick for a Saturday afternoon).

Katharine Hepburn -- wonderful as she is (it's hard to even imagine anyone else playing Rose) -- is actually sort of miscast. She could never really be mistaken for someone plain, homely and mousy, though she was frequently cast that way in the odd sexual politics of the 1950s (in Summertime and The Rainmaker). But her Rose, abetted by Huston's direction, is also far more interesting than Forester's; she has a sense of humor, for one thing, and knows exactly what she's doing as she pours out Allnutt's gin and forces him to go down the river.

Bogart is homely enough for the both of them. Changed from a Cockney to a Canadian in the film, presumably to spare us Bogie attempting an accent, he is also invested with a crucial dose of rueful humor and the tiniest bit of self-knowledge that his page-bound character lacks. Of course, he was the star (it was his Oscar-winning role) and a friend of Huston's (they had worked together several times before, notably on The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre), so it's understandable that the part would be accommodated to Bogart, not vice versa. But what's so strange is that that's not such a bad thing.

It's a commonplace to bemoan how today's films are twisted out of shape to accommodate the needs/whims of their stars (i.e. Bruce Willis in action-hero mode has his own writers to supply him with funny quips as he mows down the bad guys, Tom Cruise can't really be a murderer in Minority Report, etc.) but stars are different from you and me. Our perceptions of them have to be taken into account for a film to be successful on some level. Bogart could probably have played Allnutt's timidity and passivity from the book -- he was a better actor than most people give him credit for, even today -- but it wouldn't have fit the moviegoer's feeling for him as a hero, however reluctant. When he did play a coward, a few years later in The Caine Mutiny, it worked because we didn't really believe he was such a neurotic little wuss until it was too late.

Casting does make a big difference, bigger than most people realize. My boyfriend the director says casting is at least half, if not more, of his job. Often miscasting is less about bad actors being cast than inappropriate actors -- or those with too limited a range -- being asked to play a part.

Particularly in film, actors can be cast because they're a "name;" because they've played similar parts before; because they're producing the thing; or for any number of odd reasons. But plays can be miscast as well; I thought about this while watching the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Twentieth Century, with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche playing the roles emblematized by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in the 1934 film of the same name. Baldwin and Barrymore played unscrupulous theatrical producer Oscar Jaffe, and the story is about his ever-more-frantic attempts to woo back his errant former star and mistress Lily Garland (Heche/Lombard).

It's not that either Baldwin or Heche are bad, exactly; they played the parts as written and directed. It's just that Oscar and Lily are supposed to dominate the story, not be soaked up in it. Both Baldwin and Heche have had their moments of fabulousness, both in the movies and in the limelight, but they haven't been able to translate that into the bigger-than-life hysterics and theatricality of these two phony-baloney hams.

They aren't helped by Ken Ludwig, who adapted the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play. Ludwig, author of Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, knows the mechanics of farce but can't exactly carry the tune. Heche and Baldwin woo, feint and fight (she memorably jumps on his back as he spins around, leaving him red-faced and me worried about his cardiac condition). Granted, this was an early preview of the show; perhaps they will bring some of their starlight into the theater as they grow more comfortable. And it's unfair to compare them to Barrymore and Lombard, who created such a dazzling impression under Howard Hawks' expert direction. But it also shows that you can't assume a play is going to be better than its movie version. It all depends on the people.

 

 

 

 

 

As illogical as the ending is, it's dramatically satisfying; we've invested so much in these characters and their crazy mission that we want them to succeed, even to
the point of ignoring, or just grinning at, the king-sized deus ex machina that ends the film literally with a bang.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One gets the sinking suspicion that Forester doesn't really like these characters
all that much. He understands them; pities their ignorance (Allnutt's) and monomania (Rose's); but he's just not that crazy about them.

Film | Theater | Books  | Home Entertainment | Feature Article | Contact
Grin without a Cat (adamblairviews.com) is wholly owned by Adam Blair
All content Copyright 2004 Adam Blair. All Rights Reserved.
Site Design: C2K Multimedia