Stephen Holden’s review in last Thursday’s New York Times of Rowan Joffe’s new adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 thriller, Brighton Rock, emphasized the way in which the film distances itself from the book’s theological preoccupations. Brighton Rock is the story of a small-time teenage hood named Pinkie, whose “perfect murder” has a loose thread that slowly but ineluctably unravels the whole plan, jeopardizing Pinkie’s dreams of leading the best gang in Brighton. It also jeopardizes his soul, so Pinkie reckons. Pinkie’s Catholic upbringing, though long formally discarded, still provides the dominant voice inside his conscience, which torments him as he is forced to take ever riskier and more ruthless measures to protect himself from his pursuers.
“By discarding most of the theological debate,” writes Holden of Rowan Joffe’s adaptation, “the movie is no longer a passion play but a gritty and despairing noir. That’s good enough for me.”
But not good enough for Greene himself, who had much higher aspirations for his storytelling. Besides being a brilliant novelist, Greene was also one of the most perceptive film reviewers and critics of film of the 20th century. In his 1937 essay, “Subjects and Stories,” written at more or less the same time as Brighton Rock, Greene considers the tremendous cultural power of the cinema, a power he believed had been largely untapped by mainstream films. He affirms his ideal for the cinema, and of storytelling in general, in the opening lines of the essay, starting with some lines from Chekhov about novelists:
‘The best of them are realistic and paint life as it is, but because every line is permeated, as with a juice, by awareness of a purpose, you feel, besides life as it is, also life as it ought to be, and this captivates you.’ This description of an artist’s theme [continues Greene] has never, I think, been bettered…
To portray life as it is…but also life as it ought to be. This, for Greene, is the storyteller’s task. In Brighton Rock, Greene saw fit to set his teenage hood against a supernatural backdrop, and so to accord Pinkie the respect of allowing him to wrestle like a man with the angel’s voice inside his conscience. According to Stephen Holden, Rowan Joffe’s film does not accord Pinkie such respect—or at least not so well as Greene’s novel does. Writes Holden: “If you strip away the book’s Roman Catholicism, which the movie mostly does, its story fits right into the nihilistic mood of today.”
Having yet to see the movie, I cannot judge how far Rowan Joffe’s film ventures into nihilism. But I am leery that, in soft-pedaling Greene’s concerns in his novel with life as it ought to be, this new adaptation of Brighton Rock only underscores life as it is in a postmodern world which has been, for many, drained of all meaning.