Adapting the Unadaptable: Nathanael West’s Hollywood

I recently read Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust (1939) in a “20th Century American Fiction” class, so I knew I would have to see the 1975 film directed by John Schlesinger (Billy Liar, Darling, Far from the Madding Crowd, Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Marathon Man). After submitting my ten-page research paper on the involvement of mass culture in the novel a few days ago, I watched the film last night.

It is a story of “the people who had come to California to die,” a phrase never mentioned in the movie but which is apparent nonetheless. These citizens drift, devoid of identities, their faces all distorted masks, only brought to frenzied life when a celebrity is nearby. The “day of the locust” is the nadir (or zenith, depending how you look at it) of a culture mired in idol (really movie star) worship, when the all the ravenous civilians tear each other apart at the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Buccaneer.

John Barry’s score is beautiful and occasionally wistful, but Conrad L. Hall’s Oscar-nominated cinematography has a focus so soft that it’s almost blurry. (Douglas Slocombe did similar work the year before on another period piece, The Great Gatsby.) A golden haze is cast over everything, possibly to achieve an ironic tone – a pretty Hollywood glow to contrast with the hideous characters – but maybe actually because that was just the aesthetic quality of photography favored in the 70s.

William Atherton, who is billed below Donald Sutherland, Karen Black and Burgess Meredith, is quite good as the story’s protagonist, Tod Hackett. Atherton is so effective that I wish he had been given more chances to be a handsome young lead instead of always playing jerks and creeps in movies like Ghostbusters, Real Genius and the first two entries in the Die Hard franchise.

The film does not give us a sense of Tod’s imitative tendencies in art. Instead of having “original” ideas, his creative style is supposed to be a combination of Goya, Daumier, DalĂ­ and whoever else inspires him. The movie makes Tod seem more special than he is by showing him as an artist with a unusually grotesque view of Hollywood’s inhabitants. Tod shouldn’t get so much credit. He’s not really supposed to be so likeable.

Karen Black is twenty years too old for the role of Faye Greener, but somehow that adds to the sense of the grotesque (the story’s main idea). Few actresses in the 70s could have gotten under the skin of the role quite like Black did. Faye is, to quote the literary critic Randall Reid, “the full dream goddess” and “the whore of everybody’s dreams,” which I suppose you get more of a sense from in Black’s performance than you might get from an actress who’s only 17 years old. There is something much sadder and more pathetic about a woman a few years away from 40 who is still trying to fulfill her fantasy of being a starlet. As with Atherton’s Tod, Black’s Faye is also too sympathetic. I consider this the fault of screenwriter Waldo Salt. Faye is not supposed to care for Tod like she seems to (if only a little) in the film. In the novel she only toys with him. The movie adds an extra dimension of humanity that Nathanael West did not write.

The ending scene is, as anyone who has read the novel would guess, deeply disturbing. I just wish the film actually ended as the novel does; the last line of the novel makes the scene even more terrifying than it already is. Tod’s prophetic “masterpiece” painting in the novel, called The Burning of Los Angeles, is never explicitly mentioned in the film, but the depictions of the hysterical mob and the allusions to Tod’s artwork (as well as the visual influence of James Ensor’s 1888 painting Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889) contribute to the harrowing nature of the scene. Human nature is horrifying when it goes wrong.

Schlesinger’s film sort of gets at West’s idea of Hollywood glamour as artifice covering up the ugliness underneath, but the very idea of a film adaptation being made of The Day of the Locust prevents such a film from ever completely working. You should read the novel, which is not that long, and be amazed by its assessment of Hollywood. Then you will understand why no film version could ever make sense, though you may be entertained.


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