No end to the affair: The torrid liaison between Graham Greene's fiction and the cinema

A new film of Brighton Rock brings the great British novelist back to the movies. Boyd Tonkin reports on the latest chapter

Aged six, in 1910, Graham Greene first fell in love with film. It happened in Brighton, of course: "No city before the war, not London, Paris or Oxford, had such a hold on my affections." During a childhood trip to the seaside to convalesce after a bout of jaundice, the headmaster's son from Berkhamsted watched a silent version of Anthony Hope's novel Sophy of Kravonia. The flickering images of Hope's fanciful Balkan romance were accompanied "by one old lady on a piano, but the tock-tock-tock of the untuned wires stayed in my memory when other melodies faded". In 1938, the murkily seductive resort would form the unforgettable backdrop to the novel that proved once and for all his affinity not with schmaltz but with shadows. For Greene, "Brighton Rock was a very poor substitute for Kravonia, like all my books, and yet perhaps it is one of the best I ever wrote."

Nine years after its publication, Greene's eighth novel gave rise to one of the most powerful films ever spun off from his fiction across 75 years of frequent adaptations. Given the mesmerising menace of Richard Attenborough as the faith-tormented teenage gangster Pinkie, the Boulting Brothers' Brighton Rock will prove the hardest of acts to follow. Next week, Rowan Joffe's new version opens. Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough and Helen Mirren inherit the roles first taken by Attenborough, Carol Marsh and Hermione Baddeley. Perhaps to sidestep direct comparisons, Joffe has updated the action to the "youthquake" year of 1964.

No giant of modern fiction has ever had such a long and – mostly - fruitful liaison with the cinema as Graham Greene. Even within his lifetime (1904-1991), he collaborated on or simply authorised more than half a century's worth of movies: from the moment in 1934 that his "entertainment" Stamboul Train became Orient Express – as he had, rather cynically, hoped - to the poignant swansong that, in 1985, Dr Fischer of Geneva gave to James Mason in his final role.

Yet Greene's relationship with film was never plain or simple. In keeping with the mixed motives, treacherous masks and ethical ambiguities that brand all his fiction, he and the movies had a passionate love-hate entanglement. Feelings of scorn, rage and betrayal proved rather more common than spells of blissful harmony. As a reviewer, he wrote perhaps the most notorious notice in the history of film criticism: more of that later. As a screenwriter, he generated a work that, for many cinéastes, endures not just as the greatest British film but one of the greatest ever: The Third Man. Greene and the movies could not live without each other. And, as Joffe's imminent revision shows, there are no signs yet of an end to the affair.

Critics love to hunt down the supposedly "cinematic" traits in Greene's fiction. Multiple and mobile points of view, rapid shifts between foreground and background, the sense of place as a dynamic character, a moral chiaroscuro that sends the heroes lurching between light and dark: it's not hard to make Greene and the screen look like a perfect match. In his preface to the tie-in edition of Brighton Rock (Vintage Classics, £7.99), JM Coetzee detects in Greene's prose from the start "a preference for observation from the outside without commentary, tight cutting from scene to scene, equal emphasis for the significant and non-significant".

Yet this orthodox account needs a couple of provisos. Greene sharpened his art of slanted and skewed narration thanks to a pair of mighty mentors, Henry James and Joseph Conrad: both famously elusive and hard to film. Moreover, Greene is the dark angel of ambivalence.

Not only in his explictly "Catholic" novels (he regarded Brighton Rock as the first) but in all his books, contradiction and duplicity whip character and action along. His own artistic credo came from Robert Browning's poem "Bishop Blougram's Apology", with its doubting cleric: "Our interest's in the dangerous edge of things,/ The honest thief, the tender murderer,/ The superstitious atheist". Mainstream movies generally opt for clear lines, bold strokes and self-evident vices or virtues. To fit Greene's divided and paradoxical people and plots into such a frame takes more than usual vision and attention. Not surprisingly, the pinnacle of his screen career coincided with the brief heyday of film noir in commercial cinema.

A student at Oxford in the early 1920s, a sub-editor on the Nottingham Journal and The Times, a penurious young writer in debt to his publisher: Greene absorbed the avant-garde enthusiasms in film that you might expect from a bright youngster of his age. He served as film critic of Oxford Outlook magazine and devoured the progressive movie journal Close Up, with its manifestos for Soviet-style montage. Then, in 1935, the lure of a weekly gig sent him to the industry coalface. Until 1940, as film critic of The Spectator and contributor to the short-lived, high-toned journal Night and Day (a British clone of the New Yorker), he reviewed more than 400 films. "Four and a half years of watching films several times a week", he recalls in in his second memoir, Ways of Escape: it was "a way of life which I adopted quite voluntarily from a sense of fun". In flight from stalled novels, he opened the "gilded cards of invitation" to press previews "with a sense of curiosity and anticipation".

Meanwhile, the world changed. Greene wrote about Henry Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln on the morning of 3 September 1939, as war was declared and the first air-raid warnings sounded near his Hampstead flat. His tastes changed, too – to the future benefit both of his own fiction, and the movies made from it. He scorned the flaccid "respectable" biopics of the era and came to admire Hollywood craft, wit and pace: "the Westerns, the crime films, the farces, the frankly commercial". Sometimes, his judgement ran against the critical grain. He despised the superficial trickery of Alfred Hitchcock, and was left umoved by Greta Garbo. On the other hand, he was glad to have given "a warm welcome to a new star": Ingrid Bergman.

In 1938 came the debacle that marked the lowest point of his lifelong screen affair. In Night and Day, he had reviewed Shirley Temple – then aged nine – in Wee Willie Winkie. His scandalous verdict gives a flavour of the edge and mischief he brought to the critic's task: "The owners of a child star are like leaseholders - their property diminishes in value every year... Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance... Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy... Her admirers - middle-aged men and clergymen - respond to her dubious coquetry... only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."

Shirley Temple's lawyers and Twentieth-Century Fox sued Greene and Night and Day for libel. They argued that he had accused them of "procuring" her for "immoral purposes". The case was heard before the Lord Chief Justice on 22 March 1938. Greene had prudently decamped to Mexico to work on his travel book The Lawless Roads (a trip that also planted the seeds of The Power and the Glory).

Back in London, the law won. To restore the small star's reputation, the court awarded her £2,000 and £1,500 to the producers. Night and Day went bust, and "ever since that time I have been traceable on the files of Scotland Yard". Held in trust until she was 21, Temple's damages were donated to a London youth centre. An odd coda to the uproar followed. Wee Willie Winkie was directed by John Ford. In 1947, Henry Fonda starred in a first film of The Power and the Glory, renamed The Fugitive. The director? John Ford.

By the late 1930s, Greene had begun to operate as a movie insider as well as observer. His reviews had slated the epics of producer Alexander Korda. In a gesture typical of Greeneland, the generous, quixotic Korda ("there was never a man who bore less malice") hired his enemy, who became a loyal friend. Greene co-wrote scripts for humdrum pieces such as The Green Cockatoo. However frustrating, the experience helped to hone his skills.

After improbable wartime escapades as an amateurish spy for MI6 in Sierra Leone (the root of The Heart of the Matter), Greene returned to the cinema. For his friend, the Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti, he wrote that haunting fable of Nazis in disguise thwarted by resistance in a Chiltern village, Went The Day Well? Then, in 1944, with the Second World War approaching its climax, and with "no confidence in my future as a novelist", he welcomed "an almost slave contract with MGM". It led to unmade treatments such as his tale of double lives and war crimes, The Tenth Man. That surfaced from the MGM archives only in 1985. Crucially, this anxious period also laid the foundation for the two masterpieces that Greene wrote in the late 1940s for director Carol Reed: The Fallen Idol and The Third Man.

Korda had introduced Reed and Greene. In The Fallen Idol – a version of Greene's story "The Basement Room" – the child's-eye perspective on adult intrigue showed how the angles and twists of Greene's oblique narratives could flourish in the hands of a sympathetic director. If The Third Man took this synergy to an unrepeatable peak, their collaboration had its fair share of pitfalls. "Like many love affairs," Greene remembered, The Third Man "started at a dinner table and continued with headaches in many places". "Never intended for publication" (although it later became a novella), the film emerged as nothing like the tale of four-power rivalry in war-ravaged Vienna that Korda had planned.

When David Selznick came in as a co-producer, he wanted to re-name the project "Night in Vienna" and was aghast at the plot. "It won't do, boys," he scolded Greene and Reed. "It's sheer buggery." "Buggery?" "It's what you learn in your English schools." Far from California, the twilit deals of a divided and pauperised Vienna fired Greene's imagination: the penicillin racket (a "grim truth"), the subterranean warren of the sewers that passed from one occupied zone to another, the nightclubs full of seedy chancers. All went into the making of Greene's masterpiece – although it was Reed who found zither player Anton Karas, while (as every movie buff knows) Orson Welles added the cuckoo-clock speech.

A decade later, in 1959, the Greene-Reed partnership returned with the film of Our Man in Havana. It starred a memorable Alec Guinness as the floundering vacuum-cleaner salesman-turned-spy in Cuba under the Batista regime. On location in Havana just after a revolution that he warmly supported, Greene arranged a meeting with Castro, was stood up, and went drinking with Hemingway instead. Later, he became firm friends with Fidel.

After the 1950s, Greene's relationship with the films of his books cooled into a hands-off curiosity. Fine, fair and poor, adaptations passed through the studios at regular intervals, always able to command the best-regarded of actors, writers and directors even when the result betrayed Greene's psychodrama into melodrama. During his lifetime, later highlights included a tortured Trevor Howard in George More O'Ferrall's The Heart of the Matter and an exuberant Maggie Smith in George Cukor's Travels with My Aunt. After his death, re-makes of The End of the Affair (by Neil Jordan) and The Quiet American (by Philip Noyce) managed in many eyes to outshine the original films. Might Joffe achieve the same with Brighton Rock? It seems a tall order. Yet Greeneland never loses its allure for the boldest spirits in the cinema. Out of those shadows, visual and moral, some delicious shock may always loom – like the moon face of Orson Welles's Harry Lime, back from the dead to claim an eerie immortality.

'Brighton Rock' goes on general release on 4 February

Greene on film: The 10 best adaptations

Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti 1942)

Greene's unsettling story pioneered the "Nazis have landed" genre. But it moves far beyond propaganda in its opaque atmosphere of betrayal and resistance in a quiet English village.

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang 1944)

Equally ambiguous, the film of Greene's wartime mystery sees Ray Milland hurled from an asylum into the pervasive madness of a besieged city shadowed by surveillance and treachery.

Brighton Rock (John Boulting 1947)

Seaside sleaze and religious anguish had fused to create Greene's first fictional masterpiece. On film, the riveting presence of a young, feral Richard Attenborough did it stylish and savage justice.

The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed 1948)

First fruit of a movie marriage made in a dark heaven, this drama of childhood fantasy and adult secrecy gives Ralph Richardson a landmark role as a butler who befriends a lonely boy.

The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949)

Sheer perfection for innumerable movie buffs: the exemplary Vienna-set film noir let all its principals shine amid the postwar murk, from Greene and Reed to an iconic Orson Welles.

The Heart of the Matter (George More O'Ferrall 1953)

A confused man in Africa, Trevor Howard's police officer wrestles with passion and faith. With mistress Maria Schell, he embodies Greene's trademark tangle of sex and sin.

Our Man in Havana (Carol Reed 1959)

Originally written for Cavalcanti, Greene's Cuban espionage farce fitted Alec Guinness (above) like a glove. Remarkably, the spy caper was shot in mid-revolution Havana.

Travels with My Aunt (George Cukor 1972)

Greene's most light-hearted novel gave a showcase to Maggie Smith at her most flamboyant. OTT for hard-core Greene-niks, the movie pays due homage to his sillier side.

The End of the Affair (Neil Jordan 1999)

Jordan's remake outpaces the 1955 version with its brooding grasp of wartime passions and the leaps of faith. Ralph Fiennes, Stephen Rea and Julianne Moore agonise under the bombs to compelling effect.

The Quiet American (Philip Noyce 2002)

Greene's Saigon-set imbroglio of love, politics and war returned to the screen in style thanks to the edgy double-act of "innocent" agent Brendan Fraser and world-weary correspondent Michael Caine.

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