New Greene film rekindles the affair

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The Independent Online
IT MAY BE The End of the Affair for the fictional characters, but a new film version of Graham Greene's novel suggests that the appeal of one of the century's best writers remains strong.

The original 1955 account of the book, with Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson as the lovers embroiled in an illicit relationship, glossed over Greene's central themes of Catholicism and sexuality. Shooting of the new US- British production begins in the next fortnight - the film is scheduled for release at the end of the year - and the makers are confident that these issues are exactly what will appeal to today's audience.

Free from the constraints of the censorship that pervaded Fifties Hollywood, director Neil Jordan and producer Stephen Woolley aim to make a film that retains the essence of Greene's narrative. The pulling power of the eminent novelist has attracted some prominent screen names to its central roles. Ralph Fiennes plays Maurice Bendrix and Julianne Moore his lover, who is unfaithful to her husband, played by Stephen Rea.

The story is set in wartime London where the lingering threat of death adds to the intense eroticism of the affair. When Bendrix is injured in a bombing raid, his mistress promises God she will end their affair if he recovers. Meanwhile, her suspicious husband calls in a private detective.

Jordan, the director of The Crying Game who more recently won critical acclaim for his screen adaptation of The Butcher Boy, says he found the combination of eroticism and guilt in Greene's novel "electrifying". "When I first read it five years ago I thought it was the best novel he had written," he said. "It's the simplest of stories but the dramatic core is very strong and its focus on the irrational is very relevant to contemporary life." What Jordan found particularly fascinating about the book was how closely he felt it mirrored the late novelist's own life. He thought long and hard around the subject to try to pin down the essence of the novel.

Where his film departs from the book, he says, is the moment when the story itself falls apart as Greene's exploration of theology begins totally to overwhelm his characters. "He turns his central character into a saint and departed from that by trying to make the ending more dramatic and concise."

Jordan maintains that it is this tendency in Greene's writing to allow the thematic development of his ideas to overwhelm his characters that has meant that few adaptations of his books have worked on screen.

He said: "The adaptations, including The End of the Affair, have tended to be fairly run-of-the-mill, apart from a few notable exemptions such as The Third Man."

According to Greene's biographer Norman Sherry, the novelist was also unimpressed by most of the films and in particular hated The End of the Affair. "He knew it was going to be no good. Hollywood was frightened of getting to the truth of novels such as The Power and the Glory. I don't think we are like that now; we can tell the truth," he said.

Sherry, who intends to complete the third and final volume of his biography by the end of March, said Greene thought very little of the movies because he wasn't involved with most of them.

"He sold them on to Hollywood knowing he couldn't control how they would turn out. The Third Man was excellent because Greene wrote the script. He also liked Brighton Rock and I think he would have approved of the choice of Ralph Fiennes in this new film."

Conditions in Hollywood were so restrictive during the Forties and Fifties, when many of Greene's novels were transferred to the screen, that, according to Stephen Woolley, "people made films inspired by books rather than adaptations, because the writing was far too explicit".

He added: "Greene was supposed to be a Roman Catholic but The End of the Affair was a book that challenged the existence of God. It was full of fantastic envy and sexual passion, not the sort of thing you could have got away with when cinema was considered to be the food of the masses, as television is today."

Greene's preoccupation with shifting morality and the collapse of belief systems is also what makes his work relevant today, says Ian Christie, professor of film studies at the University of Kent.

"Greene wrote noir novels about people living on the edge of society who moved outside the normal domain of good and bad," he said.

"He was one of the first novelists in Britain to grow up with the cinema and, as a former film critic, he was very clear about what made a good film.

"The sense of not knowing which side anybody was on in The Third Man worked brilliantly on film with the sewers and the wet night streets."

That film was set in the aftermath of the Second World War but, says Professor Christie, Greene's sensitivity to the breakdown of values and the question of how to believe in a secular world is still topical today, following the collapse of the Eastern bloc.