Thursday, February 23, 2017

1934: It Happened One Night

Screenplay by Robert Riskin
Adapted from the short story "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams

An heiress runs away from Florida toward the aviator she's in love with (of whom her father disapproves) in New York. She meets a man on the bus whom she initially despises, and who doesn't think much better of her, but through their adventures and misadventures they ultimately fall for each other.

I'm not sure why Robert Riskin, or whoever was in charge of this decision, felt the need to change the title from "Night Bus" to It Happened One Night, especially since it actually happens over the course of several nights, but that's only one of several random details changed in this adaptation. The heiress Elspeth Andrews for some reason became Ellen Andrews. Mr. Shapley, who recognized her on the bus, changed his first name from Horace to Oscar. But the man she falls in love with is Peter Warne in both versions. Instead of living on potatoes, the film gives them carrots instead. None of these changes really makes a big difference in the grand scheme of the story; I'm just confused about why the filmmakers thought they were necessary.

There were other changes, however, that I totally understand. The stakes are much higher for both the main characters in the movie than in the short story, in several ways. In the original story, Peter is an unemployed jack-of-all-trades looking for a job. He doesn't know who Elspeth is until she tells him, and then he isn't all that interested. He just helps her out because he feels bad for her. Movie Peter, however, is a recently-fired reporter who knows exactly who Ellen is, and wants to stick with her all the way to New York so he can have an exclusive story to shove in his former boss's face. Elspeth is intending to elope with King, the flyer, whereas Ellen has already married him, but was whisked away by her father before the marriage was consummated. This adds an additional complication at the end because Peter and Ellen have to wait for her marriage to be annulled, which isn't an issue in "Night Bus." In the short story, they always have a little money left, and Peter even has an extra $10 socked away, but in the movie they run out of cash entirely, which leads to more problems. Hollywood has always loved drama, and higher stakes lead to greater drama, thus these changes make sense. Sometimes movies go over-the-top with the drama, but I don't think that applies in this case, and I kind of like the added tension here.

The difference between adapting a novel into a feature film and adapting a short story into a feature film is in the former, cuts almost always have to be made, whereas in the latter, additions almost always need to be made. So I wasn't surprised to find several conversations and scenes added for the movie. What did surprise me was that some of the film's best moments were not actually in "Night Bus" at all, including the iconic hitchhiking scene. Granted, they do hitchhike in the short story, and the outcome is essentially the same, but the process is glossed over. In It Happened One Night, Peter tries to show off his hitchhiking skills, but no one stops until Ellen steps up to the side of the road and shows off her leg, proving that, as she puts it, "the limb is mightier than the thumb."

The hitchhiking example is consistent with most of the other additions in that it makes her a lot sassier, and him a lot cockier, than they were in the short story. Far from turning Peter and Elspeth/Ellen into caricatures, which could easily have happened, these changes actually do a great job of adding dimension to the characters and making them seem more realistic. The premise and the plot of "Night Bus" are intriguing, but I couldn't quite see the characters as actual people. It Happened One Night brings them to life with Oscar-winning performances by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and plenty of additional dialogue that there just wasn't room for in the short story. Although "short" is a relative term, as the story is about 60 pages long. Anyway, my point is, the movie fleshed out the characters and story to make them more dramatic, entertaining, and believable, which I think is exactly what an adapted screenplay should do. Maybe I'm biased because I've seen the movie so many times, but apart from the unnecessary name changes I thought the story was adapted very well.

The following year's winner was The Informer, based on the novel by Liam O'Flaherty. Apparently screenwriter Dudley Nichols initially declined the Oscar, but then accepted it a few years later, for some reason. For the purposes of this blog, I don't care whether Oscars are accepted; as long as they're awarded, I'm counting them. So that will be coming up next.

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