The Big Sleep Movie and Novel On first inspection of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, the reader discovers that the story unravels quickly through the narrative voice of Philip Marlowe, the detective hired by the Sternwood family of Los Angeles to solve a mystery for them. The mystery concerns the General Sternwood’s young daughter, and a one Mr. A. G. Geiger.
Upon digging for the answer to this puzzle placed before Marlowe for a mere fee of $25 dollars a day plus expenses, Marlowe soon finds layers upon layers of mystifying events tangled in the already mysterious web of lies and deception concerning the Sternwood family, especially the two young daughters. When reading the novel, it is hard to imagine the story without a narrator at all. It certainly seems essential for the story’s make-up to have this witty, sarcastic voice present to describe the sequence of events.
Yet, there is a version of Chandler’s novel that does not have an audible storyteller, and that version is the 1946 movie directed by Howard Hawks. Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep is known to be one of the best examples of the film genre-film noir. “Film noir (literally ‘black film,’ from French critics who noticed how dark and black the looks and themes were of these films) is a style of American films which evolved in the 1940s. ” (The Internet Movie Database LTD).
Film noir typically contains melancholy, and not so moral themes. Another characteristic of film noir is just because the main character has the title hero, that does not mean that he will always be alive at the end of the book, or that the hero is always “good. ” Marlowe in The Big Sleep is a prime example of this concept. In the novel it is questionable how lawfully moral he actually is, concerning the situation of turning Carmen into the police for killing Sean Regan.
This aspect of Marlowe’s character added yet another difficult task of formatting The Big Sleep to the big screen-the question of how the audience (media) might react to such a personality trait was now placed before the writing staff (IE production codes). Hawks had a big job ahead of him trying to make a movie out of Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel. So, Hawks hired the Nobel laureate-winning writer William Faulkner to head up the writing staff. Accompanying Faulkner with his difficult task of adapting the novel to the cinema version were Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman.
Together, these three put together an incredible film version of The Big Sleep. One of the main differences of the movie (beside all of the production code regulations and limitations) was the missing voice of Marlowe narrating. In the film version viewers must see the sequence of plot while in the book the narrator guides the reader from action to action. This is one of the essential characteristics of Chandler’s, the one liners that Marlowe thinks, or the descriptions of different people Marlowe meets through his line of work.
Some of the main reasons that I enjoyed the novel The Big Sleep were the sarcastic remarks, the witty comebacks and the hilarious character descriptions. I think my favorite character description was General Sternwood’s; “A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock” (Chandler, 8). Another favorite of mine is: “If you can weigh one hundred and ninety pounds and look like a fairy, I was doing my best” (Chandler, 51). For those reasons alone I was excited to view the movie, to see how the elements that I enjoyed so much were adapted to the big screen.
When I began to watch the movie I was disappointed in the lack of these elements. I missed the narrator. I wanted to hear the shrewd analysis of the way General Sternwood looked, or the way that Marlowe felt about Carmen Sternwood. Instead I had to interpret these things on my own for instance, by studying Marlowe’s reaction to Carmen. Sure, The Big Sleep’s journey from novel to movie forced the essence of the novel to change, but it didn’t make the movie bad, just different. The writers had to come up with their own way to portray Marlowe and his reactions to his casework.
Because I read the novel, it was obvious to me that Faulkner had to rewrite a lot of scenes to make up for the lack of a narrator’s presence. For instance, in the scene when Harry Jones dies, Marlowe has to speak of his admiration for the character, instead of thinking it as he did in the book. The writers had to write it this way; a soliloquy on camera by Marlowe for the audience cannot read his mind. Marlowe had to express his respect for Harry because Jones did a commendable deed by saving Agnes-his girlfriend from Canino, Eddie Mars’ most dangerous hit man. Marlowe couldn’t let the dead Harry go without tribute to his decent nature.
In the book, Marlowe thought about how good Harry was for leading Canino astray from Agnes. It is kind of strange when in the movie, Marlowe sat next to a dead man, and told him how admirable he was. After reading the novel and getting to know Marlowe almost personally (through the many papers that I have thus far written on The Big Sleep) it seemed out of Marlowe’s nature to do something like that. This necessary change in the action, Marlowe’s verbal commendation of Jones, made the movie Marlowe’s character inherently different from the original Phillip Marlowe.
An additional thing that was hard to get used to about the movie was how closely the viewer had to pay attention to what was said about the different characters. In the novel, there are several times when Marlowe thinks about how much help Carmen needs. In the movie, there is only once that Carmen’s mental stability is questioned, and that is in the beginning when General Sternwood is describing his daughter to Marlowe. In the novel, if the reader missed that part in the book, it doesn’t take long for the reader to find another passage about Carmen and how nuts she is.
Another example of the glaring absence of the narrator is the scene between Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) when they first meet. In the novel, we find out instantly that Marlowe enjoys her legs from where he stands. “She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-lounge with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings” (Chandler, 17). In the movie, Faulker had to play with the script and write the lines so that Bogart could deliver the lines flirtatiously, so that the audience would know that Marlowe found Vivian appealing. The audience would never get the idea that Marlowe found Vivian ttractive if, in the movie, he just walked in and looked at her legs. Later the attraction is played out between Marlowe and Vivian (which is, by the way, much different from the novel version of the story). It’s hard to follow Marlowe’s actions in the movie, because we do not know his train of thought. In the novel, we always know something about where Marlowe is going if not the exact place because we know his sequence of thought. For instance, when Marlowe is trying to figure out what role Geiger, owner of a rare book store, has in the blackmail business of Carmen, the novel lets the reader know what Marlowe is going to do.
It states almost bluntly that Marlowe is going to try to find out what else there is to Geiger’s rare bookstore. In the movie, the audience is only allowed to follow to hero, after he has put two and two together. With the story line of Geiger’s bookstore, the movie cuts to Marlowe in the library looking up rare books, which is confusing to the viewer who hasn’t read the book. The audience has to hope that Marlowe knows what he is doing. In the novel, the reader is allowed to be a part of the thinking process, the reader isn’t just dragged along to where the protagonist wants to go.
The reader knows where Marlowe is going to go, and knows what triggered him to go to that place, so the faith in the hero is more in the written version of this story, than the visual version. The narrator is missed in the big screen version of The Big Sleep. The plot of the movie is much more difficult to understand without the narrator. Somehow, even with the production code intact, I think that if a narrator had been used, the movie would have been even better than it was. The movie does not even incorporate the idea of “the big sleep. At the end of the novel, Marlowe has another internalized soliloquy where he contemplates the meaning of life. “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that” (Chandler, 230). The title of the movie makes no sense without that little bit in it about death. Sure, the writers had a very hard task in front of them. Not many people I know can easily write as Chandler did, and the writers had to adapt it to a film version!
I think that for the time the movie was produced, 1946, that it was tremendous still without the narrator. Chandler had many things in his novel that could not be discussed on film (i. e. homosexuality, pornography, etc). The writers did well, but the narrator is missed most definitely. Works Cited “Big Sleep, The. ” The Internet Movie Database Ltd. Online. Internet. 10 Apr. 1999. “Big Sleep, The. ” Greatest Films. (1996). Online. Internet. 10 Apr. 1999. Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.