MINISTRY OF FEAR, which I analyzed earlier this week, is Graham Greene’s only novel of World War II. While it has the trappings of a spy thriller—protagonist Arthur Rowe wins a cake at a church fete, unaware it contains plans the Nazis will kill him for—the execution is anything but. The McGuffin fades in importance as the story goes on, the defeat of the spies is almost inconsequential—what really matters for Greene is the internal agony of his protagonist, a man who poisoned his terminally ill wife to put her out of her misery and feels the shadow over him every second. Rowe broods, shudders, ponders the absurdity of one meaningless death in a world of war and tries to rise out of his personal hell … but fails (I won’t give away the details of the ending.
Fritz Lang then adapted the novel into MINISTRY OF FEAR (1944) in which Ray Milland tries to figure out how winning a cake at a fair can make him a target for phony blind men, murder frame-ups (“You can’t have a second one on your record.”), explosive booby traps and Nazi spies. Here the focus shifts from Rowe’s personal torment to the noir nightmare of the story, as Milland realizes he’s been framed for murder and nobody’s going to believe otherwise (a plot element that crops up in many noir films). By contrast with the original’s somber end, this is unreservedly happy—and it works; I don’t think there’s any way Lang and the screenwriter could have translated Rowe’s internal torment to the screen and made that the center (I’m not sure it would have worked if they had). I’m not sure I learned anything really deep about books vs. movies from comparing the two, but it was interesting. “Murder? You’re much better at that than I am.”