The Screenplay Side: Lesser-Known Works of Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

You know an author has reached a certain level of prestige when their last name takes on a kind of literary shorthand. You could describe a novel or story as being ornate with impeccably constructed writing that touches on abstraction, or you could simply call it “Joycean” and move on. So, too, can you talk about the literary aesthetic of the late Harold Pinter — which trafficked in ambiguity, mystery, stylized characters, and the threat of violence — and distill that down to the phrase “Pinteresque.”

Pinter’s plays often deal with unspoken trauma, complex emotional relationships, and bonds that can fray at a moment’s notice — all part of a narrative style that, one could argue, has been influential on a host of artistic disciplines over the last few decades. (There have been plenty of terse, tense, minimalist novels that reflect aspects of the Pinteresque style cropping up in recent years.) And Pinter’s work for the stage has had a few high-profile revivals in the last decade, including Broadway productions of The Homecoming in 2007, Betrayal in 2013, and Old Times in 2015. In his review of The Homecoming production for The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that “Mr. Pinter’s particular brilliance is in sliding imperceptibly from the ordinary surface to the primal darkness of what lies beneath.”

Yet one of the most interesting aspects of Pinter’s career is the nature of his work for the screen. He adapted a number of his plays for film, including Betrayal, The Birthday Party, and The Caretaker. But the list of the works of others that he also adapted could function as the syllabus for a 20th-century fiction course. Across the three volumes of his Collected Screenplays, readers will encounter his adaptations of the likes of Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater, Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, L. P. Hartley’s The GoBetween, and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenants Woman.

These are, to put it bluntly, not a group of books with which one might find a lot of common thematic elements. One is a metafictional exploration of romance in both its literal and literary forms; another is a powerful portrait of depression; still another is a resonant portrait of the fragmentary nature of one family. Sometimes critics even argued that Pinter’s own voice overwhelmed the source text–in his review of 1985’s “Turtle Diary,” Vincent Canby referred to the screenplay as occasionally being “so Pinteresque that it comes very close to self-parody.”

Yet for other works, Pinter was praised for his deftness with the screenplay form and the boldness he took in adapting certain works. In his 1981 review of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” Roger Ebert dedicates the first paragraph to all of the ways in which Fowles’s novel is essentially unadaptable, and then contends that Pinter’s command of layered ambiguity made him an ideal candidate to adapt it for the screen, for director Karel Reisz. “They have frankly discarded the multi-layered fictional devices of John Fowles, and tried to create a new cinematic approach that will achieve the same ambiguity,” Ebert writes, arguing that the approach Pinter took to adapting it was faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the film’s source.

It wasn’t only acclaimed novels that Pinter adapted for the screen. He also worked on the 2007 version of Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth, which was first made into an acclaimed film in 1972 starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. (Shaffer adapted his play the first time around.) The 2007 remake, directed by Kenneth Branagh, starred Jude Law and shifted Caine to the role of Wyke, originally played by Olivier. Here, too, several critics noted that Pinter’s adaptation brought a host of his own concerns and tropes to the forefront.

In his review, David Edelstein commented that “Sleuth is Pinter lite, but that’s not a bad thing: The characters get to the point a lot faster than usual in his work.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw was less impressed in his review, arguing that “Pinter has tinkered with the plot and very much recreates Wyke in his own image,” and referring to the film as a hybrid of the “very worst aspects” of its writer, stars, and directors’ aesthetic concerns.

Pinter’s long career as a writer who also adapts the works of others offers a fascinating case study in and of itself: of how a writer with a distinctive aesthetic handles other works with their own pre-packaged distinctive aesthetics. Does one overwhelm the other, or is the hybrid greater than the sum of its perspectives?