Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Seen the movie: Greene, Ministry of Fear (1943)

Posted: Feb 25, 2024 12:02;
Last Modified: Feb 25, 2024 12:02


Greene, Graham. 1982. The Ministry of Fear. Uniform Edition. New York: Viking.

Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear (1943) was turned into a feature film by Fritz Lang (1944). For some reason, I thought that the script was started before the book manuscript was finished, but I can’t find any reference to this now in the usual places (Wikipedia here and here; IMDB).

Either way, the film and book are at the same time both quite close and quite different from each other. While reactions to the movie are mixed (it receives decent praise as a noir, but apparently Lang and Greene were both disappointed in it), I thought that the movie was better than the book: better structured and, while it misses a major psychological aspect (basically about half the novel is missing from the movie), the film is structured better than the book and does manage to hint at some of the issues present in the bits it is missing.

The big difference between the two involves the main character, Arthur Rowe’s, stay in a psychiatric institution. The movie opens with him having just been released from one for, as we later discover, the mercy killing of his wife. In the novel, Rowe ends up in one after he loses his memory during an assassination attempt involving a suitcase bomb: he then ends up, under the name of Digby, in a psychiatric institution that is run by the people he suspected of being Nazi spies prior to his memory loss (in the film Rowe ends up in hospital after the blast, but it is just a regular hospital and a minor plot point).

During Digby’s time in the hospital he struggles to see through the glass darkly — i.e. he is aware of something in his past but not quite able to put his finger on it, and there is a lot of discussion about how memory informs our adult lives. Gradually he realises that he killed his wife. This is a very long passage (maybe about 50% of the book) with a lot of rumination on the passage of time, mental health, and memory. It reminds me a lot of both the passage in Mrs. Dalloway about the intrusiveness of psychiatry, and the Time Passes section of To the Lighthouse.

In the movie this sense of guilt is moved to the front: Rowe is aware that he was sent to a psychiatric prison for killing his wife, but, unlike the psychiatrist who encourages him to forgive himself, Rowe is refusing to let himself live it down. He heads to London in a depressed mood and goes to the fête to cheer himself up.

I do wonder if the book wouldn’t have been better if it had been structured more like the movie: while I am normally not a fan of novels that jump in medias res and then circle back, in this case it might have been interesting to see Digby/Rowe gradually discover that he is being held by the spies he was trying to uncover, and then cycle back to how he had first discovered them. The focus on memory recovery would have given a natural narrative rationale for doing so.





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