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More on Literary, Film, and Theatrical Influences

by John Aquino on 09/14/19

I've always been fascinated by influence a play, film, or book has on other works of literature or film, as have so many writers and scholars. My first (and only) article in a scholarly journal was written when I was right out of graduate school and was teaching a course in fantasy and science fiction that was created by my friend and colleague Verlyn Flieger. Included in the curriculum was Perelandra, a science fiction novel by C.S. Lewis in which there was a character named Pshaw who said things that were paraphrases and quotes of what the dramatist George Bernard Shaw, on whom I had written my master's thesis, had said. I couldn't find any reference to this in the published scholarship, so I wrote an article on Shaw's influence on Lewis, sent it to the Shaw Review, and it was published. The only reason I could figure why more experienced academics scholars had not noticed this connection before was that they were not readers of science fiction.

Academics write articles on questions such as was Shakespeare influenced by this or Dickens by that. In this blog, I made reference to an article in the Times (London) Literary Supplement (TLS) that circulated the suggestion that Samuel Beckett's 1953 play Waiting for Godot may have been influenced by either Honore deBalzac's 1848 novel La Falseur or by the film versions of the novel--(1936) and The Lovable Cheat (1949)--in which there is reference to a character named Godot. Did Beckett read the novel or see either film? There appears to be no documentation that he did, so all that can be said is that it is possible.

Sometimes similarities between works are the result of two writers separately responding to the same event or situation. In a recent TLS article, Ian Buruma noted that in 1944 Anne Frank wrote in her diary about the tension that developed in sharing a secret and confining hiding place from the Nazis with family members and Jewish friends: "Relationships here in the Annex are getting worse all the time. We don't dare open our mouths at mealtime (except to slip in a bite of food) because no matter what we say someone is bound to resent it or take it the wrong way. . .if only there were no other people in the world." In the same year, Jean Paul France in Nazi-occupied France wrote in his play Huis Clos (No Exit), which depicts three people trapped in a locked room that represents hell. In the play, one character says, "Hell is other people." Obviously, Anne Frank had no contact with Sarte, and her diary was published after his play was produced.

Similarly, I remember reading in an interview how the film director George Cukor responded to the question about whether his 1942 film Keeper of the Flame was influenced by Orson Welles Citizen Kane. Both films are about newspaper reporters trying to determine the "truth" about legendary and just-deceased Americans. The films shared not only similar stories but tones and atmospheres. Cukor noted that Keeper started filming in 1941 and that the production of Kane was clouded in secrecy in fear of a negative reaction from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst on whom the character of Charles Foster Kane was loosely based. "There was just something in the air," Cukor said in explaining the movies' similarities.

I was thinking of influences today when I saw a bit of the movie Mogambo (1953), which was a remake of the 1932 film Red Dust. Both starred Clark Gable as a hunter in Africa who is attracted to two women: a prime and proper wife whose husband has hired him to lead an African safari (plays by Mary Astor in Red Dust and Grace Kelly in Mogambo) and a more worldly woman (played by Jean Harlow in Red Dust and Ava Gardner in Mogambo). Nine years later, the playwright Tennessee Williams wrote The Night of the Iguana about a defrocked minister who has become a tour operator in Mexico. He is stuck with and drawn to two women: the prim and proper Hannah who is there with her father, an elderly minor poet, and the lusty innkeeper Maxine. Bette Davis played the innkeeper on stage and, interestingly enough, Ava Gardner took the part in the movie.  Williams expanded the play from his 1948 short story, which was just about Hannah. 

Could Williams have seen Red Dust or Mogambo before he fleshed out the short story and, either consciously or subconsciously, borrowed the premise? He went to movies, he wrote movie screenplays, he attended of film versions of his plays. It's possible he saw one or both. I'm not a Williams scholar, but I haven't discovered anything published on this. Unless there is a letter or diary entry or something documenting his watching the film(s), the conclusion that he was influenced by one or both is informed speculation.

And that's often what claims of influence are.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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