The Quiet American

I’m putting this article in the books section rather than the film section of the website, although I’ll be mentioning both sorts of thing today. Why? Because the site just isn’t sophisticated enough to deal with dual categories. I’m sorry, but it’s true. And there are so many more film reviews than book reviews. And so, I shall discuss The Quiet American, both in book and film form, here.

Whenever you see a film based on a book you’ve read, it’s a disappointment. Whenever you make a sweeping statement about entertainment, it’s an unconvincing generalisation, but that’s not about to stop me now. Coming at it in reverse order is rarer in my experience, probably because so many dodgy adaptations are made that they don’t really sell the book. So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that having seen the excellent film The Quiet American, I found not only that the book was good, but that the film had distilled it beautifully.

He’s a good chap in his way. Serious. Not one of those noisy bastards at the Continental. A quiet American — Thomas Fowler on Alden Pyle

I’m all against spoilers, so I’ll just give you a brief idea. Back in the fifties, Vietnam is a world issue, but not yet for the Americans. Thomas Fowler, an aging British news correspondant in the troubled country, has himself a cushy job and a beautiful young mistress. Priding himself on not being politically “involved”, he’s supremely content until he meets a young American man — Alden Pyle. Their peculiar relationship runs through a tumultuous time in the vulnerable country’s history, and ultimately Fowler finds himself making a choice that he never thought he would.

The novel, written by Graham Green, deals mostly with the politics of Vietnam, trapped between old colonialism and the American dream — which might seem a worthy, but dry topic. And yet, through the strong anthropomorphism of these ideas in Fowler and Pyle, it makes the subject emotive and powerful. Green tells the story in two alternating timelines — a technique I always enjoy, but it’s especially effective here, given that the story centres around one important moment. As you read about the characters dealing with the lead-up and aftermath of one night’s events, the tension slowly builds.

Well, it probably does if you haven’t seen the film first. The real gem of the book for me was not the structure however, but the characters — especially Thomas Fowler. Reading this book made me realise what comfy books I normally read — ones where the lead character either says what he thinks, or if he must lie, the reader is told that he’s doing it. Green quite rightly makes no concession for people who take what someone says at face value, and the reader’s opinion of Fowler will inevitably change a few times during the novel as a result.

The final key element of the novel is Vietnam. The book is centred on the viewpoints of both Fowler and Pyle, so one doesn’t necessarily get a native or objective view of the country. With Fowler as narrator though, his immense love — or perhaps desire — for the land shines brightly. Of course, when it comes to adaptation, this is perhaps the easiest part of the book to bring across. The film shows a beautiful, yet earthy Vietnam — but doesn’t hold back when covering the less savoury elements of the story.

With poor casting, Fowler might have sunk the film — but luckily the part calls for an old man. As Michael Caine points out in the commentary, he would never have taken such a role as a young career-minded actor, because of the character’s ambiguity and culpability. As an older man however, an actor no longer cares about how well a film suits his “image”, and is free to embrace nastier elements of human nature. Caine plays the part with all the emotional intensity and stubborn selfishness that it requires. More surprising however is Brendan Fraser’s performance.

Seen only through Fowler’s often disapproving eyes in the book, it’s nonetheless made clear that Pyle’s major fault is his innocence. To present such a peculiar flaw is a difficult job, but with wide-eyed intensity and nervous charm, Fraser manages easily. Pyle like Fowler is a surprisingly real and complex character, and is raised above merely being a cipher for American interests in Vietnam in part by the writing, but also by Fraser’s incredible honesty as an actor. Reading the book alone might make it easier to judge Pyle as a complete fool — but Fraser manages to make clear his honest, earnest nature.

In both book and film, Fowler and Pyle are the keystones of the story. Well presented in both media, we have here a rare case of an adaptation translating a story almost perfectly. If you’ve not met either, you should. Due to the intense faithfulness, it’s probably not worth enjoying them both close together — but at some point, they’re both worth experiencing.

2 comments posted — most recent by Tom on 24/08/04