An American Tragedy:  The Book and the Adaptations

An American Tragedy is a book by Theodore Dreiser.  It is a long complex novel, but in its essentials it boils down to this:  boy meets girl, boy gets girl pregnant, boy meets another girl he likes better, boy kills the first girl, boy is executed for murder.

They have names, of course:  the boy is Clyde, the first girl is Roberta, and the second girl is Sondra.  Now, Clyde doesn’t actually kill Roberta.  He planned to drown her and make it look like an accident.  He gets her out into the middle of the lake in a rowboat, knowing she cannot swim.  But then he thinks he cannot do it.  But then he thinks he will.  He might as well be picking petals off a daisy:  “I kill her, I kill her not, I kill her, I kill her not.”  Anyway, she ends up falling overboard and drowns just as he was thinking, “I kill her not.”  Notwithstanding all the planning he put into this murder that he changed his mind on at the last minute but which had the same result anyway, his identity is discovered, he is tried for murder, convicted, and executed.

The first film adaptation, released in 1931, has the same title as the novel, and the three principal characters have the same names.  The second adaptation, made in 1951, has a title that is different from the novel, A Place in the Sun, and the characters have different names.  Don’t ask me why.  In most respects, the second adaptation is a much better movie.  It was directed by George Stevens, starring Montgomery Clift as Clyde = George; Shelley Winters as Roberta = Alice; and Elizabeth Taylor as Sondra = Angela.  (For the sake of consistency, I will continue to the use the names in the novel.)

But in one respect, the first adaptation is better, and so much so in this respect that I prefer this version to the second.  In the movie An American Tragedy, Roberta is played by Silvia Sidney.  We readily believe in her naïve innocence.  She seems like the Roberta of the novel, a woman we like and feel sorry for.  As noted above, however, in A Place in the Sun, Roberta is played by Shelley Winters.  I don’t know what Shelley Winters was like as a person, but her screen persona simply is not the sweet, innocent virgin for whom we are supposed to have sympathy because she was taken advantage of by a man.  On the contrary, she seems suited for roles in which she is a hardboiled broad, as in Alfie (1966) or Bloody Mama (1970).  As a result, when she is taken advantage of by a man in a movie, we are more likely to think she is dumb than naïve.

Partly as a result of this difference, we are sad when Silvia Sidney’s Roberta drowns.  As for Shelley Winters’ Roberta, however, we know we are supposed to feel sorry for her, and we do a little bit, but the fact is that we never really mind when Shelley Winters dies in a movie.  For example, the fact that she drowns in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) does not spoil our sense that the movie has a happy ending.  A third movie in which Shelley Winters drowns is The Night of the Hunter (1955), murdered by her newlywed psychopathic husband, played by Robert Mitchum.  Now, Robert Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell, is supposed to be as bad as they come, so you would think they would have allowed him to kill a more likable actress, like Jane Wyatt, for instance, so that we would really think Harry is evil.  But they picked Shelley Winters to be his victim so that we would not spend the rest of the movie feeling sorry for her.

In other words, if A Place in the Sun had starred an actress to play Roberta who would have been more believably innocent and whose death would have been more disturbing, then we would have been appropriately outraged that Clyde would have even thought about abandoning her, let alone make elaborate plans to murder her, just as we are when we read the novel.  But with Shelley Winters playing the part, her death really seems to be no great loss, and we end up feeling sorrier for Clyde, played by the likable Montgomery Clift, than we do for Roberta.

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