Book Reviews

Book Review: The Third Man

the third manEveryone has heard of a film adaptation of a book (in fact, the Information Store is featuring a display of film adaptations this week) but it is much more unusual to hear about a book written specifically to be adapted to film.

Novelist and screen writer Graham Greene wrote a rough novella in preparation for writing the screenplay for a film called The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed. The novella of the same name was never intended to be read by anyone but Greene and Reed, but after the success of the film, he published it.

The extent to which the novella might have been drafted after the film was made is up for debate, but Greene wrote a preface explaining the changes that occurred between the novella and the screenplay, and the process by which the story turned into its current form in the film. The film is considered one of the greatest films of all time, and it is fascinating to read Greene’s account of the changes made to turn it into a film.

Both the book and the film tell the story of a writer (called Rollo Martins in the novella and Holly Martins in the film) who goes to Vienna to see his friend Harry Lime, only to find that Lime is dead. He begins to investigate the death, convinced that there is something strange about it. Despite discouragement from Harry Lime’s friends and warnings from shadowy figures, he refuses to give up until he has discovered the truth.

the third man film

Greene originally wrote the novella to give him an idea of the story and atmosphere before writing the screenplay, and the novella is infused with tension and the damaged, divided world of post-war Vienna, which was occupied by the four Allied powers at the same time. Even in this first version of the story, Greene manages to create suspense through the way he releases information and drags the reader along on Martins’ quest for the truth.

Both the novella and the film are brilliant. Greene’s style in the novella is perfect for the tense, grey world he describes and he is a master of suspense. In the film, the directing is incredible, with beautifully composed shots and excellent performances, most notably from Orson Welles.  To see the film after reading the novella or vice-versa shows quite how much of the atmosphere that is now so famous in the film came from Greene’s novella and his close work with the director. Some little details and incidents are taken directly from the novella (a mourner forgetting to put a funeral wreath on Harry Lime’s grave) and some changes have a lot of significance, such as the nationality of the main character (English in the novella, American in the film). I would highly recommend reading the novella and watching the film to get two different versions of the same story.

Both the novella and the film of The Third Man can be found at 823.91 in the BOOK ZONE.

If you liked The Third Man

Read about the film in the British Film Institute’s guide The Third Man by Rob White, filled with stills and different critical perspectives (BOOK ZONE 791.4372).

Learn more about film adaptations in The Literature/Film Reader: Issues of Adaptation by James M. Welsh and Peter Lev (NORFOLK HOUSE 791.436).

Other famous books by Graham Greene have been adapted into films. Try Brighton Rock (book at NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91 and film in the BOOK ZONE 823.91), The End of the Affair (both book and DVD in the BOOK ZONE 823.91) and The Quiet American (both book and DVD in the BOOK ZONE 823.91).

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Third Man

  1. Really enjoyed the comparison of the film with the book – I think you’re write; so much of Reed’s Vienna is already in the pages of Greene’s novella. Quite an achievement when you think how iconic the visuals of the film are, and how difficult it must be to create such a vivid atmosphere with words.

    My review: The Third Man by Graham Greene

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