I didn't write it that way (Part 1)

 

At the start of his memoir, A Sort of Life, Graham Greene makes pointed mention of the cinema in the high street of his childhood Berkhamsted. With its voluptuous Moorish dome, the picture palace was forbidden territory to Greene and his schoolboy friends. The author's father, at that time headmaster of Berkhamsted School, was chary of the place in any case. He had once "allowed his senior boys to go there for a special performance of the first Tarzan movie, under the false impression that it was an educational film of anthropological interest".

Greene relates how, ever after, his father "regarded the cinema with a sense of disillusion and suspicion". Those two words, carefully chosen, are a perfect description of the landscape that has, for better or worse, become known as "Greeneland". Greene himself, who hated the term, reluctantly described it as: "White men going to seed in outlandish places. Unshaven, guilt-ridden, on the bottle."

You can understand an author's reaction to critical shorthand, but there is more to Greeneland than Greene's terse definition. Even a book like The End of the Affair - set in upper-middle-class London and newly brought to the screen by Neil Jordan - is well within its ambit. Sometimes noirish (The Third Man), sometimes tropical (The Comedians), sometimes criminal (Brighton Rock), nearly always, even if at a submerged level, religious - insofar as it involves a journey through personal crisis - Greeneland is a mixed vernacular. It is one that has informed cinematic as well as literary narrative. Directors of the quality of John Ford, Fritz Lang and Carol Reed are among those who have turned their attentions to the books of an author whose work has been translated to film more than that of any other 20th century writer.

Disillusion and suspicion also describe, however, Greene's own feelings about the film industry at the end of his 50-year association with it as optioned novelist, adapter of his own works and those of others (Evelyn Waugh tried to persuade him to do Brideshead Revisited), original screen-writer and prolific film critic.

Although Greene was always at pains to emphasise that it was money that drew him to films, it wasn't just a journeyman attachment; it went right to the heart of his own aesthetic matter. As David Parkinson puts it in the introduction to his invaluable Graham Greene film reader, Mornings in the Dark, "Greene's fictional style was undeniably filmic." By the time of his death, his oeuvre had given rise to some 40 feature films, not to mention numerous short films for television, a host of unmade projects, and his own evanescent scenario work for Korda, the GPO film unit and others. Some of the films of his books are unmitigated disasters; others - notably The Third Man, originally written as a screen treatment - are acknowledged classics of cinema.

Yet in general, with only a few exceptions, Greene believed that "my books don't make good films". One of those exceptions was the 1955 adaptation of The End of the Affair, his 1951 novel about a love-triangle in the Blitz. From multiple perspectives, entangling religious and sexual themes, the book tells the tale of an egoistic writer's affair with the wife of a pitiful civil servant. Jordan's new film of the novel - which was based very loosely on one of Greene's own affairs - has Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore and Stephen Rea playing writer, wife and civil servant respectively.

Starring Deborah Kerr and directed by Edward Dmytryk, the original was adapted by one Lenore Coffee. In a 1984 Guardian Film Lecture, Greene described it as the "least unsatisfactory" of the adaptations of his religious novels, his particular bete noir being The Heart of the Matter, in which the suicide of Catholic policeman Scobie was obscured for reasons of populism, censorship and fear of offending Catholic sensibility.

In The End of the Affair, the religious theme hangs on a sort of inverted Pascal's Wager. After making love to the writer, Bendrix, the adultress (an outmoded term now, but potent as hemlock in the 1940s time frame) Sarah witnesses what she believes to be his death when a bomb falls nearby. A devout, if straying Catholic, she prays with all her heart that if God brings Bendrix back to life, she will give him up forever. When he wakes up - or is he woken up? - she breaks off the affair, without saying why.

The subtle unfolding of the story, two years later, follows Bendrix's slow grasping of what has taken place and, briefly and tragically, the lovers' reunion. One of the strengths of this very powerful, not to say harrowing, tale is that its mystical drama never loses sight of the everyday. This is true even of the final "miracle", involving the disappearance of a facial blemish touched by Sarah.

The atheist Bendrix's own story concerns the acceptance or otherwise of faith, as provoked by these events. In Jordan's version, Bendrix is made the main focus, with the stealing of Sarah's journal giving access to her point of view. Like the novel, Jordan uses a deal of flashback - something that was dropped by Columbia in the earlier film (they also distribute the new one), much to Greene's disappointment.

Despite bridling at lack of control, he definitively did not want to do the original adaptation himself. But he did show up on the set. In August 1954, the Daily Sketch had Greene, "that sad-faced chronicler of sex and sin", turning up at Shepperton. He told the reporter that "scripting your own stories can be unwelcome and fatiguing". It appears to have been a gruelling visit anyway. Thirty years later, in his Guardian interview with Quentin Falk, he related with some distaste how the actor playing Bendrix (Van Johnson) put his stored chewing gum back in his mouth whenever he was off-camera.

Who is to say whether Jordan's adaptation would have met with the approval of a writer who was the first to admit his own failings, with those of others following a very close second? What we can say is that, keeping agnosticism and the miraculous in the balance, it will find a ready audience thirsting for religious guidance.

It will also find an audience hungry for the erotic. For Greene, who became a regular at Oxford film theatres in pre-talkie days, the ritual of cinema-going always had something of the illicit about it: "There is the secrecy of sneaking into a cinema in the dark, perhaps with a girlfriend: no one need know." As master chronicler of the Absconded God's flight from his sinful creatures, Greene also saw how religious ecstasy could no longer make magnificent declaration of its sensual qualities: far from being public art, like Bernini's statue of St Theresa, 20th century sensual religious experience would, in his hands, be a secret, half-lit thing. The preserve of a cinema-goer. An adulterer. A novelist in his garret.

Or all of the last three: a knowing scene in Jordan's film shows the lovers in a picture-house watching an adaptation of one of Bendrix's novels. "I didn't write it that way," he says, in a moment heavy with an ironical sense that the divine author's scenario for the outcome of the affair might not accord with his present plans either. Greene himself was more direct, talking of the flaky adaptations of books (and, just as often, the acting or camera technique) as if they were outright mortal sins, things to be ashamed of, even - especially - when he was directly involved.

It was almost as if traffic with the film industry itself had a sinful dimension. And the industry seemed to sense this conflict. Guy Elmes, who adapted two of Greene's novels, said that it was "the theology that gives the tone that attracts people to buy the stuff to film in the first place . . . then they actually have to script it and it becomes rather frightening and a concern whether mass audiences will be able to take this internal agony thing he's trying to externalise all the time."

At first, though - at the start of Greene's affair with cinema - it was love. In Mornings in the Dark, Parkinson reveals the pitch of the young novelist's excitement about the medium. In 1936, with one novel adapted and the rights to another sold, he wrote to his brother: "I'm getting deep into films, so deep that Grierson sounded me the other day on whether I should be interested in a producing job . . ." By the end of the year, he is "thick in scenario, Medium Shots and Insert Shots and Flash Backs and the rest of the racket".