The Quiet American: Life Between the Screen and the Page

This is a good news/bad news story about a cinematic adaptation from a Graham Greene novel by the same name.  The good news is that if you're interested in a more or less accurate, more or less moving Cliff Notes version of one of Greene's central works, here it is.  The bad news is that you'd be getting the outline but missing the point.

The movie is paced Hollywood style.  It starts lightly with disposable humor and superficial exposition about the characters and who they are: Fowler (Michael Caine), portrayed here as an affable, sophisticated British journalist in his 60s, living in Saigon during the Communist revolution to over the French government; Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a much younger and amiable idealist from Boston (without any trace of the tell-tale accent) who is a government operative posing as a bleeding-heart medical aid worker; and Phuong, Fowler's young, native lover whose fragile beauty is both pitied and coveted by Pyle.

The truly abbreviated version is this: "A love triangle entwined in an intense drama of international political intrigue."  But the complexity of the triangle is lost in the lack of true narration inherit in film.  There are elements of the story which work only with the unspoken observation of its first-person narrator, Fowler.  Of course, to narrate character analysis with voice-overs during something as cinematically intense as the scene wherein Pyle confesses his infatuation for Phuong to Fowler during a mortar attack would not make any sense at all.  The alternative would be to build the scene more slowly and leak some of those observations into the dialog.  As it is, however, what we have here is a classic case of depth sacrificed to Hollywood pacing.

What we're not hearing for all of that lush, Hollywood orchestral accompaniment is that Fowler is an utter cynic of the worst kind who is appalled by the underlying selfishness of Pyle's seemingly magnanimous nature.  The true scandal to Fowler on the page is not, as portrayed on the screen, the fact that the CIA might be propping up a terrorist insurgency.  Rather it is that Pyle's political delusions are mirrored in his ability for self-deceit regarding the harm he is doing to to an older man and the lack of true devotion he is acquiring in return.  In short, the best plot-twist of the book is that the true cynic is not the jaded Fowler, but the seemingly callow Pyle, whose cynicism is compounded and made truly damnable by the naïveté that underlies and tries to justify it.

A golden opportunity to portray this without the awkward integration of narrative analysis is the scene wherein Fowler and Pyle narrowly escape a life-threatening situation, only to find Fowler temporarily crippled by the attempt.  In the literary original, Fowler is lying in utter agony, unable to move without blinding pain, and sure of his impending death.  Knowing there is no happy ending in store for him back in his daily life (he cannot marry Phuong thanks to a unrelenting wife, and he cannot stay with her thanks to his editor's desire to bring him back to London), and utterly prostrate in his terror of being captured and tortured, the literary Fowler implores Pyle to kill him.  The cinematic Fowler passes out, dreams a buttery, soft-focus synopsis of his love for Phuong, awakes to the rescuing squadron of French soldiers and tells Pyle that if he had died, Pyle could have had Phuong.

If memory serves, this scene ends similarly in the book.  But it is the utter honesty of Fowler's pragmatism that gives his character such wrenching pathos.  The movie version is pitiable in his suffering, not admirable and touching as the literary version.

The turning point in the film comes during a scene showing the terrorist bombing of the main square of Saigon.  Here, the genre clearly comes into its forte, and director Phillip Noyce does a riveting job of showing the confusion and horror of such a scene.  From there, the movie's brisk pace serves it well, leading up to the climactic final discussion between Pyle and Fowler.  The scene of murder and betrayal that follows is again richly enhanced by the director's overlapping of two powerful moments through his skillful editing.  The denouement is cliché Hollywood pap which utterly distorts the true relationship of Fowler/Phuong (not to mention making up an entire scene which does not actually exist), leaving the discerning viewer (we make no secret of our snobbery here) with an utterly mixed bag.