James Ellroy told a BBC documentary that he was once stopped in the street by a woman who had very much enjoyed L.A. Confidential, and thought Russell Crowe was great and Kim Basinger gorgeous. When the answer to his obvious reply was that she was awfully sorry but hadn’t read the novel, he said, “Well what the fuck good are you to me?” The obvious questions of which is better and whether justice is done aside, the relationship between a novel and its film adaptation can be an interesting one, offering much insight into the disposition of authors, actors, and film-makers alike. The gamut runs from triumphant adaptations which are far better the novel, such as The Godfather or The Silence Of The Lambs. At the other end of the scale, the filmmakers concerned with Catch 22 and The World According To Garp can at least claim they never stood a chance. More recently, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men is so faithful that the novel almost comes to resemble its script. Then there are films which barely have any acquaintance at all with the novels from which they are drawn; Alfred Hitchcock used to take ideas from often highly unexceptional stories and novels and there, albeit with the notable exceptions of Rebecca and The 39 Steps (many would erroneously include Sabotage in this list), the relationship often ended.
There are then those novels which are considered unfilmable. Amongst them might be McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces or Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Firmly in this category in the mid-1940s was The Lost Weekend, which depicts an at first joyous and exuberant, then grimy and disastrous five day binge by alcoholic Don Birnam, which, on the grounds that ‘”one drink is too many and a hundred not enough,” he chooses ahead of a weekend in the country with his fiancé and brother. Originally it had been considered unfit for the screen after the novel gained significant publicity upon its 1944 release. Indeed, it almost never saw light of a day as a novel, never mind a film which won four Oscars. Some publishers rejected it on the basis that there was no appetite for novels about the individual as war raged. Nevertheless, it was ultimately heralded as “the most compelling gift to the literature of addiction since De Quincey,” and “a masterpiece of psychological precision [. . . which] transmutes medical case history into art.”
When the idea of an adaptation made its way round Hollywood, Hitchcock turned it down and a number of stars, such as Cary Grant, refused the chance to play Don Birnam. An alternative was found in the teetotal Welshman Ray Milland, whose performance was so convincing that a man who saw him shambling around the New York streets during filming contacted a mutual friend to express concern at his health.
Much of this initially delighted its author, Charles Jackson, who had written nothing of consequence before and did not manage anything notable afterwards. The novel’s success did not surprise him, on the grounds that “almost everybody has someone in their family who’s a drunk but who’s worth worrying about.” This could be taken further; anyone who has ever been drunk, or even felt the benefits of recreational drinking to any degree can find much with which to identify in this novel. Even the casual drinker of wine with meals, or he who drinks but never gets drunk, will give a rye nod at many of Jackson’s observations. Indeed, a large aspect of the novel’s appeal is the manner in which it takes something with which we are all familiar and applies it to such an extreme case, distorting it to such a degree as to make it seem drinking wholly abstract.
Perhaps lots of us, for example, have once gained fillip from the hair of the dog. How many, though, can say they have found it an utter necessity, without which they simply cannot function? Don Birnam certainly can:
He would drink a good half-glass at once — and at once the pricking nerves would die down, the thumping heart quiet, the fatigue and ease come warmly over him at last. That’s what liquor and only liquor could do for him on morning’s after, that’s why he had to go on and on, it was a necessity. Half a glass and he would be at peace, as calm as if he had not been drinking for weeks. With a drink under his belt again, he would see differently, hear right, feel normal and relaxed. His mind would begin to work and notice and take stock. He would be aware of hunger, and wish to do something about it. He would get up and bathe and dress. He would certainly answer that ringing telephone.
The black comedy of Don’s shambolic attempts to get cash is perhaps an aspect not especially well handled in the film. The best episode concerns a sweaty sixty block walk to pawn a heavy typewriter on what he does not realize is Yom Kippur.
Sure Saturday was their Sabbath but catch a Jew closing his shop on the best day for business in the week?!
Absent from the novel, though, is the arrival at this point of a Jew who explains that the Irish pawn shops are also closed in honor of an agreement that the Jews will reciprocate by remaining shut on St Patrick’s Day. This is a glimpse of something of Brooklyn’s dynamics which is missing from the novel and somehow adds to the increasingly feeble image we have of Don at that juncture, as well as to the alcoholic’s ignorance of and isolation from the prevailing norms of the day. Despite this excellent addition, there are aspects of the film which pay less homage to the novel than perhaps ought to be the case. Some omissions in are understandable in a film made in 1944. Apparent teenage gay sex in a church shed, Don being jolted awake from a dream in which he is about to be lynched by homophobes, as well as the symbolism of the novel’s several closets filled with booze: these offer a hint of what caused Don’s addiction but which is a topic not dealt with by the film. Most problematic is an ending which is far more hopeful than that of the novel. It could be argued that a film that holds the novel to which it owes its existence in high regard might conform to its primary tenets. Perhaps the optimism of its ending can be attributed to what is now a slightly dated feel to the film, which though evidently jolting for the contemporary audience is obviously lacking some of the more graphic aspects of modern addiction films such as Trainspotting or Requiem For A Dream.
Jackson’s early enthusiasm for the film later subsided as in later decades he confessed that the novel was highly autobiographical. His literary output was entirely dependent on his habit and periods of sobriety were jettisoned in favor of continuing to at least try to write. The finished version of The Bottle, the novel which Don occasionally attempts to sit and write, is in fact, it seems, The Lost Weekend.
Like all his attempts at fiction it would be as personal as a letter — painful to those who knew him, of no interest to those who didn’t . . .
Jackson’s contribution to making alcoholism a mainstream concern probably did for him in the end. A 1946 issue of Life magazine said that “since the publication of Charles Jackson’s sombre novel about an alcoholic, an unprecedented amount of attention has been paid to the drinking of alcohol and the problems arising therefrom.” The shift in public perception to which The Lost Weekend contributed — including the American Medical Association declaring alcoholism a treatable disease — is a none too shabby legacy, albeit a temporary one. In 1968, two years after Jackson’s death, The Lost Weekend went out of print. In the meantime, Kingsley Amis had produced what is still literature’s best hangover in Lucky Jim and Malcolm Lowry, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver had their alcoholic themed novels or short stories published. None, however, created quite the initial impact of The Lost Weekend, which, on those terms alone, perhaps remains the most essential early contribution to the genre.