Celia Rees writes for older children and teenagers. She began writing when she was working as an English teacher and her first book was published in 1993. She became a full time writer in 1997. Her novel Witch Child was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction award in 2001; the sequel Sorceress was shortlisted for The Whitbread Children's Book Award in 2002; and her book Pirates! was shortlisted for the W.H. Smith Award in 2004. Her latest book, The Fool's Girl, was published in paperback in April. Celia lives in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. In this post she discusses Graham Greene's The Third Man.
Celia Rees on The Third Man by Graham Greene
'The Third Man was never written to be read, only to be seen.' (Graham Greene)
It is quite possible for a film version of a novel to be accorded critical respect, as with the excellent recent adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; but when the process is reversed, the resulting novelization is often seen as the lesser partner. Graham Greene's novella is a notable exception to this rule.
The Third Man began as an opening paragraph, scribbled on the flap of an envelope: A man sees a man buried, and within a week he sees him again in the street. That's it. But anyone who knows the film can already hear the haunting notes of the Harry Lime Theme, see the strings moving on the zither behind the opening titles. Greene offered this beginning to Alexander Korda who wanted the film set in post war Vienna, so right from onset the idea began to grow away from that first paragraph. Greene worked on the film with the director, Carol Reed, but before he could write the script, he had to have a story. For him, a film depends not just on plot, but on 'a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere', and to capture these things he needed something other than the 'dull shorthand of a script'.
So the film shaped the book, and the book in turn shaped the film, although neither is an exact mirror of the other. This is not a straight novelization, although all the iconic references are there: the winter cemetery, the Great Wheel, faces at windows, the mysterious figure in the shadows, the haunting tune, the chase through the sewers. There are differences. The hero, Rollo Martins, is English, not American, and his name is changed in the film version; but Harry Lime's name remains the same and when he is described, it is impossible not to see the young Orson Welles.
The book is a mere 120 pages in the Penguin edition. A modern writer of a crime or spy thriller would have barely begun. It is written with great economy. The 'smashed, dreary city of Vienna' is sketched with such skill that we don't need long pages of description. Characters are established through brief, carefully chosen details. The story is narrated by a policeman and the descriptions have the brevity of a police report. Despite this brevity, the plot is complex and fast moving; Greene expects his reader to work hard to keep up with him. Violence occurs off the page, but when it does it is sudden and brutal, wholly disconcerting to Martins and the reader: a reminder of the extreme danger lurking within the bleak cityscape.
In The Third Man the elements of spy and crime thriller blur and coincide, but the novel is much more than a genre novel. It is an examination of friendship and betrayal, innocence and disillusion, in a world where utter destruction has spread further than the 'smashed and desolate' cities ruined by war. It has seeped into the souls of men. Harry Lime looks down from the Great Wheel and sees the people below him as dots in a landscape. 'Would you feel any pity if any of those dots stopped moving - forever?' He asks Martins. The greatest challenge for post-war Europe was not just to rebuild the cities, but to restore those dots to 'recognizable human beings'.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]