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Sharp Cut

Sharp Cut: Harold Pinter's Screenplays and the Artistic Process

Steven H. Gale
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 544
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  • Book Info
    Sharp Cut
    Book Description:

    Best known as one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century, Harold Pinter has also written many highly regarded screenplays, including Academy Award-nominated screenplays for The French Lieutenant's Woman and Betrayal, collaborations with English director Joseph Losey, and an unproduced script for the remake of Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Lolita. In this definitive study of Pinter's screenplays, Steven H. Gale compares the scripts with their sources and the resulting films, analyzes their stages of development, and shows how Pinter creates unique works of art by extracting the essence from his source and rendering it in cinematic terms. Gale introduces each film, traces the events that led to the script's writing, examines critical reaction to the film, and provides an extensive bibliography, appendices, and an index.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4795-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Chronology of Pinter’s Screenwriting
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-36)

    Since very early in cinematic history, stage plays have served as sources for motion pictures. One of the first instances of this practice occurred in 1908 when the French movie company Film d’Art produced its inaugural offering,The Assassination of the Duke of Guise.The most famous of these early films, and the first from Film d’Art to be screened in the United States, was the Sarah Bernhardt vehicleQueen Elizabeth. Featuring members of the Comedie Française and directed by Louis Mercanton,Queen Elizabethwas released in 1912. In France, Charles Pathe’s 1909 film version of Les Miserables was the...

  6. Critical Analyses

    • The Servant
      (pp. 37-96)

      Robin (Sir Robert) Maugham’s 1948 novellaThe Servantwas the source for Pinter’s first movie script. Pinter wrote a screen version ofThe Servant,intending it for Michael Anderson; he rewrote it almost completely when Losey decided to do the film.² Losey had seen the Armchair Theatre television broadcast ofA Night Outand wrote to Pinter to express his admiration.³ Starring Dirk Bogarde as the servant Hugo Barrett, the movie, Britain’s entry at the Venice Film Festival and later at the first New York Film Festival, opened in London in November of 1963.⁴ BesidesThe Servant,the British entries...

    • The Caretaker (The Guest)
      (pp. 97-114)

      First screened at the Berlin Film Festival on June 27, 1963,The Caretakerwas released publicly in February 1964.¹ In the United States, the film appeared under the titleThe Guest(perhaps to avoid confusion with Hal Bartlett’sThe Caretakers,which had been released in 1963). Pinter’s second film,The Caretakerwas the first from a screenplay based on the adaptation of one of his own stage plays. Critically acclaimed, it was awarded the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear (in 1963) for “Clive Donner’s balanced direction of Harold Pinter’s remarkable script and the ensemble performances of three fine actors” and...

    • The Pumpkin Eater
      (pp. 115-133)

      Pinter’s accomplishment in the script forThe Pumpkin Eatercan be measured somewhat by what he keeps and what he discards from his source. UnlikeThe Servant,in which the screenwriter opened out his source psychologically and thematically, andThe Caretaker,where the physical outside world was incorporated, in his third film he narrows his focus and reduces the thematic and symbolic content.

      In Penelope Mortimer’s 1962 novelThe Pumpkin Eater,the main character examines her life during her marriage to Jake Armitage. She traces the events that, over a period of about thirteen years, lead to her coming to...

    • The Quiller Memorandum
      (pp. 134-146)

      Another novel is the source of Pinter’s next scenario,The Quilter Memorandum. The author’s first script to be filmed in color-undoubtedly in an effort to appeal to a wider audience-it was adapted from Adam Hall’sBerlin Memorandum(published in the United States asThe Quiller Memorandum).¹The Quilter Memorandumopened in November 1966 with an international cast including Sir Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow, George Sanders, Senta Berger, and George Segal (as Quiller). Major actors, Guinness, von Sydow, and Sanders reportedly accepted their minor roles in the picture because they felt that their characters were so interesting and well written....

    • The Basement (The Compartment)
      (pp. 147-154)

      The Compartment was originally intended to be one of the segments in a Grove Press film project, “Project I: Three Original Motion Picture Scripts by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter,” when the script was written in 1963. NeitherThe Compartmentnor Ionesco’sHard Boiled Eggwere filmed; only Beckett’sFilm,starring Buster Keaton, has been made into a movie short. Under the titleThe Basement,Pinter’s proposed contribution was telecast by BBC Television on February 20,1967, with the author in the role of Stott. The director, Charles Jarrott, had also directed Pinter’s previous teleplay,Tea Party.

      As he had...

    • Accident
      (pp. 155-181)

      InAccident,the second Losey film for which Pinter wrote the screenplay, the relationships between an Oxford University don named Stephen (Dirk Bogarde again, in what many critics consider his best performance), his wife Rosalind (portrayed by Pinter’s first wife, Vivian Merchant), their friend Charley (Stanley Baker), and two of Stephen’s students, the aristocrat William (Michael York) and the Austrian princess Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) are probed.² First shown in London on February 9, 1967, and in New York on April 18,Accidentwas England’s official entry in the Cannes Film Festival and was honored as one of the ten best...

    • The Birthday Party
      (pp. 182-190)

      Pinter’s first three dramas,The Room, The Birthday Party,andThe Dumb Waiterare known collectively as “Comedies of Menace.” They are hilariously funny, but in this thematic cluster the playwright explores possible reactions to the existence of menace.² First, one can seek sanctuary, as inThe Room,but menace intrudes, so flight is taken, as inThe Birthday Party.In Pinter’s universe, menace cannot be avoided.The Dumb Waitermakes this clear when even the menacers are menaced.³

      LikeThe Room, The Birthday Partygrew out of an experience that Pinter himself had. In a letter sent to a...

    • The Go-Between
      (pp. 191-205)

      In 1969 Pinter completed his adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novelThe Go-Between,the film script that earned him his most prestigious award. The third collaboration with director Losey, this film brought the screenwriter a Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) for the best picture at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, along with rave reviews that established his reputation internationally.² Whereas Pinter’s early plays were often rejected by public and critics alike, ironically, it now seemed that the author’s name was sufficient to insure acceptance. To some degree, that acceptance can also be measured by the fact that he received seventy-five thousand...

    • The Homecoming
      (pp. 206-216)

      Pinter wrote the screenplay forThe Homecomingin 1970, the third of his dramas to be adapted for the screen. Released in 1973 as part of the highly touted American Film Theatre program,²The Homecomingwas directed by Peter Hall, who had directed the stage version in 1965, and included four of the original cast: Paul Rogers as Max, Ian Holm as Lenny, Terrence Rigby as Joey, and Vivien Merchant as Ruth. The newcomers were Michael Jayson, who replaced Michael Bryant in the role of Teddy, and Cryil Cusack playing Sam, a part originally created by John Normington. Cinematographer David...

    • The Proust Screenplay (Remembrance of Things Past)
      (pp. 217-224)

      In a book about how to write film scripts, French screenwriter Jean Claude Carriere notes that “usually, at the end of the shoot, scenarios are thrown into the studio dustbin. They are torn, crumpled, dirtied, abandoned. Very few people keep a copy, and even fewer still have them bound, or collect them” (11). From early on, Pinter’s attitude toward his screenplays has been just the opposite; in fact, he has said that he thinks that screenplays should be “publishable.”The Proust Screenplayis a fine example of why he may have attached more importance to his film writing than is...

    • The Last Tycoon
      (pp. 225-235)

      S.J. Perelman, one of America’s premier humorists, spent a goodly portion of his life writing movie scripts in Hollywood. His reaction to that experience was not funny. In an interview he expressed his impression of the city and the film industry: “a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched. I don’t mean to sound like a boy Savonarola, but there were times, when I drove along the Sunset Strip and looked at those buildings, or when I watched the fashionable...

    • The French Lieutenant’s Woman
      (pp. 236-255)

      There may be some disagreement about which of Pinter’s sources is the best, but there can be no doubt thatThe French Lieutenant’s Womanis his best screenplay. In watching the other films made from his scripts, viewers are often interested, involved, and appreciative that the movie is a good one. In watchingThe French Lieutenant’s Woman,they are fascinated from the very beginning of the picture and aware that it is an extremely good film verging on greatness. It is also the screenwriter’s most inventive and imaginative screenplay. Indeed, it is the exemplar of Pinter’s own declaration that with...

    • Betrayal
      (pp. 256-272)

      Betrayal,which premiered as a stage play on November 15, 1978 and is dedicated to Simon Gray, is one of Pinter’s most popular dramas. This is probably because the theme, the breakup of a love affair, is primal in human experience and thus easily accessible to all levels of audiences. The nature of time, the function of memory, and the concept of betrayal are intermingled too, of course, but these are also fairly basic and straightforward elements in the human condition. Furthermore, although the play’s structure is bewildering at first, it does not take the audience long to understand that...

    • Victory
      (pp. 273-288)

      “I wroteVictoryin 1982, working with the director, Richard Lester. The finance for the film was never found,” Pinter wrote in an author’s note at the beginning of the published script for his adaptation of Joseph Conrad’sVictory (Comfort,[166]).¹ LikeThe Proust Screenplay,however, the script is an anomaly in that it has been published even though it has never been filmed. The reason that it has not been filmed may be that a German movie was made from the novel at about the time that Pinter was trying to obtain financing for his project, and there was...

    • Turtle Diary
      (pp. 289-300)

      In choosing Russell Hoban’s novel for his source, Pinter set himself a new challenge.Turtle Diaryis in many ways his most conventional film, a love story without the typical Pinteresque element of underlying mysterious menace. It is also probably his most “popular” motion picture, as well as the cinematic work least noticed by critics.²

      As are several other sources for Pinter’s cinematic adaptations (e.g.,The Pumpkin Eater, The Go-Between), Hoban’s novel is presented in an epistolary form as diary entries, so there is no third-person narrator. Instead, the story is told from the alternating points of view of the...

    • Reunion
      (pp. 301-314)

      in 1991, two years afterReunionwas released, Pinter told Barry Davis that “the Holocaust is actually the most appalling thing that has ever happened.” In response to the question, “More horrific because it was the product of an advanced civilization in Germany?” he responded: “Absolutely so. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of the actual guilt, of the actions of the German people. But there’s also the question of complicity.” An active opponent of capital punishment, the author also admitted in regard to the British War Crimes Bill that “I’m on the side of the hangers...

    • The Handmaid’s Tale
      (pp. 315-321)

      It is interesting that the two film scripts by Pinter that contain the most violence (The Handmaid’s TaleandThe Comfort of Strangers) were both released in 1990. Although there were momentary outbursts of violence in many of the earlier works (and certainly inVictory), there is no gratuitous violence in the writer's work for either the stage or the screen. Actually, Pinter has publicly disdained the use of such violence in the cinema. In his acceptance speech upon being awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize in March 1995, the author dismissed the kind of film violence for which...

    • The Comfort of Strangers
      (pp. 322-336)

      From the very beginning, the camera has been the tool of the voyeur, and the audience has sat in the voyeur's seat, whether consciously or not.² Among the earliest examples of a conscious exploitation of the voyeuristic nature of motion pictures areUncle Josh at the Moving Picture ShowandThe Story the Biograph Told,mentioned above. InUncle Josh,the naive protagonist, seeing a movie for the first time, reacts as though what he is viewing is reality, as had the Lumiere’s audiences; the difference is that he tries to enter the action. InBiograph,a boy secretly films...

    • The Trial
      (pp. 337-349)

      Early in his playwriting career, Pinter acknowledged to interviewer Bensky that among his youthful literary tastes were Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Beckett, and especially Kafka’s novels. Although he claimed that his writing had not been influenced greatly by the authors that he had read, he did admit that “Beckett and Kafka stayed with me the most” (Bensky, 354). In another interview, the writer again admitted that Beckett and Kafka were the most influential writers in his formative years and said, “When I read them it rang a bell, that’s all, within me. I thought-something’s going on here...

    • Lolita
      (pp. 350-363)

      In 1962 director Stanley Kubrick’s film version ofLolitawas released. Based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel (1955) and screenplay, the movie starred James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, and Sue Lyon.¹ Mason played the staid professor, Humbert Humbert, and Lyon was the sexually precocious Lolita. One of the finest and most fascinating novels of the twentieth century,Lolitawas critically acclaimed, yet, although it has sold over fourteen million copies, apparently it was disparaged by the public because of its subject matter—child sexual abuse (it seemed to be, and sometimes was sold as, appealing to prurient interests).² The work...

    • Bits and Pieces
      (pp. 364-387)

      In many ways the film industry is different from any other type of business venture. For one thing, despite protestations to the contrary, and as demonstrated above, the creator of the script may have little say as to what is done with the product after it is finished.¹ After all, in filmmaking when a script is acquired, it becomes a “property.” Larry Gelbart’s observation on this circumstance resonates with the sarcasm born of experience: “Generally speaking, in Hollywood the first draft of a screenplay is what the author meant. Every other draft reflects executive decisions about what the writerreally...

    • The Creative/Collaborative Process
      (pp. 388-399)

      That it was Simon Gray and not Pinter who wrote the screenplay forButleyreveals something about Pinter. In a biographical sketch, Gray recounts that it was not until four of his dramas already had been produced that his education in the theatre “properly began”: “It wasn’t . . . until I met up with Harold Pinter for our first play together,Butley, that I was encouraged to discover that my responsibilities as a playwright didn’t consist solely of handing over the script and refraining from comment. He demanded, in fact, that I become a kind of codirector, speaking freely...

    • Conclusions
      (pp. 400-413)

      InButter’s Going Up,I concluded that at that point in his writing career, Pinter’s screenplays, except forThe Servant, The Caretaker, The Birthday Party,andThe Homecoming,had not been his most successful artistic efforts. The movies certainly are not bad, I said, they just have not always lived up to what might be expected from such a talented author (or the promotional claims, for that matter).

      Although they are full of mood and occasionally contain sparkling bits of Pinteresque dialogue, often the films are slow-moving. Some reviewers find them disappointing. For instance, Kael claims that Pinter’s weaknesses as...

  7. Appendixes

    • Appendix A: Quick Reference
      (pp. 415-417)
    • Appendix B: Honors and Awards for Screenwriting
      (pp. 418-418)
    • Appendix C: Film and Television Directing
      (pp. 419-419)
    • Appendix D: Movie and Television Roles Acted by Pinter
      (pp. 420-420)
  8. Notes
    (pp. 421-460)
  9. Bibliography: Works Cited
    (pp. 462-476)
  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 477-495)
  11. Index
    (pp. 496-520)