How Guillermo del Toro’s Film Alters a Masterpiece Noir Novel
William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley,” published in 1946, is the quintessential noir novel, filled with desperate characters scrambling to survive in a bleak world where everything is a con: religion, spirituality, business, psychotherapy, even love.
The novel’s main character, Stanton Carlisle, is utterly at home in this harsh landscape. Starting off as a carnival worker during the closing years of the Great Depression, Stanton develops a talent for manipulating anyone in his orbit; within a few years, he reinvents himself as the “Reverend Carlisle,” relying on his carnival tricks to convince suckers that he can contact the spirit world (for a significant fee, of course). Eventually, he falls in with a psychologist, Lilith Ritter, who suggests he can make big money by swindling a manufacturing tycoon who believes in the occult.
As with so many other noir novels, nothing goes quite as planned, and Stanton eventually realizes that, despite his street smarts, he’s the one being played. By then it’s too late, of course; his fate is arguably worse than death, especially for someone who thought he was the most brilliant person in any given room.
As written by Gresham, Stanton is less of a human being than a shark, always swimming hard for his next target. He doesn’t even possess the positive attributes of other famous noir antiheroes—for instance, he’s not intensely charming like Walter Neff, the doomed salesman-turned-murderer at the heart of James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity.” He’s not powered by love or ideology or anything more noble than the primal urge to survive and conquer.
Mexican writer/director Guillermo del Toro spent years pursuing a “Nightmare Alley” adaptation for the screen. In many ways, it was an odd choice of artist and material. Del Toro’s previous films have all centered on supernatural elements, including ghosts, vampires, and (in the case of “The Shape of Water,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture) a curiously sensual fish-man. His films have a warmth that Gresham’s novel conspicuously lacks—you always sympathize with the monster.
In light of that, it makes sense that Del Toro, so excellent at finding the humanity at the root of even the most outwardly repugnant creatures, decided to give Stanton a tragic backstory. In the final script, Stanton’s still a shrewd conman willing to do whatever it takes to separate his marks from their money, but he’s also lonely and desperate and damaged in a way that makes his actions, if not sympathetic, at least a little more understandable.
Del Toro also cast Bradley Cooper as Stanton, which was another masterstroke in terms of rendering the character sympathetic. Whatever charm Stanton lacked on paper, Cooper more than makes up for it; even at his chilliest moments, he has that movie-star dazzle. Who wouldn’t fall for a con delivered with such smoothness?
The script also takes some liberties with the book’s narrative, particularly Stanton’s descent to his ultimate doom, which excises some of its twists and punches in the interest of time. But del Toro leaves the book’s ultimate theme—everything is a con, act accordingly—in the transition from page to screen. Is the filmed version “softer” than the book? Undoubtedly. When you’re trying to mass-market a big-budget film to millions, you need to pull your punches a little bit. Those who want a pure, dark dose of noir can always turn to the original novel, which is required reading for anyone interested in midcentury genre fiction.
Nick Kolakowski is the author of „Maxine Unleashes Doomsday“ and „Boise Longpig Hunting Club“ as well as the Love & Bullets trilogy of novellas. His noir fiction has appeared in Tough, ThugLit, Mystery Tribune, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies.
Nick Kolakowski, geboren 1980, aufgewachsen in Washington. D.C., hat Geschichte in Chicago studiert. Er schreibt Romane, Kurzgeschichten, Lyrik und Essays, viele davon über Crime Fiction und verwandte Themen. Seine Texte erscheinen u. a. in der Washington Post, in Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, Rust & Months. Kolakowski lebt in New York City.
Bei Suhrkamp auf Deutsch: Love & Bullets.
His essays with us.
His column „Gunsmoke“ with us:
4 Ways Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Novel Stands Out From the Film.
On „Heat“: Manhunter Takes Down Thief: How Michael Mann’s Early Career Led to ‘Heat’
The Most Honest Nihilism – on „The Way of the Gun“
No, Time to Die – The latest James Bond movie digs into the fatalism at the iconic spy’s core.
Cormac McCarthy’s Overlooked Masterpiece? – „The Councelor„
William Lindsay Greshams Roman „Nightmare Alley“ ist 2019 im Festa Verlag als deutsche Erstveröffentlichung im Hardcover schienen. Das Taschenbuch gibt es bei Heyne Hardcore – d. Red.