Hollywood Strikes Back: Film Adaptation of Novels in the 1950s

Thomas Leitch, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, discussed the film adaptation of bestselling novels in the 1950s.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 24, 2017)—Adapting novels into movies is an important part of the film industry. Hollywood began to feel threatened by the rise of television in the 1950’s, and saw film adaptation as a way to legitimize and elevate their product to appeal as respectable entertainment for middle-class citizens. “[Readers of bestsellers] don’t bring you the largest audience. What does is the people who have heard about the book, even if they haven’t read it. That’s the audience you want to get,” said Thomas Leitch, professor of English at the University of Delaware, presenting for the Adaptation Studies Symposium at BYU.

As part of their efforts to create a product that could not be replicated by television, Hollywood adapted dramatic romance novels into films, as their lower censorship standards would allow them more freedom on screen than what could be shown on TV. For this strategy to work, the producers needed to select books that people would have heard of – best sellers – particularly those that were steamy or controversial.

In 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America office, which was in charge of censorship at the time, instituted the Motion Picture Production Code, which Leitch described as “often absurdly strict and whimsical.” This event, however, also allowed the Hollywood industry to police itself without interference from government censorship, which was a more frightening threat to the studios. The industry, however, continued to push the boundaries of censorship until 1966, when Jack Valenti pronounced the production code out of date and instituted the rating system that is still used today.

The pushing of censorship boundaries by the Hollywood industry led to an interesting movie culture in the ’50s. Most of the highly controversial films, with the exception of Baby Doll, were movies adapted from bestselling novels. Some studios abandoned the production code altogether, releasing movies without a production code seal. Others, like 20th Century–Fox, made an outward appearance of compliance with the code while, Leitch explained, “lobbying feverishly behind the scenes for changes in the code which would allow for more graphic material.”

One example Leitch used was the film Forever Amber (1947) based on the romance novel by Kathleen Winsor. The story features Amber St. Clair, an enterprising young woman who climbs the court of the English King, Charles II, through a mixture of affairs and marriages. The film toned down the erotic story considerably, but Leitch noted that censors were still concerned the movie would cause “licentious thoughts in the minds of the viewers by reminding them of the novel.”

“The purpose of these films was to make the audience feel good without making them feel bad,” said Leitch. The pivotal film that exemplified this strategy was Peyton Place (1957), which focused on the several scandals of a small New England mill town. The stricter censorship of the film compared to the novel, Leitch explained, caused the movie to have a moralizing tone. Rather than focusing on the insecurity and hypocrisy of the town members, the movie focused on “their common need to accept life-giving love as exposed to either corrosive lust or unhealthy repression in all its forms. . . . Evil could be shown on the screen as long as vice was eventually punished and virtue eventually rewarded,” continued Leitch.

Just before the production code changed to the rating system came the Carpetbaggers (1964), which “sets sex against true love with sensuous women marking the conflict by their unwillingness to submit to the former, despite their dreams of the latter,” Leitch said. “The film’s most important departure from Peyton Place and its ilk, however, is in its lack of interest in packaging its story as literary or even quasi-literary terms . . . [the script] consistently aims for sexual shocks even when it later qualifies them.”

By the time Carpetbaggers took the screen, Hollywood studios had begun selling their library of old features to television and began make new ones, revamping the industry. They also began to target youth, which Leitch said would become the audience for movies in the coming years. Leitch closed, “The enduring question these films raise about what it means to be a literary adaptation, and by occasion what it means to be literature deserves closer scrutiny, though, perhaps as [Hollywood producer] Jerry Wald would say, not too much closer.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Humanities Center of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.