- Rending the Veils of Illusion: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Letter and Its Two Definitive Film Interpretations
Between the idea/And the reality ... [f]alls the Shadow.—T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”1
It can be said without undue exaggeration that the British writer W. Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) represents the modern-day cinematic equivalent of Jane Austen. While, after almost two hundred years, Austen’s novels still provide extensive bases for film adaptations, the cinematic versions of Maugham’s extensive oeuvre constitute an ongoing body of work that originated in the late 1920s. In fact, the English writer is presently more dramatized on the screen than Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His novel Up at the Villa received a film adaptation starring Sean Penn and Kristin Scott Thomas (Philip Haas, US, 2000), while another novel, The Painted Veil, became the basis of a release featuring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts (John Curran, US, 2006). But the most fecund source of Maugham’s writing remains The Letter. First published as a short story in 1924, then expanded into a successful play in 1927, the narrative of a mysterious missive has been made into at least four films, even a 2007 opera. Moreover, a wide range of distinguished actresses—from Jeanne Eagels to Lee Remick—have undertaken the lead part of Leslie Crosbie.2
Yet despite these factors, no one has extensively examined why The Letter remains a major cinematic source or how that story has been interpreted in its two most important cinematic conceptions: The Letter (Jean de Limur, US, 1929) starring Eagels and The Letter (William Wyler, US, 1940) featuring Bette Davis. I try to fill that gap by arguing that The Letter represents [End Page 7] Maugham’s supreme example of rending the veils of illusion in human lives. As with his contemporary T. S. Eliot, Maugham concentrated on how shadows can develop between our self-perceptions and the world’s actual workings. I conclude by discussing how the two films remain the definitive cinematic versions.3
There are several reasons why Maugham’s work remains a continuing source of inspiration for filmmakers nearly fifty years after his death. An enticing element of Maugham’s work lies in the exotic settings of some of his novels and short stories. The writer continually traveled the world, particularly in Asia, after World I. Using the Asian perimeter as a literary milieu, of course, did not initiate a new genre in English-speaking literature, as attested to by Herman Melville’s early career. But Maugham’s interweaving of exotic locales and psychological complexities closely parallels the later work of Paul Bowles, who used the arid emptiness of the North African desert as a hovering, malign backdrop. An important difference, however, lay in Maugham’s Victorian-instilled fastidiousness; while he engaged in the “conventionalities” of murder and adultery, he never ventured into incest or castration. But both Maugham and Bowles juxtapose the irony of a supposedly superior culture often being overtaken by an indigenous one, and how these cultures remain strange to each other (thus drawing on two central definitions of the word “foreign”). Another factor in the continuing cinematic adaptations of Maugham’s work lies in his sinuous yet plain style, which readily fits filmmakers’ reliance on actions rather than their thoughts. But although Maugham’s style does not approach the stream-of-consciousness narratives of James Joyce or the inner musings of Marcel Proust, his style is deceptively plain, thus confirming Hemingway’s observation that “if you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened.”4
The primary reason for Maugham’s continuing cultural relevance, however, can be found in the psychological complexity of his work, particularly in his pitiless revelation of human hypocrisies. Maugham often faced accusations that he seemed too “cynical,” a factor the author jokingly discussed in his introduction to Quartet (Ken Annakin et al., GB, 1948).5 Yet what has been said of filmmaker Billy Wilder could also be said of Maugham, that what seemed cynical in his work actually represents “a clear-eyed view of life in all its humor and pain.”6...