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  • Two Screen Versions of "The Secret Sharer"
  • Joseph A. Kestner (bio)

There is a considerable body of scholarship about Joseph Conrad on screen, including a monograph by Gene Phillips (1997) and an anthology of essays from Cambridge University Press edited by Gene Moore (1997). In addition, there is fine scholarship about particular aspects of the screen and Joseph Conrad, including works by Wallace Watson, William Thomaier, Paul Kirschner, Roderick Davis, and Stephen Donovan. The essay collection Joseph Conrad and the Performing Arts edited by Katherine Isobel Baxter and Richard J. Hand contains richly suggestive essays about Conrad and cinema. This is appropriate, for as Owen Knowles and Gene Moore write in their Oxford Reader's Companion to Conrad, "by the end of the 20th century, almost 90 film or television adaptations were based on works by Joseph Conrad" (110-111).

The earliest is a famous adaptation of Victory, which still exists, directed by Maurice Tourneur in 1919 for Paramount. According to Gene Moore, Conrad saw the film in the autumn of 1920 (40-41). Incidentally, Paramount was the studio behind the 1930 and 1940 film versions of Victory. All three versions, 1919, 1930, and 1940, end happily with Heyst and Lena alive and reconciled.1 Lop off the last minute and you have intriguing versions of Conrad's novel. The latest Conrad film adaptations are Chantal Akerman's 2011 Almayer's Folly and U-Wei Bin HajiSaari's 2011 Hanyut/Almayer's Folly, both of which are based on Conrad's novel of 1895, Almayer's Folly. The release of these films will undoubtedly resurrect interest in Carol Reed's 1950 Outcast of the Islands, based on Conrad's An Outcast of the Islands of 1896.


Yet, with this plethora of films, there is nevertheless one great challenge in adapting Conrad to the screen, the author himself, for Conrad's reaction to [End Page 133] cinema was ambiguous. For example, Conrad wrote to Richard Curle on 18 August 1920:

If one is to condescend to that sort of thing [adaptation] well then, all considered, I prefer Cinema to Stage. The Movie is just a silly stunt for silly people—but the theatre is more compromising since it is capable of falsifying the very soul of one's work both on the imaginative and on the intellectual side—beside having some sort of inferior poetics of its own which is bound to play havoc with that imponderable quality of creative literary expression which depends on one's individuality.

(CL 163)

Although this statement is more of a critique of theatre than cinema, Conrad nevertheless raises the spectre, noted by many scholars, that while one might put the contents of a Conrad narrative on screen, it is nearly impossible to convey the irony, the complex narratology, and achronological narrative discourse that are hallmarks of his texts. More broadly, he alludes to the inherent complications of any adaptational format.

One can trace Conrad's complicated reactions to cinema. In a letter to his agent Eric Pinker, 9 April 1923, Conrad claimed his sense of literary art is that "the imaginative literary art [is] like a cinema; with this addition that for certain purposes the artist is a much more subtle and complicated machine than a camera, and with a wider range, if in the visual effects less precise" (cited in Rude 22).

In 1923, Conrad made his only visit to America, at the behest of his publisher Frank Doubleday. During his stay, Conrad delivered remarks in May 1923 in a brief address entitled in his notes "Author and Cinematograph." In his remarks in "Author and Cinematograph" Conrad argues that "the aim of the novelist has been [. . .] to present humanity in action on the background of the changing aspects of nature and a series of acted scenes exhibiting part of life in a connected series up to some appointed conclusion. But the author unlike the camera had the power to react not only to light, shades and colour but also to form" (cited in Schwab 345).

Citing Henry Fielding and Victor Hugo, Conrad mentions the "fundamental condition of visuality" of the novelistic text (345). Conrad goes on to argue that "fundamentally the creator...


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