Harold Pinter and the sound of silence | Bleader

Harold Pinter and the sound of silence

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Harold Pinter
  • Harold Pinter
In preparation for my review of William Friedkin's new film Killer Joe, I made a point to revisit a pair of his earliest films: 1970's The Boys in the Band and 1968's The Birthday Party. Like Killer Joe, both films are adaptations of notable stage plays. Friedkin is one of the most technically sound filmmakers in American history, and he gives both films his own auteurist stamp, but there's no denying that they also owe a great deal to their source material.

Watching The Birthday Party again got me thinking about Harold Pinter, the venerable English dramatist who penned the original script for the stage and adapted a screenplay for Friedkin in 1967. As it happens, The Birthday Party isn't Pinter's first foray into the world of cinema: in 1963, he adapted the short story The Servant for American ex-pat Joseph Losey. Originally written by Robin Maugham, it tells the story of a wealthy Londoner, Tony (James Fox), who takes on a mysterious manservant, Barret (Dirk Borgade), to help him tend to his large flat. Over the course of the film, Barret manages to reverse their social standing; before long, he's head of the house and Tony tends to its upkeep.

Pinter's contributions to 20th century theater were nothing short of seminal. While each of his plays were original works, his contributions to cinema reveal that he was skilled in the art of adaptation as well. The Birthday Party sticks pretty close to the original work—ultimately, it's Friedkin's touch that renders it unique from its source material—whereas The Servant is a different matter entirely. As David Caute says in his biography of Losey, Pinter drastically altered the original text:

Describing the relationship between master and servant from the outside, through a narrator's third-hand report, Maugham provides very little dialogue—the heartland of any screenplay—between Tony and Barrett. Indirect narrative is alien to dramatic form; Pinter was obliged virtually to reinvent the master-servant relationship and to eliminate the narrator.

The script would undergo numerous changes before completion, with Losey and Pinter collaborating extensively on all aspects of the story. In addition to updating setting—Maugham's novella was written in 1948; Losey's film is set in the then-present day of 1963—they fleshed out the character dynamics to further express the film's themes of class, servitude, and the nuances of human interaction.

This last bit is particularly noteworthy, as Pinter is perhaps best known for his "pauses"—the moments of silence he deliberately inserts into the text in order to heighten the subtext of the narrative. Much of the film's drama can be found in a character's inability or unwillingness to speak about a certain subject. In other respects, the subtext is detailed in a re-appropriation of dialogue: Pinter often defined "silence" as a wall of language that hides true meaning. During the National Student Drama Festival in 1962, he asserted that "The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness."

This idea of the implicit versus the explicit greatly interested Losey, who, while working in Hollywood during the Red Scare, struggled to tell personal and difficult stories while battling the imposed moral standards of McCarthyism. Losey, who was continually suspected of having ties to the Communist Party, would eventually leave the United States in 1952 to avoid the blacklist. He took up in England, where he enjoyed a career resurgence that would not only see two more quality Pinter collaborations—1967's Accident and 1970's Grind Prix-winning The Go-Between—but also the magnificent Robert Mitchum film Secret Ceremony (1968), the ambitious Figures in a Landscape (1970), and the admittedly uneven but infinitely intriguing Galileo (1975), a film version of the Bertolt Brecht play that Losey had staged in the late '40s.

Pinter would go on to adapt other works for the screen, including Elleston Trevor's The Quiver Memorandum for director Michael Anderson—who was set to direct The Servant before Losey—in 1965 and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon for Elia Kazan in 1976. Pinter likely didn't have as much creative control over these works as he did on The Servant, but each of his screenwriting credits further solidify his command over the written word and help further our understanding of his relationship to language and communication.

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