FILMIC ASPECTS OF THE SECRET AGENT
“The Secret Agent” Joseph Conrad’s novel which formed the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,” is not an easy novel to read. English was not Conrad’s first language. In fact, Conrad was in his 20s before he became fluent in English. But even so, Conrad is considered one of the best English novelists.
It is possible that part of the reason Conrad is difficult to read is because he is so microscopically observant. Reading Conrad requires time and patience. It requires slowing yourself down enough to visualize almost every sentence.
On my second reading of “The Secret Agent,” I found that if I slowed down and allowed mental images of every scene to form, allowed myself to visualize every change of expression, the story came alive in a way that a more rapid reading didn’t allow, and also that the story made more sense.
At some point in my reading about “The Secret Agent,” Conrad and “Sabotage,” I ran across a statement from a critic that Conrad was impossible to film. This is interesting statement especially if you think of the number of films that are based on Conrad novels. There are four versions of The Secret Agent, alone.
I think it is not that Conrad is unfilmable. Instead it is that Conrad has already written a film in the form of a novel.
One series of scenes illustrate this: the scenes between Winnie and Verloc where he realizes that she knows that Stevie is dead up until she kills Verloc. Those few scenes have been written in such detail you could film it from the excerpt in the novel.
In searching for information about Conrad and film, I ran across an article by Earl Ingersoll (1989), entitled “Cinematic Effects in Conrad’s The Secret Agent.”
Intersoll points out that Conrad once considered working on a play with Stephen Crane.
And, Ingersoll talks about how Conrad’s technique was to “render” what human experience is for his characters. He renders their thoughts, their vision, their surroundings and how they experience them. Conrad, details mannerisms and facial movements that are part of social communication, but that we rarely verbalize.
And, as Ingersoll points out, in filmmaking, we take what is purportedly a “continuous line of action” and break it up into pieces. We photograph those pieces from a vantage point that best shows the action, then in editing we put it back together in an apparently continuous stream.
This is precisely what Conrad does in his novels. In “The Secret Agent,” for example, the first three chapters are in chronological order. Then, the fourth chapter occurs a month forward. We have skipped over the central event of the story (the bombing) which has not even been dramatized. In the eighth chapter, we are taken back to events which occurred during the missing month. This skipping back and forth in time, doing what are essentially flashbacks are techniques most commonly associated with film, not novels, especially not novels written in the early 20 century.
Conrad also uses repetition to focus our attention on a certain object. Conrad, for example, mentions knifing three times in the scene before Winnie stabs Verloc. These mentions are not of the knife Winnie uses to stab him, but as in “I could have been knifed at any time.” This repetition is much as would be done in a film by cutting in a shot of a knife repeatedly during the lead up to Verloc’s murder to foreshadow the event and built tension.
Conrad also uses language to essentially slow down the action, as if he were slowing down the speed of a film. When our attention is shifted to Verloc laying on the sofa on his back, watching the moving shadow of Winnie’s arm as she moves to stab him, he describes the movement as “leisurely.” He has Verloc understand that he is going to be stabbed for long enough to even hatch a plan of escape in his mind, but not fast enough to make his body move in defense. It’s as if Verloc is having a nightmare in slow motion but is unable to rouse his body to action.
Ingersoll, Earl G. (1989) “Cinematic effects in Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” Conradiana, Vol. 21, No. 1.
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