Film into Book – “Hostile Witness” (1968) Movie Tie-In

As you will be aware I have been running a little series of how books were adapted into films and I thought it would be interesting to see what happened when the process was the other way round. I have in general about the lucrative business of novelisations of screenplays as movie tie-ins but never examined any single one in particular. But I came across this book in a secondhand bookshop on holiday and gave it a read.

British writer Jack Roffey had turned his play – a hit in London West End and Australia though less so on Broadway – into a screenplay and was inveigled into making a quick buck by churning out the movie tie-in book, published straight into paperback in Britain by Arrow. It turned out to be an interesting exercise because the play was no longer in circulation and the film failed to get a proper release so the book had to survive on its own without the help of movie publicity or posters outside the chain cinemas.

The book is about 60,000 words long while the play/screenplay probably comprised fewer than 5,000 words so that was a lot of padding-out to do, if that was all the author could manage. Interestingly, Roffey proved himself an adept novelist, taking the opportunity to both clarify the proceedings and mystify the reader even more, accentuating the ambiguities of the initial work. Where the movie glosses over main protagonist Simon Crawford’s (Ray Milland in the film) mental difficulties until brought into question during the court case itself, in the book Roffey lays the groundwork more straightforwardly, recounting the period spent in hospital and, more importantly, his rapid decline after returning to work so that by the time he is arrested his mental health is very poor.

Sheila Larkin’s (Sylvia Syms) unspoken feelings for her boss remain just that, but there is a physical closeness – she catches him when he collapses, briefly nursing him, and she is presented as a woman more aware of her own sexuality. And the door is opened later in the book for a relationship – “intimacy umbrellaed them in soft folds, inviting positive expression.” Equally, when given the opportunity to take on the case, her first reaction is fear: “She couldn’t possibly accept it…it would be a terrifying responsibility for a junior of her standing” and she expects the episode to end in abject humiliation until she catches sight of her boss and registers the fear in his eyes. Thus, Roffey is able to get inside all the major characters rather than have the camera – and the shortage of screen time – dictate the point of view. Other characters, some incidental, are also more fully drawn.

While the play’s dialogue would not have sufficed to carry a book of this length, Roffey has to add considerably to his original material, and in most cases extended conversations are made to count. Perhaps most interesting of all since he is in charge, Roffey can dispense with the need to constantly cut back to the accused during the trial to register his facial reactions and that allows the personality of Sheila Larkins to flower and take true centre stage rather than be constantly undercut by continually focusing on Crawford. Roffey was also an expert on court procedure and the opportunity to delve into that gives the book greater authority.

The book is certainly enjoyable and well-written with some sharply observed characterisations. “Mr Justice Gregory came in, diffidently at first, like a small boy at the edge of a pond, who wonders if the ice will hold.”  Simon Crawford is introduced in court in the opening page thus: “There was an affected boredom is the half closed grey eyes – a calculated indifference to the heat and the coming verdict.” While Sheila Larkins is the opposite – “properly wrung out.”

There’s style in the descriptions. “Gordon Mews is one of those peaceful backwaters that an earlier and more gracious London put aside for a rainy day, and promptly forgot about.” And the book moves along briskly, a crime thriller with the unlucky caught in a web that is closing in fast. Roffey is able to touch on more specifically Crawford’s disintegration and his shock at being tabbed a criminal. Like the film, it was more than passably entertaining.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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