Book into Film: “The Bramble Bush” (1960)

Few novels have been as abruptly shorn as Charles Mergendahl’s massive bestseller – seven million copies sold – The Bramble Bush. The last quarter of the original story was just dumped. For screenwriters seeking to heighten every emotion this was a very strange decision for it is in the last section that the book delivers huge dramatic punch.

The film – SPOILER ALERT – ends with Guy (played in the film by Richard Burton) judged not guilty of the murder of dying best friend Larry. Guy’s one-night stand with Larry’s wife Margaret (Barbara Rush) has made her pregnant but now widowed she leaves him on the grounds that he will be unable to live with what he has done. It’s a sad enough ending but it’s nothing compared to the book.

The trial section takes place three-quarters of the way through the novel. In the film, it is placed much closer to the end so there are only five minutes or so to tidy up in a rather ho-hum manner, nothing highly dramatic, no floods of tears, just Margaret leaving him behind.  

Following the trial in the book, however, Margaret’s departure is much more sudden. There is no goodbye. She just vanishes. While judged innocent of murder, Guy has lost his license to practice so in the absence of professional commitments is free to spend months hunting for her. And find her he does.

The dramatic point you would have thought would be simply whether she can ever accept as a lover the man who has injected her husband with a fatal dose of morphine regardless of whether this was done with the best of intentions and could be construed as a mercy killing. But the author isn’t finished with these characters yet. Yes, they are reconciled and in fact get married.

But it’s too late. Margaret has tuberculosis – a considerably more dangerous condition in those days than now, and in some cases as untreatable as the incurable Hodgkin’s Disease that afflicted her husband. That puts both her life and that of her unborn child in danger. Guy faces another dilemma, just as he did with her husband. If he has to choose, whose life would he want to save.

The baby is born, and both survive. But only for the time being. Margaret’s TB has not abated. Since Guy’s license has by now been restored, they return to the town. But he’s in for a shock. The town is outraged. The public which had stoutly defended him and the jury which had set him free now turn against both, aware through the arrival of the child that they must have had an affair while the husband was still alive, which therefore clouds the issue of exactly why Guy committed euthanasia.

But before Guy can decide to move elsewhere and nurse his sickly wife and care for his newborn child – called Larry after the dead husband – Margaret dies.

That turns the book into a three-handkerchief tragedy that the film never was. Except for running time, you wonder why the screenwriters elected to miss all this out. Maybe the movie would have run over the two-hour mark, perhaps two hours fifteen minutes, but that would hardly make it so undesirable to exhibitors nor so offensive to the public given the ending was so much more dramatic.

Even then, the author isn’t finished. He provides an ironic ending The rejected Fran – dumped also by this point by Bert, Guy’s lawyer– determines that she will look after the child, allowing Guy to recover from his ordeal. And there is the hope – although she would not press her love for Guy on him – that in due course he will come to appreciate her and reciprocate her love.

Quite a different ending indeed from that foisted on moviegoers. Hard to say whether readers were disappointed, but when a novel is such a huge success it is generally because the public likes the story the author has devised. So to rob them of that seems extremely odd.

The novel had raced to the screen. The book was published in September 1958 and the film opened in February 1960, barely seventeen months later. When the gap between novel and movie is so short, it generates feverish public anticipation. And it seems almost perverse to deny the waiting audience the movie they expected.

Naturally, in the transition from book to screen there are other eliminations – and additions. And there is also the usual welter of changes made for no particular reason, for example the town of East Dereham becomes East Norton in the film.

Certainly, the aim of a movie being to heighten drama and combine disparate elements into a more cohesive whole, you can see why in the film it raises the stakes for the lawyer Bert Mosley (Jack Carson) to already be campaigning for district attorney rather than, as in the novel, only dreaming about it. Although both his parents are dead, Guy came from far more prosperous stock in the film than the book, the hospital named after his father in the film but not the novel.

Some of the changes must have seemed to create more drama, but I’m not so sure. What difference did it make whether it was Guy or the dying Larry (Tom Drake) to be the one returning home? In the film it’s Guy, in the book Larry. In the book Guy is kind to the town drunk Stew (James Dunn) but it’s the opposite in the book, hostile and physical abusive to him from the outset. In the book we learn why – Stew was Guy’s mother’s lover and their affair triggered the suicide of his father – from an internal monologue, but in the film this plays out in more dramatic fashion when Margaret confronts Guy about what she sees as his unfair treatment of the older man.

There’s an elimination that’s so shocking you can’t understand why it was left out by the screenwriters. In the book we discover that Stew is in fact Guy’s father, a fact ignored in the film. And in the last section of the book when Guy is tracking down Margaret in different towns he takes Stew’s surname as his own. And one core element of the film – Larry pushing Guy and Margaret together – is the screenwriters’ invention. (Perhaps audiences would view Guy in a lesser light if he simply took advantage of his friend’s illness to sleep with his wife). And to tie things up more neatly, it’s Guy in the film who prescribes sedatives for Margaret whereas in the book that’s not part of his role.

On the other hand Larry’s father Sam is hostile to Guy for reasons that are kept from us in the film – but in the book we find out it’s because Sam blames Guy’s father (also a doctor) for his wife dying in childbirth, an incident that caused him to lapse into the insanity mentioned in the trial scene in the film.

You can see why some elements of the book are not included. The creepy newspaperman Welk (Henry Jones) who blackmails Fran (Angie Dickinson) into posing nude for him later dupes his assistant into doing the same. Bert falls for a tough Boston reporter Sylvia for whom he quits town and dumps Fran.  On discovering she is pregnant by Guy, Margaret’s initial reaction is to seek an abortion. And there’s a section where hospital chief Dr Kelsey and Fran discuss the various ethical ways doctors have of letting exceptionally ill babies die.  The judge suggests to the jury that Guy could be acquitted due to temporary insanity. And there is a bunch of peripheral characters whose main purpose is to highlight the jealousies inherent in small-towns.

But there are two character turnarounds the screenwriters choose to ignore. The first is that the drink-sodden Stew becomes a recovering alcoholic after discovering he is a grandfather. The second is more touching. After Fran was rejected early on by Guy and later dumped by Bert she had resigned herself to a life of “doing terribly immoral things.” But the book ends with, as mentioned above, her taking a huge emotional leap by giving herself the task of nursing both motherless child and widowed father.

It’s always fascinating to see how screenwriters tee up a book for the big screen treatment, deciding what to leave in and what to take out, occasionally (as in Mirage, for example) using little more than the title and the original idea and jettisoning the rest. Of course, limitations may be imposed on the screenwriters of which we are unaware, star demands or budget impositions and other factors. Here, I felt that screenwriters Milton Sperling (also the producer) and Philip Yordan did not get the best out of the book.

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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