Book into Film – “Advise and Consent” (1962)

While Otto Preminger could be quite intemperate on the movie set, he actually toned down the novel on which Advise and Consent was based. He considered author Allen Drury an “arch-conservative.” So from the outset the film takes a more moderate approach. Where Drury named the U.S. enemy as the Soviet Union, Preminger stuck to the more generic communists. it was a different story when he was trying to set up a picture. Not only did the director cut down on the obvious anti-communist stance but veered away from taking a moral high ground.

In any case, there was a great deal that required to be eliminated- especially from a novel that clocked in at 600-plus pages. For example, the Leffingwell story is effectively dealt with 100 pages before the end of the book.  

More importantly, Preminger made the main character Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) more sympathetic. In the book, he is more of a typical politician, able to talk his way out of anything and proud of such a skill. Various scenes, not in the book, were inserted to make Leffingwell more principled, the main addition being the sequence where the politician confesses to the President (Franchot Tone) that he had lied about previous Communist affiliations. In the book Leffingwell and Van Ackerman (George Gizzard) are allies, but not in the film. More importantly, to rack up the tension, the book has Leffingwell easily defeated in the vote, whereas there is deadlock in the film.

It would have indeed been casting against type had Fonda played Leffingwell as outlined in the novel and the Preminger presentation he has a presidential stature and unusual humility for a politician.

Narrative simplification was also necessary. Van Ackerman carries the blame in the film for the blackmail scheme, but in the book this involves a greater conspiracy. Drury portrays Ackerman as a fairly villainous character with severe personality malfunction but the film treats him in more rounded fashion. Orrin Knox (Edward Andrews), one the book’s main characters, was marginalized in the film.

Preminger added scenes relating to the homosexuality of Brig (Don Murray) in an effort to give the character greater depth and to clarify his motivation and especially to ensure his suicide was a result of his internal conflict rather than the blackmail, as was the case in the book. The letter at the end makes no judgement on him.

Drury tended to show his characters in black-and-white, so that instead of a muscular and inflammatory critique of the politicians, with all their chicanery, but Preminger allows the characters to speak for themselves rather than setting them up to be shot down by an audience. As I mentioned in my review of the film in the Blog, many of the politicians engage in verbal duels and present themselves not so much as cocky but confident, not so much smarmy as charming. Here, the actors are encouraged to become performers without their performances degenerating into ham acting.

As congressional correspondent for the New York Times, Drury had an intimate knowledge of the political scene and it is no surprise that each character in the book was modelled on an existing politician – even the blackmail story was drawn from a real-life incident.. By removing much of the party politics in order to concentrate on the main central issues, and by allowing the actors great freedom with their roles, Preminger was able both to humanise the characters and also ensure they were not easily recognizable as current or past politicians.

As in other films, Preminger set to out create a picture about  a moral issue, not one where there is a right way and a wrong way, although the governing party is shown to be generally uncompromising when it comes to dealing with anyone who steps out of line.

In a film that could be easily have been dogged by dialogue or argument, Preminger’s free-flowing camera movement ensures there is a sense not just of excitement and exhilaration but forward movement. Perhaps this film demonstrates more than nay other the director’s mastery of cinematographic techniques.