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Nicole Ritterbusch (Göttingen)

George Steven's A Place in the Sun and Jack Clayton's The Great Gatsby Short-by-shot: a computer-assisted comparison

In the context of a scientific film examination, the underlying analytical and interpretational steps should be made on verifiable grounds. This becomes especially important, when the subject requires a look at a film adaptation of a novel on the one hand and its literary source on the other. It is necessary to find a method for a comparison that suits both media forms - it is exemplified as an interdisciplinary, computer-based approach as described in this article.

As opposed to the first subjective viewing of a film under the conditions of the movie-theatre - dark room, uninterrupted reception, collective sharing of impressions - the topic at issue involves a rational film reconstruction through repeated viewing. Access to the film in the form of a videotape and the use of a video cassette recorder (VCR) is therefore one of the primary technical requirements. Since a film of average length contains about 500 to 1000 shots, the use of a personal computer (PC) - the second technical necessity - is suited to an economical processing for the abundant data presented here. Whereas in the mean time literary studies (and linguistic studies as well) make habitual and regular use of the PC for economical and analytical reasons, the work at film

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analyses based on computers - at least at German universities - seems to be restricted to the development of cost-intensive hard and software sets by special departments only. Braunschweig and Marburg are to be mentioned here. The use of the PC plus common programs, however, enables a potentially larger set of users to work in this field. If a video capture-board is added to the equipment, stills and moving images can be digitalised by linking the computer with the VCR.

Having a whole history of their own, filmic adaptations of novels (and dramas) form a specific area of film in general and therefore require an equally specific approach. More and more they have freed themselves from the premise of "adequacy of adaptation" they were judged by up to the 1970s, sometimes even in the present time. Bearing the semiological approach in mind, the request for a structural or plot-wise point-to-point resemblance is replaced by the question of function within the film's operating system of codes.

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The status of a filmic adaptation as a medium operating independently from its literal source thus serves as the analytical basis from which questions regarding both the written and the filmed work are to be developed.

In a reversal of the traditional step "from book to film", the film has become an important mediator of literature. According to recent surveys, not only at German schools and universities classical literature is known to students more via film than via a literature (Buchloh/Becker/Schröder 1985: 133), which alone could be reason enough for a closer look at the style of filming. Moreover, through an extensive use of VCRs, the reception volume of films has increased, which also brought about a change in audience habits. Finally, the most important reason from an analytical point of view can be seen in the high level of mediation of both novel and film, since the influencing of each other seems to constitute a recurring part in the history of both media. An interdisciplinary comparison therefore is meant to throw an illuminating look at the underlying narrational and presentational modes, before it deals with thematical questions.

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While the examination of the novel can be exemplified with the text and the respective pages, the filmic medium is not directly accessible in this way. The analysis therefore requires a thorough preparation. Every sound film consists of different narrational, presentational layers. Plot, action, figure interaction, dialogue, music, mise-en-scène, lighting, visual imagery - plus special effects or certain genre conventions not considered here - are all connected in order to produce the specific meaning of the medium (simultaneous design).

The film transcript

Editing provides the key for the analysis, since the film's components such as scenes, segments and sequences are formed by single shots (linear, successive design). A shot-by-shot film-transcipt records the screened information. As a precise model for a later description of filmic details and for a quick re-orientation throughout the film, the film-transcript displays a table with eight columns, presenting the serial number of shots, the serial length, the duration of each shot in seconds, the framing of the image and the camera movement, the description of the ongoing action, the dialogue and the musical score plus sounds (Buchloh 1980).

The table-model at issue provides the highest possible information in the smallest possible number of columns. Since it is meant to describe, not to interpret, its entries need to be as objective as possible. The form corresponds to the different layers in operation.

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The film-transcript thus provides information about the film's structure, its design and style. Especially important in this respect is the time factor. It shows the length of each shot in seconds - it marks suspense climaxes (fast succession of cuts) as well as extended periods of time (slow succession of cuts). If the time-data are taken separately, the linear course of the film can be presented in a shot-length diagram. With the duration of each shot in seconds filled in vertically and the seriel number filled in horizontally, the filmic course of time and the editing pace can be viewed at a glance. With several films at issue, different styles in the unfolding of the action may evolve.


Film critics occasionally point to the possible problems implied in a fragmentary reproduction and reception of filmic images:

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It has thus to be re-emphasized that a still presents just one part in the whole system of the filmic process. Technically, a film consists of single shots and a film analysis - in a similar way as with novel analysis - breaks up the whole work into the different layers in order to point out specific techniques and effects. In addition to the camera work, dialogue, music, mise-en- scène, etc., digitalised stills drawn from the film specific points enrich both the analysis and the interpretation by illustrating the film's method of character presentation, figure interaction and the use of visual leitmotifs, as is referred to in the given example (see still from A Place in the Sun).

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As far as the surface structure of a film is concerned, visual devices such as chapters or headlines usually found in a written text, are obviously missing. Nevertheless a visual ordering of plot and story events does take place. By relating exclusively on the films technical/visual devices - on filmic "punctuation marks" such as dissolves, double-dissolves, fade-ins and fade-outs, wipes etc. - the film's arrangement of the plot can be re-drawn. As lager items, these comprise sets of scenes, segments and sequences.

Dreiser and Fitzgerald

George Stevens Oscar-winning film A Place in the Sun is based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy - starring Elisabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Ahead of The Red Badge of Courage, An American in Paris and Death of a Salesman, Steven's picture is chosen as the best film of its production year (1951) by the American National Board of Review. A Streetcar named Desire follows in place six. The "best film ever to come out of Hollywood" (Silke 1964/65:15) is awarded six oscars that year. In the following decades, the audience seemed to forget about it, whereas the novel succeeded to win back its status as a masterpiece. Praised for his critical depiction of American society in 1925, Dreiser immediately sold the film rights to the Famous Players (later Paramount) for $ 90.000. With Eisenstein working on the script, but being dismissed by the production company for political reasons, von Sternberg took over the

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direction of the 1931-released adaptation, which finally failed at the box-office. The importance of Dreiser as a naturalistic spokesman and of his work in the literary canon of the 1920s was not acknowledged until the late forties.

The second film takes up one of the best-known pieces of American literature of the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby established itself as an immediate success in its publishing year of 1925 and credited its author once more with being the spokesman of the jazz age. Two years later Hollywood turned out a silent film version, which was followed by a second adaptation in 1949, presenting the box-office magnet Alan Ladd in the lead. Months before the opening of the Jack Clayton-film in 1974, this production was advertised by a huge campaign. The built-up expectations - mainly for a major romance - could not be reached. The film flopped both at the box-office and at critical reception. Nevertheless, a re-examination in the context of this analysis credits it as a thoroughly structured and very well produced film with the potential of a classic.

Thematically seen, similar kind of questions can be applied to both novels and their chosen adaptations - the success-theme, the socio-critical context, the question of identity and triangular relationships in the case of An American Tragedy and A Place in the Sun and the historical context of the American Dream, the meaning of the past and the money-defined relationships as well as the notion of the city theme in the case of both Gatsby versions.

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Closely linked with questions of content, aspects of the film form are - in analogy to novel analysis - of special importance here. In the manifold system of the film Stylistical and narrational principles of the same novel and film, of the presentation of the story in place and time form the centre of interest here. The film's "narration" is defined as a process, as an activity of collecting and arranging "story material in order to achieve specific time-bound effects on a perceiver." (Bordwell 1985:xi) Questions of point of view as well as figure characterisation are constitutive within this process. With regard to the overall structure of the film, the repeated use of certain motifs should be given special attention. Filmic motifs occur on different levels:
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Often enough, it is in the exposition that the various motifs are carefully presented. Almost with psychological necessity the exposition thus becomes the criterion for the viewer. Seen in retrospective, it gives the film its visual and thematical frame, as the given examples will illustrate.

Visual information

The exposition of A Place in the Sun emphasizes the film's visual information. A young man (George Eastman) is introduced immediately as the protagonist. At the end of the establishing shot, the camera zooms up to his face in a close-up. With the character apparently appearing out of nowhere this procedure creates a curious tension for the figure's "story." The oversized bill-board "It's an Eastman" is set up as an indicator for the unfolding of the filmic narration. It directs the hitcher George directly to Eastman himself, the head of the swim-suit factory. As one of the film's leading visual symbols, it is connected with the main theme of the protagonist's persistent pursuit of the American Dream. Morally and socially encoded conventions are neglected for romantic reasons, which leads to an inevitably tragic end.

Visually the hitch-hiker George and the rich-looking woman in the cream-colored luxury-convertible (Angela Vickers) are related to each other in a predictable way. Photographed from a medium distance as she disappears quickly from view, her driving past is

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accentuated by the sound of a horn. The camera follows her from George's perspective, when he looks inquisitively after her. Although Angela is not to reappear in connection with George until much later in the film, her importance as a character is emphasized here. Stylistically, she is associated with the woman from the bill-board. Even at this early stage, she can already be seen as the personification of a glamour advertisement. Angela Vickers is a representative of the high-society George longs to enter. Consequently, the next scenes will present the setting as the milieu of the rich branch of the Eastman family.

Musical themes

The Great Gatsby establishes various musical themes. The musical score opens with Irving Berlin's sentimental "What'll I do", and then changes to a popular song, from there to Charleston music to change again to a specific instrumental theme that underlies the display of several photographs - always of the same woman: Daisy, as the spectators are to learn later. A sense of the past is established here by the combination of music and images. While the music, accompanied by the laughter of an imaginary party-crowd, seems to echo through the great empty halls, a fly crawls over a piece of half-eaten bread. All musical motifs are to reappear in the course of the film - each in connection with special characters and topics. When Gatsby, for example, actually meets his desired woman, Daisy, much later in the film, the

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instrumental "Daisy-theme" starts again, recalling the melancholy connotations set out in the exposition. It characterises the relationship between the two that is based on a desire to recreate the past. The visual imagery of the re-encounter heightens this interpretation. Daisy's and Gatsby's recognizing glances are refracted through a mirror and both figures are seen by Nick from in front of a window where they appear set in a frame, static as in a picture.

Shot-length diagrams

A comparative look at the shot-length of both films and the film transcript would indicate that a succession of short shot-lengths is linked with an accelerated action, whereas long shot-lengths point to an emphasis on figure interaction and staged dialogue. Peak durations of shots in A Place in the Sun can be found in the first third of the film - they all present the long extended, static and presumably "unexciting" meetings of George and Alice, the factory-worker he is dating until Angela Vickers be comes interested in him. The film's editing pace is accelerated in the various meetings with her, the woman from the upper-class. The subjective, psychological time now also moves faster, since Alice was drowned and the moment of George's arrest is coming inevitably closer.

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The Great Gatsby, however, is cut faster in the first half. It builds up to the meeting of Gatsby and Daisy - the meeting itself being presented in a rather long shot and followed by a short period of accelerated action. Soon after the re-encounter though, the film's pace changes. It is slowed down in recurrent conversations about Daisy's marriage to Tom Buchanan. Even the social gathering at Gatsby's party takes place in long durating shots. It seems to be halted by the problems of the triangular relationship. The Wilson sub-plot, having been interwoven with the actions of the main characters by Tom Buchanan's affair with Myrtle Wilson, develops into an independent theme, when in the longest shot of the film (shot 649) George Wilson decides to take vengeance for the murder of his wife.


As has been illustrated, a detailed record of a film provides the basis for an objective approach to the subject. It not only serves as a means for a re-orientation through the course of the film, but underlies a systematic analysis of its structure and presented themes. Therefore, it has proven to be indispensible in the context of an interdisciplinary comparison, although it shouldn|t be regarded as a representation of the filmic medium. It makes no claim to serve as a substitute for the moving image.

The transmission of some of the table data into a diagram offers a useful examination of the film's linear development. Other diagrams can be constructed in this connection, whose form would differ from the presented one - e.g. of the figure

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interaction, of the meetings of single characters or of the connection of a certain musical score with a theme or a person. In addition to the screening, the film's meaning is constituated to a large part in the mind of its recipients - a process comparable to the act of reading and its underlying motivations: Seen from this perspective, the film transcript functions as a mediator in the interplay between film and viewer.

Appendix: diagrammes


Clayton, Jack (1974). The Great Gatsby, Paramount Picture, David Merrick Production, 135 min., VHS-copy.
Stevens, George (1951). A Place in the Sun (black-and-white), Paramount, 122 min., NTSC + VHS-copy.

Atkins, Irene Kahn (1974). "In Search of the Greatest Gatsby", in: Literature/Film Quarterly 2: 3, 216-228.
Bordwell, David (1985). Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison.

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Bordwell, David/Thompson, Kristin, eds. (1986). Film Art - An Introduction, 2. ed. New York.
Buchloh, Paul (1980). "Literatur in filmischer Darstellung: Methodische Möglichkeiten zur philologischen Erschließung verfilmter Literatur", in: Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 13.
Buchloh, Paul G./Becker, Jens Peter/Schröder, Ralf J., eds (1985). Literatur und Film. Studien zur englischsprachigen Literatur und Kultur in Buch und Film II. Kiel.
Faulstich, Werner (1980). Einführung in die Filmanalyse. Tübingen.
Kuchenbuch, Thomas (1978). Filmanalyse: Theorien, Modelle, Kritik. Köln.
Schneider, Irmela (1981). Der verwandelte Text. Wege zu einer Theorie der Literaturverfilmung. Tübingen.
Seesslen, Georg (1993). "Formate - Vom Erzählen des Films in einem Rahmen", in: epd Film 2 (Feb.).
Silke, J.R. (1964/65). "Image No.2 - A Monograph of George Stevens Films", in: Cinema (Los Angeles), December/January.
Weber, Alfred/ Friedl, Bettina, eds (1988). Film und Literatur in Amerika. Darmstadt.
Winkler, Hartmut (1992). Der filmische Raum und der Zuschauer. Apparatus-Semantik-Ideology. Heidelberg.

Nicole Ritterbusch
Nikolausberger Weg 31
D-37073 Göttingen