28 June 2016

Sometimes The Movie Is Better Than The Book – Case Study: In A Lonely Place

A classic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, based on a book by Dorothy B. Hughes. In a Lonely Place is one of my favorite film noirs. Hell, it’s one of my favorite movies of any genre. But there are two In a Lonely Places. The book and the movie. Some people are fans of both. Others fans of one or the other. I’m the other. I’m a much bigger fan of the movie than the book. That said, I like the book, but I don’t love it. I know a lot of Hughes fans will take what I say here as sacrilege, so get the bricks and bats ready. Uh, for those literalists out there I’m talkin’ figurative bricks and bats.

And that said, the focus of this piece is pretty narrow, dealing mostly with just one aspect of the movie vs. the book. But a major one.


There are several differences between the novel and the movie. But the main thing is that the book is a pretty straight-forward story about a psychopath who murders for fun, if not profit. In the book, he’s a novelist who sponges off his uncle…and worse. The movie (written by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, and directed by Nicholas Ray) is about a screenwriter with a temper and poor impulse control, to say the least. He’s a war hero. A previously successful screenwriter trying to get his mojo back, though I doubt that’s a term he would recognize.

He’s up to do a screenplay based on a book that he doesn’t want to read. So, he brings a woman home to his apartment to read the book to him. He gives her cab money when she’s done. She splits…and is murdered that night. Naturally, he’s a suspect. His alibi witness, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), just moved into his building. He’s charismatic in his own special way and after they meet at the police station, a romance buds between them. But, as the story progresses, she sees the negative sides of his personality, his rage, his jealousy, the way he treats his agent, and she begins to doubt his innocence.

In the book it’s pretty straight-forward. He’s guilty—he’s a psychopath who gets off on killing. In the
movie, we’re not sure because we haven’t actually seen him kill anyone, though we have seen him lose his temper, get into fights, and nearly kill an innocent kid. So, like Laurel, we, too, begin to doubt his innocence.

The novel is, to me, a much more straight-forward story about a serial killer and a more overt bad guy. He’s a psychopathic killer, no doubt about it. In the movie, we’re just not sure. That makes all the difference, especially in his relationship with Grahame. The movie is more ambiguous and with a more ironic ending. Because of this, in my opinion, the movie works much better and seems to strike a fuller chord. However, maybe when the book came out dealing with this psychopath it was more shocking and in turn seemed to have more depth than I see in it today.

Also, in the movie, Dix Steele is much more complex with many more layers to his personality. We like him or at least want to like him. But it’s hard, just as Laurel finds it harder and harder to like him, and especially trust him as time goes on and she sees the dark sides of his personality. We relate to Laurel’s dilemma and find ourselves going along with her and doubting Dix’s truthfulness. We start to believe he really is the killer. We judge him and convict him in our heads just like Laurel does. And we eventually realize how wrong we were as we and Laurel discover the truth.

In the end, Dix and Laurel’s relationship is destroyed by doubt, fear and distrust, even though he’s innocent, because she’s seen that other side of him. And even though Dix Steele doesn’t turn out to be the killer, this is far from a Hollywood happy ending. Very far from it.

The movie takes the basics of the book and adds an ambiguity that leads to a much more bittersweet and poignant story and ending than in the book. So this is a case where the filmmakers did change a certain essence of the story, but it works out for the better.

The movie is noir in the sense that Bogart is tripped up by his own Achilles Heel, his fatal flaw. To me, the thing that most makes something noir is not rain, not shadows, not femme fatales, not slumming with lowlifes. It’s a character who trips over their own faults: somebody who has some kind of defect, some kind of shortcoming, greed, want or desire…temper or insecurity, that leads them down a dark path, and then his or her life spins out of control because of their own weaknesses or failings. Here, Dix is innocent, but a loser, at least in a sense, and will always be a loser. His personality has driven away the one woman who really loved him. Love loses here too, as does Grahame’s character. Her inability to completely trust and believe in Dix leads to her losing what would have been the love of her life. It’s this ambivalence that make it a better movie than book, at least for me. There is, of course, much more to say about this movie, but my point in this piece is just to point out why I like the movie better than the book.

Dix and Laurel love each other, but they can’t be with each other—summed up in some famous lines from the film:

          I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a
          few weeks while she loved me.

Ultimately both versions need to stand on their own and they do. But for me, the bottom line is: I’d say: Good book, great movie.


As a side note, a long time ago I bought a poster of the movie from Pat DiNizio (lead singer and songwriter of the Smithereens), who did a great song based on the movie called—of all things—In a Lonely Place. The lyrics paraphrase the famous lines from the movie above. So, every time I look at the poster I think about him sitting under it, writing that song. Doubt he’d remember me, but for me that’s a cool memory. Click here to watch the YouTube music video.


Also, here are some pictures from my book signing last week with Pam Ripling at The Open Book in Valencia:

And my radio interview at KHTS AM 1220. Click here for the podcast.


  1. Paul,
    Another great post. One aspect of the movie you didn't touch on is that Bogart played the lead. In most films I've always rooted for Bogart. He was my man. In the film I rooted for him not to be the bad guy. It had to be someone else. In the end I got what I wanted but not really. He didn't get the girl. For me, the casting played a big part In A Lonely Place.
    - Stephen

  2. Thanks, Stephen. And I couldn't agree more. Casting was really important. But in a sense Bogart cast himself since this was a Santana (his production co.) production. And the perfect marriage of actor and part/character.

  3. A great set of film posters. I always think really terrific books are better in print. But mediocre novels sometimes make better films

  4. A completely different genre and perhaps it's unfair to compare really bad books with a movie, but Fifty Shades of Grey left no doubt the film was better than the novel. Or should I say the novel was much worse than the movie?

  5. I agree, that, with Bogart as the hero, In a Lonely Place was going to be a great movie.
    Casting always counts. I think "Lonesome Dove" the miniseries was infinitely better than the book, mainly because of Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as the leads. And, by contrast, while I really enjoyed a lot of Elliot Gould's performances, I could NOT believe him as Philip Marlowe in the Altman version of "The Long Goodbye".

  6. In a Lonely Place, book vs. film is an interesting topic. I enjoyed the film, but I always enjoy Bogie, and Gloria Grahame is excellent. I bought the book because I had read good stuff about Dorothy Hughes--women writing noir and similar slants. I found the book rather weak, because Dix Steele was an obvious psycho. (And his name was worthy of an 8th grade boy's imagination.) That killed the suspense for me. And the mystery we had in the film.
    But my close personal friend and soon-to-be-published novelist Christina K. had a different take: "I think it's soooooo suspenseful I can't stand it. Yeah, Dix steele was totally stupid name. That would have never made it out of [a writer's] workshop, either. But he was so real to me. Then again, i love sociopaths, i have this total thing about sociopaths, . . . Anyway, i'm more into the psychological aspects of why people do things, rather than mysteries. I almost don't care who did a thing, i want to know why--"
    Which is an interesting point. In the movie, I was interested in who was the killer. In the book, who was not an issue. Why?
    Another thing about the book--it was probably fresh and original when written. Now is seems obvious to people like me because we've seen so many books and movies about psychos.

  7. I Am Legend, the root of all things zombie, was made into movies at least three times. One of them, The Omega Man, starred Charlton Heston, which turned out more interesting that the novel.

  8. I like Janice's comment: A terrific novel is always better than the movie, but mediocre novels can make pretty good movies. I can think of two examples--The Firm and Presumed Innocent. When I read the novels, I found the protagonists despicable, but I found them much more sympathetic in the movies, and not just because I liked the actors--some small but crucial changes were made in the characters and the plots. I also thought the movie version of The Firm had a much stronger ending. The ending of the Presumed Innocent movie frustrated me, though--the protagonist took too long to catch on.

  9. I agree, Janice. When a book is good it’s hard to beat. But as to movie adaptations, it just depends. Sometimes good books make good movies and sometimes not. And the same with bad books. It really depends on the filmmakers I think.

  10. Thanks, Anonymous. I haven’t read nor seen Fifty Shades, so I’ll take your word on it :) .

  11. Eve, I’m totally with you re: Gould/Marlowe and The Long Goodbye. But I’ve had arguments with people who feel just the opposite. However, to me, Chandler rolls over in his grave every time that movie plays. And I love that book!

  12. Thanks, Harley. And your friend has an interesting take. But, while the movie does have the mystery element, I think it also works on the psychological element and more so than the book. For me, the movie just works better on all levels.

  13. I agree on both those films, B.K. It’s been a long time since I’ve read those books, but The Firm, in particular, I remember thinking that the end was weak. And the movie is a pretty good thriller.

  14. Yes, to casting Bogart, but I think the key to LONELY PLACE is Grahame - often an underused and underestimated actress, who usually got cast playing bimbos. (She was married to Nick Ray when LONELY PLACE was shot.)
    I agree, too, that middle-grade novels can make much better pictures than top-shelf. THE GREAT GATSBY seem to be unfilmable, for instance. THE GODFATHER made a terrific movie.
    I think the issue with Altman's LONG GOODBYE is that the movie was contemporary (meaning for the '70's), all that Viet Nam disillusionment and crap, so Gould made sense in the part - and so did Mark Rydell, who never got be as smarmy again. It works better in period dress, the late 1940's.

  15. Thanks, David. I think the combination of Bogart and Grahame is unbeatable in this movie. And I agree that she wasn’t always put to best advantage. Interesting life…but sad.

    Also agree with about the Viet Nam stuff vis a vis The Long Goodbye. I think it could have been updated, but they were trying to go for MASH instead of Chandler. (And by the way, I think you’re the only one I’ve seen in ages who still spells Viet Nam as two words besides me.)

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  17. I surmise the truth will surface eventually if this turns into a Batman Begins (ie an awesome prequel movie that did very well to reboot the establishment) or it falls more in accordance with The Scorpion King (ie a total misuse of my time that presumably shouldn't have even been made). https://moviden.com


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