Which is better, the movie or the book?
This is a hard question when the both the movie and book under discussion are masterpieces. Think The Maltese Falcon or The Blank Wall/The Reckless Moment—great books made into great movies that also happen to be faithful adaptations.
But what about when both the movie and the book are flawed? What then?
Check out this plot: A young mother arrives at a nursery school one afternoon to pick up her daughter, but the little girl is not there. The mother’s distraught, of course, but the teachers and the principal just stare blankly back at her. They say they do not know her. They say they have never seen her daughter. Does the daughter exist? Is the young woman crazy? Or is something more sinister going on?
That’s the basic set up for Evelyn Piper’s novel Bunny Lake Is Missing, and it’s the same set up that director Otto Preminger takes for his movie version of her book. It’s a great hook for a story. What Preminger does with the rest of the film, however, deivates from Piper’s novel. Some of these deviations work and some don’t.
Piper’s Bunny Lake Is Missing is a book about a feeling, a sickening sensation that boils in the gut as you follow Blanche Lake, the young mother, as she races across New York trying to find someone, anyone, who will believe she has a daughter who has gone missing. Blanche is an attractive young woman, new to the big city. When she tells people that her daughter, Bunny, is missing, they ask her about the girl’s father. She tells them that Bunny has no father. That draws some judgmental looks in 1957. When Blanche manages to get the police involved, they come to her apartment. Where are the child’s clothes? The toys? Why doesn’t Blanche have any pictures of Bunny?
Piper adroitly sets up her story, and she drenches the opening chapters in a mood of dread. Since we open with Blanche on her way to pick up Bunny, we don’t really know what—or who—to believe. Is Bunny real? Or did Blanche imagine a daughter for herself, the result of some trauma in her past? All we know for sure is that Blanche’s terror is real. As daylight bleeds away and night falls, she struggles to keep herself together. Is this frightened young woman going insane? Piper doesn’t reveal the answer too soon, and by keeping us guessing she pulls off a neat trick: we’re certainly pulling for our heroine against all the skeptical people around her, even though we’re not sure if we believe her. For most of its length, Bunny Lake Is Missing is a complex page turner.
But then Piper stumbles at the finish line. Her resolution is hurried and contrived, and is pretty much guaranteed to satisfy no one. Having said that, however, Bunny Lake Is Missing is one of those novels that transcends its own ending. This owes everything to the fascinating character of Blanche. Is she crazy? Or is she a woman caught up in the grinding machinery of a man’s world? It’s the urgency of those questions, and not the plot mechanics, that stays with you after you finish the book.
“Evelyn Piper” was the pen name of Merriam Modell. A Cornell graduate, Modell headed to Germany when it was still a happening place to be in the late 1920s, and she was one of the people farsighted enough to flee the country when Hitler came to power in 1933. Her fiction is suffused with both the unpredictability of life, especially for women, and an almost Gothic sense of dread. With Bunny Lake she turned out a classic piece of 1950s pulp, not so much in the area of sex and violence (the book has very little of either) but more in the sense of anxiety surrounding the characters and their social and gender roles. (In this, one can see a debt to Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.)
In adapting Piper’s book, Preminger and his screenwriters John and Penelope Mortimer transported the story from New York to London. They give the young woman a new name, Ann, and they give her a devoted brother, Stephen. They also give her a sympathetic police inspector played by Laurence Olivier to deal with.
As the movie progresses, Ann finds herself increasingly alone in her quest to find the daughter who may or may not exist. Her quest leads into a twisted vision of nighttime London. Preminger, a master of mood as well as a master of noir, correctly identified the Gothic quality of Piper’s novel. One the great scenes in the book—the heroine’s descent into a weird doll hospital in the middle of the night—translates into one of the great scenes in the movie. Preminger fills his screen with grotesqueries: an old lady who lives above the school and has an unhealthy interest in the dreams and nightmares of children; a drunk and lecherous landlord is played with creepy foppishness by Noel Coward.
Preminger and the Mortimers reconfigured the ending of the story from the novel, and I don’t want to give it away. I will only say this about the ending of the movie: it’s really, truly weird. It’s the weirdest ten minutes this director ever put on screen, and the tension underneath that weirdness keeps escalating right up until the end. It’s great piece of movie making.
And yet, the filmmakers here have made some substantial mistakes. For one thing, the essential conceit of the story—the main character is alone in her search—is compromised by the creation of the character of the brother.
Understand, I’m not against adapters changing the story from the source material. I don’t think an adapter needs to feel any fidelity to the original text; his or her first job is to make a good movie. The creation of the brother here, however, has consequences for the way we receive the story. After all, if the brother believes Bunny exists, well, it seems that much more reasonable to think she does exist. In the book our heroine is mostly alone and we have a much clearer idea of the kind of shame she lives with because she is an unmarried woman with a child. The movie distances us from her, while the book pulls us closer to her. Yet the book is arguably more suspenseful because even though we’re closer to her—we’re inside her head most of the time—we still don’t know if she’s crazy or not. In the end, Piper’s Blanche is simply more compelling than Preminger’s Ann.
Bunny Lake Is Missing is still a fun movie—a nighttime quest through a rogue’s gallery of freaks and weirdos, with a whopper of a weird ending—but, yeah, the book is better.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.