For the benefit of those who aren’t sure of the definition or scope of pulp fiction, I want to point out that pulp fiction is not one genre, but several. Overall, pulp fiction can be further broken down into sub-catergories, such as horror, fantasy, men’s adventure stories. My interest is primarily in the novels that were developed into motion
pictures. Partly, that’s due to my father’s career. He was a director of photography. Although he never worked in Hollywoord, I was inspired by the atmosphere and excitement of the sound stage, the production equipment, the cameras and the lights, and the personnel. I was lucky enough to be allowed at an early age to join my father on the sound stage and actually given a job (without pay). You would find me at the back end of camera dolly. During the action on the set, I was responsible for pushing the dolly in or out of the scene.
As I mentioned in my personal profile, my interest in Pulp FIction and Noir began when I started reading the adventures of The Saint, by Leslie Charteris.
Some people might be asking why I chose to talk about Noir films when the title of my site is Modern Pulp Fiction Novels. In my mind, there is a visceral link between the printed word in genre fiction and the movies that were adapted from or inspired by them.
The Third Man, for example, originated as a novel, but mainly as a blueprint for the screenplay which Graham Greene also wrote. The grimy, shadowy worlds of writers like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Dashielle Hammett, and others, when translated to the screen, enlarged the visual perspective from the static pulp poster to moving images. A great adaptation can not only improve on the story with dramatic angles, music, dialog, and camera movement; it can transform the writing. In saying this, I’m not denigrating prose as opposed to film. It’s simply that film lifts the content from the written page to a different dimension. Regardless the adaptation is good or bad, it requires a transformation. In the case of the pulp fiction genre, the journey from page to screen seemed to have worked especially well.
Treatment of Pulp Fiction and Noir
James M. Cain’s literary style is minimalist, told in the first person in what is usually described as an objective style. An objective story style, regardless of the author’s voice (1st, 3rd, omniscient, etc), informs the reader of what happens without telling us anything about the inner thoughts of the characters. An example from Cain’s famous novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, to illustrate this:
They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana.
Interestingly, Albert Camus, the existentialist writer famous for The Stranger, admitted to being inspired by Cain’s style. To compare:
Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.”
A dispassionate narrative, short sentences that tell us nothing of the narrator’s state of mind. This is fine; I’m not advocating for any particular style.
In The Postman Always Rings Twice, the visual narrative of the film carries us through the same plot, but rather than imagining the story, we’re presented with a point of view that is unrelated to what we imagine in our own heads when reading. In a way, our imaginations are hijacked by the movie process. The story comes alive, not in our heads but on the screen; it becomes a single, collaborative effort of the screenwriter, the director, producer, and the studio front office.
I’ve read Cain, and I find his writing too sparse for my taste, and to me the movie is not just an interpretation but a wholesale transformation. It lifts the story from its shell and fills in the details that are missing from the novel. The experience is explicit rather than implicit, and it becomes more visceral. I am not denigrating Cain’s writing by any means, but it is a matter of personal taste.
The Novel As Blueprint
Out of necessity, screenplays are minimalist. They are limited as to their length (usually no more than 120 pages), which is not arbitrary but set down as a template that has pretty much persisted since full-length movies were first produced, at least since the sound era. Although novels have structure, there is more leeway in the telling; they can be of almost any length, and a writer’s journey through his story isn’t limited to a specific length or style. Movies, on the other hand, are dictated by the demands of the screen, by financial considerations, actors, crew, etc. Thus, screenwriters are obliged to write more economically, more precisely, always keeping the camera’s point of view in mind. Descriptions are rudimentary; “slugs,” short, pithy snapshots, if you will, give the director the essence of each action.
For that reason, I think Cain’s style of writing is more easily transferred to the screen than some other writers. Cain leaves all that extra stuff to our imagination, but the skeleton of the story lies exposed due to its abbreviated style. The novel takes place is real time, which gives it this urgency: it is driven by the plot and by the dialog. The screen treatment fills in the rest, at the same time magnifying the content by adding picture and sound, as well as real people – the actors – characters who only lived in our imagination before.
Of course, this is just my own opinion and I don’t consider myself an expert, but an interested observer and enthusiastic participant in the process.
I’ll have more to say on the subject in future blogs. I’d love to hear from you, please post a comment if you like.
If you have comments, please email me at
Born in Tel Aviv, Israel (when it was still Palestine, a British protectorate. I was 1 year old when we moved to England, where I grew up. At age 12, we left for Canada and I’ve lived here ever since.