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Novel to Film

The American
The death of the Marquis de Bellegarde

Adapting Plot and Sequence

In the novel, how does the reader learn about the circumstances surrounding the death of Claire's father? What other important information about the family history is revealed to Newman?

In 1890, Henry James adapted The American for the stage. In his play, as in the novel, the family secrets are revealed in a speech by Mrs. Bread. But for the stage adaptation, James changed some important facts. Read the excerpt from his script carefully and underline the plot changes in his adaptation. Why do you think James made the changes he did?

  1. In the film, when do we first learn about the history of Claire's family? What do the opening scenes reveal about the characters and their relationship to one another? Look carefully at the camerawork: How do particular shots help tell the story?

  2. Do the plot details in this scene follow the novel or the play? What choice would you have made if you were the screenwriter?

  3. Why do you think the filmmakers chose to dramatize this material instead of having Mrs. Bread narrate the story to Newman, as she does in the novel and the play?

  4. Why do you think the filmmakers changed the sequence of the scenes, moving the story of the family's past up to the beginning of the film? How does the opening set up the action that follows? By presenting the family history up front, they remove some of the mystery of the Bellegarde past that hovers over the novel and the play. Was that a good choice? What mystery remains to be revealed later?

  5. Compare your answers to these questions with those given by the director Paul Unwin. Here's what he had to say when asked about the opening sequence of the film:

    "What I was trying to do was give the audience a sense of this extraordinary dark and brooding world, and these sights of extraordinary behavior and pressures within a family that weren't entirely clear. You thought, "Whoa, there is something afoot here." It was all an attempt to give the audience an experience before they met Christopher Newman, and to give them a kind of tension. Where is this character going to end up? Is he going to end up back where we started at the beginning of the film? Is it going to be as dark and mysterious as it appears to be? I felt that placing the secret at the beginning would give us that trajectory."

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