Ethel Lina White wrote many great mystery novels before her death in 1944, and several of those novels found their way onto the big screen. The Wheel Spins became Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). Her Heart in Her Throat became Lewis Allen’s The Unseen (1945). And, in 1946, her novel Some Must Watch (which I reviewed here) became Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase.
The Spiral Staircase officially opened in New York in February of 1946, following a limited release in December of 1945. It was a sensation; critics loved its deliciously dark moodiness and moviegoers agreed. The story of a deaf-mute servant being stalked by a menacing madman became a huge hit for RKO.
I had seen The Spiral Staircase many times before I ever read White’s novel, and it had grown to be one of my favorite films. I had always thought that Helen’s being mute added depth to her backstory and made the film’s ending especially poignant.
When I decided to finally read the novel, I knew there would be differences between it and the film. After all, these are two distinct mediums telling a story in very unique ways. A film has to entice the senses visually; delving into a novel is a consuming experience which, if you love to read, can’t be matched. What I didn’t expect was a significant change that altered the impact of the story: on paper, Helen Capel is not mute.
In White’s novel, Helen can speak, and quite loudly if needed. She gossips with Mrs. Oates. She uses strong words to stand up to the surly new nurse. She tells others of her increasing fears. The first chapter is an inner monologue, so it wasn’t until the second chapter that it even dawned on me – Helen is speaking. She is having a conversation with another person.
As I kept reading, and Helen kept talking, I found myself growing to love the character even more than I did when she was silent. Here, in the pages, she was feisty and passionate about life. Why, then, had Helen lost her voice in the jump from paper to celluloid?
The answer: convenience. As Dore Schary, the film’s producer, and Mel Dinelli, the screenwriter, discussed Helen’s storyline for the film, a problem arose; Schary questioned why she didn’t just scream when the killer terrorized her. They decided that the best solution would be to turn Helen into a mute*. Therefore, Helen Capel was silenced.
Schary and Dinelli didn’t just strip Helen of her voice. They made other changes, although these were the type of changes I had anticipated. White’s novel took place in the early 30s on the border of Wales and England in a country house called the Summit, but Schary and Dinelli wanted to increase the gothic and sinister feel for the film. They moved the story stateside and set the characters up in a Victorian mansion at the turn-of-the-century*. Personalities were also modified: the Professor of the novel is calculating and cold, while his film counterpart is caring and approachable; the nurse is no longer gruff and imposing; and the irritable stepmother (who Helen had never before met in the novel) shares a warm and almost playful bond with her.
Additionally, the number of characters in the story was reduced, and the relationships of those remaining were shifted: the Professor, the invalid stepmother, the Oates’, the nurse, and the doctor were incorporated into the script; the Professor’s sister, his student, his son, the son’s wife, and the neighbor were tossed, and replaced with a secretary and a stepbrother. It’s a pity; the drama caused by the son, his wife, and the student in the novel is very entertaining, and would have been more fun to watch than the dryly reserved triangle (which I had never cared for much) provided in the movie. Several of the more interesting plot lines strung throughout the novel were either cut or twisted to work with the film’s version of events.
These tweaks to the novel’s story, however, were not as jarring as the removal of Helen’s voice.
The film is still one of my favorites, and I watched it again this past Halloween. But, the experience was not quite the same. 9 times out of 10, I have found that a film adaptation is never as well executed as its source material, and this case is no different. White’s novel is a tension filled suspense story with vibrant characters and a web of spiraling subplots. The film, in comparison, seems subdued. Watching it again, I could see it lacked many things the novel offers.
In the end, with or without her voice, Helen must still match wits with a killer; and while the novel and film do not use the exact same approach to tell the tale, both are enjoyable and worthy of attention.
* “The Spiral Staircase 1946”, Frank Miller, Turner Classic Movies (www.TCM.com)