In Leitch’s discussion of what he calls fallacies in cinema adaptation theory, he invokes Hitchcock’s name under fallacy number nine, “Source material is more original then the adaptation.” Leitch centers his argument around the idea of auterism. Directors like Kubrick frequently adapted his films from pre-existing source material, yet is concerned to be a very original director. The early films from the Golden Age of Disney can all be linked together whether they are direct adaptation or original stories. All of William Shakespeare’s plays were essentially adaptations of pre-existing stories. He later points out that any work, adaptation or not draws from existing material, usually without even knowing it.
Leitch uses Hitchcock as an example of a director who manages to be an auteur with only rarely using original screenplays, noting in a footnote that Lifeboat as an unpublished novelette is up for debate as an adaptation. Despite having strayed so far from the source material that was not even published, under Leitch’s guidelines, Lifeboat still can qualify as being an adaptation. He disregards the notion that fidelity to source material (in spirit and specifics) and the idea that film adaptations are a way of connecting with the source material as ways of judging an adaptation.
Many criticize the differences without acknowledging the similarities. There’s value in noting that although the character’s names, motivations, behavior, and actions change, certain things did stay the same. Each character comes from the same background and represents the same aspect of society as in the final story. Hitchcock took away the competence away from many of the main characters, the sailors and the self-made man, whom Steinbeck idealized. Some plot elements were retained, though their context changed. Lifeboat is an interesting study for adaptation theory as it breaks with many of the false truths Leitch criticizes in his paper.
The Dark Side of the Genius lends insight into Hitchcock during the early days of production of Lifeboat. David O. Selznick had worked out a two-picture deal with 20th Century-Fox for Hitchcock to direct Lifeboat and The Keys of the Kingdom. The second film was never made, as Hitchcock delayed starting the productions in a hope to receive more money. In the wake of the political fallout of Lifeboat, it’s unlikely that Fox would have wanted to shell out extra money for such an initially poorly received film.
While Fox pushed screenwriters to script Lifeboat, Hitchcock sought after novelists. Before Steinbeck, Hitchcock tried to convince Ernest Hemingway to take the project. Hemingway declined. Lifeboat is known as a picture Hitchcock saw as one of his cinematic challenges, putting him under the constraints of a single set and compositions of mainly close-up and medium shots. However, it seems as if he was also enamored with the idea of working with the additional constraint of creative input from an artist as well-respected and a name as well known as his.
With two deaths in Hitchcock’s family around the time of the production of Lifeboat, the theme of sudden loss and tragedy seems like a likely inspiration for the film to focus on the aftermath of a steady ship being thrown into turmoil. The impact of the deaths in Hitchcock’s own new concern towards mortality can be seen in the rapid weight loss regiment he undertook before Lifeboat’s production. The aftermath of this can be seen in the Reduco newspaper add in which he appears in the before and after picture, slimming down one-hundred pounds.
The book features an anecdote about lead Tallulah Bankhead’s exhibitionist behavior on the set of Lifeboat. As magazines sought to do features on the film, reporters and the studio higher-ups were not nearly as pleased as the male crew members about Bankhead’s behavior, with one reporter commenting about the rumors of indecent behavior in Hollywood being true. This taken in the context of the era of the PCA shows the careful attention the public paid to not only film content but their production environment and stars’ off-screen “performances.”
In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Spoto discusses many of the motifs found in Hithcock’s films. Water is frequently used to symbolize create turmoil, seen in Lifeboat with the stormy uncertain waters. Water also is the impetus for the survivors to rise up against the deceptive Nazi who had hidden his secret supply from the others, even killing to keep it a secret.
Jewelry is also a common Hitchcockian theme. It frequently represents false value. Connie equates her bracelet with good luck, saying that she will never take it off for fear of what would happen. The survivors are only saved, ironically, with her removal of the bracelet and its eventual loss. Hithcock also equates the bracelet with power. Connie is never able to fasten the clasp. Initially, she turns to Kopac for help, but eventually, the Nazi Willie is the only one who can fix her bracelet.
Hitchcock also suggests that transit sparks romance. The Nurse and the Radio officer slowly develop a relationship with him eventually proposing. Sexual tension also exists between Connie and Kopec. The trip also forces Gus to think only about his Rosie back in New Jersey, frequently questioning if he will ever see her again.
Spoto also suggests that the items that pass through the water in the opening represent the film’s main themes: The New Yorker symbolizes a society troubled in its foundation; the chess board symbolizes intellect useless in solving their situation; playing cards represent excessive leisure which allow Willie to successfully cement control over the ship.
While many criticize Lifeboat for its portrayal of Willie as an Aryan superman, Spotto suggests that people would be more offended by his humanity. His singing of German anthems and appreciation of music gives him a quality no one wanted to associate with Nazis. (This humanity is intentional as Walter Slezak who played Willie claimed his character was given curls in an effort to look more innocent.) Conversely, the “rabid pack of dogs” that were the other survivors prove unappealing at the end when they finally organize as one. Americans could only view a Nazi not as human or superhuman but as inhuman.
Truffaut introduces his compilation of a series of interview with Hitchcock with an anecdote in which he silences a critic of Rear Window who claimed he couldn't see Rear Window's flaws because he was not from New York City. Truffaut responded by saying "Rear Window is not about Greenwich Village, it is a film about cinema, and I do know cinema."
This anecdote applies to Lifeboat and author Steinbeck's dislike of the final material. He criticized the fallacy of things like one man rowing the whole lifeboat, failing to acknowledge the cinematic and symbolic implications this has for Willy's percieved control over the other suvivors.
In the interview, Hitchcock says Lifeboat was an effort to test his theory that psycological films contained mostly close-ups or two/three-shots. He saught to find an environment that would force a director to shoot mostly those shots. This close-up style was later adopted by television, mainly due to the smaller screen size and not the psycological implications.
Hitchcock also here discusses his version of the allegory. He confrims that it is soley about the war (contradicting statements made by the producer). Kovac represented the communist way of dealing with the Nazis. He was the most vocal opponent to the captain, much in the same way early American Anti-Nazi Leagues had strong communist ties. Rittenhouse symbolized the Facist who is eager to give up control of the ship in a tumultous time to a dictator, much in the same way certain parts of society were, including the wealthy, eager to keep the status quo, and saw a dictator Roosevelt as their best hope.
Prior to writing the novellete that would become the basis for Lifeboat, John Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down, his first novel about the war. Like Lifeboat, it is a heavily allegorical story that, although unrealistic to a modern audience, was well reviewed and liked by the World War II-era American public who "wanted not art but propaganda."
Lifeboat partially originated as a project that the Merchant Marines asked Hollywood to produce in order to create public awareness of the threat U-boats presented its ships. Steinbeck's original version of the story was much truer to the Marines wishes, and much less of an allegory than the final film ended up being. While the characters were meant to represent a microcosm of American society, the element of a disorganized Democracy set against the strong-wlled Nazi was not present. In contrast, the self-made man shows the leadership qualities that must have been used to amass his fortunes, not the facistman who finds it so easily to give up power. Also, the Nazi is a weak individual who after only one act of deception is killed. The focus of the book is not the Nazi's ascension to control but of what life as a Merchant Marine and the experience of being shelled and stranded is like.
After Steinbeck completed his work on the project, three additional drafts were done, and by the end the story only vaguely represented the original. MacKinlay Kantor's draft was thrown out early on by Hitchcock, though he is credited with increasing the allegory's prominence in the story. One of Frank Capra's collaborators Jo Swerling stripped away a lot of the realism of the characters and provided the "Capra-corn" melodramatic elements. Hitchcock, the master of details, rewrote the final draft shortly before shooting to "give it narrative form."
After seeing his original vision transformed so much, Steinbeck eventually wrote and asked to have his name taken off of the film, claiming that he wanted no part in something that so clearly "damaged the war effort." Most of all, as revealed in a personal letter, it seems as if Steinbeck hated the transformation of the working class characters from ones with dignity to stereotypes, criticizing Hithcock's "middle-class" sensibilities.
In the midst of Hollywood's war time effort, incorporating pro-American propaganda into its films, it's somewhat ironic to see the process converting a film with origins in propaganda transformed by the process into what many reviewers of the time considered to be anti-American.
Stilgoe discusses the reaction the public had to Lifeboat, and their perception of what the experience might be like. Many critics were hung up on the political implications or the technical achievements or follies of the film. When they did comment on the experience, they complained of the unrealistic portrayal of some of the lifeboat hardships. Life magazine specifically complained of things like the lack of “swollen lips” and questioned how clean they were able to stay after all the days at sea. No one falls ill with the exception of Gus, the amputee, whose injury comes during the attack and death ultimately comes from treachery. The public, however, believed the film’s version as being true to life, which shows cinema’s role in the “skew[ing] of twentieth-century understanding.”
One thing Lifeboat got factually correct was the lifeboat’s size. It could easily hold the survivors, supplies, and Connie’s luggage with plenty of spare space. With this in mind, following the war, many decided to buy cheap lifeboats from shipyards and converted them into yachts. They saw in the film a boat that was bigger, stronger, cheaper, and in greater supply than a traditional lot that could be easily obtained.
Another thing Lifeboat accurately portrays is many of the mental challenges that one faces at seas, the most common theme being rule of law. In dealing with the German, the survivors struggle with the question of how to deal with him. With no governing body or procedure, they often quarrel about the legality of throwing him overboard. Faith and the rule of God is the only constant seen in the film, with the steward Joe being the only character to not get sucked into the mob at the end. Lifeboat also successfully deals with issues arising from mental strain at seas. Gus dying of thirst succumbs to the temptation of drinking the sea water, something that debilitates his already dire situation. Two passengers attempt suicide, Gus out of physical pain and the mother out of survivor’s guilt. Lifeboat is a strong example of a film’s role in shaping its audiences perception of realistic events.
By 1941, Hitchcock was considered by pop culture to be in the same league as Frank Capra and Orson Welles as being a recognizable personality as well as filmmaker. Hitchcock had begun to receive some autonomy on his films of this periods from studios like RKO (who also afforded the same courtesy to Welles). However, while Welles’s autonomy came contractually, Hitchcock’s came from people’s dislike of confrontation with the standoffish director. With RKO unsatisfied with the progress of one of his projects, they began to seek more direct involvement. Hitchock responded by leaving the studio after the projects completion, with David O. Selznick helping him work out a deal with 20th Century Fox.
Unused to and unaccepting of studio interference, Hitchcock’s brief stint at 20th Century Fox saw Hitchcock having to deal with studio head Zanuck over many of the elements of production. Zanuck’s biggest issue with Hitchcock was his slow production pace. It took twenty weeks for a script for Lifeboat to be produced. A short production schedule was imposed on Hitchcock which was ignored. Zanuck constantly sent letters complaining of the inefficiency of Hitchcock’s shooting scenes in sequential order and wanted cuts to be made to keep the project under budget, with Hitchcock frequently never responding. Hitchcock disliked the even stronger studio interference then in his earlier projects, and Zanuck disliked Hitchcock’s disregard for the budget. With Hitchcock’s value to the studio questionable, a second film for Fox was not produced (as originally intended).
Leff also notes that although Hitchcock sought after Steinbeck, he still hesitated working with The Grapes of Wrath author. Familiar with Steinbeck’s work, Hitchcock was afraid of the “political baggage” that would be brought to the film that was meant to be a technical challenge above all. Ironically, Steinbeck’s original work was far less politically controversial then Hitchcock’s eventual film. Even in interviews after filming, Hitchcock denies any reading of the film other then a political one. Leff states this as being the film’s chief weakness. Instead of focusing on the development of real characters, Hitchcock is more concerned with the allegory of political ideal and ideals colliding.
After critical reaction to the flim Lifeboat complained of the weak portrayal of Americans in comparison with the superman Nazi, producer Kenneth Macgowan wrote this article about the intent behind the film. Macgowan tries and provide explanations for several of the issues that critics had with the film. He claims the reason the German is the only one who can row the boat because he's the only one with water and food tablets, avoiding the fact that no one man should be able to paddle that lifeboat, no matter how strong he is.
Interestingly, in the article Macgowan includes Steinbeck's name in the list of primary creators of the allegory that was being so strongly criticized because at the time, Steinbeck was seeking to have his name removed from the film.
Macgowan credits Hitchcock with the idea of shooting a film in a lifeboat, and saying that first and foremost, this was a gimmick film. It was Hitchcock's idea of a challenge to shoot the first ever film with only one set. For this reason, Macgowan claims that the allegory was never intended, and they stumbled upon it by accident, throughout the creative process. Steinbeck is the only one for whom this is definetly true as his early manuscript proves. However, a few paragraphs earlier, Macgowan was crediting Steinbeck, a man only involved only very early on in the process, with having an allegorical intent that was supposedly developed later on.
Macgowan's contradictions are best summed up in his final paragraph when he essentially says (paraphrasing), "You misinterpreted our intent. Oh, and if you still disagree, we didn't have any intent to begin with."
In the same issue of The New York Times as the Macgowan letter in defense of Lifeboat, Bosley Crowther responds with a strong critique of Macgowan and the film.
Crowther's article is a strong reflection of the American view of films during the height of censorship. His article is not one of strongly synthesized arguments about why Lifeboat is bad for the war effort. Instead he frequently employs the use of rhetorical questions, asking questions like "What's going on out there[Hollywood]?" as if any film whose portrayal of America's strength is questionable is an outrage in itself and needs no further explanation.
One of Crowther's criticisms that does not feature a question mark is that of all the abilities given to the German. He is the only one with the mental, physical, and emotional ability to amputize Gus's leg, navigate the ship through the storm, and row it towards its destination. He credits all of his abilities as being well-explained, but critizes Hitchcock (and unfairly Steinbeck) for giving them to him in the first place. His argument can be summarized as no matter how well you explain Superman's ability to fly, his super strength, or his heat vision, they still make him look like Superman.
He closes his critique claiming that anything that casts doubt on America is inherently bad to morale and for our image overseas, giving credence to the idea of film as Will Hays's silient salesman. Censorship in the 1940s is often attributed only to organizations like the PCA and OWI. However, the critical reaction to Lifeboat shows that if they weren't strictly enforcing unquestionable pro-American ideals in film that their would be outcry from other outlets.
Bosley Crowther uses Lifeboat as a case study in the issues he sees with the current state of the film industry. He questions why the screenwriter never receives the attention and the acclaim that the playwright does. With control firmly rooted in the hands of the producer and the director, a screenwriter may find his name attached to a project that is significantly altered from his original vision. Early criticism of Lifeboat came on the shoulders of both Hitchcock and Steinbeck. Steinbeck was a well known name, but for his novels not for his work in the film industry. Subsequently, his name was used to market the film even though he had no control and input on the final print. The lack of control is a situation that many Hollywood screenwriters could find themselves in.
Crowther’s analysis and comparison of Steinbeck’s original treatment of Lifeboat and the final script reveals the specifics of the changes Steinbeck that drove Steinbeck to seek the removal of his name from the film. Steinbeck’s tale was even more character and less plot driven then Hitchcock’s final film. The largest change is the democracies foe was not the Nazi but the ocean. The Nazi attempted take over was little more than a subplot which was handled after only one act of deception by the other survivors.
Crowther accuses Hitchcock and producer Macgowan of “preempting” Steinbeck’s “creative authority.” However, he acknowledges that under the current system the director and the producer have every right to change, for better or worse, a screenwriter’s original intent and characters. He places blame too not only the founders of the system, but the writers who do not do anything to change it. Crowther does not seek a system in which the producer has no control, as without his financing the film would not be made. He seeks for a more balanced industry in which the financial and creative input are on a more balanced footing.