The film of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter…
In 1953 London Films released the film version of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. The book was a huge success for Greene, selling over 300,000 copies upon release and more so when he sold the film rights for £4,000 to Alexander Korda who also bought the rights for The Third Man and The Fallen Idol. The casting of Trevor Howard as Scobie was the film’s triumph, his performance helped soften the blow of the adaptation of the book in many respects and helped in no small measure to win the BAFTA for Best British Film.
Filmed in part, in the book’s setting of Sierra Leone, the story centres around the lives of a small white-English community within Colonial Africa. Greene’s themes of love, religion and deceit dominate but for any film adaptation to truly capture those component parts which tormented the writer throughout his life then a closer resemblance to the book is called for.
The Heart of the Matter wasn’t the first film of its kind to illustrate (to a degree) the realities of British colonialism to a Western audience, the empire’s record of governing in such remote locations was often brutal and the physical and mental decline of many of its protagonists was overlooked by their master’s at home. Scobie is the bit-part protagonist; used for the dirty work, poorly paid and too old for the promotion he craves, his wife hates his posting, the climate, the natives and her social standing within the ex-pat community club. The film must deal with a number of issues in the book in a relatively short period of time but the romancing of Scobie’s wife by Wilson, the newly arrived inspector as well as Scobie’s love affair with the young Helen Rolt is so fast paced it seems barely plausible. Life in colonial West Africa is depicted as little more than a sweat box coupled with the odd illness and early evening drinks, it pulls up short in the depiction of those living under British rule to the detriment of the film.
There are two significant changes from the book; the most obvious is the ending. In the book, Scobie commits suicide whilst in the film he intends to kill himself but is murdered by a street gang and dies in the hands of Ali, his black African servant. Greene’s book portrays Scobie’s attitude towards Ali in a much bleaker light, indeed he is the cause of his servant’s death and his guilt at his betrayal of Ali helps push him further towards his inevitable suicide. In the film Scobie treats him with an almost paternal sense of discipline in what critics at the time considered a deliberate liberal change to the plot to placate those who opposed colonialism and in doing so remove a significant aspect of the Greene storyline.
Scobie’s death at the hands of a gang removed another dilemma for the film’s producers, suicide is considered a mortal sin by the Catholic church and it is a pity the producers couldn’t match Greene’s stance on the subject. The book is wonderful, it covers love, betrayal, blackmail, racism and at its heart, Catholicism. The film was a decent effort and scripted accordingly for the times one supposes, that much of what made the book what it is was left out is a shame.