Although Fowlair, the narrator of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, refers to Phuong as "invisible like peace," (29) Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce's 2002 film of the same name begins by displaying Phuong's face in the midst of a flame -- or more to the point -- a passionate, raging fire that explodes out of a home, tearing down its walls and roof. Ironically, Greene's Fowlair quips, "One always spoke of her…in the third person as though she were not there" (29). But for Noyce's Fowlair, it would seem she is very much there. American Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1958 film, however, begins and ends without Phuong. She is spoken of in the beginning, and in the end rejects the British correspondent. Both films alter the text to form their own narrations. The novel, however, conveys a complexity and depth not found in either film. This paper will analyze the challenges posed by adaptation, compare and contrast the three versions of The Quiet American, and show how both films communicate to audiences conversant with the original.
The challenges posed by adaptation can best be seen in the character of Fowlair. Fowlair is played by Michael Caine, in Phillip Noyce's adaptation, and Caine gives Fowlair an air that is slightly more dramatic than Greene's. Caine's voice over narration begins the film by stating that he has fallen in love with Vietnam, and that in Vietnam you can get anything in exchange for your soul.
Greene's Fowlair, however, is of a different mold -- hardly so theatrical, significantly more indifferent -- though still a character who talks of love. Yet Greene's Fowlair is not so much in love with a place -- or even with a woman: the novel is not called Phuong; nor is it called Vietnam. It is called The Quiet American, and it is Pyle (the American) that draws the story out of Fowlair -- it his death that makes Fowlair reflect upon the events that brought Fowlair and Pyle together; and even if they do share a love for the same woman -- it is Fowlair's love of that which he himself lacks -- and which Pyle seems to possess: innocence, interest, sincerity, selflessness -- in a word, belief in a higher ideal. Greene's Fowlair has lost all such belief; his solace is in opium and Death; which makes Noyce's Fowlair appear like a new creation -- one who speaks of the soul as if it were something that could be saved or lost.
In fact, while Greene's narrator is portrayed as a somewhat rundown, semi-aloof, disillusioned but not bitter, easy-going but reflective journalist; Noyce's version of the same man might just as well be called the quiet British: Caine is serious, stiff, stoic, reserved, calm. There is little sense of the internal struggle represented in Greene's Fowlair. Caine's Fowlair would suggest no foul air at all. Caine's Fowlair wears a face of complete togetherness -- not one that suggests some things may be coming apart at the seams. What is coming apart in Greene's novel, however, is Fowlair's own disillusioned conviction. If Graham Greene is the questioning Catholic author struggling with belief and unbelief, Fowlair is a good representation of unbelief falling in love with belief -- only to watch it die and be reborn in himself: "It's a strange poor population God has in his kingdom, frightened, cold, starving…but then I thought: it's always the same wherever one goes -- it's not the most powerful rulers who have the happiest populations." Thus, Greene's Fowlair may feign disinterest, but as the narrative makes clear, his interest and love for the same man who took his woman may be more than anyone's. Fowlair is a man who has as much conviction as Pyle -- Fowlair is afraid only of commitment. By the end of the novel -- he makes another commitment despite himself to Phuong.
Noyce's Pyle for that matter, played by the goofy but lovable Brendan Fraser, is hardly the same as Greene's Pyle -- who, on the contrary is more like Noyce's Fowlair. Greene's Pyle is the epitome of action and intention, conviction and commitment, fortitude and perseverance, however misguided. Greene's Pyle is in a sense like an American-educated Don Quixote, riding off to do battle with windmills. Fraser captures little of this essence, conveying only good-natured brawn and determination. Then again, Fraser and Caine and Noyce are making a film, a different medium entirely --…