Finished reading Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams recently and watched George Stevens’s film adaptation. The racism in the book is dismaying but not entirely surprising for a book that was published in 1921.
The good stuff in it is very good indeed. It’s about how class distinctions play out in a small industrial town in the midwest, and how the attitudes and snobberies of the parents affect their kids, who often perpetuate younger versions of their parents’ cruelty. Alice has a good heart, but she so wants to be in a sophisticated set that her family’s financial circumstances can’t support. When she meets a rich young man who seems genuinely interested in her, she can’t keep from pretending to him that she is from a higher caste. (You get the feeling that he isn’t fooled for a second but doesn’t much mind.)
The film features Katharine Hepburn and she’s glorious in the role — alternately irritating and endearing. As for the screenplay (by Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner and Jane Murfin), it tightens up the story and in some aspects improves on the original. There is a new scene in which Alice takes the lead in confronting her father’s angry boss and turns him around which is appreciably better than the one in the book in which she says only a few words as the boss talks himself back to sense. It has the happy effect of having Alice take responsibility for a difficult situation and signals her arrival at a new level of maturity. Alas, the film tacks on an persuasive happy ending (she lands the rich guy) which undercuts Tarkington’s more realistic one of her giving up on the romance and climbing the stairs to a school where she will learn some marketable skills.
The film also doesn’t attempt to convey something important to Tarkington — how the pell-mell industrialization of the town is covering it and everyone in it in soot and fumes. Part of Tarkington’s point is that the nouveau-riche wealth oppressing the Adamses is a by-product of this stink. Yes, even wealth can’t keep the rich from suffering from it, but it doesn’t seem fair that the poor — not being enriched by industry — should also have to suffer. Tarkington won a Pulitzer for this, and also for his more famous and I think better novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, the basis of the Orson Welles movie which, even in its truncated form, contains passages about as good as anything put on film. (Very few American novelists won more than one Pulitzer for fiction – the others are Colson Whitehead, William Faulkner and John Updike. Pretty exclusive company.) If Alice Adams is a wry comedy on how a modern economy shapes personal lives (from the perspective a lower-middle class family), Ambersons is almost operatic in describing how a rich family goes into a steep decline for the same reasons.