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Novels of the 1950s Headed for the Silver Screen

Updated on April 28, 2011

Baby Boomers Were Growing Up When These Were Written

During the decade of the 1950s, there were numerous quality novels that are still considered classics today. Some of these are Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame, Thomas Costain's The Silver Chalice, Sloan Wilson's The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit, Jane Gould Cozzens' By Loved Possessed, Matt Shulman's Rally Round the Flag Boys, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder, etc. The list goes on and on. Many of these books later were re-written as screenplays and adapted to the film medium. The ones I've selected to address, which represent a small sampling of the whole, are some that I feel represent the multifaceted nature of the genre as they reflect the concerns of a nation in the '50s.

Two novels published near the beginning of the 1950's reflected the recent history of that era. James Jones' From Here To Eternity, published in 1951, won the National Book Award the following year. Based on the author's time in Hawaii before World War II, the award-winning book was adapted to the screen and starred Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. Another novel loosely based on its author's experiences- this time during World War II- is The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk. (Wouk spent that time serving on a destroyer in the Pacific. Mutiny made it to the #1 spot on the New York Times Best Seller List, replacing From Here To Eternity ,and maintained that position for thirty-two weeks. The Caine Mutiny addressed the many responsibilities, including those of an ethical nature, that face captains at sea. The film version with Humphrey Bogart highlights the mental stress that often results.

In East of Eden, with the Salinas Valley of California serving as backdrop, John Steinbeck crafted a finely woven, interlocking story of two families as he put a modern twist on the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel. ( Steinbeck allegedly used his own grandfather as a model for the patriarch of one of the families.) The 1955 film version, starring Julie Harris, Raymond Massey and James Dean in his debut role, was based mainly on the second half of the novel. In another novel published in the early '50s, Giant, Edna Ferber used the large canvas of the state of Texas as the setting for a look at a larger-than-life cattleman and his family. The novel spans three generations and addresses, basically, The Human Condition In Texas, including a focus on power, love, and, of course, oil. The movie version starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, who died before the film was released.

Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, possibly was the first soap opera in book form. Set in New England around 1941, the novel's main characters are the wealthy Harringtons, particularly sons Rodney and Norman; single mother Constance MacKenzie and her (illegitimate) daughter, Allison; Selina Cross, a victim of incest; and others who played major roles in their lives. At the novel's was release in 1956, 60,000 copies were sold in ten days. In fact, Peyton Place had a remarkable fifty-nine-week run on the New York Times Best Seller List. The film version debuted in 1957 and starred Lana Turner, Lloyd Nolan, and Arthur Kennedy. The popularity of the novel and its film offshoot sparked the creation of the first prime-time soap opera in 1964. The TV version, which lasted five years, starred Mia Farrow. Barbara Parkins, Ryan O'Neal , and Ed Nelson and featured all of the essential "soap elements": love, betrayal, secrets, rich man/ poor man conflicts, and even murder.

Back in 1957, the nation was still reeling from the the shadows of the McCarthy era and dealing with the demons conjured up by the continuing Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction. When English/Australian Nevil Shute's chilling science fiction novel, On the Beach, was released that year, the climate was ripe for considering the fallout from a radioactive World War III. Set in Australia in 1963- the "future"- this tome makes the possibility of an Apocolypse all too real as it explores a post-war world where nuclear bombs destroyed North America, and it is only a matter of time before nuclear fallout will eventually make its way to the Southern Hemisphere to the same end. (The 1959 movie starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins.) The story follows an American nuclear sub based in Australia as it returns to the United States to investigate an inexplicable Morse Code signal and also follows the lives of those in Australia who face an unavoidable end. The message is clear, and the impact is stunning, even to those of us who were just starting high school when the book was published.

Finally, William Styron's Lie Down In Darkness was published in 1951, when Styron was just twenty-six years old, this book has haunted me since I first read it way back in the late 'sixties, when I was a college student. Focusing on the dysfunctional Loftis family, this novel could be subtitled " The Human Tragedy: Southern Style." From larger-than-life patriarch Milton Loftis and his unhappy wife, Helen, to daughters Maudie, mentally and physically challenged, and Peyton, beautiful but emotionally needy, there are no heros here. Lie Down In Darkness recants the descent of a family into emptiness, futility, and tragedy. The movie version of this dark tale has been long in coming, but I read that it currently is in the planning stage. (Hopefully, that project will come to fruition.)

The 1950s indeed was a prolific era from for writers, who offered a bonanza of material for their readers and provided screenwriters with a host of award-winning films.... and that was just the beginning. The Manchurian Candidate, though written in 1959, was not published until the following year. Stay tuned for a look at the book that punctuated a stunning transition from one decade to the next.


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