Graham Greene only wrote The Third Man as a novella in order to better understand the tone and characterizations before committing the story to screenplay, so in a way Carol Reed’s film adaptation can’t really be considered an adaptation at all. It was Greene himself who penned the screenplay, although Reed and Orson Welles are said to have had strong influence on the resulting film, and the novella version of The Third Man was never intended to be published. Eventually it was published, paired with the even shorter novella The Fallen Idol, and so today we have further insight into the development of the story.
Reed, who helmed a few other Greene adaptations including The Fallen Idol and Our Man in Havana, understood the novels of the author in a way that few other directors can claim. The atmosphere of The Third Man is masterful, with the long shadows of hidden still-hunters creeping along Viennese landmarks and midnight cafés. The famous sewer scene still echoes today, just as the voices of the police echoed throughout the subterranean columned halls as they hunted the elusive Harry Lime. As a whole the film and the novella share the strongest aspects of atmosphere and characterization, which is why film clubs still pore over Reed’s film while a few doors down the hallway a literature course picks apart Greene’s book.
So where do the differences lie from page to screen, and why are there any differences at all? Some changes are obvious and yet can be brushed aside or explained away as a product of the shift in medium. Greene’s novella is narrated by Calloway, the British policeman stationed in Vienna, but the movie does away with any voiceover narration or framing device to cast Calloway as anything other than a character in the larger story. Martins, played by Joseph Cotton, is named “Holly” in the film but “Rollo” in the novella. And the ending of The Third Man differs from book to film as well, with the latter ending on a much more bittersweet note.
It’s the smaller, scene-by-scene shifts that provide much more interest. Often a scene is kept intact in terms of characters, setting, and dialogue but is changed in tone. This passage occurs just as Calloway eases the stubborn Martins into the ultimate realization that his longtime friend Harry is in fact a criminal of fairly despicable nature:
If one watched a world come to an end, a plane dive from its course, I don’t suppose one would chatter, and a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years earlier in a school corridor. Every memory — afternoons in the long grass, the illegitimate shoots on Brickworth Common, the dreams, the walks, every shared experience — was simultaneously tainted, like the soil of an atomized town. One could not walk there with safety for a long while.
In the film, a short montage depicts Calloway walking Martins through Harry’s penicillin scheme. The moment of light dawning for Martins is intact, more or less, but the pain Martins must be feeling in that moment (and the betrayal evident in the passage above) is nowhere near as forceful as it is in Greene’s novella. We don’t necessarily get the sense of Martins feeling that his entire past has been “tainted” in a single day, nor do we get the sense of Calloway perceiving this agony in his would-be informant.
A similarly intentional change in tone from novella to film occurs when Anna is arrested by the International Police, comprised of one officer from each of the four zones. The scene is fairly straightforward in Reed’s film: the men enter, Anna steps into the darkened sideroom to dress, and then they leave. In the novel, Greene describes the intrusion with humor:
There is a lot of comedy in these situations if you are not directly concerned. You need a background of Central European terror, of a father who belonged to the losing side, of house-searches and disappearances, before the fear outweighs the comedy. The Russian, you see, refused to leave the room while Anna dressed: the Englishman refused to remain in the room: the American wouldn’t leave a girl unprotected with a Russian soldier, and the Frenchman — well, I think the Frenchman must have thought it was fun…The Russian was just doing his duty and watched the girl all the time, without a flicker of sexual interest; the American stood with his back chivalrously turned, but aware, I am sure, of every movement; the Frenchman smoked his cigarette and watched with detached amusement the reflection of the girl dressing in the mirror of the wardrobe; and the Englishman stood in the passage wondering what to do next.
In both instances the scene is largely the same scene from page to screen, but only in plot. In tone, whether the shift results in a deadening of drama or an omission of comedy, it’s entirely different. These might also be chalked up to the difference in medium, but it’s more likely that the pace and flow of The Third Man might be compromised by dwelling on drama or comedy here or there. The latter scene does end with humor as the British policeman states that they’re just following protocol, prompting Anna to reply that she doesn’t know what that means. The Englishman nods and leans in: “Neither do I.” That might be all the humor the scene needed in the film version, and the pace of the film moves right along.
At best, though, the differences evident in The Third Man from page to screen are those that both accomplish a maintenance of flow and pacing while finding a way to keep the more subtle passages of prose alive within the film. When a slightly-drunk Martins approaches Anna in the dead of night after discovering Harry’s misdeeds:
If you are in love yourself, it never occurs to you that the girl doesn’t know: you believe you have told it plainly in a tone of voice, the touch of a hand. When Anna opened the door to him, with astonishment at the sight of him tousled on the threshold, he never imagined that she was opening the door to a stranger.
It wouldn’t be possible to convey this through words in a film with no voiceover; to shove this kind of sentiment into the dialogue itself would be far below the collective talents of Greene and Reed. So it’s done in a different way: we see Anna in bed, we hear a knock on the door, she inquires as to the knocker’s identity. “It’s me…” comes the response, “it’s me“, the repetition stated in a whisper that almost sounds seductive and doesn’t sound at all like Cotton’s frank-tongued Holly Martins. It sound more like Welles’s Harry Lime, actually, which is the point. Harry is the man Anna loves, and so she opens the door spurred by the impossible possibility that her dead lover might be standing on the other side. Instead it’s her living lover, a stranger.
And that’s how The Third Man ultimately ends, at least the film version, with Anna preferring the memory of Harry to the reality of Martins. At heart, despite differences large and small, it’s all one story: a “born-to-be-murdered” writer who drinks too much and falls in love with women, a racketeer who would coincidentally embody the very Wellesian theme of brotherly betrayal, and a third man now come between them. On page or screen, these men remain.