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.