Comparing the Book and the Movie…

Now that I’ve finally seen The Magnificent Ambersons on its new (albeit no-frills) DVD release, I decided to go back to its source, the 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington, to compare the two. (Full confession: I’ve actually seen the movie more times than I can recall, so it was about time I read the source novel for one of my favorite films.)

Orson Welles directed the movie,  right after his epic “greatest movie ever made,” Citizen Kane. Now, while anyone who has a serious interest in movies has seen the latter, probably less have seen “Ambersons.” That’s too bad, because while the movie did suffer some horrible editing by its studio, RKO (documented in numerous books on Welles), it still is really wonderful. And part of that must be the fact that Welles honored so well the spirit of Tarkington’s Pulitzer-winning novel, helped in some degree, no doubt, by the Midwest pedigree of both author and director.

The book’s plot, simply put, is a riches-to-rags tale of a late-19th century “Midland” family whose most offensive characteristics are embodied in the character of George, only child of Isabel Amberson. George, you see, is a tad bit proud of his wealth, and his status, and likes to use the word “riffraff” around people he deems inferior. Everyone wants to see him get his “comeuppance” sooner rather than later.

George meets Lucy, whose father Eugene is an inventor of despicable (to George) “horseless carriages.”  As George begins to have feelings for Lucy, Eugene begins to remember his old love for Isabel, whose ailing husband Wilbur will soon depart the scene. But George will not stand to have his mother courted by anyone like Eugene (or maybe anyone else, for that matter). The tale plays itself out, and this resolution, though very much abbreviated in Welles’ film, stays very close to that of the book.

One of the outstanding features of the movie is its cinematography, full of rich black shadows and deep focus, perhaps most famously shown in the ballroom sequence near the beginning of the film—a part of the movie that, tragically, should have been longer but was cut by the studio. Also, Welles uses voice-over narration to wonderful effect, capturing Tarkington’s text in his rich, immortal voice. My conclusion: read the book AND watch the movie, in whatever order you feel like!

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Written by David


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