A couple of weeks ago, PBS aired a new version of THE LADY VANISHES, previously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. As you may remember, the story concerns a self-absorbed young Englishwoman who gets acquainted with a middle-aged, English spinster on a train in central Europe. When the woman, Miss Froy, disappears, everybody else on the train denies she ever existed. After watching the TV movie, I read the 1936 book it’s based on, THE WHEEL SPINS, by Ethel Lina White. It’s interesting to observe how the literary standards for “showing” and “telling” have changed over the decades.
The novel starts with an intriguing hook sentence: “The day before the disaster, Iris Carr had her first premonition of danger.” Then the omniscient narrator launches into two pages of exposition, telling us about idle rich orphan Iris’s background and personality, the carefree, irreverent, promiscuous “crowd” she calls her friends, and their interaction with the other patrons of the hotel in the remote European town where they’re vacationing. Although the polished writing style makes this exposition a pleasure to read, few editors would tolerate it nowadays. The author would dramatize this information in “cinematic” style, revealing it through dialogue and action the same way the movie does. It’s worth noting that some conversations dramatized in the film are written as indirect discourse in the book. (By the way, the next time you reread PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, notice how many of the conversations consist of indirect discourse rather than quoted dialogue.)
White's omniscient narrative voice reveals the thoughts and motives of other characters, and reflects on them, to a far greater extent than the movie script, which stays within Iris’s perspective most of the time. The most striking difference between book and film, though, is how the plot revelations are structured. In the movie we don’t learn the truth about Miss Froy’s existence and fate until the climax. At almost the exact middle of the book, the “black moment” when Iris decides everybody else is right and she imagined Miss Froy, the narrative shifts to England to reveal Miss Froy’s perfectly real parents and dog, eagerly awaiting her return. Later, we see Miss Froy in captivity, confirming (for the reader) the hero and heroine’s theory about her abduction long before the climactic rescue. This strategy switches the focus from Iris’s sane or deluded condition to the question of whether Miss Froy will be rescued in time to save her life. Thereby it transforms the story's genre from mystery (does Miss Froy exist, and what happened to her?) to suspense thriller (will Iris be able to find the missing woman before it’s too late?). The book and movie are equally exciting, but the movie maintains a surrealistic ambiguity the book abandons at the halfway point. It seems the author committed herself to this approach when she chose an omniscient narrative voice instead of a “tight third person” restriction to Iris’s awareness.
THE WHEEL SPINS, aka THE LADY VANISHES, is a gripping suspense adventure as well as an illustration of how an author’s decisions about voice and viewpoint interweave with the other elements of narrative.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt