The Ironic Secret Adapteur: Hitchcock and Hampton Adapting Conrad’s the Secret Agent

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The Ironic Secret Adapteur: Hitchcock and Hampton adapting Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Rodrigo Alonso Lescún

The Ironic Secret Adapteur: Hitchcock and Hampton adapting Conrad’s The Secret Agent

The adaptation of the same literary work may give birth to extremely different cinematic products. Written by Joseph Conrad in 1907, the novel The Secret Agent inspired three cinematic adaptations. Here I shall be focusing on the concepts of authorship and adaptation when dealing with the analysis of two of these adaptations: Sabotage (1936) by Alfred Hitchcock and The Secret Agent (1996) by Christopher Hampton. The frontier between one and the other will be given by the use of irony, the element which articulates the narratological structure of the novel.

“I don’t suppose there’s any novelist except Conrad who can be put directly on screen”
Orson Welles

"My task (…) is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel - it is, before all, to make you see.”

J. Conrad on his Preface of The Nigger of the Narcissus

Edges have always been one of the favourite playgrounds for artists. They have invented bridges, to cross from an artistic medium to another one. This essay might just as fittingly been titled “The frontiers of authorship in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) and Hampton’s The Secret Agent (1996)”, such have been the divergent positions the film directors have adopted in order to portray Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent. Furthermore, a fundamental word would be missing: irony. According to this fact, the inclusion, exclusion or manipulation of parts of the novel when adapted into film would locate the identities of Alfred Hitchcock and Christopher Hampton as authors in respect of that of Conrad. The analysis of these deflections will constitute the corpus of this essay. The purpose is to explore the intertextual relationships between novel and films in terms of authorship.

Not only is irony the print that permeates the texture of the novel, but it is much more: irony is the narratological tool that constitutes the coeur of the story. Many critics like F.R. Leavis (1948:209), Norman Sherry (1973: 198), Jeremy Hawthorn (1979:78, 79), Thomas Mann (Watts 1973: 107) or Edward W. Said (1976: 69), have highlighted this fact before. Even Joseph Conrad confessed this in the Author’s Note of The Secret Agent, not leaving much ground for critics to speculate: “I really think that The Secret Agent is a perfectly genuine piece of work. Even the purely artistic purpose, that of applying an ironic method to a subject of that kind, was formulated with deliberation and in the earnest belief that ironic treatment alone would enable me to say all I felt I would have to say in scorn as well as in pity” (1958: xxvi).

Conrad’s London (end of 19th century and beginning of the 20th) was not the London neither Hitchcock (1936) nor Hampton (1996) recorded their films, although all of them developed these particular works in the City. Conrad, as he explains in the Author’s Note of The Secret Agent, did find a seed of literary imagination in a casual conversation:

The subject of The Secret Agent –I mean the tale- came to me in the shape of a few words uttered by a friend in a casual conversation about anarchists or rather anarchist activities; how brought about I don’t remember now (…) I pointed all this to my friend, who remained silent for a while and then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.” (1958: xxiii)

According to Ian Watt, the mentioned friend, “his main informant for the background of The Secret Agent was Ford Maddox Ford” (1973: 236), and the event Ford is informing Conrad about is the Greenwich bomb outrage, an attempt to blow up the observatory which took place the 16th of February,...
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