Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Fox Studio Classics DVD
Features: Fox Studio Classics
It should come as no surprise that Peyton Place, the novel, which has sold more than ten million copies since its publication in 1956 and is still in print, is irredeemable garbage. Most bestsellers are. The quality of the book, however, never really mattered. What mattered was that it was a phenomenon. What mattered even more was that it was controversial. Despite (or perhaps because of) its popularity, the book was banned in some states and countries (South Africa until 1978). Sure, it caused a lot of controversy, but like all controversies and all popular phenomena, it pretty much petered out. At the time, however, it seemed as if Peyton Place was the only thing worth talking about. To put its popularity in perspective, try to imagine the saturation level of any cultural product selling ten million copies. This is Harry Potter level popularity, except the book is not a new children’s classic but a tome of pure smut.
When the producer Jerry Wald set out to make the film version of the novel, he faced some rather tough opposition from the Hays Office, responsible for reviewing scripts before production and sanitizing them for public consumption. To take all the filth out of Grace Metalious’ novel, however, would be to write a script that was, at best, ten pages long. The Hays Office passed the script for the film with a number of suggested alterations, but kept most of the tawdry storylines intact. Nudity, obscene language, and sexual situations would obviously not be allowed to be filmed, but the filmmakers were able to hint coyly at situations in the film that the viewing audience would know well from having read the novel. The salacious impact of the film thus relies heavily on the dialectic of what could be shown at the time and what the audience, at least those who had read the book, knew was left out. This is actually a familiar tactic in 1950s and 1960s Hollywood adaptations that attempted to meet the demand for mature themes in films (which were much more common in fiction) while bowing to the demands of powerful censorship organizations. Films adapted from literary sources such as Tea and Sympathy (1956), Giant (1956), Raintree County (1957), Auntie Mame (1957), and Butterfield 8 (1960), were all based on popular works that could never have been brought to the screen as written. Filmmakers needed to find ways to suggest, either visually or through verbal cues, the events they could not show on the screen.
Peyton Place uses such visual and verbal innuendo to allow the audience to reconstruct the events absent from the screen. An abortion becomes a miscarriage, an overbearing mother who still gives her son enemas at age seventeen becomes simply overprotective, and a gold-digging slut becomes a “flashy girl.” The drawback to this approach is that the movie becomes a surrogate text instead of standing on its own merits. To the uninitiated, those whose first exposure to the denizens of Peyton Place is the film, the frissons of implications are absent. The film becomes a limp melodrama significant only as a cultural museum piece.
Another peril of adaptation is the compression of events into a film with a running time short enough to keep butts from going numb. To translate a nearly 400 page novel into a two-and-a-half hour movie without excising entire characters and plotlines means to have one action follow another in rapid succession. In a melodrama, this can quickly become ludicrous. In one short scene in Peyton Place, for example, accusations of sexual impropriety are followed by a revelation of illegitimate birth, which can only be topped by the discovery of a dead body in the closet.
The film is not wholly without merit. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards (which, I am aware, means absolutely nothing), but it notably won none of them. The only one that might have been deserved would have been that of Hope Lange as Supporting Actress. Though studio politics prohibited her from being considered in the proper category of Lead Actress (Lana Turner was not to be competed against), she really plays the central character in the film and gives a performance that is miles beyond the mostly wooden caricatures of upright New Englanders proffered by the rest of the cast.
Though a contemporary audience would hardly find Peyton Place shocking today, what is intriguing about this adaptation is that audiences in 1957 would not have found it shocking either. Weaned on the near toxic rum punch of Metalious’ filthy prose, the audience would find the film a glass of watery tea.