A Pluralist Approach to The Maltese Falcon
Updated: Feb 4
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was first published as a serial in 1929. It was adapted into a film three times over the next twelve years. This essay will analyze the faithfulness of the third of these adaptations by comparing it to the novel.
First, there is the question of how to approach the issue of faithfulness in an adaptation. Since the beginning of the motion picture industry, producers have been adapting books into films. Selecting an already known commodity with a built-in fan-base is thought of as a lower risk attempt at creating a financially successful product. However, the problem with this strategy is that the built-in fan-base can be overly critical of any changes from the original product and their complaints can hinder the box-office success of an adaptation.
Fans who demand complete faithfulness in the transfer from page to screen are practicing the “translation” approach to analyzing an adaptation. Though that approach may be the one most commonly used, there are actually four different critical approaches to adaptations:
1. Translation (the source material should be faithfully recreated)
2. Pluralist (the film should convey the “spirit” of the original)
3. Transformation (the film and the book are separate works of art)
4. Materialist (the original is less important than the context in which the adaptation is produced).
The approach that seems to work best for The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941) is the pluralist approach. There are some differences between the film and the novel; however, the film stays true to the overall mood and tone of the source material. The movie exists as an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel while also existing as an original creation by writer/director John Huston. This will be proven by looking at two different sections of the book and comparing them to the corresponding sections of the movie.
A Difference in Mediums
Many times, the critical success or failure of an adaptation is judged based on its faithfulness to the original. However, faithfulness is subjective. As Robert Stam wrote, “When we say an adaptation has been ‘unfaithful’ to the original, the term gives expression to the disappointment we feel when a film adaptation fails to capture what we see as the fundamental narrative, thematic, and aesthetic features of its literary source. Words such as infidelity and betrayal in this sense translate our feeling, when we have loved a book, that an adaptation has not been worthy of that love.” The 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon remains faithful to the novel throughout while also taking advantage of its medium to tell the story in a different way.
The first major event in the story is the death of protagonist Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer. In the book, Spade is sleeping when the phone rings. He answers and is told Archer is dead. After hanging up, he rolls and smokes a cigarette. Then, he puts on a suit and orders a cab. Readers then follow Spade as he exits the cab and walks down the street to where the body is. Spade meets up with Detective Polhaus who tells him what happened. At the end of their conversation, Spade refuses to see the body and says he is leaving to break the news to Archer’s widow. He then goes to a drugstore and calls his secretary, Effie, telling her to go tell the widow and he goes home.
The most interesting differences about this sequence in the 1941 version are not what they left out from the book, but what they added and rearranged. Spade is not seen rolling his cigarette, changing his clothes or calling a cab. His walk to the crime scene has been significantly shortened as has the conversation with Polhaus. This is all easy to explain. Huston decided that those things were all unnecessary for the story and character, so he took them out for time reasons. In a movie, it is more important to get to the action as quickly as possible. However, in the film, the sequence begins with something that is not in the book at all: Huston shows Archer’s murder. Viewers do not see who did it; they see Archer stop, a gun rise up and shoot him, and his body fall back and roll down the hill. Film is a visual medium. An event should not just be discussed if it can be shown. In this case, since nothing additional is learned from seeing the murder that is not supposed to be revealed until later, it is more efficient, and exciting, to show it as opposed to just having Polhaus describe it. Showing it adds action to the exposition-laden opening and allows Huston to eliminate some of the description in Spade and Polhaus’ conversation.
It begins with Spade receiving the phone call which is nearly identical to the dialogue in the book. However, immediately after hanging up, he calls Effie and tells her to inform the widow. This is an even more important change from the book because now when he tells Polhaus he has to go tell the widow the viewer already knows he is lying. In the book, he does not call Effie until after he has been to the crime scene. It is possible that, instead of lying, he has merely changed his mind. After walking to the drugstore he decided he could not bear to see Archer’s widow right now. In the film, it is much more obvious that he is avoiding the widow and the police. However, in the film he still stops in a drugstore at the end of this sequence. Instead of calling Effie, he calls his client, Miss Wonderly and learns that she has checked out of her hotel. In the book, he does not learn this information until thirteen pages later.
Perhaps the most important thing that moving these events around does is set the story in motion faster. Spade calling Effie before he goes to the crime scene means that after he can call Miss Wonderly. Learning she has checked out of her hotel before the next scene, when the police question him at his apartment, means that he is suspicious (as is the viewer) before the police give him additional information. This keeps things moving very quickly, which is necessary in a 100 minute film.
Just in this sequence there are similarities and some striking differences. None of the differences change the story, character motivation or mood of The Maltese Falcon. All of the important information is still there. It is just relayed in a way that speeds up the pace of the story. As Linda Hutcheon pointed out “According to its dictionary meaning, ‘to adapt’ is to adjust, to alter, to make suitable.” This sequence is faithful enough to the book without needing every movement or line of dialogue. John Huston found a way to make Hammett's story more suitable to the medium he was working in.
Censors Strip Away a Plot Point
One of the bigger changes from book to film comes near the end of the story after Spade has possession of the falcon. Spade returns to his home with Brigid to find the criminals Gutman, Cairo and Wilmer waiting for them. After some initial conversation about Spade giving up the falcon, Gutman, following the terms he and Spade had agreed on earlier, gives Sam an envelope full of cash. Sam gives the envelope to Brigid and then there is a lengthy conversation about who is going to take the fall for the group. This part is far longer in the book, most likely because of time constraints. Spade eventually convinces Gutman to give up Wilmer and then Gutman explains the chain of events that led to Wilmer committing two murders. At the end of this speech, Spade asks Brigid to make everyone coffee. Gutman suggests Brigid give him the envelope back before entering the kitchen. She does and he reveals that one of the bills is now missing. This is where Huston eliminated something significant from the book.
In the book, Brigid denies taking the bill, but Spade insists she go with him into the bathroom. Even though he claims to believe her, Sam forces Brigid to strip off all her clothes. She protests, but eventually complies. After she is completely naked, Sam confirms that she did not take the bill. He leaves her to get dressed and goes back to confront Gutman. He accuses Gutman of palming the bill. Gutman admits his deception, saying that he wanted to see what Spade would do. This way of handling things shows Spade’s lack of trust and, even more so, his lack of respect. He cares for Brigid, but not enough to accept her word. As James Maxfield wrote in his article on Sam Spade, “he is a man whose life is ruled by an intense competitiveness.” Due to this, he is willing to humiliate Brigid, even if it is in private, just to prove that he is smarter than Gutman.
In the Huston film, the strip search is omitted completely. Spade asks Brigid if she took it, she shakes her head no and Sam immediately accuses Gutman of palming the bill. The film was made during the era of the Production Code Administration, who banned any material that they thought could lower the moral standards of those watching. Therefore, they would have prohibited even the suggestion of a strip search. Even having it take place off-screen was not an option. However, Huston could have found another way to have Sam distrust Brigid and prove that he can outsmart Gutman. Instead, Huston has Sam trust Brigid completely even though he has every reason to distrust her.
When talking about this scene in his book, Script Culture and the American Screenplay, Kevin Alexander Boon wrote “In the film, Spade has little doubt that Gutman palmed the bill. His trust tips in favor of Brigid. However, in Hammett’s novel, Spade distrusts both Gutman and Brigid equally and believes both of them capable of taking the $1000. Thus, the section in the novel skillfully places Spade between the two other characters, forcing him to question where his loyalties lie. In the screenplay, his loyalties clearly lie with Brigid.” In the book, the depth of Sam’s feelings for Brigid are unknown. In this film version, he really does seem to care about her. Immediately taking her word over Gutman’s when he has just as much reason to distrust her changes the impact of the final scenes when he gives her up to the police for his partner’s murder. It makes it seem more like a sacrifice.
The 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon is considered to be the definitive adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. Some even consider it to be a better version of the story than the novel. Maxfield wrote “in its visual style and performances of its cast it proved to be the perfect and indelible incarnation of Hammett’s novel – so much so that I for one find it impossible to reread The Maltese Falcon and visualize the Sam Spade the author described instead of Humphrey Bogart.” This may be because of how faithfully John Huston adapted the novel. He uses most of the story and a lot of the dialogue; however, not everything is done in exactly the same way as in the book. The important things are the cynical tone and flexible morality of the characters and Huston kept those intact. That is why a pluralist approach is the best way to analyze the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon.
Boon, Kevin Alexander. Script Culture and the American Screenplay. Detroit: Wayne State
University Press, 2008.
Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.
The Maltese Falcon. Directed by John Huston. 1941. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2000.
Maxfield, James F. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci and the Neurotic Knight: Characterization in The
Maltese Falcon.” Literature Film Quaterly 1 December 1989: 253-60.
Stam, Robert. “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation.” In Film Adaptation, edited by
James Naremore, 54-76. Rutgers, 2000.
 Robert Stam, “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation,” in Film Adaptation, edited by James Naremore (Rutgers, 2000), 54.
 Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (New York: Routledge, 2006), 7.
 James F. Maxfield, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci and the Neurotic Knight: Characterization in The Maltese Falcon,” Literature Film Quaterly 1 December 1989: 254.
 Kevin Alexander Boon, Script Culture and the American Screenplay (Detroit: Wayne State
University Press, 2008), 166.
 Maxfield, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” 253.