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Streetcar Named Desire Adaption Analysis

In: English and Literature

Submitted By Whoopsie
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"In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams seeks to portray the nature and effects of sexuality." How effectively does the film capture this central concern?

Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee William’s 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire was forced to dilute the primary concern of sexuality to make it more suitable for a broader American audience. Due to anticipated and unanticipated interjections of the conservative Production Code Administration (PCA) of America, headed by strict Roman Catholic Joseph Breen, Kazan was not allowed to remain strictly faithful to William’s original portrayal of sexuality. Kazan instead employed creative cinematography solutions, to address Breen’s objections while at the same time, preserving the artistic integrity of the film. Yet due to these restraints, Kazan both succeeded and failed when seeking to replicate William’s complex portrayal of the nature and effects of sexuality. The film fails to demonstrate the manipulative potential of female sexuality; however Kazan accurately portrays raw, masculine sexuality. The film’s direction concerning the interaction of sexuality with religion is modified to line up with religious ideals and the film’s forced nebulousness on homosexuality changes the narrative’s overall portrayal of sexuality.

The film is limited in its portrayal of women using their bodies to control men through sexuality. In the play, it is clear that Blanche wants to ‘make [Mitch] want [her],‘ not because Blanche genuinely cares about him, but because she thinks he is her ticket to ‘leave [Elysian Fields] and not be anyone’s problem.’ While in the play, the fact that Blanche does not desire Mitch is cemented with the stage directions ‘knowing he cannot see her face… she rolls her eyes’, the movie has deleted any such detail that would directly frame Blanche as a Svengali. Instead, the film characterises Blanche as mere victim whose destruction was brought about by her own promiscuity and madness. This alternative depiction of the tragic protagonist leads the audience to sympathise with Blanche, but at the same time appreciate the fact that it was Blanche becoming licentious that led her to her end. As Breen perceived himself as the ‘safe guard [of modern] morality’ [Marotous, G. 2006], he saw it as his duty to protect society from developing sympathy for a woman, who consciously used her sexuality to use men. Breen’s influences are also observed in the differences in the scene with the collector from the Evening Star. The replacement of the lusty ‘blue piano’ of the play with the film’s ‘polka music’ suggests that Blanche is not consciously trying to prey on the minor, but instead, is drawn to the boy because he reminds her of Allan. The auditory difference in music renders Blanche as a deluded and mentally unstable character instead of a predatory nymphomaniac. Furthermore, the alteration of Blanche’s dialogue from ‘get wet in the shower’ to ‘caught in the rain’ eliminates the sexual double entendre and instead elicits a tone of maternal concern, which would have been far less alarming to the 1950’s audience. The PCA forced Kazan to mould Blanche’s sensuality into a more socially acceptable, however shallow version of herself and therefore fails to capture the complexity of her feminine sexuality.

While the film struggles to capture many aspects of feminine sexuality, it does succeed entirely in capturing the rawness of unbridled, masculine sexuality. As the embodiment of visceral male sexuality, Stanley’s (Marlon Brando) portrayal was not changed as much from William’s screenplay as were many of the female characters. During the 1950’s, even after woman suffrage, men’s position in society was far ahead of that of women’s and consequently, having an overtly sexualised male character was more acceptable than that of a woman. Due to this distinction, most of Breen’s 68 demanded changes of the original Broadway screenplay concerned Blanche and Stella instead of Stanley. Even with the few changes from the screenplay, Brando’s Stanley was still ‘mean, course, violent, and magnificent’ (Warner Bros. promotional material) and portrayal was just as brutal as in the play. Even with the film’s omission of much phallic symbolism like Stanley throwing his ‘red-stained’ package of ‘meat’ at a ‘thrilled’ Stella, it does not detract from the audience’s overall perception of Stanley. The medium of film even assisted Brando’s performance in terms of sexuality through the use of high-angle camera shots accentuating Stanley’s dominance and the use of close-ups on Brando’s strong physique, which made his body more available to the audience than in the Barrymore Theatre. Additionally, the inclusion of Stanley brawling at the bowling alley implicitly shows the audience that Stanley is domineering in all realms of life and feels no qualms in displaying his sexuality everywhere he goes, a fact that could only be alluded to in the play due to a restricted setting. Stanley’s overtly sexualised character was not diluted or weakened in the film and his bravado clearly depicts the nature of raw sexuality in both media.

The film’s emphasis on how sexuality interacts with religion in modern society is altered to suit Breen’s conservative agenda. In conservative social circles, pre-1940’s America, sex was generally spoken of in strictly biological terms. Anything other than monogamous, heterosexual sex was viewed as sinful. Recognising sex and religion as similarly motivating aspects of existence, Williams confronted this disconnect throughout the play with subtle allusions to Christianity when addressing desire as seen in ‘[Stanley is] someone to go out with… when the devil is inside you’. Breen, a strict Catholic himself, was concerned with Christianity being heathenised by being linked to sinful characters. He played a major role in deciding which dialogue concerning Christianity was going to be omitted, left or emphasised in the film. Accordingly, the very first dialogue of the play, ‘St. Barnabas would send out his dog to lick her,’ was omitted from the film as it links a Christian hero to a woman ‘feel[ing] an icy cold wave’. Instead, Breen ensured that profligate Blanche would only be connected to pagan astrology with ‘what sign were you born under’. He also ensured that the brutish ‘poker party’ was compared to a ‘party of apes,’ which linked to Darwinism. The film’s Blanche directly recognised her Godlessness with ‘we are [far] from being made in God’s image.’ However, after Blanche was raped, she ceased to be promiscuous as seen with ‘is the coast clear’. Breen surrounded Blanche with Christian symbols like the ‘cathedral bells’ while she was wearing clothes the same colour as ‘Madonna-’ the pure Mother of Christ. Blanche’s transformation from promiscuous to pure, which can be viewed as allegory to Christian salvation, is far more defined in the film than in the play and departs from Williams’ original portrayal of sexuality.

The forced vagueness surrounding the concern of homosexuality changed the film’s direction on the nature of sexuality, however Kazan did not neglect the issue entirely. Homosexuality was a major taboo topic in 1950’s America, with prominent politicians such as Joseph McCarthy linking the lifestyle to child molestation and Communism. While Williams, being a homosexual himself, felt no qualms about directly referencing the controversial issue in the play with ‘[Allan] was a degenerate,’ Warner Brothers knew that any reference to homosexuality in the film would result in a far less lucrative box-office as the PCA would not give the film ‘family appropriate’ status. Kazan heeded all of Breen’s demands and eliminated all direct and indirect allusions to Allan being homosexual; however, the ambiguity surrounding the reason for Allan ‘putting a gun his mouth’ spoke volumes. In the film, where Allan was described as ‘nervous [and] tender,’ the audience is left to wonder what made Allan so ashamed that he felt compelled to kill himself, and homosexuality is inferred as the logical answer. This interpretation is supported by other dialogue between Blanche and Mitch which hinted at the stereotype of homosexuals during the 1950s with ‘lost every job’ and ‘wrote poetry.’ Indeed, the fact that the film did not change Allan’s death revealed William’s original concern that homosexuality caused tremendous guilt and sometimes lead to death. While the film never directly referenced homosexuality, Allan’s ‘ingeniously indefinite’ nature still allowed for the homosexual interpretation, which meant that William’s original portrayal of the nature and effects of homosexuality was still accessible to the audience.

Kazan’s film was forced to move from the play’s portrayal of sexuality and desire as William’s version was too provocative for a conservative, 1950’s America. The manipulative potential of female sexuality was diluted, while the brutish nature of primitive male sexuality was accentuated. The links between religion and sexuality were altered from play to film and the issue of homosexuality was made less obvious. Hence, the film’s audience was not exposed to the complex portrayal of sexuality as the play’s audience had been.

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