From book to screen: The haunting beauty of ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’

The sublime beauty of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” can fill your heart and break it at the same time.

It’s in the faces of the equally lovely Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, perfectly paired as the title characters. It’s in the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Charles Lang who paints the screen with hauntingly beautiful shades of shadow and light. And it’s in voices often so tender that a hushed utterance of a single word like “Lucia” can send goosebumps up your arms.

We’re drawn into this universally beloved film even before the opening credits roll. In an unusual move, the 20th Century Fox logo is not accompanied by the stately Fox fanfare, but by music from Bernard Herrmann that starts with a deep, swirling rumble and opens into an almost painfully sweet crescendo. It will repeat throughout the film, never losing its emotional power.

Everywhere you look or listen, this 1947 supernatural romance from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wraps itself around you in a comforting cocoon.

That’s why “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” always felt like it existed only in movie form to me – and one that was nearly as perfect as any could be. The film about a sheltered widow moving into a British seaside cottage inhabited by the ghost of its owner holds a magic all its own. Somehow, I kept skipping over the opening credit that read “From the Novel by R.A. Dick.” I’ll blame that on the fact that I was too wrapped up in the splendor of Herrmann’s music and the scenery to read the credits.

I was always too busy listening to Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score and watching the crashing waves to see that “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was based on a novel.

It wasn’t until a few years back that I stumbled on “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” by R.A. Dick while looking for books adapted into classic movies to read on a cross-country trip to the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival. “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is one of the offerings in the very cool Vintage Movie Classics book series launched in 2014 by Random House under its Vintage Books imprint. (“The Night of the Hunter,” “Back Street” and “Cimarron” are among others.)

Because of this embarrassing gap in my film history knowledge, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” seemed a good choice for me to explore for the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. It’s not Great Classic Literature with capital letters in the sense of Bronte, Austen, Dickens or Twain, yet this slim novel deserves credit as the basis for one of the most universally beloved classic films.

Setting the film’s atmospheric mood was the Oscar-nominated black and white cinematography by Charles Lang.

Often with classic movies based on literature we have either read the original novel – “Frankenstein,” “Pride & Prejudice,” “Rebecca,” “A Tale of Two Cities” – or at least have a CliffsNotes familiarity with it. You may not have read “Wuthering Heights,” but you know Heathcliff and Catherine.

But, I knew nothing about the book form of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or its author so there was a lot to be excited about: Tierney and Harrison were perfect on screen, but did they fit the author’s original vision? How did the romance – so chaste in the movie – develop in the book? Would there be deep words of love between them or would it be hidden behind a softly uttered “Me, dear” as in the movie? Were R.A. Dick’s other stories equally mesmerizing?

The answers were surprising.

Author Josephine Leslie wrote “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” under the pen name of R.A. Dick.

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was published in 1945 under the pseudonym of R.A. Dick by Irish author Josephine Leslie. There’s not much out there about her other than she wrote two, possibly three other books over 20 years or so including “The Devil and Mrs. Devine.” She wrote barely any description of the lead characters other than their size (“Little Lucy Muir” and that the Captain was tall with broad shoulders) and there were no additional proclamations of love.

Think of the book this way: If it was published today, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” would be on a summer reading list or labeled a beach read  – those easy-to-read books that sweep you away for a relaxing few hours. It is a slim novel written with an economy of words that speak volumes. Leslie (as we’ll call the author from here) also has a way with descriptive, poetic dialogue. “The wallpaper had gone past fading into death,” is a wonderful visual of Gull Cottage. Lucy’s words in trying to make sense of unexplained happenings could be a poem: “There aren’t any ghosts really. They always turn out to be the wind in the chimney, or shadows on the wall, or branches tapping on the window.” The best of Leslie’s dialogue is used in the movie.

* * * *

As the novel opens, the author helps the reader understand in only a page that Lucy Muir has led an oppressed life, and that the young widow and mother is yearning for a life that is her own – not her late husband’s, nor his family’s.

She has finally found the courage to leave the house she lives in with her husband’s mother and sister for a fresh start by the sea. Arriving in Whitecliff, she fixates on the one property the house agent doesn’t want to show her: Gull Cottage. Very inexpensive, fully furnished and with a gorgeous sea view, Gull Cottage has been uninhabitable for the 10 years it has been on the market. Previous tenants haven’t lasted 24 hours, yet Lucy stubbornly insists on seeing it. The twinkling of the eyes in a portrait, the discarded lunch in the kitchen of someone was “called away in a hurry” and Lucy’s delight in seeing the clean telescope in the otherwise dusty house are the first signs that the house is haunted.

“Haunted! How perfectly fascinating,” she says with a big smile in the film and we know this haunted house story veers from traditional ghostly encounters. It is not interested in terrifying its audience, but rather wants to explore a woman’s fight for her independence as well as as the deepening relationship based on mutual respect of two characters that grows in the most unexpected way.

The ghostly inhabitant is Captain Daniel Gregg whose much talked about suicide was really an accident caused when he kicked over the gas heater as he slept.

Though it’s easy to assume Lucy fell under a ghostly spell, it worked both ways as our ornery sea captain was no match for the newly independent and determined Lucy Muir. Their bond formed almost immediately. Formalities are dropped – they become Lucy and Daniel to each other – and they make peace. She’ll take care of the cottage he built and he’ll stop his ghostly shenanigans (as long as no one messes with his “Lucia,” the swoon-worthy name he gives her). The story is sprinkled with light moments of humor such as when Lucy picks up the captain’s salty language such as “blasted.”

When she gets into financial difficulty and fears she’ll have to leave Gull Cottage, Daniel has her write out his life stories in a book on the “unvarnished life of a sea captain.” It’s a success.

Coming into their comfortable existence is the handsome and charming Miles Fairley Blane who sweeps her off her feet while hiding his own secrets. Though his portrayal in the book is different than the movie, the final effect is the same.

Actors Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison were perfectly matched on screen as Lucy and Daniel.

Adapting a book into film

Screenwiter Philip Dunne was brought in to turn Leslie’s efficient novel into a film. He had previously adapted such works as “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1934), “Magnificent Obsession” (1935), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1936) and “How Green Was My Valley” (1941).

In her forward to the Vintage Books edition of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani does a wonderful job in explaining Dunne’s talents. “Mr. Dunne was a master dramatist, keen and spare in his process. He would take apart a novel, pulling threads from it like a lacemaker. Mr. Dunne would hold on to some characters, discard others, restructure timelines, winnow down scenes, remove some altogether, and add new ones to create the most powerful screen narrative from the source material.”

That’s what Dunne did here. Let’s take Miles as an example.

Miles Blane (George Sanders) is a charming man with secrets who becomes a love interest for the naive Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney).

In the novel, Lucy meets Miles after he moves into a nearby cottage and saves her dog (with the “help” of the Daniel). He doesn’t have an occupation but he does a bit of “this and that.” For the film, Dunne turns Miles into a popular author of children’s books (he writes under the pen name of Uncle Neddy) who meets Lucy at the publisher’s office where she is trying to sell “Blood and Swash” by Captain X. Clearly attracted to her, Miles gets Lucy in to meet the publisher. Her gratitude and naivety combine to make her gullible and she falls for Miles, who is played with an unsettling mix of charm and scoundrel by George Sanders.

Another change by Dunne that works in the film’s favor is that Lucy has one child, not two as in the book. It was a good choice to focus on Anna (played by an adorable 8-year-old Natalie Wood), and thereby also focusing on Lucy instead of splitting attention with another child.

The big change, and one I am eternally grateful for, is that while Lucy never sees Daniel in the book – he comes to her only in her thoughts, like a voice in her head – he is a commanding presence in the film as played by Rex Harrison. Can you imagine the film without him? No, you can’t.

Through it all, there is a question of how a relationship caught between two worlds can be played out. We get a hint early watching Daniel’s reaction when Lucy asks “What is to become of us, you and me?” with a mix of yearning and pain in her voice. His subtle facial expressions help us understand he will do what he needs for her, whatever the sacrifice.

In this shattering scene, Daniel (Rex Harrison) softly tells the sleeping Lucia (Gene Tierney) that he was just a dream.

Dunne answers Lucy’s questions by adding one of the most romantically heartbreaking scenes on film as Daniel realizes he needs to allow his Lucia to live her human life. Visiting her as she sleeps with dawn pouring in the windows, he speaks to her with great tenderness of making her life among the living. “It’s been a dream, Lucia. In the morning and the years after, you’ll only remember it as a dream.”

He has kept his composure to this point but then his grief can’t be held back anymore. “What we missed, Lucia. What we’ve both missed,” he says with inescapable pain in his voice.

In another book or film, that could be the end, but not here. Instead, it starts another chapter. There is still more life for both Lucy Muir and Captain Daniel Gregg to live.

Other adaptations beyond the movie

Radio plays: About seven months after the film’s release in 1947, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” became an hour-long radio play for Lux Radio Theatre starring Charles Boyer (yes, with his heavy French accent) and Madeleine Carroll.

A 1951 production from Screen Directors Playhouse also starred Boyer, this time playing opposite Jane Wyatt. The opening statement credits Joseph L. Mankiewicz as the director.

Television: For the 1968 family comedy series, the story was moved to Maine and Lucy’s name was changed to Carolyn Muir. Carolyn was played by Hope Lang who won two Emmy Awards for Lead Actress in a Comedy. Edward Mulhare starred as Captain Daniel Gregg.

For an idea of how light a touch they were going for in the series, it also starred Reta Shaw as the housekeeper and comedian Charles Nelson Reilly as the captain’s great-nephew.

NBC ran the first season before canceling the series which was then picked up by ABC for its second and final season.

More about the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon

The second annual Classic Literature on Film Blogathon is hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. About 20 classic film writers from around the world are taking part and posting their stories from April 2-4. Please take the time to read these stories on a wonderfully diverse selection of books and movies. Here is the link.