Paranoia in Robert Altman's "The Player" and in michael Tolkin's "The Player"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Paranoia in Michael Tolkin's The Player and Robert Altman's The Player

This paper attempts to analyze the treatment of paranoia in Michael Tolkin's The Player and in Robert Altman's movie adaptation with the same title. Both works, the novel and its filmic adaptation, feature the paranoid protagonist Griffin Mill, a powerful movie executive who is plagued by an angry screenwriter. Now in this paper I shall examine how the novel and the movie apply their respective techniques to establish the fear and paranoia that drive Griffin all the way to murder. I will show that Griffin's paranoia is generated mainly by his powerful position in the movie industry. His paranoia absorbs him completely, leaving no room for a conscience or guilt. Even though this paper is not about film adaptation primarily, it is necessary to consider the general differences between literature and movies. Then, after a few words about the treatment of paranoia in film and literature in general, I will analyze Griffin's paranoia in both, the novel and the movie. Having done that I will show how his paranoia can be linked to his powerful position in the Hollywood movie industry.

The novel use language to tell a story, whereas movies use pictures, dialogue and sound to show their stories to the audience. While novels are restricted to the use of language, movies can make use of multi-media techniques. Movies can show a large amount of information with a single sweep of the camera. The camera can capture complex images in a few seconds that would take many pages of prose to describe. The novel in contrast can provide insight in a character's interior thoughts and emotions, it can use language to allow the reader a look inside the character's brain. Literature and Film have different qualities, which does not make one better than the other. Yet one aspect they share: "both [are] narrative in format"[1]. Narrative, the quality that both media have in common, is one of the reasons for the many novels that have been filmed. In fact, "well over half of all commercial films have come from literary originals"[2], the practice of using a literary source for a movie is as old as the movie industry itself. This strategy is a very successful one, "even the film industry regards all of its greatest achievements as derived from novels"[3].

Yet narrative is not the only reason that makes producers adapt literary sources because there is always hope that a commercially successful novel can be transformed into a commercially successful movie. In other words "the notion of a potentially lucrative 'property' has clearly been at least one major influence in the filming of novels"[4].

In both, literature and film, it is "the business of the writer or the film-maker [...] to transfer the reader or viewer from one world, his own, to another, the world created by typography and film"[5]. This presents many film-makers with a problem because "audiences [...] have continued to want to see what the books 'look like' [...] they are interested in comparing their images with those created by the film-maker"[6]. This raises the much debated question of literal fidelity, of how faithful a movie should be to the novel it originates from. Yet due to their different qualities a movie and its source novel should be appreciated in absence of the all-dominating issue of fidelity:

The shift from a single-track, uniquely verbal medium such as the novel, which 'has

only words to play with', to a multi-track medium such as film, which can play not only

with words (written and spoken), but also with theatrical performance, music, sound

effects, and moving photographic images, explains the unlikelihood - and I would

suggest even the undesirability - of literal fidelity.[7]

The filmic adaptation of a novel is a long and complicated process: a screenplay based on the novel has to be written, actors and setting have to be found, a shooting script has to be developed and it needs a director and a studio. After all “film is not really a single medium like song or the written word, but a collective art form with different individuals directing color, lighting, sound, acting, speaking”[8]. The end product, the movie, is necessarily very different from the novel not only in content but also in its medial structure. Nevertheless comparison is legitimate and necessary when it comes to understanding the specific techniques that a novel or a movie apply to their material or story. In the case of The Player, both the novel and movie, show the protagonist Griffin Mill's paranoia and the treatment of this issue shall be examined in the following pages.

However, before analyzing the treatment of paranoia, a few introducing sentences about paranoia in general seem necessary. Paranoia, "original Greek, παράνοια (paranoia) means self-referential [...] in reference to a delusional belief."[9] Paranoia is a mental condition that often leads to "irrational distrust of others, delusions of persecution, often strenuously defended with apparent logic and reason."[10] It usually includes the belief that the actions of others are demeaning or threatening and feelings of being exploited or harmed by others. A person suffering from paranoia tends to question the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends or associates[11], he often suffers irrational fears of being followed, observed or manipulated. Before I will show Griffin Mill's paranoia in Tolkin's novel I shall briefly turn to the literary treatment of paranoia in fiction.

American authors have written many novels that deal with the issue of paranoia, especially during and since the Cold War. Many postmodern authors are concerned about conspiracy theories and social paranoia:

Conspiracy theories and paranoid social thought have been a steady topic of American

fiction, especially experimental fiction associated with postmodern tendencies (e.g.,

DeLillo, Pynchon), throughout the period of the Cold War.[12]

Paranoid novels are about conspiracy theories and subsume “our worries and suspicions in a plotting of conspiracies and betrayals by those in power”[13]. Power and surveillance are important issues here and usually we have a heroic individual who “blows the lid off the bad conspiracy and brings to light the hidden agendas[14]. But it is the other main aspect of paranoid fiction, paranoia as a general aspect of life in the age of industry and information, that requires closer attention for the development of this paper. Many critics view paranoid fiction as an indicator of our civilization and our way of life: “most paranoid fiction is more a reflection of the suspicion that pervades modern life, rooted in powerlessness and insecurity”[15]. This tendency, to portray paranoia as a permanent facet of modern life, can be found in many works and a lot of authors go even further and describe social paranoia as a skill, a strength that is absolutely vital in order to survive in the capitalistic society. One can argue “that paranoia springs from a central part of our psyches, down in the lizard brain, in the place where our survival instincts are hard-wired”[16], that paranoia is a tool for survival in a world of social Darwinism and capitalistic rivalry. It is this notion of paranoia as a survival-skill, as a by-product of modern life that Michael Tolkin deals with in his novel The Player.

Griffin Mill, Tolkin’s protagonist, is a character who suffers from varying degrees of paranoia. In this section of my paper I shall examine the treatment and the nature of “the paranoia that lead[s] to a senseless killing”[17].


[1] Robert B. Ray. "The Field of Literature and Film". James Naremore (ed.). Film Adaptation New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000. pp 38-53. p 39

[2] Dudley Andrew. "Adaptation". James Naremore (ed.). Film Adaptation New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000. pp 28-37. p 27

[3] Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd: London, 1964. p 286

[4] Brian McFarlane. Novel to Film. An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1996. p 7

[5] McLuhan, 164. p 285

[6] McFarlane, 1996. p 7

[7] Robert Stam. "Beyond Fidelity. The Dialogics of Adaptation". James Naremore (ed.). Film Adaptation New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000. pp 54-76. p 56

[8] McLuhan, 1964. p 292

[9] 22.09.2004. <>

[10] 22.09.2004. <>

[11] see: 22.09.2004. <>

[12] George E. Marcus and Michael G. Powell. Conspiracy Theories in the Incipient New World Order of the 1990s to Regimes of Transparency Now: a Review Essay on Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order. 04/10/2004 <>

[13] Paranoid. 04/10/04 <>

[14] Paranoid. 04/10/04 <>

[15] Paranoid. 04/10/04 <>

[16] Paranoid. 04/10/04 <>

[17] Michael Tolkin. The Player. Vintage: New York, 1988. p 166. All references are to this edition.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Paranoia in Robert Altman's "The Player" and in michael Tolkin's "The Player"
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
Novel / Film Adaptation"
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ISBN (eBook)
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I wrote this paper for a Hauptseminar on Film Adaptation. It analyzez the filmic adaptation of Tolkin's novel "The Player" by director Robert Altman.
Paranoia, Robert, Altman, Player, Tolkin, Player, Hauptseminar, Novel, Film, Adaptation
Quote paper
M.A. Jan Riepe (Author), 2004, Paranoia in Robert Altman's "The Player" and in michael Tolkin's "The Player", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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