Nathanael West and John Schlesinger: "The Day of the Locust" - A Survey of the Translation from Novel to Film

Term Paper, 2001

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Story and protagonists in The Day of the Locust

3. Criticism of the film
3.1 Lack of satirical elements
3.2 Loss of Tod’s narrative point of view
3.3 Film cannot criticise film industry
3.4 The end of the film

4. Comparison of novel and film
4.1 The Battle of Waterloo
4.2 Harry Greener and the faith-healer
4.3 Homer’s hands

5. Film techniques
5.1 Sound as a device for connecting scenes
5.2 Repetition and symbolism
5.2.1 Rose
5.2.2 Water
5.2.3 Red lips
5.2.4 Mirror
5.2.5 Colours
5.3 Light and shadow
5.4 Film within a film

6. The change of order in the film

7. Conclusion


1. Introduction and aim of the examination

Although Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust did not receive much attention when published in 1939, it is today considered one of the best and most revealing novels about Hollywood.Its reviews are outstanding and it has therefore become one of the landmarks in American writing. The Day of the Locust demonstrates the fragility of the American Dream and presents it from various perspectives. It points out the cruel world of film industry using devices of irony and satire. Therefore it resembles a “nightmare vision of humanity destroyed by its obsession with film”[1].

West took the title of the novel from the Bible. In Revelation, people turn into locusts in order to follow their aim of destroying the whole world. They do not kill immediately, though, but only sting and hurt in order to let their victims die slowly. These locusts can be compared to the film industry in Hollywood which also exploits and slowly kills its people. Besides, in the Bible Jeremiah prophesies a necessary ending of the world which ought to lead mankind to a new life and a rebirth. In the novel, this image is taken up again. This aspect will be thoroughly discussed later, though. The concept of apocalypse can be found throughout the novel and beside violence and decadence, the devaluation of love is a prominent theme, too. West illustrates the moral decay of characters on the fringe of the entertainment industry, that are Homer Simpson, Faye Greener and Tod Hackett. Each character has come to California seeking fame or health in the shining city Los Angeles, and each suffers from his or her own history of desperation and shattered dreams.

Producers had already thought about turning West’s novel into a film in the early 1950’s. As they feared that most of the satirical view would get lost, however, the film was not shot until 1974, when the famous director John Schlesinger committed himself to the adaptation. The cast included the well-known actor Donald Sutherland, who took the role of Homer Simpson, and Oscar nominations went to the actor who played Harry Greener, Burgess Meredith, and to the cinematographer Conrad Hall. The story of the film fit Schlesinger’s earlier works which usually focused on “lost beings in search of security, love, and self”.[2] Applied to The Day of the Locust, this can be compared to the protagonist of novel and film, the painter Tod Hackett. He works in an artificial environment where he is searching for ‘security’ – that is his job in Hollywood, ‘love’ – which he tries to find with the actress Faye Greener, and ‘self’ – which might refer to his disillusion in life. One way of coping with the cruel circumstances in Hollywood seems to be art, the others violence and insanity.

This survey focuses on the translation from novel to film, compares and contrasts differences, and reveals the different perspectives of the characters. Furthermore, it will both examine the use of film techniques in Schlesinger’s adaptation and the meaning of symbolism in the film. Last but not least, a few commonly invoked critical viewpoints of the film will be discussed.

2. Story and protagonists in The Day of the Locust

The main character, a talented young artist named Tod Hackett, heads to Hollywood in the hope of becoming a scenic artist in the design department of a major film studio. He encounters a dismal world of broken people and shattered dreams. In the story, Tod is an independent observer and plays the role of a participant and of a commentator. Little by little he discovers a destroyed world behind the glamorous façade where only profit counts and people are cheated by the media and their illusions. In such an artificial world, violence, superficiality, and hysteria rule and slowly destroy people who have stopped believing in such values as love or faith, but let themselves be deceived by the huge factory called Hollywood.

A different point of view is conveyed by the young, untalented wannabe-actress Faye Greener who lives a life of superficiality and competition. She betrays men with her grace and beauty, hoping to gain a higher social position, more money, and a career as a famous actress. In order to achieve her goals, she exploits everyone and deliberately provokes violence as men fight for her love. However, she is only part of the cheating machine Hollywood and even personifies the American Dream which Hollywood has made empty and hollow.

Another viewpoint of the story is Homer Simpson’s who has come to California from the Midwest to cure his illness. He is one of the cheated and – being unable to defend himself – becomes increasingly apathetic as the story progresses.

3. Criticism of the film

3.1 Lack of satirical elements

The film has often been the object of diverse criticism. One point was that the satire does not translate onto the big screen. The problem that it is difficult to express thoughts or irony on the screen can be verified in the first part of the film where violence and cruelty of the film industry do not appear as obvious as in the novel. Throughout the film, there is a growing number of scenes with ironic aspects though. As a particularly good example of cruelty and irony, the cockfight can be mentioned. Being interrupted by short scenes showing Faye and Homer, the fight transmits violence to the whole society. The relationship is not based on real love but only consists of a kind of business arrangement. As a result, Faye gets bored and treats Homer in a mean and cruel way. Another aspect which can be found both in society and in the fight is competition. Hollywood’s population consists of second-rate artists and wannabe-actors who try to outdo their rivals by means of mendacity and cruelty.

The final riot serves as a further example for the excellent translation of satire in the film. Hollywood’s population had allowed the film industry to cheat them with movies and became imprisoned in a world of illusion and dreams. Schlesinger mocks the American society by showing burning cars and shops that seem to be the realisation of Tod’s The Burning of Los Angeles. The completion of this painting is Tod’s desire throughout the story. The camera zooms in the symbolic burning of posters showing actors and ‘Hollywoodland’. Moreover, the properties of film sets crash and demonstrate at the same time that the whole façade and Hollywood itself is being destroyed. A newspaper with the headline reading “Roosevelt pledges nation to continue fight for tolerance” has been thrown on the ground and is being destroyed by flames. From that moment on, there is no more tolerance.

3.2 Loss of Tod’s narrative point of view

As already mentioned, Tod takes over the role of commentator and participant in The Day of the Locust. Critics claim that the loss of his narrative point of view leave the audience confused as in the novel his thoughts can be read, while in the film they cannot be read. Nevertheless – to take up the riot scene again – the viewer is able to follow his thoughts easily. For example when Tod imagines some scenes of his painting, his ideas and feelings are revealed: Real people wearing masks appear and menace the protagonist. Those quick changes from reality to illusion are connected with the chaotic sounds of the riot. The film technique of connecting scenes by means of sounds will be explained later in the survey.

3.3 Film cannot criticise film industry

An aspect that has been criticised but can be easily disproved is the fact that it is almost impossible to portray the badness of film industry in a film. Schlesinger, however, shows a Hollywood with has-beens and wannabes, cruel producers, set-disasters and pornography-loving people. The population consists of eccentrics, neurotics and desperate souls who destroy themselves unintentionally. Therefore, the film definitely does not convey a positive point of view of film industry and its supporters. It is even mentioned straightforward that those who have come to Hollywood have come to die.


[1] Ballard, J.G.; Sunday Times Review in West, Nathanael: The Day of the Locust. Middlesex: Penguin 2000

[2] McEntee, Jason T.: The Novel-to-Film Translatability of Satire in The Day of the Locust and Wise Blood, p.230

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Nathanael West and John Schlesinger: "The Day of the Locust" - A Survey of the Translation from Novel to Film
University of Augsburg  (Lehrstuhl für Amerikanistik)
Proseminar: Novels of the American Modernism
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Nathanael, West, John, Schlesinger, Locust, Survey, Translation, Novel, Film, Novels, American, Modernism, Tag der Heuschrecke, Filmadaption, Romanverfilmung
Quote paper
Julia Deitermann (Author), 2001, Nathanael West and John Schlesinger: "The Day of the Locust" - A Survey of the Translation from Novel to Film, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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