I hadn't seen the 1964 film THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA for over 20 years. I had not read the Tennessee Williams play at the time, nor did I read it until very recently. Having done so, I re-screened the film, directed and co-scripted by the famed John Huston.
What a difference a play makes.
Williams' play is a modern psychologized meditation on the same theme medieval poets called "the decision between Virtue and Vice." In the medieval configurations, a man usually had to choose between feminine incarnations of Virtue, who offered heavenly redemption, and Vice, who offered sex, sex, and more sex.
The 1961Williams play-- not the last of his works, though probably the last one that became famous -- poises its central character, former Episcopalian priest Larry Shannon, between a feminine devil of sexuality and a "deep blue sea" of virginal forbearance which may or may not signify redemption. Shannon gravitates toward Maxine the Loose Woman, but wonders whether or not Hannah the Virginal Woman, who devotes herself to a higher cause than family and propagation, could bring him peace. Where another author might present these archetypes baldly, Williams provides a psychological grounding for Shannon's crisis of faith, in that he wants to believe in the "god of thunder" but despises the god of his parishioners, who in turn despise him for being a little more lusty than a priest ought to be.
The Huston film, however, totally deep-sixes the critique of religion that Tennessee Williams makes through Shannon. By doing so, Huston's Shannon, played with loud brio by Richard Burton, is reduced to a guy who just can't dig why anyone would object to a priest having lots of sex with young women.
The film also splits the clarity of the "flesh vs. spirit" by building up Charlotte, one of Shannon's minor conquests from the play into a full-fledged character, in competition with Hannah and Maxine for the questionable prize of Shannon's soul. To be sure, Charlotte-- essayed by Sue Lyon shortly after she gained fame in LOLITA-- has a more organic role in the film than the other two women, perhaps because Huston essentially makes her over. In contrast, Williams' Maxine is made into a less formidable character than the Maxine of the play, and is made to fall in love with Shannon so as to provide the film with a happy ending. Hannah becomes a figurative nun who is far more assured as to her mission in life than she is in the play: indeed, the ending to Williams' play is far more devastating not just for her but for Shannon as well.
Without going into greater detail than I want to here, I suppose one of Huston's problems was dealing with the demands of Hollywood filmmaking. On the stage, even stars must in theory submerge their talents to the needs of the playwright's characters. But in a Hollywood film, a big-name actress like Ava Gardner molds the character according to the expectations of the cinematic audience.
Allegedly Williams fought with Huston over the change in the ending in 1964, and when he met Huston again years later, told him once again, "You're still wrong."
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