The Great Screenwriters: Part 24 – Harold Pinter

By Martin Keady · March 31, 2020

Such was the primacy of cinema as a storytelling medium in the 20th century that many of the greatest writers in other media were drawn to it, from playwrights to poets, from novelists to non-fiction writers. Foremost among them was probably Harold Pinter, widely regarded as the greatest and most influential playwright in English in the second half of the 20th century. (His only real contender for that title, Samuel Beckett, originally wrote his greatest work, Waiting For Godot, in French.) And unlike many of these masters of other media, Pinter also excelled in writing for cinema, producing numerous screenplays over nearly five decades, from his first, superb forays into film writing in the early 1960s for director Joseph Losey to his final film script in 2007 (a rather less successful rewrite of the classic Sleuth), just a year before he died. Indeed, such was Pinter’s stature both as a writer and a screenwriter that even some of his unproduced and unfilmed screenplays, notably The Proust Screenplay (1972), have attained almost classic status.

A Genuine East Ender

Pinter was born in 1930 in Hackney, in east London, making him that rarest of things, a genuine “East Ender” (the term used to describe someone from what was notoriously the least salubrious part of London). His Jewish parents hailed from Eastern Europe, but mercifully had escaped to England before the mass destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis. Nevertheless, Pinter experienced World War II at first hand, living through the worst of the Nazi Blitz of London in 1940 and 1941 before he was evacuated, like so many other East End children, first to Cornwall and then to Reading. 

However, the memory of the Blitz inevitably stayed with him, with one of his most eminent biographers, the Guardian theater critic Michael Billington, arguing that it left him with feelings of “loneliness, bewilderment, separation and loss: themes that are in all his works”. Certainly, when one thinks of the seven and eight-year-old Pinter cowering in bomb shelters alongside his parents and neighbors, wondering when or even if the aerial attack above would cease, it provides an insight into the kind of theatrical and screen writing that Pinter would specialize in, indeed make his own. In one way or another, his characters – from the titular Caretaker onward – were always under attack from unseen persons or even unseen forces. In fact, it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine that the famous “Pinter pauses” (the meticulously documented silences between lines in his plays) had their origin in Pinter’s own experience of being a little boy, huddled underground with others, desperately listening out for any sign that the latest aerial blitzkrieg had finally ended. 

A Working Actor

After the war, Pinter, who had always loved reading and acting at school, became an actor, even though he dropped out of his course at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). For the next decade or so, he survived as a jobbing actor, touring the British and Irish Isles. At one point, he even worked for the company of the fabled Sir Donald Wolfit, the actor-manager who had spent the war touring Shakespeare and who would go on to be immortalized in both Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser (which was based on Harwood’s own experience of being the great man’s personal dresser) and Withnail and I (Withnail imagines changing his name to “Desmond Wolf”, in an obvious nod to the great man). 

“Comedies of Menace”

All this time, however, Pinter dreamed of writing his own plays and after several false starts finally succeeded spectacularly. Indeed, he enjoyed something of a golden age as a playwright between 1957 and 1964, during which time he wrote many of his greatest plays, including The Room (1957), The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960) and The Homecoming (1964). These “Comedies of Menace”, as they were memorably called by the critic Irving Wardle, established not only Pinter’s name but his style as a playwright: undeniably menacing; occasionally comedic (albeit comedy of the blackest, darkest kind); and always enigmatic, as his plays appeared to be set in undefined locales and indeterminate periods of time. 

His success as a playwright inevitably brought Pinter to the attention of film directors and producers. In particular, he captured the imagination of Joseph Losey, an American director who had been blacklisted for his supposed Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era of the 1950s and was subsequently forced to make his living outside of America. In an irony that Pinter himself might have enjoyed, Losey’s enforced exile may just have been the making of him, as he had been a fairly undistinguished film director in America (where his most memorable film was a 1951 remake of the 1931 Fritz Lang classic M) but in Britain, especially working alongside Pinter on their trilogy of movies, he became a great one. 

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The Servant

The first Losey-Pinter collaboration was The Servant (1963), which Pinter adapted for the screen from a 1948 novella of the same name by Robin Maugham (a nephew of the world-famous Somerset Maugham). By this stage of his career, with several successful plays to his name, Pinter could make even works by other writers appear “Pinter-esque”, and so it was with The Servant, in which Dirk Bogarde’s manservant eventually replaces his supposed master, played by James Fox, just as so many of Pinter’s stage creations ended up usurping their supposed betters. It was a theme that could not have been more timely or topical in 1960s Britain, when, for the first (and, tragically, so far only) time in English history, numerous members of the working classes – from The Beatles to Michael Caine to Pinter himself – were proving themselves to be effortlessly superior to their supposed betters. 

The Servant was a success, both critically and commercially, and it enabled Losey and Pinter not only to continue their own work individually (Pinter wrote both his own plays and screenplays for other directors, notably The Quiller Memorandum (1966), a spy thriller investigating the rise of neo-Nazis) but to continue their loose trilogy of films that forensically examined England and in particular its notorious class system. The second of the trilogy was Accident (1967), which again showed the brutality that often lay behind the supposed gentility of the English gentleman (a theme that is becoming ever-more-topical as 21st century Britain topples acrimoniously towards Brexit). 


Accident was another adaptation of a novel by a minor English aristocrat, Nicholas Mosley. More importantly, it again starred Dirk Bogarde, who by now had fully cast off his youthful image as a matinee idol to become a genuinely serious actor (a process that would culminate in his remarkable, ruined performance in Luschino Visconti’s Death In Venice (1971)). Bogarde played Stephen, a married Oxford don who secretly desires Anna, a young Austrian woman who is his student. Unfortunately, he is not alone in his admiration of Anna, as she is also desired by another of Stephen’s students, William, and one of Stephen’s colleagues, Charley. In what is almost a cinematic cousin of Pinter’s play The Homecoming, in which a young man brings his wife home to meet his family, only to find that his father and brothers also desire her, Accident shows how all three men compete for Anna’s affections. Finally, Stephen takes advantage of the accident that gives the film its title (Anna crashes William’s car, killing him, outside Stephen’s home) by hiding Anna in an upstairs room, explaining the accident away to the police and then effectively raping her. Like The Servant and so many of Pinter’s plays, Accident was dark, nasty and absolutely unforgettable. 

The Go-Between

The third film that Pinter wrote and Losey directed was yet another adaptation of a novel, but this was not an obscure or relatively unknown work but an acknowledged masterpiece, The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, which had been published in 1953. Nearly 20 years after its publication, Pinter adapted it for the screen and it was truly the crowning achievement of his near decade-long collaboration with Losey. It is also the most formally inventive of his three screenplays for Losey, flashing back and forwards in keeping with the novel’s most celebrated line (which has now become a famous saying in its own right): “The past is a different country: they do things differently there”. They certainly did, as Pinter used Hartley’s novel as the basis and inspiration for his own marvelous screenplay, which told the story of a young boy who is unwittingly recruited by a couple engaged in an illicit affair – the beautiful daughter of a landowner (played by Julie Christie) and a tenant farmer (played by Alan Bates) – to carry messages between them. Finally, their affair is discovered, with genuinely tragic consequences that haunt the young “go-between” for the rest of his life. 

The Go-Between (1971) was a towering achievement and fittingly, given that it was undoubtedly his finest screenplay to that point, Pinter won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Given that Pinter would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, unlike most screenwriters the Oscar was not his crowning glory. Nevertheless, it did mark the end of his working relationship with Losey, which had been the most successful screen partnership between a great writer and a great director since that enjoyed by Graham Greene and Carol Reed in the aftermath of World War II ( 

As with Greene and Reed, it was as if Pinter and Losey had done all they could together, and as with Greene and Reed it was the younger writer who fared much better than the older director after their extraordinarily creative relationship came to an end. Certainly, Losey never made another film as good as the three that Pinter had written for him, and even if it can be argued that Pinter never quite matched the screenwriting heights he had reached with Losey, he still wrote a succession of superb plays, including Betrayal (1978), an anatomy of a relationship breakdown that was allegedly inspired by Pinter’s own extramarital affair with a TV presenter, Joan Bakewell, during the 1960s, and a number of fascinating screenplays. 

A Great Man Of Letters

Probably the best of Pinter’s post-Losey screenplays was that for The Last Tycoon (1976), his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final (indeed unfinished) novel about his own creative dissipation and eventual death in Hollywood. The Last Tycoon was also the last film made by its illustrious director, Elia Kazan, the legendary director of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On The Waterfront (1954), but who was arguably even more famous for having given testimony in the 1950s against supposed Communist sympathizers like Joseph Losey. Indeed, Losey must have been appalled when he learned that Pinter was now working with his former enemy and although Pinter himself never wrote directly about his experience of working with Kazan it would surely have made a fascinating play or screenplay.

Pinter continued to write for the stage and screen virtually right up until his death in 2008. Although he wrote scripts for such memorable films as The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), an adaptation of the John Fowles novel in which he intercut between past and present as he had done in The Go-Between 10 years earlier, probably his finest screenplays were ultimately unproduced and never filmed, which must have been almost as chastening for a great writer like Pinter as it is for any unknown or aspiring screenwriter. Nevertheless, such was Pinter’s status as a truly great man of letters (he also wrote poetry as well as scripts for stage, screen, TV and radio) that, unlike the works of unknown or aspiring screenwriters, his unproduced screenplays were often published and adapted for other media. 

Foremost among them is The Proust Screenplay (1972), which Pinter wrote just after completing the final script for The Go-Between. It was meant to be the basis for a screen adaptation of Marcel Proust’s great novel (in the opinion of many the greatest novel ever written), À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, which was traditionally translated (or rather mistranslated) into English as “In Remembrance Of Things Past”, after the Shakespeare sonnet (No.30) featuring that line, but which is now more usually (and accurately) translated as, “In Search Of Lost Time”. Pinter had written the script for Losey and given their earlier triumphs it is both perplexing and genuinely tragic (at least in artistic terms) that Losey was never able to raise the financing to make it. Nevertheless, in condensing a truly epic seven-volume novel into a film script of about 200 pages, Pinter produced probably his greatest screenplay. And even if it has never actually been filmed in full (parts of it were the basis of Swann In Love (1984), a film by Volker Schlöndorff, and it was later adapted for both stage and radio) it remains an absolute masterclass in editing and excision. 

Harold Pinter was a great playwright but he was also a great screenwriter. His work with Joseph Losey alone would have elevated him to that status, but other, later scripts, especially The Last Tycoon and even The Proust Screenplay, also showed that he was a master of cinematic adaptation. The only shame is that he never wrote an original screenplay to go alongside his ultra-original, indeed inimitable (though many have tried) stage plays. If such a thing exists and is eventually discovered, then there is absolutely no doubt that it will be filmed, perhaps by a 21st century equivalent of a Losey or Kazan, the two very different directors for whom Pinter wrote his greatest works for the screen. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

Featured Photo: The Servant (1963)

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