Alice Adams: From Page to Screen–How Stevens Movie Changed Tarkington’s Novel

George Stevens’ Alice Adams, based on Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, is remarkable for its social realism in depicting life on the other side of the tracks.

Its eponymous heroine (Katharine Hepburn), is a feisty, individualistic adolescent of the lower-middle class, determined to better her position in life. Alice lives in South Renford, Indiana, which, celebrating its 75th Jubilee Year, is described as “The Town with a Future.” The town’s size, projected through the circulation of its local newspaper, is about 5000. Its class divisions are established right away when the camera pans along Main Street, dwelling on “Vogue,” an elegant store, then crosses to “Samuels, a 5-l0-15 cents store.” Alice shops at “Samuels.”

A number of changes were made by the writers (Jane Murfin, who adapted, and Dorothy Yost and Mortimer Hoffner, who wrote the script) in translating the book to the big screen. In Tarkington’s novel, there is no happy ending and Arthur does not propose marriage. Instead, Alice becomes more practical and goes to business school to become a secretary. Tarkington is harsh on Alice, perceiving her as a victim not so much of her town, but her own pretentions and snobbery. She subscribes to some of the social ills she presumably objects to in other people. In the book, Alice wakes up and her maturation involves disillusionment. Moreover, much of Tarkington’s ironic and subtle humor is absent from the film. A keen observer of lifestyles, Tarkington is all but sentimental.

Movies about small towns in the 1930s did not do much for ethnic minorities, either ignoring or portraying them in a stereotypical way. In Alice Adams, there is a bit part, the black band conductor, but note Alice’s expression of horror when her brother socializes with him. There is also a more substantial part, Malina (Hattie McDaniel), “the Mulatto cook,” Mrs. Adams hires to impress Arthur. Malina differs from the stereotype of the black nanny, being an outspoken and matter-of-fact cook. “Ain’t it pretty hot fo’ soup” she says when the menu is discussed. The hilarious dinner sequence shows that the Adams family has not rehearsed a unified line, for there is not much team work in their presentation of collective image. Mr. Adams mistakes the Brussels sprouts for cabbage; he is politely “corrected” by Alice. And he almost chokes when his daughter says: “We never have liquor in the house, father’s a teetotaler.” Alice and her mother work hard to present a positive and coherent facade. Mrs. Adams tells Arthur Alice doesn’t mind the heat, “but then, she’s so amiable, she never minds anything–it’s just her character.” And Alice complains to her mother that they “let the servants do too much as they like,” and that it’s time “we should get new ones.”

A misfit and socially displaced, Alice has several reincarnations in small-town films exploring growing pains. Alice combines romanticism with pragmatism, the belief in a better world and the ability to disassociate herself from her immediate surroundings. She is an authentic American heroine, characterized by traits of other major literary creations. Alice, like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, feels superior to those around her, because she thinks she embodies higher standards of beauty and truth. Like Blanche, she wants “magic,” not reality. But Alice is aware of her identity and efforts. “I suppose the only good in pretending,” she says in a moment of truth, “is the fun we get out of fooling ourselves that we fool somebody else.” When, Arthur admits he heard a good deal about her at the Palmers, she says: “So they did talk about me.” But Arthur couldn’t care less, and in the film’s last shot they embrace.

The critic Walter Kerr has defended the superimposed happy ending, claiming that Alice “had to have a man, for our sake, not for hers.” Made during the Depression, Alice Adams‘s producers felt that it would be a let down for viewers if Alice would be “punished,” i.e. denied love, because of her inferior social class. The film thus favored a view of Alice as aggressive and pretentious girl, but one who is also vulnerable and capable of change.