Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958 Film
How form changes meaning in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
At the crux of the complex ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ is the relations that characters have with one another, most saliently how Skipper’s death corrodes the way Brick interacts with Maggie and Big Daddy. However, although this mention of Brick and Skipper’s latent homosexuality is overt in the text, it is peripherally referred to in the film, wholly changing our view of not only Brick, but Maggie too. Moreover, the set in the play is utterly transformed in the movie; redirecting our attention from a single room that “evoke[s] some ghosts,” and is “gently and poetically haunted by a relationship,” to a plethora of different environments that evoke an entirely different mood altogether. Additionally, the conclusion to the film is notably different from the text; reflecting an important plot alteration. Instead of leaving the audience with lingering questions; all is neatly resolved, thereby transforming the entire contention of the play; which is to convey the extremities of human emotion, through relationships and characters’ interactions.
The Maggie we see in the film is depicted as a self-interested, vain, disloyal and obsessed with a man who doesn’t love her back; instead of liberal, loving and although, short-tempered at times, ultimately well-meaning. In the play, she expresses her view of her physical appearance through dialogue; however in the film this is expressed through the use of the mirror. Maggie is often depicted, in fact for the entirety of scene 2, as looking at herself in front of the mirror. She sees Brick’s apathetic stare through the mirror and additionally admires her shape in the prop; proving it to be an important feature of the film. It acts as not only a reflection of their dysfunctional marriagebut as a reflection of Maggie’s view of herself; and Brick. The mirror is not used in the text, wholly changing our view of how the two protagonists view themselves and the demise of their union. As discussed, Maggie expresses in the original that she thinks Brick’s and Skipper’s relationship was “one of those beautiful, ideal things they tell you about in Greek legends,” and “that’s what made it so awful, because it was love that never could be carried through to anything satisfying or even talked about plainly.” Here, she is open minded, especially so when compared to the way Brick himself describes homosexual relations (as something to be “disgusted” by, an “unnatural” thing.) Conversely, in the adaptation she is intolerant, jealous of a mere “pure and true friendship,” with a fuse so short she is willing to smother a child’s face in ice cream. However, it is imperative to note that 1950s audiences would view Maggie differently; she was their golden girl – idolized, romanticized, and therefore interpreted as more sympathetic than perhaps a modern audience would perceive her. Maggie’s paucity of softness in the adaptation (a characteristic that makes her so complex when analyzing how that softness compliments her smoldering sensuality) paints an entirely different picture of our beloved “Cat.” Although her tenacity and sexuality is are evident through the film, with numerous low shots of her legs and close ups of the determination on her countenance in bringing Brick to bed with her; there is not as much of that softness, that sadness that the play conveys so adroitly. Ultimately, Maggie is watered down in the play; her feminine sensuality flourishing as Hollywood demands, yet her emotional softness smothered. And this is what changes the meaning of the play, through the omission of homosexuality, characters that are intended to demonstrate the extremities of human emotion ultimately do not do so.
The setting in the film version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” is starkly different to the one presented in the text, a marked difference that changes the tone of the tale, and therefore the meaning. As outlined in the “Notes for the Designer,” Tennessee Williams writes that “the set is the bed-sitting-room of a plantation home,” a room that is brimming with tensions that are threatening to break out. Indeed, the room should “show [the characters] restlessness.” However, this is changed in the film; with panorama shots of an expansive plantation, an airport and numerous other rooms. Although this indeed conveys the wealth that Big Daddy holds; it does not convey the restlessness and the inability to escape from one’s secrets. Where the play conjures up images of “tender light of weathered wood,” a background which compliments the contention, the film brings to light lush green grass and a grey, concrete airport. Williams writes that the set is “the background for a play that deals with human extremities of emotion,” and therefore the set “needs that softness behind it.” However, although the film does not have that, it would be harsh to say that the film adaption blights this setting. Rather, it uses backyard parties and large libraries to bring to the fore something different, the affluence of Big Daddy, aiding the audience to understand the view that “the human animal is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys.”
It is also important to mention the bed, utterly central to the plot and the play’s central concerns. It is described as the center point in the room, and is, in effect, where the discord of Brick and Maggie’s marriage is born. Not only is it fodder for a feminist reading, with Maggie exclaiming “Why don’t you ask if he makes me happy in bed?” it is the sole reason why “Brick drinks,” and “[Maggie] is childless.” A key scene to draw on when discussing the bed is when Big Mama exclaims, whilst furiously pounding on the sheets; “When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there, right there!” This scene appears fleetingly in the film, but it is one of the few times sex is mentioned, where in the play such references are constant. The bed represents sex (and thus sexuality), and its absence in the film therefore focuses our attention on Williams’ secondary concerns, those of familial dysfunction, instead of homosexuality.
Homosexual relations between Brick and Skipper are overtly expressed in the play, however this is watered down in the film and tacitly referred to, completely altering the audience’s view of the classic. In the film, homosexuality is there; but indeed only if one is aware and looking for it. The only mention of it is when Brick proclaims that his relationship with the ever elusive Skipper was “pure and true,” and Big Daddy was “painting it dirty.” This is a far more conservative conversation than what was explored in the text. During the play, Brick so frankly asks Big Daddy if he thought that the pair had “done sodomy,” and were “ducking sissies.” Their conversation seems to express that Brick is on the defensive, he is desperately trying to conceal a truth – where in the film it is briefly referred to, and affirmed that this notion is merely a rumor – before the attention is diverted towards Maggie’s infidelity instead. “What was going on between Skipper and Maggie?” asks Big Daddy constantly, to which Brick replies “ask her,” implying a transgression of sorts that drove a hard wedge between them, instead of Brick’s romantic love for Skipper. This recasts Brick from a man wrecked with self hatred and homophobia married to a woman that was so loving that she believed her husband’s homosexual relationship was “noble!” and “sad,” instead of, as expressed in the film, so consumed by jealousy that she would betray her husband’s loyalty. Through omitting a motif so central to the comprehension of the characters’ complexities, director Richard Brooks renders some individuals less sympathetic and indeed transforms the plot. To understand Brick’s catatonic self hatred, and indeed to feel sympathy towards him, one must understand the effect that his sexuality has on his self esteem, especially in the conservative 1950s.
The omission and addition of certain elements from the original “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” alters its meaning considerably. The use of dialogue and the lack of mention of certain motifs and themes ultimately renders some characters less sympathetic and indeed less complex. Moreover, the principal aim of the text, to show the extremities of human emotion and to expose the stigma around homosexuality is compromised; thoroughly changing our entire experience when interacting with the story.