Author Wilkie Collins: considered the father of the first modern detective novel, one of the first to feature a female sleuth in his writing, master of the cliffhanger, contemporary (and good friend) of Charles Dickens, popular and internationally lauded author of novels, plays, essays, and short stories…and almost completely ignored by Hollywood and film in general.
Today he is recognized in literary circles as one of the pioneers of the thriller/mystery/detective novel genre (“a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe” according to T.S. Eliot) yet outside of these circles his is not a household name. Even though he influenced Dickens’ work and vice versa and his literary skill was admired by Dickens (who once referred to himself in their correspondence as Collins’ “obedient disciple”), his legacy would not last or grow the way Dickens’ did. Though innovative and genius in many respects, Collins had a tendency to push a bit too far into the fantastic. In his later works, under the influence of laudanum which he took for pain and became addicted to, plots began with his signature sensual, gothic hound’s hunt into mystery and then broke down into unrealistic and overcomplicated denouement. Though his works sold in high numbers and were highly praised by both the public and fellow writers during his heyday, by the time he died in 1889, he was practically old news.
Of his 30 something novels, 4 were considered masterpieces:
The Woman in White, published in 1860, is often called one of the first mystery novels, the first published thriller, and the initiator and leading example of the sensation novel (melodramatic Gothic Victorian romances steeped in secrets that were popular in Britain in the 1860s). It tells the tale of a young teacher, Walter Hartright, who comes upon a distressed woman dressed all in white as he’s walking on a deserted road at night. She is frightened, but elusive about why, and asks for directions to London which Walter provides. After she leaves, he learns that she has escaped from an asylum and people are looking to get her back… Much more intrigue follows, but telling any more could be giving something away.
No Name, published in 1862, the story of Norah and Magdalen Vanstone, two sisters who find themselves disinherited after their parents’ death reveals a secret they kept from everyone. Though their parents had been living together as man and wife, they were not married at the time of their daughters’ births, making the girls illegitimate in the eyes of the law and ineligible to inherit anything. When their father’s fortune is passed to his callous brother and the two sisters are left virtually penniless, the docile Norah accepts her fate and goes to work, but headstrong Magdalen vows to gain back what she feels is rightfully hers, even if the law doesn’t agree, with the help of her mother’s charismatic and calculating step-brother, Captain Wragge.
Armadale, published in 1865, tells the tale of two men both named Allan Armadale who meet and become friends, despite the fact that one’s father killed the other’s. The murderer’s son struggles with thoughts that he may be predestined to harm his friend, the son of his father’s victim.
The Moonstone, published in 1868, known as the first detective novel in that it set the blueprint for those that followed, tells the story of Rachel Verinder who is gifted a precious gem known as the Moonstone by her uncle on her 18th birthday. When it is stolen, everyone is a suspect, including Rachel, her cousins (and suitors) Franklin Blake and Godfrey Ablewhite, the Indian guardians of the moonstone who seek to return it to its ancient home, household servants, and etc.
4 films with stories that Hollywood could have tackled…yet only The Moonstone and The Woman in White have ever been made into Hollywood films and even those attempts have been few.
The first and only Hollywood attempt at The Moonstone was in 1934 by “poverty row” studio Monogram, known for its low budget output. Though Hollywood was never adverse to using books as source material and tried their hand at several of the detective/mystery genre that Collins helped create including Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, no major studio would try its hand at their predecessor and influencer, The Moonstone, and it would not be attempted again by Hollywood after Monogram’s effort.
The Woman in White, perhaps the book Collins is best known for today besides The Moonstone, was made into a film by Warner Bros. in 1948 starring Gig Young, Eleanor Parker, Alexis Smith, and Sidney Greenstreet. This was probably the best and most successful attempt at a Wilkie Collins film by Hollywood. It received decent reviews at the time, however, like Collins’ own legacy, it was quickly forgotten. The film is so unknown today that its Rotten Tomatoes page is practically blank, containing no reviews by either critics or viewers. Before that, it was attempted twice as silents in 1917 (one version was renamed Tangled Lives) by both Pathé and the Fox Film Corporation and twice as silent shorts in 1912 by the Gem Corporation and the Thanhouser Company. It’s a bit hard to believe that it wasn’t attempted between 1917 and 1948, especially considering that another one of the most popular novels in the sensation genre, East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Woods, was not only made into a film in 1931, it was nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards.
William Wilkie Collins (born 1824) was more woke than many of his contemporaries. He was Bohemian, unconventional, and rebelled against his buttoned up, religious upbringing by living large and having long term romantic and simultaneous relationships with two women, neither of which included marriage (which he found passe). He delighted in taboo subjects with a bent towards social reform. Topics he wrote about included illegitimacy (he had 3 illegitimate children of his own with one of his two companions), class differences, identity, and gender roles. His main characters often included the disabled (the deaf protagonist Madonna in his novel Hide and Seek, the wheelchair bound genius Miserrimus Dexter in The Law and the Lady, and the blind Lucilla Finch in Poor Miss Finch, among others) and almost always featured strong, intelligent, complex, and independent female characters. His protagonist Valeria Brinton in The Law and the Lady is one of the first written examples of a female detective who, when she discovers that her husband was accused of murdering his first wife, goes on the hunt to prove his innocence herself.
Hollywood’s indifference to Collins is both understandable and confusing. While his stories undoubtedly held an audience’s attention, they also could alienate them. Collins delighted in thumbing his nose at social norms and his appeal was perhaps both too niche and too odd to be sustainable. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood, in all of its image conscious tweeze-happy glory genuinely understanding (or correctly portraying) a protagonist like Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White, a woman with a desirable feminine body that coexists with an unattractively masculine face (unattractive by narrator Walter Hartright’s estimation, at least, when he meets her and she surprises him by turning around and revealing strong features, a low hairline, and a hint of a mustache). However, Collins seems to use Hartright’s shock at the coexistence of traditionally feminine and masculine features in one body as an example of the silly expectations on female beauty, an idea Collins clearly denounces by creating a character who is the object of desire (by the calculating Count Fosco) despite her baby ‘stache. Marian is also a smart, likable heroine, though Hollywood would have probably taken one look at her and stuck a witch hat on it because heroines just don’t look like that.
In addition to characters who did not quite fit the Hollywood mold, his stories were also ridiculously complex and would have been most likely hard to unravel in only 2 hours of screen time. They often were told by multiple narrators and contained several red herrings and plot twists. Collins’ stories forced you to think, evaluate, and examine. They weren’t just eery, sensational, socially astute, or outlandish; they were all of those things. Hitchock may have been able to handle a Wilkie Collins novel. In fact, it’s a shame he didn’t try.
If his works were to have had a heyday in old Hollywood, it could have been in the detective heavy noir scene of the 1940s-50s, though his stories were a bit too identifiably British and Victorian gothic for American noir. More likely it would have been the pre-code era of gleeful rule breaking, powerhouse females and likable villains (both of whom Collins excelled in portraying).
Though I feel that I partially understand, I still resent Hollywood’s indifference. They missed a great opportunity.
For a time Wilkie Collins held the world at his feet, though once he loosened his grasp, his popularity and prestige disappeared into the darkness like his iconic woman in white. Wilkie Collins’ legacy remains unique and strange like the man himself. Despite his underrepresentation in Hollywood, his influence is an unseen hand guiding countless other writers and filmmakers who dare dip a toe into mystery and thrills, and is as otherworldly as his best work.
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Sources (other than the works of Wilkie Collins):
Rosen, Jonathan. “Doubles: Wilkie Collins’s Shadow Selves.” The New Yorker, 25 July, 2011.
Gasson, Andrew. Wilkie Collins Information Pages.