By the time Elmer Gantry reached the screen in 1960, Lewis had been dead nine years, so he never weighed in with his assessment of the production but one assumes he would have been pleased, if not by Brooks’ screenplay, then at least by the performance of Burt Lancaster who found in Elmer the role of a lifetime. Gantry is a boisterous, womanizing, and frequently intoxicated divinity student who is defrocked as a minister after seducing a deacon’s daughter. In that sense, the book and movie share common ground, but whereas Gantry’s stint as a revivalist in the camp of Sister Sharon Falconer is but one episode appearing midway through the novel, the film concerns itself with little else. In the novel, Gantry is an unrepentant hypocrite who finds in evangelism a channel for his energetic, almost manic, personality and colossal ego. Gantry, not given to introspection, never lets his conscience deter him from seeking the rewards of the flesh at the same time he praises Jesus. He is a con man who barely realizes that he is a charlatan.
As reinterpreted by Brooks and Lancaster, however, Gantry, though exhibiting a weakness for whiskey and women, is a man who believes what he preaches even when he doesn’t practice it. At the conclusion, when Gantry moves on to parts unknown after a fire has killed Sister Sharon and destroyed her temple, one is left with the impression that the old Gantry, who toyed with women and was intent on finding heaven on earth rather than in the afterlife, has died, too, replaced with a new refined model who escaped the flames of hell represented in the tragic climax and now walks in the light of eternal salvation.
It’s not a bad ending, but, in Lewis’ novel, it is not the ending at all. Elmer recovers from his genuine grief, turns his oratory skills to motivational speaking, and soon returns to evangelism with even greater success than before. But Elmer remains the same skirt-chasing egomaniac he was when introduced in chapter one, the character that Lewis, as well as Brooks and Lancaster, considered "unbelievable."
I disagree. Elmer in the novel may be shallow and difficult to relate to, but so is Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker, not to mention the average reader of The National Enquirer. In comparison to its literary counterpart, the film, though excellent on its own terms, falls short.
The most interesting changes employed by Brooks concern the characters of Jim Lefferts and Lulu Baines. In the novel, Lefferts is Elmer’s fellow student at divinity school. While both scoff at spiritual matters, Lefferts does so with more intelligence, having familiarized himself with such concepts as evolution which the simpler Gantry cannot grasp. In his film, Brooks recasts Lefferts as the equally cynical newspaperman who reports, in hard-edged H.L. Mencken style, on the revival meetings that he sees as pure hokum. Lula Baines gets a similar revamping. Instead of the deacon’s daughter whom Elmer seduces and, in the book, is pressured into marrying, she is now a former girlfriend turned prostitute who remains bitter at having been jilted.
The cast is fine. Jean Simmons is radiant as Sister Sharon, Arthur Kennedy is, well, Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts, pretty much the same role he’d play with a different name in Lawrence of Arabia two years later, and Shirley Jones won a richly deserved Oscar as Lulu. Ironically, it's been rumored that when Elmer Gantry made its network television debut over CBS in 1965, Jones, who later starred for a competing network in The Partridge Family, was eliminated completely. It seems that the network disapproved of a prostitute being depicted on America’s television screens. Times have certainly changed. Burt Lancaster, portraying Elmer with fire and brimstone to spare, is wonderful in his Oscar winning role, but if you really want to get to know Elmer, read the book.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© Copyright 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks