Journal Article

Why Film Noir? Hollywood, Adaptation, and Women's Writing in the 1940s and 1950s

Esther Sonnet

in Adaptation

Volume 4, issue 1, pages 1-13
Published in print March 2011 | ISSN: 1755-0637
Published online February 2010 | e-ISSN: 1755-0645 | DOI:
Why Film Noir? Hollywood, Adaptation, and Women's Writing in the 1940s and 1950s

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Between the elite intellectual culture of high modernist literary experimentation and the low culture of ‘pulp’ made up of the lurid-covered dime store novels of westerns, crime, romance, sensationalist, and detective stories, the critically derided American ‘middlebrow’ was significantly composed of female authors of commercial popular fiction who wrote scores of best-sellers that were adapted into major Hollywood films. Elizabeth Janeway's 1945 novel Daisy Kenyon: An Historical Novel of 1940–42 illustrates the historical effacement of women writers from histories of Hollywood adaptations, the article addresses ways in which the conceptual constrictions of the term ‘film noir’ have operated to obscure a hidden history of women-authored writing in relation to Hollywood adaptations of the late 1940s/1950s. The article argues for a revaluation of film noir as the meta-genre accounting for crime film in the period; it points to the existence of corpus of women writers such as Vera Caspary, Evelyn Piper, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Hannah Lees, and Mary Collins in the margins of the middlebrow as well as a huge number of forgotten women writers circulated through the pulp fiction circuits whose widely read commercial fiction explored the boundaries of normative patriarchal ideology, exploiting imaginative scenarios of crime to disrupt heterosexual relations from the point of view of women as writers, characters, and readers. In this, women-authored popular fiction in general (and women’s crime fiction in particular) during the 1940s and 1950s is uniquely positioned to advance feminist understanding through distanciating exposures of the period's social, sexual, familial, and emotional constraint on women.

Keywords: Film noir; women writers; adaptation; postwar America; Hollywood; best-sellers

Journal Article.  6467 words. 

Subjects: Film ; Television ; Literature

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