What a Streetcar Named Desire Lost in the Film
Many critics believe the film adaption of A Streetcar Named Desire was a perfect translation of the play and gives the full meaning of Tennessee Williams’ vision. However, due to the Motion Picture Production Code, important plot points are censored from the film causing it to lose some of the meaning and essence of the story. Some scenes were rewritten and some were cut out completely. In the end this creates two different stories with many similarities, but ultimately different meanings.
When Tennessee Williams wrote the screenplay adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire there were sixty-eight major and minor changes made. The production company, Warner, volunteered for an investigation from the Motion Picture Association of America and the Catholic Legion of Decency. “Approval from each of these was imperative for the film’s success not as an artistic masterpiece but, in box-office profits.” (“A Streetcar Named Desire – Changes from Book to Film.”) At first, only minor things that were deleted, a few “hells” and “damns.” Soon though, the issue of homosexuality came to light. Lines from the play like he “wasn’t like a man – effeminate,” are changed to “…and I didn’t understand.” (Williams 95, 96). The censors also wanted the rape scene cut out completely, and thus encouraged its removal in the 1951 film adaptation. Williams refused to see his work destroyed and stripped of meaning and fought to keep the most important scenes in the movie any way he could.
In the sixth scene of the play A Streetcar named Desire Blanche reveals to Mitch the story of when she found her husband, Allen, in bed with another man. “A reference to a homosexual character (no matter what the context) was verboten according to the rules of the code.” (Saporito) In the film Blanche describes Allen as tender and says she hears him crying at night. Those familiar with the play can recognize the hinting dialogue, but anyone unaware of the original story would brush right past these comments. Unable to stop herself Blanche tells Allen he disgusts her causing him to shoot himself. Blanche’s opinion of her husband after she learns he is homosexual would not be unfamiliar to the audiences of that time. Her judgement reflects the same judgement faced by other gay men in the 1950s-including Tennessee Williams himself.
Although the action happens off stage, it is clear late into A Streetcar named Desire that Stanley rapes Blanche. In the film this scene is rendered as more abstract, it is unclear whether he just “roughed up” or raped Blanche. The corrupt reality triumphs in the book, but Catholic society needed to show that sinners are punished. A few other changes were made in the rape scene to almost make it seem as though it could’ve been an “accident,” the result of drunkenness. The original version clearly shows that he raped his sister-in-law on purpose and showed no remorse for his actions. However, excluding the rape was the film’s director, Elia Kazan, and Williams’ greatest point of conflict with the production code which led Tennessee Williams to state, “The rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society. It is a poetic plea for comprehension…” This scene is essential to understand her final descent into madness, after all the years of mourning over Allan Grey’s explicit suicide. Because of this, Kazan decided to utilize a series of symbols that convey various sexual overtones in this scene. As Stanley is threatening Blanche, she throws a whiskey bottle at him which smashes a mirror. Then as Stanley picks up Blanche in his arms, the screen goes dark, and transitions to a street cleaner washing trash from the sidewalk with a powerful spray, which fades into a drizzle. This symbol is a forceful cut that underlines the rape implicitly without ever showing any details of the physical act.
One of the most essential scenes changed in the movie adaption is the ending. At the time of Streetcar’s production, arch-conservative Joseph Breen headed the Production Code Administration. He believed Stanley must be punished for the rape of Blanche even though the rape itself isn’t shown or directly mentioned in the film. The censors felt that Williams’ original ending, in which Stella’s final action is embracing Stanley, definitively dismisses the act and lets Stanley get away with the crime. The decision was that Stanley should not be allowed to get away with the rape. Although in the movie adaptation Stanley is punished in the end, his punishment it undermined by Stella’s weakened resolve. This is advertised in the scene when Stanley beats Stella and she forgives him after just a few minutes so it’s easy to assume she’ll do the same again. The filmmakers were forced to live with this opaque ending, but the clues to the play’s controversial core material were embedded within the film’s subterfuge. In the end, changing this scene in the movie causes it to lose the message Williams is going for. When Stella’s neighbor Eunice says Stella cannot believe Blanche’s story of Stanley’s rape and that her life with Stanley must go on she is arguing male companionship is a woman’s means of survival in the face of social convention. Life “going on” depends on having the social security of marriage and a family, regardless of the cost. It is clear that both Eunice and Stella suffer at the hands of their husbands. Acknowledging the truth of Blanche’s story would require them to acknowledge their husbands’ brutality, and this would interfere with their survival.
Any sexual behavior portrayed in the play is greatly sugarcoated in the movie due to censorship guidelines. Stanley and Stella for example are never shown engaging in any type of erotic contact with each other. Even more important, Blanche’s promiscuous past is glossed over with colorful, almost poetic language. Her nymphomania was not addressed specifically or acted upon in any way. Those who aren’t paying close enough attention to Blanche’s story may not even grasp the reality of what she’s confiding. For example in the scene when Blanche tells Stanley her astrological sign, “Virgo, the Virgin,” and Stanley scoffs, knowing that she is used to playing mind games of seduction. This response is completely removed in the film. In the same scene, when Stella accidentally spills a drink on Blanche’s skirt, the skirt’s color is pink in the film, while in the original play, it is white, an obvious symbol for purity and uncorrupted innocence. In another scene Blanche points out to Eunice and Stella that the color of her dress is actually “Della Robia blue. The blue of the robe in the old Madonna pictures.” (Williams 135). Removing many phrases in the film adaptation that showed Blanche’s sexual history causes it to lose the importance of this dichotomous nature in Blanche, and makes details from the play obscure and hard to grasp.
The motion picture production code takes away a lot of the plays meaning. The glossing over of Blanche’s past, due to the code’s laws on sexuality, causes it to not have the impact it originally had. Similarly, any homosexual references were cut out and Stanley’s rape scene is left for interpretation. However, the biggest change by far was the ending as Stella leaves Stanley instead of embracing him. Though many scenes were changed or cut out, in the end the movie isn’t entirely unfaithful to the play. By using symbolism and language, Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan worked hard to embed the important morals from the story into the movie to reveal the true meanings of the play.