Frank Norris's 1899 novel McTeague is one of the key works in American literary naturalism, featuring several hallmarks of the literary movement, which flourished around the turn of the century. Erich Von Stroheim's adaptation, retitled Greed, strictly adhered to the novel and the original nine hour cut must have been a scene for scene translation. This closeness of the film to the source material means that Greed carries over some of naturalism's key themes. Specifically, the film is about John McTeague, a miner's son who attempts to better himself by becoming an apprentice in a trade—dentistry—but ultimately finds himself doomed to failure as mining is what he was meant to do. This combination of determinism and social Darwinism is typical of naturalism's focus on the lack of autonomy of individual humans. Another characteristic of naturalism evident in Greed is a sort of primitivization of human beings as both John McTeague and his father are constantly dirty and covered in masses of unkempt hair. Similarly, in one of Von Stroheim's most inspired scenes, some clever editing compares McTeague's rival Marcus to a cat preparing to prey on a couple of helpless caged canaries.
Another key theme of Greed is
greed, which wrecks the lives of the three principal characters. McTeague's love interest Trina is a hard working, thrifty girl who remains relatively happy until she wins a substantial sum in a lottery, after which she becomes a miserable miser as she strives to increase her small fortune. This infuriates the formerly happy-go-lucky Marcus, who gracefully bowed out of a semi-engagement with Trina to make his friend McTeague happy. His opportunism is amplified into psychosis as he realizes he's missed his chance to share a part of Trina's fortune. The money even ruins McTeague himself, who finds it impossible to work for menial wages when his household possesses enough wealth to allow him a relatively leisurely life if only he could convince his wife to use it.
The other important characters in Greed are two diametrically opposed couples: there is the greedy couple Zerkow and Maria, who dream of fabulous wealth and the elderly couple Grannis and Miss Baker, who are too busy working to notice each other. Zerkow suspects Maria is hiding money from him and it drives him mad while Grannis sells his business (for the same amount Trina won in the lottery) and settles down to retirement with Miss Baker. The never subtle Norris uses these subplots to posit two possible future future paths for McTeague and Trina.
Contrary to my focus on themes common to the novel and film, Greed is not merely an extension of Norris's novel. Von Stroheim makes the film his own as he sets the proper tone with colored filters, carefully controlled zooms, and some reasonably well put together editing. In fact, his filmmaking is considerably more adept than Norris's workmanlike prose. The climactic scenes in Death Valley, which Von Stroheim shoots through a yellow filter, are particularly impressive and are easily among the best of the silent era.
In spite of the carefully realized themes of McTeague, I did not enjoy the novel when I read it a few years ago. Like many works of naturalism, some of the character behavior seems stilted—probably to reinforce the idea that humans lack autonomy. Further, Norris's lack of style and his heavy-handedness in slathering on miserable situations make for a rather unpleasant reading experience, which to be fair is not atypical of my experiences with literary naturalism. The most problematic aspect of McTeague, though, is one I've already mentioned: the social Darwinism. It's always difficult to establish intent, even with a writer as heavy- handed as Norris, but it's tempting to see the novel as a snobby dismissal of an irredeemable lower class represented by the buffoonish and reprehensible McTeague. Yet, in spite of my dislike for McTeague, which caused me to stay away from this film for years, I found Greed quite impressive even with its often languid runtime, which is padded out with uncinematic production stills and expository title cards. Von Stroheim has a better sense of characterization and he manages to build some sympathy even for the mostly unlikeable characters here and he infuses the goings on with an epic quality mostly absent from the book. Somehow, Von Stroheim stayed true to a book I didn't like and made a film I found above average nonetheless.