Following months of rumours and all-too-enticing hype for eagre film-lovers in a lean year, last week finally saw the release of Guillermo del Toro’s critically acclaimed new film, Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro is a genius of dark fantasy with Academy Award-winning films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017). This period adaptation has high production value and a huge cast, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, and Mary Steenburgen.
From the trailers, it looks like del Toro wants to languish in the smokey, eye-gazing, overwrought one-line dynamic of the 1947 film noir version of Nightmare Alley, combined with a thriller energy and horror sensibilities that back-stages atmospheric features of carnival life, both luring and lurid.
Indeed, while the trailer wants us to think that true monstrosity is always off stage–and there are some intriguing nods to the ’47 film even in this short trailer–I have no doubt that del Toro is trying to help us reimagine both terror and monstrosity in us as well as in the the creatures beyond our understanding.
While I am a fan of thrillers that flirt with the fantastic and will certainly see this film, the connection for friends and pilgrims of Narnia goes deeper. As it turns out, both the 1947 and 2021 films are adaptations of the 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley, written by William Lindsay Gresham. And William Lindsay Greshamis is, in fact, Bill Gresham, the husband of Joy Davidman–the American poet and prose writer who found her way into a surprising late-in-life marriage with C.S. Lewis. So while Joy Davidman’s life and work–including her compelling poetry and mercurial personality–loom much larger for me than a one-hit-wonder novelist from the ’40s, the connection keeps me intrigued.
Davidman’s biographer, Abigail Santamaria, describes Nightmare Alley‘s impact on the Gresham household where both Joy and Bill were struggling writers, pressed to the edge as parents and artists trying to hold it all together:
Nightmare Alley, published on September 9  had begun generating press as early as July 7, with the Washington Post promising a “sinister and compelling piece of fiction” that would “shock some readers but send the public clamoring to the bookstores.” And it did. The novel, a work of brilliance, would become a noir classic with a cult following for decades to come.
But first, a bigger payoff presented itself: Twentieth Century-Fox bought the film rights for $50,000. And the studio invited Bill to Hollywood for the first two months of 1947 to collaborate with writer Jules Furthman on adapting the novel for the screen. In January, Bill took a train west. The picture, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, would be produced at lightning speed for a New York City premiere at the Mayfair Theater on October 7, 1947. The windfall was more money than Bill or Joy had ever seen, and they knew exactly how they wanted to spend it. “We looked around for the biggest house we could find,” Bill said. After two years of living and writing in a cramped three-room apartment with one, and then two babies, the Greshams wanted a home with land where Davy and Douglas could grow “husky and brown and tough and mischievous. That is all one can ask.” And they “had to have a woodlot,” Joy insisted. “We wanted the feeling of walking in our own woods.” Ample workspace was also a priority, private studies in which to think and write. Both of them had new projects in the works…. The future once again promised great things. Now they could settle down. Now everything would be fine (Abigail Santamaria, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis (p. 178-9).
I have no doubt that Gresham’s Nightmare Alley will find its way to my bedside table and we’ll find a way to stream the film–even this far into the North Atlantic. As the connections run deep, however, and as del Toro’s work is richly complex and visually stimulating, we are offering a “Nightmare Alley” series here on a Pilgrim in Narnia, bringing in some our friends as guest writers.
- On Wednesday, I’m thrilled that we’ll be publishing a review of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley by John Stanifer, fan culture man about town
- Next week, I am excited to release a piece by arts and culture writer, G. Connor Salter, with his piece, “The Nightmare Alley of That Hideous Strength: A Look at C.S. Lewis and William Gresham”
- Early in the New Year I will share my own thoughts on Nightmare Alley
- On the evening of Friday, Jan 7th we are hoping to have a live video conversation about Nightmare Alley, Joy and Bill Gresham, and connection with C.S. Lewis–more details to follow.
I am also open to publishing high quality, thoughtful reviews or essays on this topic from readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia over the next couple of weeks. Send pitches to Brenton at junkola[at]gmail[dot]com. Meanwhile, catch Nightmare Alley in films if you can and await Wednesday’s review. And you can find the entire creepy, smouldering 1947 classic here: