This is the first post in our “Nightmare Alley” series, where a Pilgrim in Narnia looks at Guillermo del Toro’s critically acclaimed new film, Nightmare Alley, and its connections to the past. The 2021 film is an adaptation of the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, the husband of Joy Davidman–the enigmatic poet and prose writer who found her way into an unlikely and tender late-in-life marriage with C.S. Lewis. Today’s piece is a thoughtful review of the film by über pop culture aficionado, John Stanifer.
“It Ain’t Hope If It’s a Lie, Stan”: Thoughts on Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley by John Stanifer
Nightmare Alley is based on the 1946 novel of the same name, written by William Lindsay Gresham. It was almost immediately adapted for the screen, in 1947, with Tyrone Power playing the lead. The proceeds from the book and the film rights gave Gresham his biggest financial success as a writer, allowing him to buy a large house in Staatsburg, New York, for his wife and two boys.
In 1960, after Joy died from cancer, Gresham took a trip to England to visit with his sons and to meet Lewis. While at the Kilns, Gresham asked permission to make an audio recording of Lewis. Lewis said yes and read aloud from Chapter 3 of Perelandra, Chapter 13 of That Hideous Strength, and the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. The Rabbit Room recently made that recording available to the public, and the proceeds are being donated to the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton.
Two years after his visit to The Kilns, Gresham would overdose on sleeping pills in a room at the Dixie Hotel in New York, the same hotel where he had written Nightmare Alley almost 20 years earlier.
The seeds of Nightmare Alley were planted during the 15 months Gresham spent as a medic on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Joseph Daniel “Doc” Halliday, a male nurse, told Gresham stories about carnival culture, and everything that went along with it, that clearly made an impression. When Gresham got back to the States, those stories became part of the macabre tapestry of Nightmare Alley.
Nightmare Alley is primarily the story of the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, an ambitious young man who joins up with a traveling carnival, learns all their best tricks, and then runs away with a woman in the troupe to strike out on his own and fleece money from the desperate.
In the book, Stan starts his own church, conducting seances for wealthy clients and giving them advice that sounds like a blend of Christianity, New Age mysticism, the occult, and the self-help section at your local bookstore. His “services” even include the occasional hymn.
Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is an R-rated, but not especially graphic, streamlining of that story. Tyrone Power is replaced by Bradley Cooper, and Cooper is joined by an all-star cast including Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, and more.
Although religion feels somewhat less central to del Toro’s take on this con man’s journey, there are still some thought-provoking sequences that borrow heavily from Christian imagery. Early in the film, when Stan is helping the troupe track down their “geek,” he follows the geek into a tent ominously labeled “The House of Damnation.” The tent is full of exhibits illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins. One of those exhibits is a mirror. One can’t help but feel that this is symbolic of the journey Stan is about to take into the heart of his own darkness over the course of the film.
Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, at 140 minutes, runs almost half an hour longer than the 1947 film. One might think that means more of the book ends up in the film, but that isn’t strictly the case. We don’t see quite as much of Zeena, the older woman who runs the carnival with her husband Pete, as we do in the 1947 version. Both films use Zeena’s Tarot cards as a foreshadowing, but neither film gives them as key a role as the book does. In the book, every chapter is named after a different Tarot card, which provides the symbolic framework for what happens in that chapter.
It’s impossible to discuss some of the 2021 Nightmare Alley’s more powerful moments without spoilers, so rather than ruin the experience, I will say that I think the core message of del Toro’s adaptation can be summed up in a single line of dialogue:
“It ain’t hope if it’s a lie, Stan.”
That line has had me thinking since I left the theater. Stan starts out drawing oohs and ahs from crowds by revealing personal details about the members of the audience, details that are really a mix of educated guessing and sleight-of-hand. But that isn’t enough. Eventually, he graduates to promising people contact with their departed loved ones. Sure, he’s making big money by fakery of the most intimate kind, but what does it matter (so he tells himself) as long as he’s giving the victims hope? That’s a good thing, right?
Or maybe all those false promises can lead to violent, tragic consequences.
The R-rated material in del Toro’s film is used sparingly, shocking us out of our complacency with the brokenness of the people we are watching onscreen. Stan’s greed for gain leaves a trail of shattered lives (and even a shattered face or two).
I personally don’t subscribe to the belief that the book is always better than the movie. The book, the 1947 film, and the 2021 del Toro film all tell the same story in their own way. All are worth a look, but be forewarned that the tone and content (in case it isn’t obvious by now) are a long way from tea parties with fauns (not that Narnia doesn’t have its own share of darkness, but we never dive into it quite as deeply as we do in Nightmare Alley).
Many viewers will judge Tyrone Power’s performance as Stan to be the more mature of the two; Cooper’s Stan feels like a younger, more vulnerable version of the character, a lost child who has never been loved the way we all hope to be loved by our family and our friends. That being said, Cooper plays his role well and is joined by a wonderful array of veteran actors. Blanchett trades in her elf ears to play Lilith Ritter, a psychologist who attends one of Stan’s early performances and shows him, shall we say, that there’s more than one way to prey on the desperate, and maybe his isn’t the only game in town.
Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a dark fable that shows us the final consequences of deception on both the deceiver and the deceived. If you’re up for something different from the typical fare . . .
. . . then HURRY, HURRY, HURRY to the nearest cinema before this show pulls its stakes and leaves town!
It should be noted that Gresham’s participation in the Spanish Civil War bears relevance to much of del Toro’s previous body of work. Several of his films depict the Spanish Civil War in various ways, perhaps most famously his 2006 dark fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth.
Like Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Pan’s Labyrinth features a young girl who has had her life disrupted by war. Curiosity and imagination help her deal with the horrors in her life. She even meets a faun, though don’t expect this faun to be as cuddly as Mr. Tumnus!
John Stanifer is a librarian and English tutor by day and a crime-fighting vigilante by night. He reads 100 books a year and tries to follow C.S. Lewis’s advice to re-read books as often as he reads new ones. His own book, Virtuous Worlds: The Video Gamer’s Guide to Spiritual Truth, was published by Winged Lion Press in 2011 and represents an effort to dispel the negative associations video games so often have in Christian circles.
His scholarly interests tend to land somewhere at the intersection between literature and pop culture. One of his more recent essays, “Cosmic Horror vs. Cosmic Redemption: C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft,” was published in The Faithful Imagination (Winged Lion Press, 2019).
Over the past few years, John has dressed up as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P Lovecraft, and Edgar A. Poe at various pop-culture conventions. He is happy to be called a nerd and is basically a 12-year-old living in a 36-year-old body.
John holds a M.A. in English from Morehead State University and is currently working on an A.A.S. in Cyber Security & Info Assurance from Ivy Tech Community College.
Downing, David. “The ‘Lost’ C. S. Lewis Tapes on the Ransom Trilogy and Chaucer.” Off the Shelf: Blog of the Marion E. Wade Center, 2 Oct. 2020, https://wadecenterblog.wordpress.com/2020/10/02/lost-lewis-tapes/?fbclid=IwAR0jiI2yV15s6_uy_n6iHMkn87eAlm8_2ib5moTI-CsDIupKGYUDIDCK86Q.
Duncan, Paul. “William Lindsay Gresham: Nothing Matters in This Goddamned Lunatic Asylum of a World But Dough.” Miskatonic University Press: RARA-AVIS, 3 Jul. 2000, https://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/archives/200007/0019.html. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.
Polidoro, Massimo. “Blind Alley: The Sad and ‘Geeky’ Life of William Lindsay Gresham.” The Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 27, no. 4, Jul/Aug 2003, pp. 14-17. ProQuest. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.
Not wanting to show too much, here is the teaser trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley.
Someone has created a little trailer for the 1947 film:
And you can find the entire film smouldering 1947 classic with Tyrone Power here: