Adapting Hammett

As Paul Coughlin points out in the online journal Senses of Cinema, Dashiell Hammett’s prose is thought to be “very conducive” to the screen (Coughlin, 2). In other words, Dashiell Hammett makes writing a screenplay easy. Hammett almost always narrates from an objective observer’s point of view. He establishes a detailed setting and lends enough information to make the reader feel like they’re a semi-omniscient spectator as they witness the scenes play out. The objective observer is the perspective experienced by moviegoers, which makes Hammett’s work all the more appealing for Hollywood. It’s as though Hammett writes his novels with film noir in mind.

However, Coughlin argues that casting well-known “Hollywood” actors and actresses inevitably obscures movie adaptations (3). Coughlin asserts that the 1942 film adaptation of The Glass Key, which is based on Hammett’s book of the same name, did not accurately convey the “quintessence” of Hammett’s writing style (2). Despite the close adherence to the script, characters, and narrative sequences offered by the book, the off-screen personalities and reputations of the actors and actresses in the Glass Key movie adaptation ultimately altered viewer perceptions and did not align with Hammett’s literature.

Pamphlet. Original Herald for the Glass Key directed by Stuart Heisler. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures Inc., 1942. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Allison Cox.

In order to further explore Hammett’s writing and silver screen adaptations, I will create a digital exhibition titled “Adapting Hammett”. The exhibition focuses on the 1935 and 1942 film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s 1931 novel, The Glass Key. My intention behind the exhibition is to create an online space where visitors can examine and compare original and adapted portrayals of The Glass Key. Portrayals can be understood through analysis of original objects, which I have found in the Special Collections Archives of the Johns Hopkins Libraries. By exhibiting images of said objects, which were once intended to convey a particular impression of The Glass Key, viewers of the digital exhibition can decide for themselves whether the film adaptations did the original book justice, missed the point, or went in an entirely new direction. Viewers will be able to test Paul Coughlin’s assertion, and determine if the cast’s reputations and personalities impede with a fresh and open look at a film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key.

Dust Jacket. Dashiell Hammett. The Glass Key. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Allison Cox.
Dust Jacket. Dashiell Hammett. The Glass Key. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Allison Cox.

For example, I plan to utilize an image of the original herald for Stuart Heisler’s 1942 film adaptation of The Glass Key (Figure 1) and place it next to the 1931 book’s first edition dust jacket (Figure 2). The dust jacket of The Glass Key appears to evoke a sense of mystery and excitement as the image of the woman gives off an element of drama. Although the words at the bottom of the dust jacket read, “Dashiell Hammett: author of the Maltese Falcon,” and appear to use Hammett’s other popular novels to sell the book, it is not to he same extent as the movie herald. One caption of the movie herald exclaims, “Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, that terrific couple from ‘This Gun For Hire’….plus ‘Wake Island’s’ Brian Donlevy, take a town apart in the hottest political murder mystery ever filmed!” Using the pre-existing reputations of the cast in order to advertise the new film adaptation certainly seems to create a pre-existing perception of the film; but I will let the viewers decide for themselves!


Coughlin, Paul. “Miller’s Crossing, The Glass Key, and Dashiell Hammett.” Senses of Cinema. 1 Mar. 2002. Web. 1 May 2015.

Coughlin Article:


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