Comparative review of the film and novel versions of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe

Sillitoe’s novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was seen as breaking new ground in it’s realistic, unsentimentalised portrayal of the English working class. It was published on a wave of post war literature that was characterised by the anger of the protagonist, and was surprisingly successful. Melvyn Bragg believes that this was due not only to the power of the writing, but also because ‘the situation was recognisable to everybody, almost whatever class they were in, being bound and trying to get out of it and failing to do so.

The film was similarly successful and despite the changes made Arthur Seaton’s defiant struggle for individuality remains a central theme and the spirit of the novel is not lost. While the spirit remains the same the narrative approach of the novel and the film is different. The narrative of the novel is that of an aggressively defiant, womanizing young man with an unusual share of humour, courage, pride and dignity. It is the story of the ‘riotous behaviour that takes place on [the] Saturday night’2 of his youth and the ‘calmness and reflection that follows on [the] Sunday morning’3 as he contemplates his adult life.

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While this remains at the heart of the film, the narrative structure is that of a love story. The character of Doreen is introduced much earlier and both her character and her relationship with Arthur are more fully developed. That the thread of the narrative is that of a love story has the effect of lessening the social discussion of the novel, which is powerfully hard hitting. This is not to suggest that the film does not make any important social comment.

It can be classified in the genre of ‘social realism,’4 and as pointed out by Alistair Davies the makers of such films did not merely wish to aesthetically reflect the realities of postwar Britain, but also aimed to ‘elicit from it’s audience a critical response to them. ‘5 A number of the most important social and political problems of the postwar period are reflected in both the novel and the film. These include the role of women, the position of the working class, the emergence of a newly ‘affluent youth’6 and, in the novel, the question of racism. Scenes surrounding the latter are not included in the film.

While one black character is shown as working in the factory, scenes featuring Sam and Mrs. Greatton’s Asian lover are omitted entirely. As the British Empire declined, more of its former citizens came to find work in England. This caused ‘racial tensions previously unknown’7 in Britain, as it was perceived that ethnic minorities were flooding the job market. In deciding to omit those scenes, the makers of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning made a conscious decision not to tackle such a controversial issue within this film. Issues of class had to be tackled head on.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a novel featuring only one class – the working class. Following the difficult period during and immediately after World War II, Britain underwent a period of liberalization and socialization. The 1944 Education Act, ratified under R. A. Butler, introduced secondary education for all until aged 15 and promoted the setting up of a tripartite system of Grammar, Technical and Secondary Modern Schools. The curricula of state run schools were broadened and made more diverse and working class children were given educational opportunities that they would previously been denied.

Following the introduction of the Beveridge Report, Britain also became a ‘welfare state’8 and the new socialist public policies that were adopted seemed to guarantee that everyone would be provided with money, food, medicine and a place to live. The feeling in the country was one of optimism and the working class was told ‘you’ve never had it so good’9 by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. The perception was that it was possible to move from the working class to the middle class. Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s study, ‘The Affluent Worker disputes this.

As portrayed in the film Arthur supports their thesis that despite increased earning potential the working class have no desire to be part of this process of embougeoisement. His pursuits are still clearly working class and he shows no sign of ambition. All authority figures are the objects of disdain. It is not as clear in the film, as it is in the novel, that Arthur controls his level of wages, earning as much as possible while not enough to cause management to revise piecework quotas. Arthur recognizes that he works ‘for the factory, the income tax, and the insurance. Any money that he has left he spends on clothes and having a good time because, as he believes ‘everything else is propoganda. ‘ While film is seen as an art form it can never be forgotten that ‘film making is an industry. ’10 Ultimately the main aim of any producer is to make a profit. It is necessary to attract the largest possible audience from a wide cross section of society in order to do this. Many literary works suffer cuts in an attempt to avoid alienation of any section of society. There are a number of extremely violent scenes in the novel that are omitted from the film, such as the fight between Jim and Jane at Christmas.

In other scenes, including that in which Arthur is beaten up by the ‘swaddies'(p174), the violence is considerably toned down. Portraying the working class as overtly violent would estrange a large number of cinemagoers. It would also reinforce an unpopular stereotype of that class. Incidents such as the ‘revengeful act’ (p116) of turning over a car may also instill fear in a middle class already concerned by the growing influence of the working class and in particular the youth within that class.

The British Board of Film Censors had been involved in the decision to curb the violence of the film. They were also instrumental in the decision that the abortion of Brenda’s baby should be unsuccessful. 11 There is a view that filmmakers have a greater social responsibility than authors because their work is visual and viewed by many more people than most novels. That the abortion is successful in the novel seems to condone the affair between Arthur and Brenda because ultimately the consequences are not lasting.

By deciding that the abortion is unsuccessful in the film, the filmmakers are presenting a more moralistic view. They are saying ‘there are consequences to extramarital sex. ‘ The film in general is more moralistic than the novel, in which no judgments are made. The life of Arthur and his family is documented, not judged. There are a number of changes surrounding the presentation of family life, particularly in the way in which Brenda’s family is shown. There was an attempt to revalorize the role of women in the home following the war when they had been active in the workplace.

Women were consistently defined as being wives and mothers. This is the case in the film. Brenda’s son is not involved in any way in the affair of his mother and Arthur, whereas in the novel the children come into the bed with them in the morning. Arthur Seaton’s mantra is ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down,'(p40) and although he is unable to escape the inevitability of his working class existence he remains defiant. The novel ends with Arthur proclaiming, ‘trouble for me it’ll be, fighting every day until I die’ (p215) and we believe that he will do just that.

While there are a number of significant changes in the film adaptation it remains faithful to the spirit of Sillitoe’s novel. It does not compromise on the bleakness of his vision or his optimistic faith in his hero’s defiance. It ends on an ambiguous note of stone-throwing anger, Arthur vowing that ‘it won’t be the last stone I throw. ‘ (Scene 31) This leaves the viewer hoping that Arthur’s independent nature might yet save him from being forced into passive middle age on the housing estate seen below him.