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A Comparison between Walter Lord's Book "A Night to Remember" (1955) and the1958 Feature Film

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

by Terri Bey

The Titanic Book Club will be featuring well-known Titanic author Walter Lord and his legendary book, A Night to Remember (1955) in our December Newsletter. I have read A Night to Remember several times over the years and I have read it again for this blog and the Club Newsletter. As many of my readers know, there is also the famous film adaptation of A Night to Remember (1958) which was produced by William MacQuitty and directed by Roy Ward Baker. Both the book and the film have piqued the public's interest in the disaster. There was a 1956 TV adaptation narrated by film star Claude Rains which aired on NBC, but this blog will only discuss the book and the feature film adaptation. I will make a comparison of both the book and the feature film. I will give a review of the book and the film, and point out how the film interprets the book.

Review of the book, A Night to Remember (1955) by Walter Lord

If you know someone who is just starting to learn about the Titanic, this would be the book I would have that person reading. Walter Lord writes a taut, minute-by-minute account of the final hours of the Titanic. The reader will be gripped from the time he or she reads the Foreword, where Lord tells the reader about a ship featured in an 1898 book titled, Futility by Morgan Robertson which characteristically resembled the Titanic in almost every way, to the collision to the chaos of trying to release the collapsible boats. The reader will be bewildered by the S.S. Californian's sitting in the water while the Titanic is shooting up rockets. The reader also will see acts of heroism from passengers, as well as from the rescue ship, the Carpathia. This is a great book and I highly recommend it.

Review of the film, A Night to Remember (1958)

A Night to Remember (1958) was produced by William MacQuitty and directed by Roy Ward Baker. The film stars Kenneth More as the Titanic's Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, Michael Goodliffe as ship designer Thomas Andrews, Laurence Naismith as Captain Edward J. Smith, and Honor Blackman as Mrs. Liz Lucas. The film is an adaptation of Walter Lord's 1955 book of the same name. The film was shot in various locations.

This film is the definitive film to watch about the sinking of the Titanic. Again, if you know someone who wants a Titanic movie recommendation, have them watch this one, before any other Titanic film. A Night to Remember was filmed in black and white and has a great documentary-style feel. The viewer will feel like he or she is part of the action. Viewers will get a sense of how needless this disaster was when they watch this film. They will see how women refused to get into lifeboats and how people felt safer on the supposedly "unsinkable" ship than in the lifeboats. They will see the inaction of the S.S. Californian, among many other frustrating events that contributed to the disaster.

The viewer also gets to see how the disaster plays out, from the collision to the sinking to the aftermath in the lifeboats. It is one of the most frightening films ever, especially when the ship really starts to list badly. The film is also well-acted. Kenneth More is awesome as Charles H. Lightoller. Laurence Naismith does a wonderful job as Captain Edward J. Smith. I love how Naismith was able to portray a captain who was jubilant at the beginning of the voyage to one who knows it's the end of his life. It is probably my favorite performance in the film. I also want to give lots of praise to all of those extras who played those desperate passengers who struggled to get into lifeboats and climbed that rising stern and jumped off of it.

As far as the film's interpretation of Walter Lord's book, I think the movie did a very good job. The book starts out with Lookout Frederick Fleet spotting the iceberg and the movie starts with the christening of the Titanic. In actuality, the White Star Line never christened any of their ships. The film includes footage of stand-in ships and people boarding and the viewer sees First Class, Second Class, and Third Class passengers on the way to the ship. One change from the book that I love in the film is that the film shows some life on board the ship before the accident, whereas the book concentrates on the accident and what happens during the evacuation. The filmmakers' showing life on the ship before the tragedy was a nice touch.

Walter Lord's book is much better at flushing out what the passengers and crew were doing and thinking during the disaster. After all, the filmmakers only had so much time to tell the story and obviously could not tell the entire book in 2 hours. The filmmakers have to compress things in the book. For example, when the readers read statements attributed to a particular passenger or particular officer, the filmmakers can't include every single statement, so the filmmakers had other people in their film say the lines. For example, Second Officer Lightoller (Kenneth More) in the film, said things that others officers had said. The movie makes Second Officer Lightoller the hero and the focal point of the film. The book shows there were plenty of people who did heroic things that night.

Cover of A Night To Remember by Walter Lord

Sinking scene from A Night to Remember (1958)


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