Adaptation Analysis: It Happened One Night (1934) and “Night Bus”

In addition to writing film reviews, I will use my Cinematic Syntax to engage in Adaptation Analysis. This semester, my film adaptation course, Stories Into Film with Dr. Christopher Wielgos, gives me a space to closely examine the process of adapting a text by comparing it to its film adaptation. Ultimately, my job is to determine what is kept, dropped, and added in order to bring attention and interpret the filmmaker’s choices. For example, practical decisions can often be made when the director does not have the technology to adapt a scene accurately. So, I will speculate on the reason for each choice based on my knowledge of both mediums. Our main text, Adaptation: Studying Literature and Film by John Desmond, outlines the film techniques that convey meaning as opposed to literature— performance, words (spoken or written), music, sound effects, and photographic images.

Film is a multi-track medium that brings meaning through those techniques. While writing can be interpreted innumerably, the written word is considered a single-track medium creating meaning through its words. An issue Desmond brings to the forefront is the problem with fidelity. He explains that when it comes to adaptation analysis, fidelity terminology such as “original material” and “faithful adaptation” often engages in glorifying the writing over the film. As a rule of thumb, I will try my best not to elevate the written material over film by avoiding and/or recognizing such loaded terminology. The end goal of each adaptation analysis is to determine whether I consider the film a close, loose, or intermediate adaptation. Although subjective, I will try my best to determine the category through countless examples between both mediums reasonably. I will engage with both microcosmic and macrocosmic applications.

Broad definitions are as follows:

Close: Most of the narrative elements in the literary text are kept in the film, few elements are dropped, and not many elements are added.

Loose: When most of the story elements in the literary text are dropped from the film, and most elements in the film are substituted. The filmmaker uses the literary text as a point of departure.

Intermediate: When it is in the fluid middle of the sliding scale between close and loose. Some elements of the story are kept in the film, other elements are dropped, and still more elements are added.

To that end, here is my adaptation analysis from my Stories into Film course of the short story “Night Bus” written by Samuel Hopkins Adams compared to It Happened One Night directed by Frank Capra:

Both “Night Bus” and It Happened One Night follow the same basic narrative. They have two main characters, Peter Warren, played by Clark Gable in the film, and Elspeth Andrews (renamed Ellie Andrews and played by Claudette Colbert in the film). The basic narrative consists of these characters meeting on a Night Bus going from Florida to New York and growing to love each other. Both the film and short story share many narrative elements: Ellie runs away with plans of meeting King Westley in New York; her father, Alexander Andrews, takes out ads to find his daughter; Peter Warren protects Ellie and she begins to depend on him; Ellie slowly matures as she experiences life outside her privileged bubble, Peter refuses to take Ellie’s father’s ten thousand dollar reward, and a traditional Hollywood “happy-ending” where the blanket they fasten on a string that they call the “Walls of Jericho,” a biblical reference and a symbol of the characters’ growing relationship, topples and love conquers all.

Some significant departures from short story to film come from Peter Warren’s occupation—he is a struggling reporter in the film, compared to his short story counterpart who is college-educated and traveling to get a sponsorship for a chemistry venture in New York. There are more characters in the short story than the film. Elspeth’s fourth cousin, Corker Andrews, who she tells Peter is her husband and contacts through telegrams, is not in the film. Another minor character, Andy Brinkerhoff, is a character who comes from wealth and loses it all because of the Great Depression. Elspeth is shocked that he works for the bus company, and he is not in the film. In the short story and film, Mr. Shapley, the quick-talker who flirted with Elspeth earlier, tries to persuade Warren to join him in getting the reward for Mrs. Andrews. However, the film differs from the story and uses this to develop Warren as a complex character. He tells Shapley he is kidnapping Ellie Andrews and that the scheme will most likely end in a police shootout. Shapley realizes he got more than he bargained for and frantically runs away. Not only does director Frank Capra create unique characterizations with conventional filming techniques such as close-ups, tight-framing, and lighting, but having a romantic comedy during economic turmoil comforts the audience since humor distracts from problems. Capra ultimately raises the stakes by adding material to make the film the more dramatic counterpart. When considering the balances of what Capra was going for with his adaptation, it is safe to say that it falls most within an intermediate adaptation. 

A scene demonstrating how Capra creates unique meaning through cinematic technique is when our main characters find themselves in a barn after crossing a riverbank. Essentially, Capra frames the shot in the barn with hay all around, has his drama occur, and resolves with a close-up that indicates a change in Ellie. In the short story, the barn is glossed over: 

“Where was the shawl of Jericho? In its place were boards, a raw wall. Beneath her was fragrant hay. She was actually alive and rested. She looked about her. ‘Why, it’s a barn!’ she exclaimed.” (231). 

The short story uses the barn as a rest-stop that is quickly abandoned. In the film, the barn scene establishes a pivotal turning point in the characterization— Ellie is maturing. What is so distinct about Capra’s interpretation of the barn scene is that Ellie shows her attachment to Warren. First, she complains of hunger, then she lays in hay, and with her back turned, she says: “You can leave anytime you see fit.” Ironically, when she turns around and sees Warren is gone, she is hysterical. She shouts, and Warren suddenly comes rushing to her aid wielding carrots. The tightly framed Ellie and Warren are then shown facing each other as he places a blanket over her. At that moment, they nearly share a kiss. Finally, Warren snaps out of this and goes to the opposite side of the barn and asks: “What makes dames like you so dizzy.” Capra and cinematographer Joseph Walker beautifully shoot Ellie in close-up. The lighting is stunning and glossy. The scene ends in the close-up with a single tear streaming down Ellie’s cheek. Now, compared to the short story, this is a full display of film technique. Rather than being told, we see Ellie’s emotional connection to Warren through a single close-up in a tense, dramatic scene between the two characters— an embellishment on Capra’s part. 

Capra’s brand of romantic comedy differs from “Night Bus,” which is mostly romance with little comedy. An example of Capra’s humor is Peter’s witty retorts to characters such as Shapely and Thad Banker. His responses not only make us laugh, but they also bring Ellie and Peter closer. When Shapley concocts a scheme and offers it to Peter, we can not help laughing at the irony. Before this scene, Capra spends time developing Shapley, similar to theNight Bus.” He is a braggart; he flirts with Ellie and doesn’t let her get a word in. When we come to Peter’s encounter with Shapley, we get a new man. Shapley mentions his children to appeal to Peter’s emotions. Peter threatens Shapley because he assumes the braggart will talk. Shapley adamantly defends himself, saying: “I never talk.” This revelation is hysterical and contradicting. Not only does Capra make us laugh, but he also shows how easy Shapley is to fool. Peter Warren shines through to the audience as a comforting character. Warren protects Ellie and helps the audience of the time period briefly escape their economic woes. Current viewers can still be taken by the humor, even if they are not facing the same problems like audiences in the 1930s.  

Another instance is with Thad Banker. The character is similar to his short story counterpart; however, Capra makes him more annoying. In the film, Ellie considers asking Banker for food. Peter stops her from even attempting this and tells her to “eat her carrots.” Although this hunger was common during the Great Depression, the idea that this wealthy girl is now eating raw carrots is quite ironic. Having a wealthy character like Ellie step into the reality of the working class is not only humorous, but it provides comfort in the human condition and removes class division. Capra knew how to capitalize on this disparity, much more than the short story did. 

Capra’s additions to It Happened One Night compared to “Night Bus,” raise the stakes in the film and ultimately make it more dramatic than the short story. The beginning and end are examples of Capra doing so. For example, when we see Ellie escape her father’s yacht at the beginning of the film, it captures our attention. Ellie plunges into the water and she escapes on a speed-boat. This is a stronger, more attention-grabbing start than the short-story opening with Peter Warren at the bus station. The events leading up to the ending of the film are the most dramatic. Peter Warren leaves Ellie in the lodge and goes to sell his story to his boss. During this, Ellie sees that Warren is gone and she assumes he left for good. Warren gets a thousand dollars from his boss and tries to return to Ellie, and as he is driving back, he sees a caravan. Looking into a window he catches a glimpse of Ellie in King Westley’s arms—  emotionless. 

Later, Warren is in Alexander Andrews’ office discussing the reward money. Like the short story, Andrews refuses the reward and opts for an exact list of what he spent on Warren’s daughter— a meager amount. Alexander Andrews is impressed, but Warren storms out, and Ellie refuses even to discuss the matter with her father. In the short story, Elspeth’s father uses a recording device that relays Warren’s exact words to her after Warren leaves. The ending of the film differs because Ellie does not listen to her father until he is walking her down the aisle to King Westley. Alternatively, King Westley is almost entirely forgotten after Elspeth makes it to New York in the short story. Capra withholding her father’s information suspends the audience and is consoling when she runs away to Peter Warren. Capra effectively “raises the stakes” and leaves his audience with a classic Hollywood “happy ending.”

It Happened One Night is an intermediate adaptation. Capra has some points of departure from “Night Bus,” but taken as a whole, it retains as much as it takes away. He plays between loose and close, even with something like dialogue. When adapting any story, filmmakers must consider what will best complement their medium. An example is Capra’s choice to extend the time spent in settings with a memorable visual appeal such as the barn, riverbank, the hitchhiking scene, and the wedding. The filmmaking techniques Capra uses speak to the medium as a whole— he utilizes everything at his disposal to create meaning. His choice to direct in the genre of romantic comedy during the worst economic downturn brings compassion to the audience, as what he portrays on screen, and what was written by Adams, obscures the divide between the upper class and the lives of the lower class. The class divide “blur” is what many wealthy people faced during the depression as a result of losing their wealth. Many of the scenes Capra adds to his adaptation heighten dramatic tensions and work really well in capturing our attention. It may have been a surprise back then, but with our context, there is little surprise that It Happened One Night swept all five major awards at the Academy Award Ceremonies in 1935. 

— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.

Christian’s Bio:


Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.”  Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavettes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.

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