The setting of Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel The Night of the Hunter represents a mythologised southern gothic space. The pursuit of John and Pearl by serial killer Harry Powell disguised as “Preacher”, takes place across the backdrop of the southern landscape. The narrative has often been described spatially as “dreamlike” with both explicit and implicit elements of authenticity juxtaposed; departing from traditional ideas of an authentic southern setting. The literal space is replaced by a gothic simulacrum.  This essay interrogates how the text is translated into cinematic form and how one medium is informed by another. How the narrative is adapted visually and what influenced the filmic style of adaptation is discussed, as well as positing ideas as to how the American landscape becomes a cinematically foreboding and gothic space.

Charles Laughton’s 1955 cinematic treatment attempts to present Davis’ narrative technique through methods influenced by German Expressionism. Laughton utilises stark black and white imagery to create an abstract depiction of the southern gothic space, where Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Preacher casts long dark shadows across the ‘undead’ landscape he travels on, often appearing in silhouette. Dark and light are often juxtaposed to signify the ongoing battle of good and evil taking place across the depression era space the characters occupy. The sun kissed plantations and small town American towns are portrayed with gothic menace.  Poverty, exile, criminality, horror and desperation are defined by those gothic spaces and the southern rural setting. Seymour Chatman states: ‘Film narrative possesses a plenitude of visual details, an excessive particularity compared to the verbal version.’[i] A film provides the visualisation for the spectator as opposed to a reader having to create a world themselves. However, the film images pass within framed minutes and may never be witnessed again by an audience, yet a section of a novel can be physically re-read from the page to enhance the narrative engagement.

The film, though not a commercial success at the time, is now often referred to as a classic piece of American cinema, and this essay explores how Davis’ fictional representation of the southern gothic space is translated cinematically. A semiotic analysis of the film will focus in particular on Laughton’s use of the surrounding space to show how text and celluloid have been interwoven to create an abstract spatiality of the southern gothic and how the ideas are manifested on screen.

Despite the fact that by 1955 sound was routinely integral to film, Laughton was heavily influenced by the silent cinema era; particularly the powerful symbolic use of images in the cinematic work of D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance). The frame by frame imagistic method in these films is the most significant method of driving the linear narratives of the time. Laughton was fascinated by the symbolism of images in film and what can be expressed to an audience through engaging cinematography. German Expressionism from the silent era influenced The Night of the Hunter massively, and Kasimir Edschmid states:

Expressionism is a reaction against Impressionism, which reflects the iridescent ambiguities, disquieting diversity, and ephemeral hues of nature. At the same time, Expressionism sets itself against Naturalism…The Expressionist does not see, he has visions… ‘the chain of facts’: factories, houses, illness, prostitutes, screams, hunger, does not exist; only the interior vision they provoke exists. Facts and objects are nothing in themselves: we need to study their essence.[ii]

The audience is presented with images which express much stronger depth of meaning than what is literally presented on screen. Laughton selected renowned cinematographer from the silent era Stanley Cortez, a veteran of D.W. Griffith’s work and a man, “famous for his […] advanced technical experiments.”[iii] Cortez claims in Sources of Light that ‘there are times when nature is dull: change it.’[iv] Cortez’s cinematic philosophy is heavily engaged with The Night of the Hunter, and with the screenplay co-written with poet James Agee the audience can see how Laughton was keen to create a visual cinematic poetry. Agee had previously toured the southern states as influence for his poetic work so knew of the desolation and decrepitude that are espoused through Grubb’s original text. With all these elements combined, Laughton had in place a collection of not only members of the film profession but artists in their own right to help create what is now deemed a classic, stylistic work of American cinema.

Figure 1.

Laughton attempts to remain as close to Grubb’s text as possible and uses page 21 and 22 of the novel to create two scenes for the audience to view the imagistic representation of the evil psychotic Preacher (Robert Mitchum) occupying the southern desolate space. Grubb writes on page 21:

[…] the sword of Jehovah beneath his wrathful fingers. God sent people to him. God told him what to do […]. The Lord provided […] he would thank the Lord just the same when it was all over and done with […] a single scarlet droplet on the leaves in the pleasant woods where it had ended and the Sword of God was wiped clean again – ready again.[v]

Laughton transforms this narration visually to introduce the character as he drives through the empty towns (Figures 1,2,3) lit brightly by natural sunlight through a continuous tracking shot but also a scene after this initial sequence where Preacher is in the Burlesque House. These travelling spatial images act in an eerie correspondence with what Preacher says as he delivers a monologue about how, “I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. (pause) Not that you mind the killin’s… […] Yore book is full of killin’s”.[vi]

Figure 2.


Therefore, despite the naturalistic, almost idyllic images, the dialogue of Preacher adds a sense of menace to the atmosphere which tarnishes the representation of the space occupied; he talks of murder. His crimes are committed by the hand of God which adds another layer of contrast to the scene; it is God’s work that Preacher sees himself performing, yet it is the murder of innocent young women; holy justification for committing heinous acts. This establishes the concurrent theme throughout the film of good and evil symbolically juxtaposed in a symbiotic relationship which drives the narrative through the southern, dark and foreboding space.

The next scene is where the audience first encounters the visual chiaroscuro lighting effect of dark and light contrasted strongly in the same frame. Chiaroscuro is traditionally an artistic term referring to when light and shade are manipulated to create shape and depth. Cortez used Tri X type film which was used to establish high contrasting colours in cinemascope. However, the gothic nature of the piece that Laughton demanded meant working in black and white; enhancing the expressionistic nature of the work.

Figure 3.

Page 22 of the novel states: “he liked to feel his whole spirit come alive with holy rage and hatred of the spewing masses of harlots and whoremasters […] go into a burlesque show […] rub the knife in his pocket with sweating fingers, seething in a quiet convulsion of outrage and nausea at all that ocean of undulating womanhood beyond the lights.”[vii] In a close-up frame set in the Burlesque House (Figure 4), Preacher is lit from the front whilst the audience in the back remain in darkness as almost shadow-like. The spatiality is dark and claustrophobic, the audience can see the sneering Preacher as he contemplates the abhorrence of the stripper before his eyes combined with the diagetic music of the striptease. Semiotically, the viewer is made to understand that the atmosphere is heady, murderous thoughts occupy Preacher’s mind and he is surrounded by dark figures on all sides. Cortez states: “With the shadows of the burlesque house, we introduce the evilness, not only of the man but of the whole scene.”[viii]


Among the members of the sad burlesque audience, he is in strong contrast: a sour and aggressive expression. Music o.s. We MOVE in fast to a HEAD CLOSE UP.[ix]

Through a close-up, Preacher’s flick knife will rip through his pocket (Figure 4) as he erects the blade; a very phallic representation of potential murder to come:

Figure 4.


Perhaps the most important aspect of the novel is the idea of the child John Harper’s view of the world. Grubb uses John, once introduced, to show the reader the world from John’s childlike perspective. He is the only character to recognise that Preacher is not the holy man he claims to be; he is not deceived like the others; the child is the most intelligent amongst them. Laughton uses this idea as well through expressionistic techniques to craft the cinematic narrative.

Figure 5.

John’s first encounter with Preacher in the text is described when looking in his bedroom at night:

John’s tongue grew thick as a mitten at the growing dread within him […] The shadow could not really be there. John was not there to make it. And yet there it was: the neatest little shadow man in the world and he could see it unmistakably and it was not make-believe like the clown and the peddler and the prancing horse that the branches made.[x]

The dark shadows often seen by children in the night but forged from everyday items are referenced here so the innocence of childhood is key. Again, this acts in juxtaposition to the reality of evil that lurks outside John’s bedroom. The idyllic childhood bedroom, a place of safety, is invaded by the Preacher’s shadow of death. On screen (Figure 6) this is shown in a nocturnal nightmarish way: “In one shot, we reversed the angle and shot the boy through a scrim so that the wall was invisible but the shadows were not […] That was done with a dimmer and, actually, a series of scrims, to get a kind of depth to the shadow itself.”[xi] Therefore, the shadow of Preacher on screen looms large into the world of John (Billy Chapin) as a symbol of the evil of what is to come. This takes influence from the expressionist work of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), where the iconic Count Dracula mounts the stairs producing a long threatening shadow as he approaches his victim’s bedroom.  It is the childhood fear of shadows that establishes the mistrust that John feels towards Preacher. The expression of the dark shadow into John’s spatial world of innocence is a continuous motif throughout the film. Once again this shows the idea of dark against light; in this case purity against evil.

Figure 6.

An important scene showing John’s mother Willa (Shelley Winters) preaching to a local congregation at a revival meeting about her conversion to Christian fundamentalist beliefs at the hands of Preacher is both visceral in the text but equally as powerful visually as well:

You have all suffered! She cried out one night, her eyes burning in the torchlight, her face blanched and bloodless with the thrill of her vision. And you have all sinned […] and then came brother Powell to me and said, Salvation cometh! And the Lord bent down and said to me: Marry this man and go forth with him and preach the Word![xii]

Laughton frames this scene as mid-shot of featuring Willa in the central foreground and Preacher in the back. They are framed by a triangulation of burning torches (Figure 7). Agee writes in the screenplay: “No set necessary for this scene. Flare, or flares, in every SHOT. Faces lighted by flares.”[xiii] The viewer can understand that ironically, Willa’s divination is nothing but a manipulative sham by the seductive Preacher; she is spatially ensnared by fire both literally and figuratively.  She works herself up to a frenzied climax. Laughton’s direction of the scene wanted, “Wild eyes…Wild as Hell,”[xiv] from Winters. As she enters what she thinks is a Heavenly religious awakening, she has in fact entered a Hell. Long shadows frame Willa and Preacher from behind as though jaw-like in their shaping as the flames light her. This continues the theme of chiaroscuro with the innocent Willa believing the revival tent to be a safe place of piety and salvation, and yet it is the grotesque she has embraced; now surrounded by evil. It is at this point of the narrative that Willa’s character is effectively de-centred by the duplicitous majestic shadow presence of Preacher.

Figure 7.

Willa’s role of mother is finished and her purpose is now meaningless; she simply becomes Preacher’s murder victim. The religious aspect during her murder is played out again in the text and on screen (Figure 8). Stark, straight angles make up the bedroom set in an almost surrealist visualisation. Set designer Hilyard Brown states: “I came up with a rather chapel-looking bedroom for Winters and Mitchum’s house”[xv]. Therefore, the religious connotations are symbolised but in a dank, lifeless way.  These straight line geometric images are reminiscent of Robert Wiene’s expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920); just as the maniacal ‘Dr’, toys with a local town, so does Preacher. Willa disturbingly does not see the violence about to occur as she is overwhelmed by devotion to God and Preacher as she lays in her bed, Grubb writes:

Then she thought: Why is my lip bleeding? Why can I taste the blood running back into my teeth and tongue? And then she remembered that he had struck her with the dry, shiny flat of his hand […] And the dark gar wheeled patiently in his pool again, the long sentry of circling dusk and shadow, of wisdom and darkness under the sun-dappled pool […] He is God of Love! He made you marry me so you could show me the Way and the Life and the Salvation of my soul! […] something and switched softly open […] It is some kind of razor he shaves with. I knowed what it was the first night![xvi]

Visually, Laughton frames Willa in a high-angle shot framed in a pool of light in her bed as though presented at her own open casketed funeral (Figure 9). She appears innocently divine and pure, dressed in a white nightgown whilst lit in a single pool of light from above, compared to the satanic presence in the bedroom also with her. A space of Holy matrimony has been transformed into a space of horror and savagery. Willa is trance-like staring at the camera above as she delivers her final dialogue; completely enthralled by Preacher. It as though she is at prayer. Agee states: “[…] WILLA is calm and immobile with the ecstasy of a martyr.”[xvii]  The audience has the Manichaean battle between good and evil with evil victorious on this occasion, the darkness of Preacher overpowers the lightness of Willa when Laughton cuts to blackout as Preacher brings his knife down to her throat and a non-diagetic waltz plays. The man of God is a truly grotesque representative of the under-world.

Figure 8.

Figure 9.

The artistic pinnacle of the film is arguably the river boat montage in which Preacher pursues the children in their escape across a formidable and dark gothic landscape. Grubb’s text is actually minimalist in description of the boat journey that John and Pearl undertake; compared to the artistry crafted on screen. This is because before their escape Preacher unleashes an, “animal scream of outrage and loss”,[xviii] as the river guides the children safe from his possession. Preston Neal Jones describes this scene on screen as, “cinematic orgasm”[xix], because of the hugely charged atmosphere during their escape; Preacher unleashes his frustrations. Agee writes: “He begins a steady, rhythmical, animal scream of outrage and loss.”[xx] After the scream, there comes a great idyllic calm in the text but a distant evil still resonates far away: “the scratch of green frogs, the sudden leaping of a fish […] Even when the skiff had floated far away down the dark and silent river the children could hear the faint, distant drift of that hoarse and terrible chant.”[xxi] Grubb wanted the space to be occupied by fear and Preacher’s scream is intended to channel a link to the south’s violent past:

Most of the mountain communities between Pittsburgh and Nashville were built because of fear: fear of living alone, because of pirates, the Harpes and Mason, whom I mentioned in Night of the Hunter. They were legendary horrors that roamed the river at the end of the Revolutionary War […] Big Harpe got mad one morning because his baby was crying, and they had to maintain absolute silence in the forest hideout, so he brained it against a tree. I said in the novel that when the river caught the children’s skiff and carried them beyond Preacher’s grasp, he let out a cry which brought back memories of the Harpes and Mason, the river ghosts of the time.[xxii]

With the Pearl and John’s escape there now flows a montage of cinematic expressionist poetics (Figures 10-13); the images are crafted to bring the riverbank alive and what is a short episode in the text is Laughton and Cortez’ creative high point from the entire film. The southern space the children occupy is seen through the eyes of childhood innocence via the camera lens. There is represented a calm rhythmic journey down river, but in contradistinction the visual spatiality is abstract and disturbing for the viewer. The demarcation of chiaroscuro is technically emphasised through the cinematographic theme of a visualized innocence that is also synthesised with a clear omniscient foreboding throughout the scenes.

An almost pastoral series of motifs initially drive the linear structure throughout the river journey. There is a contrast of signification as childhood elements are fully integrated, but still with a sense of the uncanny: “For a moment, on screen, all is peace and safety. No longer captive to their stepfather’s madness and greed. Pearl and John are welcomed by the river and its denizens like children in a fairy story fleeing a wicked stepparent, who are taken in by creatures of the woodland.”[xxiii]

Figure 10.

A spider’s web frames the boat as it sails. This web signifies the danger the children are still in despite the tranquility, as the Preacher will continue to weave a web of lies as he pursues them up the river. There will be no escape from him. Pearl sings a dreamlike hymn as all seems peaceful, yet eerie also. Ultimately the naturalistic, pastoral, southern space acts as the children’s protector though at this stage. The space is perceived as non-threatening for the children but there is still a sense of danger because the abstract images connote elements of strangeness; all is not what it may seem. Ironically, the scenes themselves were all filmed using optical illusions, the animals were filmed separately by a second unit direction team and optically edited together with the primary footage shot on a soundstage. No part of this scene is actually filmed on an outside river location.

Figure 11.

Figure 12.

However, as well as the naturalistic elements involved in the montage, there are also scenes of the complete desolation of the southern space during the depression era America in which the film is set. As Preacher traces the children up the river, he stops off to eat with itinerant workers (Figure 13). This scene provides strong juxtaposition of dark and light. The sequence feels very symbolic of the time. The space seems chillingly haunted by the ghosts of the mens’ past lives. They are but ghoul-like walking shadows now as Capitalism has destroyed them. It is the pursuit of money that motivates Preacher but the audience can see the consequences of financial ruin . Grubb wrote: “He would ride into town early in the morning […] They paid him no particular attention mind because it was a depression year – a time of wanderers on the land […] He would tell them he was an evangelist […] then preach a hell-raising half-hour sermon […] everybody was a little bit scared of God just then.”[xxiv]

Figure 13.

The audience also sees starving, waif-like children having to beg for food (Figure 14). The children look almost zombie-like as they are framed by the doorway where a farmer’s wife offers them food. This image expresses a strong sense of the decimation of the children’s world; most likely orphaned and now hunting for scraps of food and reliant on the generosity of others.

Figure 14.

The world within the frame seems hot and barren. Grubb in the text wrote:

It was a year of depression. It was no strange sight in the land in that lean and fallow time: children running the woodlands and the fields without parents, without food, without love. Families were shattered and broken asunder in that black decade and the children were driven to fend for themselves like the whelps of random litters; in the lanes of the back counties, roaming the big highways […] stealing food where they could or accepting it from the hands of some kind farm woman who could see their ravaged and disenchanted faces.[xxv]

Laughton has created a corresponding scene where the viewer can see the “ravaged” and “disenchanted faces”. Pearl and John have now joined the ranks of these children as they inhabit the space of a dead world.

Figure 15.

The cinematic artistry continues when Laughton returns to chiaroscuro as the children approach a farm to sleep on for the night. Throughout this sequence, Laughton had said to Cortez: “Stan, this is where we need fantasy.”[xxvi] The scene is actually filmed using life like cut-outs of a house and barn that are back lit (Figure 15). This almost completely renders the buildings in darkness. Their unnatural harsh, sharp angles once again project the image as a dreamlike nightmare. But the buildings the children approach do not look welcoming from the torment they have been through. A single solitary tree goes in the foreground on the left side of the frame; this is still a land of barrenness and hostility:

He found the hayloft and showed Pearl how to climb it and presently they were settled […] with a fine broad window on either side and beyond it the dark river. The moon swung high above the valley, lighting it almost to the brightness of dusk, making the river a shiny ribbon of black glass and touching the spreading night meadows with the dust of its illumination.[xxvii]

Laughton takes Grubb’s text and creates a far more chilling representation, this is a foreshadowing for the children’s distant reunification with Preacher which will occur in the next sequence. The peace and tranquility of the earlier animals is about to be smashed as the narrative moves to its eventual conclusion and, in effect, the second part of the film begins.

When John awakens in the barn to see Preacher singing a hymn whilst riding on the horizon, the aerial perspective, coupled with contrasting light and shadow delivers a chilling effect on the audience. The space that John and Pearl have occupied is still haunted by Preacher in his pursuit. Laughton utilizes Grubb’s text almost visually verbatim: “The figure of the man and horse were as tiny as toys in that perspective and yet, even in those diminished proportions, John could make out each dreadful and evil line of those familiar shoulders”.[xxviii] Agee states that John is, “Watching; dread and despair”[xxix]. This scene was once again filmed with cut-outs placed in behind the main set (Figure 16). The barn window acts as the framing agent as the camera peers almost over the shoulder of John. The back-lit tiny Preacher in the background carries all the power of the space, despite the comparative size of John, foregrounded.  The black figure on the horizon holds a strong presence throughout the desolate space he occupies: “He approaches and crosses centre screen, continuing the hymn. We do not PAN with him; he crosses the frame of the great window.”[xxx] It could be interpreted that the solitary image of the ghost-like hatted figure riding across the southern space is reminiscent of the deceased Confederate soldier of a by-gone era; never forgotten throughout that land. The loss of war haunts the southern space and the viewer can see throughout this film that evil occurs, but also, the pride and hope from a people still reeling from historical events in their haunted land. The memories of defeat live long in the hearts and minds of these characters who also hold a strong sense of pride which will ultimately lead to Preacher’s eventual downfall at the end of the film. The contrasting chiaroscuro is eventually phased out in the latter part of the film as sanctuary returns to the lives of the children as they find protection in the arms of their adopted mother figure Rachel, played in the film by D.W. Griffith veteran actor Lillian Gish. Rachel is the “mother hubbard” figure who is the saviour of the children and provides a purpose of hope for the future as the nightmare finally ends.

Figure 16.

The novel and film can almost be read side by side, each complements the other. There are moments where Laughton’s images extend the description provided by Grubb by using the Expressionist influence and showing the haunted southern land of America. However, both film and text have the same general moral and aesthetic agendas. The dreamlike world that both author and then director have created does depart from a more naturalistic representation. The consumer of the narrative, in whichever format, is treated to rich visual aesthetics that posit the idea of a southern space that is peppered with a disturbing darkness.

[i] Seymour Chatman, ‘What Novels do that Films Can’t (And Vice-Versa)’, Critical Enquiry, Vol.7, No.1, On Narrative. University of Chicago Press (Autumn, 1980):121-140 (124)

[ii] Cited: Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunted Screen (University of California Press, 2008): 12-13

[iii] Cited: Simon Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (Vintage, 2012): 235.

[iv] Ibid. 236.

[v] Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter (Prion, 1999): 21

[vi] James Agee, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter: First and Final Screenplays. Ed. by Jeffrey Couchman     (Couchman, 2017):742 -743

[vii] Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter (Prion, 1999): 22

[viii] Cited: Preston Neal Jones, Heaven and Hell to Play With – The Filming of The Night of the Hunter (Limelight Editions, 2002): 136

[ix] James Agee, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter: First and Final Screenplays. Ed. by Jeffrey Couchman (Couchman, 2017): 743

[x] Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter (Prion, 1999): 49

[xi] Cited: Preston Neal Jones, Heaven and Hell to Play With – The Filming of The Night of the Hunter (Limelight Editions, 2002): 157

[xii] Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter (Prion, 1999): 107-109

[xiii] James Agee, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter: First and Final Screenplays. Ed. by Jeffrey Couchman (Tennessee, Couchman, 2017): 772

[xiv] Cited: Preston Neal Jones, Heaven and Hell to Play With – The Filming of The Night of the Hunter (Limelight Editions, 2002): 189

[xv] Ibid. 200

[xvi] Ibid.147-149

[xvii] James Agee, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter: First and Final Screenplays. Ed. by Jeffrey Couchman (Couchman, 2017): 781

[xviii] Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter (Prion, 1999): 183

[xix] Preston Neal Jones, Heaven and Hell to Play With – The Filming of The Night of the Hunter (Limelight Editions, 2002): 245

[xx] James Agee, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter: First and Final Screenplays. Ed. by Jeffrey Couchman (Couchman, 2017): 781

[xxi] Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter (Prion, 1999): 183

[xxii] Preston Neal Jones, Heaven and Hell to Play With – The Filming of The Night of the Hunter (Limelight Editions, 2002): 245

[xxiii] Ibid.255

[xxiv] Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter (Prion, 1999): 186-187

[xxv] Ibid.183

[xxvi] Cited: Preston Neal Jones, Heaven and Hell to Play With – The Filming of The Night of the Hunter (Limelight Editions, 2002): 273

[xxvii] Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter (Prion, 1999): 194

[xxviii] Ibid.195

[xxix] James Agee, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter: First and Final Screenplays. Ed. by Jeffrey Couchman (Couchman, 2017): 807

[xxx] Ibid. 807