Nightmare Alley: Then and Now

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It all started with the geek. After all, what would cause a man to take on the job of eating live chickens or snakes for the entertainment of a circus audience?

That question stuck with William Lindsay Gresham when he first heard about this carnival professional from a medical sergeant during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Years later, the question would form into the chapter outlines of what would eventually become Nightmare Alley.

Now, more than seventy years after it was published, the book has been adapted twice – once in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the lead and again in 2021 with Bradley Cooper.

For Power, Nightmare Alley gave him a chance to show that he could play more than a swashbuckler or romantic lead. He could play a morally complex character who faces the consequences of his actions. While the studio was nervous about their leading man playing a character that they believed the audience wouldn’t respond to, they nevertheless allowed it.

For director Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley also represented a creative endeavor he had always wanted to do – combining horror and noir.

He said, “Nightmare Alley is a look at a very specific strand of the underbelly of America. It is the flipside of the American dream. It’s a nightmare.”

For del Toro, studying past film noirs was especially important in capturing the movie’s language, and he used the novel and the 1947 adaption as influences. An additional influence to his vision was the author himself – a man who struggled with alcoholism, was interested in tarot, Christianity, and Freudian psychoanalysis, and eventually took his own life after being diagnosed with cancer.

“Gresham was a seeker, the Fool in the tarot cards. He wanted to find God or divinity or fate, something larger than man. But he always ended up finding the abyss,” Guillermo said.

When adapting the novel in the 1940s, studio head Darryl Zanuck understood that in order for the audience to care about Stan, the unfortunate protagonist, he couldn’t be all bad. As a result, the character’s hard edges were softened to make him respond genuinely at the death of another carnival worker and to actually be in love with Molly, whom he eventually leads astray.

Another change Zanuck made was the ending. In one of the earlier drafts for the film, Power’s character died, and Molly married the carnival’s strong man. To offer a more redemptive ending, Stan would instead live to become the geek, but find hope in the arms of Molly, who would promise to revive him.

The second adaption, however, chose a darker path.

Bradley Cooper said, “It’s not an easy story to tell, and it’s a movie that asks more questions than provides answers, especially the character that I played. I tried to create a character that the audience projects onto and you really don’t discover who he is kind of until the last scene of the film.”

That last scene borrows and modifies a key line from the 1947 film. When Tyrone Power is asked if he wants to take over the role of the geek, he responds, “Mister, I was made for it.”

The 2021 film tweaks that line to be: “Mister, I was born for it.”

As del Toro tackled his version, he knew that the ending – Stan’s fate to turn into the geek – was essential to understanding the beginning. Thus, the character’s journey into the abyss began on page one. But unlike Power's Stan, this version wouldn't end in the arms of a loving woman.

He said, “For us, he was a man that wore so many masks for so long that the reward at the end is he gets a mirror and he takes off the mask. We made everything else a prologue to that ending. And I showed it in a way that it could be circular, that he could be crying at the end and start remembering the beginning. You could watch it in a circle.”