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The Ministry of Fear
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Group Reads Archive > May 2014- The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene

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message 1: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 1002 comments Mod
Welcome to May's fiction group read of The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene.


message 2: by Nigeyb (last edited May 01, 2014 02:07AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nigeyb Hurrah. Thanks Jennifer W.

I hope we do enjoy this discussion because...

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene a short and simple book - and very quick and easy to read. On one level it's just an exciting adventure story about espionage, fifth columnists, and a hapless man who gets caught up in things he does not understand, however there is a lot more else to discuss and enjoy too.

The story, which starts at a sinister fete, and rattles along from the word go, also muses on innocence, patriotism, self-delusion, psychology, memory, complexity, love, deceit and heroism.

Whilst there are perhaps a few slight flaws, I'm thinking mainly about the credibility of the love story at the book's heart, to dwell on this would be just nitpicking.

I'd say this is a perfect BYT era book. Beautifully written, great story, and lots to think about and discuss. Please read it.

I perceive that The Ministry of Fear is not now regarded as one of Graham Greene's best books. Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, and The Heart of the Matter are ones that seem to get more plaudits, however The Ministry of Fear really deserves to be more celebrated.

Here's a few questions you could try and answer if you felt so inclined...

What does The Ministry of Fear tell us about life in London during the Blitz?

To what extent does The Ministry of Fear evoke the mood of Britain during the early years of World War 2 in London?

Just how good is the book's opening chapter?

What are the books main themes? How effectively did you think they were explored?

What did you enjoy most about this book?

Why is the book not as well regarded as other books by Graham Greene?

Would the book have worked as well if the book's themes had not had the espionage plot to drive them along?

How did you feel about the compromise that will forever shape the lives of the lovers at the book's conclusion (hopefully worded to avoid any hint of a spoiler)?

And finally, a more personal question, has anyone seen the the 1944 film version of Ministry of Fear, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Ray Milland? Should I try to watch it?

Here's to an interesting and enjoyable discussion.

Susan | 774 comments Firstly, I much preferred this to Brighton Rock. The opening chapter was one of the best I have ever read and, historically, it painted a very evocative portrait of London in the blitz. This was made more interesting because of reading The Love Charm of Bombs.

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I read this over the weekend and found it beautifully readable - must agree with Susan that the opening chapter in particular is fantastic.

I've been reading Greene's novels chronologically and have been interested to see how many of his works in the 1930s and 40s centre on a figure who is on the run and forced to trust/rely on strangers, like Arthur here.

His previous novel, The Power and the Glory, has a very different setting, in Communist Mexico, with a priest in hiding, whereas here it's an ordinary man (though with an extraordinary past) who doesn't really understand why he has been targeted. I do think the whole idea of the cake is brilliant, and you can almost taste it when Greene describes it being sliced and eaten... the hunger of rationing really comes across.

I will admit that I don't think some of the later chapters quite live up to the earlier ones - and I don't find the novel overall quite up there with some of his greatest, partly because I don't find the love story very convincing. But I'm definitely very glad to have read it, and agree that it goes well with The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War.

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I meant to add that I've ordered the Fritz Lang film from the DVD club I belong to and hope they will send it to me soon - I'd really like to see how it compares with the book and will report back. Lang is a great director, and very good at showing people on the run, so I'd love to see his interpretation.

Nigeyb ^ Thanks Judy. That's a great review.

Thanks also for reporting back about the film version. I am very interested to read your thoughts once you've seen it. I agree that Lang is a superb director.

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Thanks, Nigeyb - I'm hoping it arrives soon.

There's so much to say about this book! Something that interested me was how many characters have names that seem to be generic or comments on their characters - 'Hilfe' is German for 'Help', and Arthur wonders if the two characters with this surname will help him. There's also the rich businessman Mr Cost and the phony medium giving herself airs is Mrs Bellairs. There are probably more!

I was also interested to see how many references there are to other books, such as Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop - the villain in that novel, Quilp, is a sinister "dwarf" with a huge appetite, like Poole in this.

Has anybody read Charlotte M Yonge's The Little Duke, which is referred to all the way through?

message 8: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments I have seen (and liked) the movie in the past. But I guess I'm having a little trouble getting into this one. I've already renewed it at the library and I'm still on the first chapter.

Susan | 774 comments But what a first chapter - such a perfect introduction to the book! You feel the mastery of an author who really paints a portrait of both the place and the character.

message 10: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val The setting, the character and the tone of the story are all set in that first chapter. It is masterful writing as you say.

Nigeyb ^ Yes, yes, yes, I couldn't agree more.

A stunning opening, and a wonderful book.

Thanks also Judy for your thoughtful comments. I hadn't spotted the references to other books, nor have I read The Little Duke by Charlotte Mary Yonge, but was very intrigued by the various references.

message 12: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Maybe I'll give it a fresh start (I'm only on page 6 so I'm not going that far back) and try it with a new attitude.

Nigeyb ^ No book can be judged in just six pages Jan :-))

Why not just commit to read it? Find an hour to get 50-100 pages under your belt and then finish it over the next few days. It's very short, and very accessible - so a nice, easy read.

And then, of course, write a few thoughts on here when you've finished.

message 14: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments I wasn't quitting at page 6. But you guys seem to think it is such a great chapter - I am either missing something or it picks up tremendously after page 6.

So I am will to give it a re-boot.

Nigeyb ^ Excellent news Jan. I just re-read Chapter One, in my edition it's 10 pages. It really is quite splendid. I'm convinced you'd enjoy the book if you give it time and attention. Like everything, a little bit of perseverance is frequently repaid.

message 16: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I've just watched the film of 'The Ministry of Fear' and am a bit disappointed. (This was the first half of a Ray Milland double-bill for me, as I've also just rented 'The Lost Weekend' from a DVD club for our film thread, and will be watching that one in the next day or two!) But anyway, back to 'The Ministry of Fear'...

I have a feeling I might have enjoyed this more if I hadn't just read the book - so much of the plot is missing that it feels a bit weak by comparison. It does build up the suspense and is a stylish noir film, but I just expected more from a director like Fritz Lang.

The film is certainly powerful visually, full of shadows, and Ray Milland is good in the lead, even if he's not at all how I'd imagined Arthur (renamed Stephen Neale for the film). I think the whole fete scene is fantastic, and there is also a creepy scene on a train which isn't in the book but is exciting stuff all the same. Great noir actor Dan Duryea is in the cast but sadly gets hardly any screen time.

The plot seems a bit all over the place compared to the book, with some of the major elements removed. In particular, the whole issue of memory is missing, and there isn't much worrying about Stephen's tragic past. We also don't get to see much of bombed-out London (according to the imdb the film was made in California), although there is a convincing bomb shelter and some fog-bound streets. Anyway, I'd be interested to hear anyone else's take on this, and I do wonder if I might enjoy the film more in the future in its own right, when my memories of the book have faded.

message 17: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments I usually want some time to elapse between book and movie. I still can't go back to reading Gone, Baby, Gone after seeing the movie. I need to forget who plays which characters and the story.

message 18: by Nigeyb (last edited May 08, 2014 03:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nigeyb Coincidentally, and as I type this, it was about three minutes ago that I finsihed watching "The Lost Weekend". I'll write up a few thoughts tomorrow and add them to the thread.

Thanks so much for your thoughts Judy. Like you, I would have expected a better film from so esteemed a director as Fritz Lang.

From what you way it sounds distinctly average and not a patch on Carol Reed's adaptation of Greene's The Third Man, or the Boulting Brothers' top notch version of Brighton Rock.

message 19: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments It is my understanding that Greene wrote the book of The Third Man after he did the screenplay. IMDB says that he wrote the screenplay based on one sentence. Also, that was their third collaboration.

I don't know what kind of relationship he had with Lang, given that he didn't write the screenplay for Ministry.

message 20: by Judy (last edited May 09, 2014 07:11AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Thanks, Jan and Nigeyb. I did find the film "distinctly average", as you say, Nigeyb, but of course that is just my opinion - so I'd hate to put anyone off giving it a try! I suppose I found the book so cinematic that I didn't really see why the story had to be changed such a lot for the film.

There's an interesting article about the film at the Criterion Collection site , which says that Greene didn't like the movie:

"Graham Greene counted Ministry of Fear, a 1944 adaptation of his 1943 novel, as one of the several “very bad” ones. In wry support of this assertion, he told an anecdote wherein the film’s director, Fritz Lang, approached him at a bar years after its release and personally apologized for having made it."

However, the writer of this article, Glenn Kenny, thinks Greene was wrong and that the film is a great paranoid thriller. Kenny also points out that Greene's two favourite adaptations of his own work, Brighton Rock and The Third Man, were "two indeed indisput­able masterpieces but also the two films on which Greene most actively collaborated".

message 21: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Nigeyb, I meant to say that, as well as 'Brighton Rock' and 'The Third Man', another great adaptation of a Greene work is 'The Fallen Idol'. This again was directed by Carol Reed with a screenplay adapted by Greene from his own story. I'd definitely recommend it if you haven't seen it - Ralph Richardson and a young French boy, Bobby Henrey, are both fantastic.

message 22: by Nigeyb (last edited May 09, 2014 09:50AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nigeyb Thanks Judy.

I've not come across 'The Fallen Idol' so will have a look for that one.

You've not put me off seeing the Lang film adaptation, except rather than buying a DVD, I'll wait until it crops up on TV. That said, the article you link to, does make it sound intriguing and (whisper it) maybe a bit better than you suggest ;-)

Thanks for 'The Third Man' info Jan.

According to Wikipedia, and regarding 'The Third Man':

The screenplay was written by novelist Graham Greene, who subsequently published the novella of the same name (which he had originally written as a preparation for the screenplay).

So, it sounds as though, although the novella was published after the film he'd already written tit before the screenplay.

Either way, it's one of the all time great films in my opinion.

Right, let's get back to discussing the book.

message 23: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments And Wikipedia should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Given a choice of believing/trusting what imdb or Wikipedia says, I'll pick IMDB every time.

The Fallen Idol is good and with Ralph Richardson. I hadn't realized it was a Graham Greene.

I recently saw a film based on one of his stories, Went the Day Well? I'd never heard of it before. The Nazis take over a British town and it studies their reaction to this - whether they go along (appease) or do anything about it. I found it pretty interesting. From 1942.

message 24: by Judy (last edited May 09, 2014 10:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Jan, I hadn't realised that 'Went the Day Well' was a Greene story - I recorded it from TV a while ago, hope I've still got it!

Graham Greene says in his introduction to The Third Man that he wrote the story before adapting it for the screenplay, but didn't originally intend to publish it. However, he also says that he'd only written one sentence before he sold the film to Alexander Korda. I couldn't find a link for his introduction online, but you can read it if you "look inside" the Vintage edition at Amazon.

Nigeyb ^ Thanks Judy, and Jan.

This one will run and run. Here's Graham Greene on The Third Man, which suggests novella after screenplay too...

My film story, The Third Man, was never written to be read but only to be seen. The story, like many love affairs, started at a dinner table and continued with headaches in many places: Vienna, Ravello, London, Santa Monica.

…long before, on the flap of an envelope, I had written an opening paragraph: "I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand." I, like my hero, had not the least inkling of an explanation, so when Alexander Korda over dinner asked me to write a film for Carol Reed — to follow our Fallen Idol which I had adapted from my short story "The Basement Room" a year before—I had nothing more to offer him except this paragraph, though what Korda really wanted was a film about the Four-Power occupation of Vienna.

On the continuity and the story-line Carol Reed and I worked closely together when I came back with him to Vienna to write the screenplay, covering miles of carpet a day, acting scenes at each other. (It's a curious fact that you cannot work out a continuity at a desk—you have to move with your characters.)…To the novelist, of course, his novel is the best he can do with a particular subject; he cannot help resenting many of the changes necessary for turning it into a film play; but The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture. The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.

One of the few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending and he was proved triumphantly right. I held the view that an entertainment of this kind was too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending. Reed on his side felt that my ending — indeterminate as it was, with no words spoken, Holly joining the girl in silence and walking away with her from the cemetery where her lover Harry was buried — would strike the audience who had just seen Harry's death and burial as unpleasantly cynical. I was only half convinced: I was afraid few people would wait in their seats during the girl's long walk from the graveside towards Holly, and the others would leave the cinema under the impression that the ending was still going to be as conventional as my suggested ending of boy joining girl. I had not given enough credit to the mastery of Reed's direction, and at that stage, of course, we neither of us anticipated Reed's discovery of Anton Karas, the zither player. All I had indicated in my treatment was a kind of signature tune connected with Lime.

from Ways Of Escape, pp.103-105

Right, let's get back to The Ministry of Fear....?

message 26: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I just came across an excellent blog review of The Ministry of Fear, which includes a great photo of a fete in Russell Square in 1943. A lot of food for thought here.

Susan | 774 comments Oddly enough the wonderfully named Lady Fancifull is a fellow reviewer and member of my and Val' s book group who re-read Ministry of Fear after reading my review. It all comes around...

Nigeyb ^ So it does Susan. Splendid.

message 29: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Wow, it's a small world, Susan!

Susan | 774 comments That initial scene, at the fete, is really a great scene setter. All of the novels I have read by Greene, have very strong opening and closing chapters. Sometimes authors tail off, but Greene always gives you a satisfying ending and his beginnings always land you, with a thump, right in the middle of the action.

Nigeyb Susan wrote: "Greene always gives you a satisfying ending and his beginnings always land you, with a thump, right in the middle of the action. "

That's a very good point Susan, which I'd not previously considered however - yes - all the books I can think of, that I've read, have that ingredient. It makes a big difference too. I'm guessing it must have been a conscious thing he always tried to do.

Amanda | 55 comments I'm just starting this- it's my airport read for the weekend. Loving the opening just like you all were saying. It's very intriguing, almost absurd, that whatever is happening is due to a cake. I can't wait to delve into these mysterious circumstances more. It's definitely going down in my memory as one of the most memorable first chapters of any book I've read.

Amanda | 55 comments Just finished this! Overall really enjoyed it. Once I finally got the chance to sit down and read it, I breezed through very quickly because I just always had to know what was happening next. Greene did a great job building suspense. I also think he wrapped up the convoluted plot very well. I found the ending pretty sad and hopeless despite how the plot wrapped up. I felt sorry for Arthur. Trading one life of personal delusion for a life of deceit for another's delusion, at least how that's I saw it.

Nigeyb Amanda wrote: "Just finished this! Overall really enjoyed it."

Thanks Amanda. Good to know you liked it. 5 stars too.

Amanda wrote: "I felt sorry for Arthur. Trading one life of personal delusion for a life of deceit for another's delusion, at least how that's I saw it. "

Yes, he certainly sets himself up for a lifetime of compromise - which will inevitably gnaw away and undermine whatever is to come.

A bittersweet conclusion to be sure.

Susan | 774 comments I was listening to Books and Authors podcast this morning in the car (Radio 4 - highly recommended!) and they did a part on Patricia Highsmith and said that Graham Greene was a huge fan of her and that their styles were quite similar. I've never read any Highsmith, not sure why, but I am keen to try something by her and compare.

message 36: by Nigeyb (last edited May 22, 2014 04:34AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nigeyb ^ You need to put that right Susan.

Patricia Highsmith is fantastic. Ripley is a wonderful creation, and The Talented Mr. Ripley is a well written, psychological thriller.

Here's a review of Ripley #1 by some bloke called Nigeyb

Thanks for the tip about the Books and Authors podcast - I have just downloaded it.


Susan | 774 comments Yes I know - looks really like my type of book.

Amanda | 55 comments Susan, The Talented Mr Ripley is great. My library had a collection of the series so I devoured them one summer. The first is the best but he is such a great character I loved them all!

I thought the movie with Matt Damon as Ripley was very well done as well.

Susan | 774 comments It's so great when you find a series you like and just devour it. As a child I used to read through all the Famous Five books in the first week of the summer holidays :)

Nigeyb ^ Ah. Famous Five *sigh*. How I loved those books, and The Secret Seven before them. My sister and I were addicted to them.

Now then, I was just re-reading the thread, and was reminded that, back on 6 May, Jan was poised to restart the book having stalled at page 6...

Jan C wrote: "Maybe I'll give it a fresh start (I'm only on page 6 so I'm not going that far back) and try it with a new attitude."

How are you getting on Jan?

message 41: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments I have made it off page 6 and am currently stalled on page 22.

I am remembering the movie more now and that may be getting in the way. But it is due back at the library next week. So I'll either have to get reading or find a place to buy it.

Amanda | 55 comments I've never heard of the famous five but based on the wiki page I would have loved them. I read the Nancy Drew series and Boxcar Children constantly, I think I still have the plots memorized.

message 43: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments I know of neither the Famous Five nor the Secret Seven. But I do know the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew. My mother had a book from her childhood in Canada, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Imagine my surprise to find that there was a movie about them.

Also don't know the Boxcar Children.

Susan | 774 comments Enid Blyton is the reason I read. Nigeyb, my daughter now loves the Secret Seven - but I forgot how bossy Peter was! Tried Nancy Drew, but never clicked. I really prefer books set in Europe - I don't travel well as a reader...

Nigeyb Jan C wrote: " is due back at the library next week. So I'll either have to get reading or find a place to buy it. "

Just read it? It's very short. It'll only take you a couple of hours to read the whole thing.

Nigeyb Susan wrote: " daughter now loves the Secret Seven"

It's good to know the magic still works.

My wife's not keen on EB (too many gender stereotypes and archaic attitudes), so my kids have never had the chance to read her. Both love reading so would probably have enjoyed her work. They're probably a bit too old now though.

Susan wrote: "I really prefer books set in Europe - I don't travel well as a reader... "

That's interesting. I think I probably prefer European books too, however there are certain American authors who I'd rank amongst my favourites...

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Highsmith, James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick

message 47: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments I prefer American. I think people (generally, but not always) prefer to read what they know. It is easier to envision the locale if you know it. Movies have made it easier to envision foreign locales.

Susan | 774 comments There are American authors I like - Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl and Jane Haddam spring t mind. I don't like Raymond Chandler or American 'Golden Age' crime fiction really. I do like a lot of Asian and Far Eastern authors. Perhaps that was a slightly sweeping statement, but generally the bulk of what I read is set in Europe and I prefer my crime fiction set there.

I would say it is a shame your wife felt that way about Blyton, but I recently read a couple of Jacqueline Wilson books (or rather children I am mentoring read them to me) and I found myself thinking that I don't want my daughter reading those until she is at least 18!!! So I found myself becoming that person I most hate - the one who would ban a book. They were quite shocking though, with really adult themes for the age they were supposedly aimed at. Of course, I wouldn't ban it, but I might try to steer her away for a year or two at least...

Amanda | 55 comments I've noticed in general I prefer American or British novels. I think that it's definitely a cultural thing for me. I understand more of the references and allusions so I don't spend as much time googling things. They're just easier to read.

message 50: by Jan C (last edited May 22, 2014 11:55PM) (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Maybe she just won't be interested in that particular book. If she doesn't know it exists, why tell her.

(I had to jump off my tablet)

If the book is too old for her.

Although I generally prefer American writers because we speak the same languages, so to speak. But for crime fiction, I'll read from almost anywhere. Like British and Scandinavian and I am beginning to like French.

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