NEA Big Read
The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town

The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town

by Thornton Wilder

It seems to me that my books are about: what is the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose it.

Thornton Wilder in the role of George Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Selected Works by Thornton Wilder

  • The Cabala, 1926 (novel)
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927 (novel)
  • The Woman of Andros, 1930 (novel)
  • Heaven's My Destination, 1935 (novel)
  • Our Town, 1938 (play)
  • The Skin of Our Teeth, 1942 (play)
  • The Ides of March, 1948 (novel)
  • The Alcestiad, 1955 (play)
  • The Matchmaker, 1955 (play)
  • The Eighth Day, 1967 (novel)
  • Theophilus North, 1973 (novel)

Wilder Anthologies

  • Wilder, Thornton. The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder. 2 vols. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1997-98.
  • Wilder, Thornton. Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. Ed. J. D. McClatchy. New York: Library of America, 2007.

Our Town On Screen

Of all the filmed versions of Our Town, only the first, from 1940—and least faithful—boasted Wilder himself as a hired screenwriter. The picture's modest virtues include most of the original Broadway cast, plus Aaron Copland’s enduring score.

Hal Holbrook (1977), Spalding Gray (1989), and Paul Newman (2003) have all played the Stage Manager in respectable television adaptations. More daring is OT: Our Town (2002), an acclaimed documentary about an underfunded California high school's production of the play.

Wilder’s cinematic reputation surely rests on his screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite among his own films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Several critics consider it almost a parody of Our Town—as if a homicidal uncle were suddenly to visit Emily in Grover’s Corners—and all lament that Wilder never again wrote for the screen.

The Bridge at the Movies

The films of The Bridge of San Luis Rey are far from faithful, but they all testify to Wilder's popularity and narrative gifts. Partly silent, the 1929 version won an Oscar for art direction. A 1944 adaptation was nominated for its music, and carried the amusing tagline ”And they called her The Perichole!” More recently, 2004 brought an all star production featuring Gabriel Byrne, Kathy Bates, and Robert De Niro.

None of these attempts holds a candle to the novel. A more lasting testament to The Bridge's influence lurks in such ensemble films as Crash and Magnolia, or even in disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Consciously or otherwise, any film where disparate strangers face mortality together shares an arc with The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

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