TV and film adaptations of literature do more than translate the written work to the visual medium. When different productions are made from the same story, audiences are usually exposed to very different ideas of the meaning of the work. As the following supports, the 1969 French and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” versions of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” present dramatically opposite interpretations of the story. One emphasizes the surreal nature of life itself, and the other only adds a “surprise” ending to a Civil War adventure.
The main difference between the two interpretations lies in the tone and approach of each film. In a sense, one is very European in an artistic way, while the Hitchcock version chooses to tell a story in a straightforward, literal, “American” manner. To begin with, the French film is silent, with only a haunting musical score as the background. This creates the quality of a dream to the entire story. It also allows the viewer to empathize more with Peyton. In his adventure, the lack of spoken language builds a kind of understanding because he could be anyone. That understanding is reinforced as the camera stays on his agonized face, after he has a vision of his wife and children at home. It is a long moment of deep longing and pain with which all can relate, no matter the circumstances leading to the hanging. Then, this version has a dreamy, or nightmarish, quality visually. The opening shots of the woods are sinister, and the camera’s weaving to “spy” on the scene on the bridge creates greater tension. Also, and strangely, the shots of insects on leaves and a spider in its web suggest a deeper theme; facing death, the intense need to survive is everything, and in all creatures.
The American interpretation is literal, as opposed to the existential tone of the French. The story is mainly presented through dialogue. The audience hears the hero carefully plan how to the destroy the Owl Creek bridge. Flashback is used to relate the tale, with the hero narrating the events leading to his impending death. Even the moments relating to his internal pain are more literal and not dreamlike. He does not have a vision of his wife, as in the French version. The film also tries to build suspense as an adventure, while the French version far more relies on psychological and emotional. The music is melodramatic as the hero works to set up the bridge explosion, for example. Even the fantasy of freedom is emphasized by a savior figure in the older black man helping the hero. The end, as with the other, presents the truth of the occurrence. However, on the whole, the practical narrative here adds little to the text. The strong impression is that the impact of the story completely depends on the shock to the audience, whereas the French version more offers potentials of deeper meaning in the story itself.
The two versions of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” reveal how different filmmakers choose to highlight what a single story provides. One is dark, has no language, and is an exploration into the soul of a doomed man. The other may be described as Americanized, in that it tells the tale in completely literal ways. This then has the effect of only translating the story, rather than uncovering themes within it. It is far less successful than the haunting and existential European version. As has been seen, then, the two adaptations of the Ambrose Bierce short story present dramatically different interpretations of the story. The French emphasizes the surreal nature of life itself and the American offers little more than the “shock” ending of a Civil War adventure.