The Swimmer is a well crafted short story written by John Cheever. Its characters and unique plot are described with great clarity so as to give the reader an excellent visage of how the characters thought and acted. Of course the best defined character in the story is of Ned Merrill, the protagonist of the story. The Swimmer is very unique because, at the surface, its plot only takes an afternoon or maybe most of the day. However, once the story is put through the literary microscope, one finds that the plot actually reflects the life of Ned Merrill as he is “going home” or going to his death. Various images suggest such a theme. While tracing that theme or idea through the story certainly merits an essay, there is perhaps a better topic for discussion. In 1968, Hollywood produced a film “based” on the short story starring Burt Lancaster as Ned Merrill. I place the verb based in quotations because the movie hardly copies the short story in essence and therefore casts a poor reflection upon it. Therefore it will be necessary to compare and contrast the short story in regards to the film as well as the article “Explorations and Formulas” by Michael Myers. With respect to the article, the discussion will be more pointed towards looking at the ways in which the film skimped on literary quality or trueness to the book to satisfy viewers.
In order to address a proper comparison of the short story to the film, it would be best to do so chronologically from the film’s perspective since the film deviates so much from the short story. In the beginning of the film, there some opening screen credits and a scene which was shot by a river. The scene shows woodland and river wildlife and the viewers see that a man is walking up through the woods and along the river. Although it is a beautiful scene, paired with tranquil music, the scene is nonexistent in the actual story. The short story begins with a scene at the Westerhazy’s pool not some woodland area (1). Moreover, Ned Merrill doesn’t come up out of the woods in the beginning of the short story like he does in the film. Instead he “sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin” (1). Due to the lack of narration in the film, the audience isn’t informed as nicely about the clouds looking like some immense city or the fact that everyone in the vicinity is remorseful over how much they drank last night. The former detail is discussed much a little bit later in the film by Ned Merrill in a conversation to the Grahams. Furthermore, the film shows a full length and intricate conversation between Ned Merrill and the Westerhazys along with additional characters, Stu Forsburgh and Peggy. Such a conversation and even those additional characters, is not even in the short story. The only thing that happens at the Westerhazys is that the Westerhazys briefly mention that they are hung over and Ned spontaneously has an idea to swim across the county. His idea for naming the pools and the “river” as well as his decision to swim the county are all merely thought and unspoken (1).
As Ned Merrill moves on from the Westerhazys in the film, the first pool he comes to is the Graham’s. This is true to the short story except that when he arrives, he doesn’t give Mrs. Graham a kiss on the cheek or talk to her in that fashion. In fact, Ned never even speaks to her when he is at her pool. He merely gets a drink and once some friends of hers drive up, he swims the length of the pool and continues on his way (2). That entire scene in the film is very different than the short story.
From there, Ned finally moves on to the Lears’ pool in the film where he sees two young women playing volleyball in the pool. This is perhaps one of the most deviant sections in the film and will be addressed with the article later in this essay. In the short story, the Lears are not only the second pool he swims through when he leaves the Grahams but the action is merely mentioned in passing and there is no one in the water. In fact, there is no one else in the “Lucinda River” until page two when he gets to the Bunkers’ pool. In the film, there are young girls whom Ned greets and one of them, a very pretty girl, is named Julie Hooper. Julie Hooper is never mentioned in the story and nor are her scandalous escapades with Ned Merrill. Her brother is not even mentioned in the short story either. There is a whole series of scenes which take up a good portion of the film that stem from Ned and Julie’s journey together along the Lucinda River. In fact, she follows him through to the Bunkers’ party where they see a man in a tube in the middle of the pool. The man is supposed to be Buzz Bunker but in the short story this was Rusty Towers. Moreover, there were two other pools he passed through alone in the short story. While he is with Julie at the Bunkers, he comes into contact with many other friends who greet him jovially but there is one conversation he has with a friend about something that happened at Ned’s place. Ned seems bewildered and hardly pays attention. This look of mad bewilderment is one of the many instances where the film tries to show Ned steadily becoming older. In actuality, all they succeed in doing is making him seem crazy. After they swim through the Bunkers’ pool, they run off and find a corral with horse jumps. This scene goes on for a long time as Julie and Ned run and jump over the stiles like horses. This scene is definitely not in the short story. Ned, after jumping one of the stiles, hits the ground rather hard and awkwardly and seems to have tweaked something in his leg. He limps off with Julie in tow. In the short story, Ned never limps. Toward the end of the story, he is described as being stooped (9). This image is supposed to give the reader the idea that Ned is much older than he is as he comes close to his life’s end at his home.
After Ned hurts his leg, they wander over to a shady spot where they sit and talk awhile. It is here that the film puts a sensual romantic twist on the plot. As they are sitting in the shade, they talk about Julie’s job and some of her weird experiences with young men there. Ned suddenly becomes much more physical and starts touching various parts of her body: her ankles, he embraces her across the breast, and even places a hand on her belly. At this gesture, Julie becomes very nervous and after Ned tries to suggest some sort of relationship, Julie runs off through the woods. This scene paints Ned as a narcissistic vulgar man who is inevitably a womanizer. No such connotation in the short story.
From there he moves on to the Lindleys, a scene which cannot be found in the short story. In fact, after he swims the Bunkers’ pool, he comes to the Levys’ pool where the poolside and patio looks like that of the Lindleys’ in the film. “Glasses and bottles and dishes of nuts were on a table at the deep end, where there was a bathhouse or gazebo” (3). However, there are few details in the short story, which are left out in the film, that give the reader an idea as to what time in history the story takes place. There are Japanese lanterns hanging from the gazebo and a de Havilland trainer, a plane used to train military pilots, flies overhead. This is a slight allusion to wartime. But it is not put into the film. At this point, the only images to suggest that time according to Ned’s life is progressing towards old age are brief mentions of various flowers that bloom in the fall and the fact that Ned now has a limp. But the viewer doesn’t realize this from the film; one is led to believe by such images that Ned is crazy and his hobble is a result of an injury not “old age.”
From the “Lindleys,” Ned goes on to the Hallorans in the film. This scene does not take place in the short story just after going to the Levys’ but sometime later after he has gone to the Welchers’ pool, crossed Highway 424, and swum the public pool. This breach in the order of pools is quite serious and even when Ned comes across these pools and the road, there are things added or taken away which differ greatly from the short story. Before Ned goes to see the Hallorans in the film, he is met by their chauffeur who is a black man. During this sequence, the viewers can sense some sort of tension between Ned and the black man but this was not in the short story. Such an incident adds a sort of cultural spin which was relevant in the time of the late sixties when the film debuted. Even when Ned does, as he did in the short story, take off his swimming trunks, his conversation with the Hallorans is nothing like it was in the short story. In the film, the Hallorans are busy working on details for a party and they talk about various social events and property issues to Ned. This never happened in the short story. They merely suggest that something was wrong with Ned’s family and that they wished they could help but Ned is confused and blows it off. Mrs. Halloran’s mistrust of Ned because of his habit of asking for money makes us really doubt Ned’s integrity. We are led to no such doubts in the short story. Moreover, another reference to the passage of time is mentioned in the film by Ned thinking that a maple has been blighted. Mr. Halloran tells him he is mistaken as the maples always lose their leaves this time of year suggesting it is fall. This is Hollywood’s attempt to suggest that Ned is aging but it really doesn’t have that effect.
In the film, Ned moves on from the Hallorans to the Gilmartins. This scene is supposed to replace the scene with the empty pool in the short story (3-4). The scene with the little boy is entirely false to the short story’s plot and even when Ned finds the pool emptied, he isn’t as disappointed as he is in the short story. Furthermore, Hollywood interjects a little saying about make believe and the pool is said to have been emptied because the little boy cannot swim. Such additions are added to please the viewers but are nowhere in the actual story.
The next pool he visits in the film is at the Hammars. This scene is remotely similar to one in the short story where he visits the Sachs’ pool. In both scenes, a character named Eric is named who apparently had some sort of operation done. In the film however, the reception he receives when he swims their pool is very cold and harsh. It seems that the “Eric” in the film had died and the mother is very remorse over it. Ned receives no such cold reception at the Sachs’; he becomes confused once he is told that the operation happened three years ago. A fact, he was sure happened more recently than that. This alludes to Ned slowly becoming older and more senile. This doesn’t really happen in the film.
Ned then moves on to the Biswangers, a fact which does correspond in the film. In both short story and film, his reception by Grace Biswanger is quite cold and after briefly saying hello he gets a drink. The line in the short story and the film about asking for a drink is the same in both genres. However, the scene in the film after that point drastically differs from that in the short story. In the story, Ned doesn’t flirt with one of the partygoers, he doesn’t talk abrasively with the bartender, and he most certainly doesn’t quibble with Henry Biswanger over the hotdog cart. In Cheever’s story, he merely gets a drink and swims the pool before continuing on to his mistress’s pool (7).
While the sequence of Ned going to his mistress’s house is correct, this scene is almost as deviant from the general plot as the scene with Julie Hooper. This scene is drawn out and quite exasperating for his old mistress Shirley. In the short story she is known as Shirley Adams but in the film she is Shirley Abbott. The short story’s version has Ned merely speaking a few brief words with Shirley and then swimming her pool before moving on. In the film, details are brought up about their former liaison, he fondles her at her refusal to be touched and he almost pulls her into the pool to have sex. The whole scene is replete with talk about sex and Ned is too overbearing towards her in the film. Ned is painted as a womanizer and we have no sympathy for him by the time he leaves her place. This whole scene was embellished sexually because sex sells, but more on that later.
From this point in the film, Ned comes to the road and crosses it with some difficulty and ridicule. This scene is almost exactly like that in the short story except that Ned has a limp in the film and the road is never named. In the short story, the route is significantly called 424 which denotes that Ned is now forty-two. No such crafty literary designation is made to suggest that he is getting older in the film. The scene is also placed much earlier in the short story as opposed to later in the film. This is also the case with the public pool scene. This scene, apart from being in the wrong chronological order in the plot, has many differences. In the first place, the public pool is free in the short story and he never even talks to anyone while at the pool. He merely washes off in the shower and swims the pool before being harangued by lifeguards for not having an ID tag. In the film he asks for money from a friend; this brings to the forefront a returning theme in the film: Ned’s habit of asking for money. Additionally, Ned has to go through the showers a few times in the film but this isn’t the case in the short story. Everyone seems to be very harsh to him throughout most of the film. After he is done swimming the pool, he gets out and isn’t harangued by the lifeguards but by several neighbors who talk harshly about him and his family. With panic and anger in his eyes, he retreats up a stony slope and gets away from the haranguing “friends.” Throughout this scene and others we find out what Ned Merrill is really like and we don’t pity him a bit as the movie comes to a close.
As Ned comes close to his home, he is very tired from his travels and comes up through the garden of his home with a limp and the rain just beginning to fall. This is of course in the film. In the short story, Ned is “stooped, [and] holding on to the gateposts for support, he turned up the driveway of his own house” (8). There are a few major differences here. In the film, Ned is only limping from his injury in jumping the stiles with Julie, the rain is pouring in cold wet sheets, we see a glimpse of his backyard, and the rust comes off in his hands from the garden gate. The short story has him coming up the driveway stooped like an old man, with no mention of the weather (in fact the thunderstorm happened on page three), and his first stop is to the garage where he finds rust coming off in his hands (8). Then he approaches the front door (where the gutter is fallen) to find it locked and the inside darkened and empty (8). Here the film uses very dramatic music and scenery (the rain especially) to show Ned’s frustration and tiredness. Despite his loss at finding the house empty and his family gone, we don’t really feel sympathetic for him due to all the previous scenes which show him to be a womanizer and poor steward of money. While the short story states that Ned is extremely tired from his journey across the county, we have come to realize that something else is going on: Ned’s life is coming to a close. Therefore the readers of the short story actually have some sort of sympathy for him. Our analysis of Ned Merrill is not prejudiced by beautiful women that he mistreats or dramatic music and scenery like what is shown in the film. The readers feel that they have accompanied him throughout his life and watched him fall and then pick himself back up again. We have also traveled across the county with Ned Merrill.
There are many places in the film where artistic license is taken to please the audience. Such artistic license is used heavily by those who write or produce formula fiction or films. Such formula fiction and film is as Michael Myers states in his article “Explorations and Formulas,” are “written with only one object: to be sold. They are aimed at specific consumer markets that can be counted on to buy them” (21). Such is the case with the film The Swimmer. There are four major scenes which were added or embellished from the original plot for the sole reason of selling the film. The first and perhaps most major artistic license is the scene with Julie Hooper. As I noted earlier, Julie Hooper isn’t even mentioned in the short story and her arrival in the plot takes a long time and actually messes up some of the original chronological order of pool hopping. Her role is to bring out the womanizing, sexually prone side of Ned Merrill. Her words toward him, especially her fantasies about him and his clothing are definitely sexual in nature. Ned gets very comfortable with her and even places his hand on her belly while quoting something from the Song of Solomon, a book of the Bible full of sexual imagery. She is added because sex sells. People will see the film because it has a beautiful bikini-clad young girl who can be seen as a sort of sex symbol. This is the first major artistic license. The second is the scene with the mistress, Shirley Abbott. Ned’s behavior towards her is very forward and is evident that his intentions toward her are to ignite that old flame they had. Ned’s conversation with her is very sexually oriented and reminiscent of the “good” times they had. The prolonged scene comes to a climax when Ned pulls Shirley into the pool to have sex. This scene was added to allure the audience with sexual talk and sexy imagery. Sex sells and to make a profit off the film they had to add it. The third thing in the film which is conducive to a formula fiction mindset is having Burt Lancaster star as Ned Merrill. Lancaster is physically fit and good for the role but the main reason he is starred in the film is to make money. He is quite a famous actor and even somewhat of a male sex symbol. People would have come to the movie just to see him act. This makes him an instrument for the movie to make money. The final major artistic license is when Ned is at the Biswangers and he sees his old hotdog wagon in the possession of the Biswangers. Such an emotional scene is added to pull on the heartstrings of the American audience because of its sentimental value. Americans can relate to the culture of eating hotdogs and being attached to personal projects. This appeals to the audience and therefore they like it and buy more. Such are the artistic liberties in this film.
The film and short story, although a similar plot runs through each of them, are very little like one another. The short story is crafted with artistic genius since there are essentially two plotlines occurring at the same time and the passage of time is marked by the flora, historic imagery, allusions to Ned’s progressing senility, and even constellations. Ned Merrill, by the end of the short story, is now seen as a decrepit and old man who wanders up to his house or time of death without his loving family around him. We are quite sympathetic toward him. This is contrasted in the film which depicts him as a sick and irresponsible man through the usage of sexual conversation and innuendos, his own behavior toward women, and everyone’s lack of good favor for him. We sympathize more with his neighbors who show him for what he truly is. By the end of the film, he is sore and weary and without a loving family or home but we really don’t feel much remorse for him despite the dramatic music and chilling rain.