Most disappointing adaptation you'll see all week: Nightmare Alley

Title Most disappointing adaptation you'll see all week: Nightmare Alley
Author Tom Chick
Posted in Movie reviews
When January 6, 2022

The wrong way to watch Guillermo del Toro's adaptation of the 1946 novel Nightmare Alley is by reading the book first. Because then you'll be one of those tedious "the book was better...!" people.

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I just listened to an interview with del Toro about the movie. He says he accidentally bought the book a few days before the original came out, and when he heard there was a movie, he didn’t think it could be adapted in Code-era Hollywood.

I, too, am One of Those People who will read the book before considering if I should watch this.

I’m curious to watch the 1947 version only to see how much it was compromised. I know @Sonoftgb referenced it’s “redemptive ending” in another thread, but I can’t imagine how that worked. The whole structure of the book and del Toro’s movie is “rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle”, with the emphasis on the fall as a moral consequence for everything he’s done. If they scrap the moral consequence and give it a happy ending, it’s a very different kind of story.

I would love to hear from someone who saw this without any preconceptions. I’m guessing it works just fine as a slickly shot period piece with some fun performances.

@salty-horse, when you say del Toro accidentally bought the book a few days before the original game out, you can’t mean the original movie? Del Toro isn’t that old!


Oh, you’re right. I didn’t check the years. He meant that he discovered the book a few days before learning there was a movie. Link to podcast section

I’ll be happy to oblige when I have a way to watch it. As soon as it hits HBO Max or Netflix or something I’ll give it a go.

Another one of my favorite performances is his tiny role in a horror movie called Case 39, where he plays a child psychologist who meets his match in the form of a demon-possessed girl. She floors him when she sums him up with a single word: facile.

Yeeeeesssssss! I love that scene. The rest of the movie, not so much, but that one bit is terrific thanks mostly to the use of the word “facile” and the way the kid scolds Cooper’s character.

“You’re a grown-up. It’s embarrassing.”


It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but as I recall, in the original film shortly after Stanton is reduced to working as a geek, the “good woman who really loves him” (I forget her name) find him and take him home, to a presumably happily-after after.

“David Straithern” [Strathairn]
“Cooper is proud of her [his?] career”

Thanks, @Mercanis! I can’t believe Strathairn’s name wasn’t flagged by my autocorrect. The man is obviously not famous enough yet. I suppose he needs to do a few more Godzilla movies.


I am also one of those people who has already read the book, which I can recommend.

Haven’t seen the movie, but I can’t really see del Toro, particularly latter day del Toro, as a good fit for the story or for noir in general. Yes, del Toro likes dark shadows, but there’s usually a light in there. Recent del Toro suggests that if you look in the shadows you’ll find, not a grim reflection of humanity, but your sexy fishman lover.

Awesome performances aside, I still don’t know what to make of Shape of Water. But I really admire Crimson Peak. I love that del Toro just straight-up made a 100% conventional, by-the-numbers, straight-up, no mixer, Victorian ghost story. I can’t imagine there was much of an audience for that sort of thing, which makes del Toro’s commitment admirable. So I was hoping for some sort of all-in commitment to Nightmare Alley’s tone?

But maybe you’re right that noir just isn’t his thing. I can imagine there was a time it might have been, even as recently as Pan’s Labyrinth, which doesn’t shy away from politics or brutality (although it does keep them mostly as bay). I guess I also miss the Guillermo del Toro that didn’t have any compunction about murdering adorable street urchins in Mimic. I doubt we’ll see that del Toro again.


Sorry to burst the author’s bubble but murder and especially suicides we’re not uncommon during the spiritualist craze. The reasons were exactly what occurred in the movie. That was one of the reasons Houdini spent so much time debunking the practitioners.

It’s also obvious Gresham never actually spent time traveling in a carnival. Getting your background material from one person is iffy at best. I spent a couple of years traveling with one before I went to college. Granted it was after geek shows were long gone but lifetime carni’s have always been people that didn’t fit very well elsewhere. They were a mix of good and bad but the defining characteristic was a sense of unity and belonging. I heard stories about the times Gresham described from older carni’s that were there and I would say 20% was reasonably accurate, the rest over dramatized.

Ripping off the locals was not considered bad because it was an us against them feeling.
Drinking and some drugs were not uncommon but it was far from the endless dark and depressing atmosphere he described. There were bad days but also some incredibly good ones. Hard work but also great times getting together after close and spending time together, as long as we were not doing break down.

Gresham had some serious mental illness issues after the war and it seems to have colored his perceptions and writing.

I read the book, and it does have a surprising amount of carnie solidarity. E.g. Zeena sticks with Pete even after he is a wreck, Joe is consistently solid and helpful, Zeena and Joe try to help Stanton out even after redacted redacted, Bruno is fine, Clem Hoatley is fine, Molly is fine. Really the only bad apples in the group are Stanton himself and the Painted Sailor. Major Mosquito is half and half. So it doesn’t seem any morally worse than your average group of software devs, and it’s certainly morally better than your average group of lawyers.

I can see it now: Nightmare Alley re-imagined for the 21st century - in Silicon Valley. Call Netflix!

Watched it tonight, and was really engaged the whole time. I have not read the book nor watched a trailer. I loved the old Carnivale show on HBO (2 seasons), and my only preconception is that I am fascinated of the setting/era (the dust bowl).

Cate Blanchet is not from this earth, I did not know that “geek” shows were a thing. Toni Colette was impressive, wonderful. I did not know where it was going, but Stanton’s arc was pretty interesting to me. And maybe it was not an actual arc, because he was corrupted from the start, but we did not know that.

Maybe I don’t have such a high movie standard, but this was the second time that QT3 failed me. I liked this a lot and Don’t look up, too. Guys, I almost missed them. I watched a lot of shitty movies in my life, but Nightmare alley wasn’t one of them.

It felt a bit like a Cohen brothers movie, where the main character is bad and gets worse. And this Stanton guy, he’s like having a deep hole in his heart/mind (as Molly said), where does it come from? I am not sure I want to read the book, it could be a drag …

This discussion makes me want to see the movie. I haven’t read the book or seen the original, so I’ll be going in pretty much blind. The cast sounds pretty amazing, so it can’t be that bad, can it?

no it is not! It is an excellent movie about interesting times.

This is now up on HBO Max.

We just watched it last night and I fall in the same category. I knew nothing going in and took away that it was a decent watch. An amazing film? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not better than a whole ton of stuff out there. I get where Tom and others are coming from if it’s worse than the book. I will say this, VERY FEW movies are better than the books they are adapted from. So why judge a movie based on just the adaptation?

There are a few things that annoyed me as they seemed a little out of place, but the characters were well done, the acting was also well done, the sets and scenery were amazing as was the color and the noir shooting of it. Small scenes popped with the directors focus on specific colors. Guillermo did the same in the Shape of Water and I enjoyed it there too. As an example, Molly’s red dress later on absolutely drove you to watch her in the scene, as did several other small uses of color in the shots.

Again, I don’t mind if someone has a problem with a movie after reading a book. This book in question is from 1946, so perhaps those of us who haven’t read it can be forgiven our mortal sins, and for also enjoying this movie.

I’ll defend Tom on this, because what else can he do? He can’t flashie thingie himself and forget the book if he already read it. You can’t help it. That’s the reason why I didn’t enjoy the first Jurassic Park in the theater, I had just gotten done finishing the book the week before. I WISH my experience had been to forget the book and just appreciate the movie for what it did, but the mind doesn’t work like that.