Robert Rossen directed a black and white film adaptation of All the King’s Men in 1949. This picture was considered the kind of “serious” effort, complete with heavy-handed social commentary, that Hollywood ought to produce regularly, and it won the Academy Award for Best Film. Broderick Crawford, as Willie Stark, and Mercedes McCambridge, as Sadie Burke, both won Oscars. Despite its apparent success, the film has not aged especially well. In spite of a good performance by Crawford, the self-conscious direction lacks the expansive openness and vulgarity that the saga of Huey Long seems to demand. The script-obliged to condense and cut Warren’s novel-focuses inevitably more on the Stark character than on Burden.
A better adaptation is Warren’s dramatic version of the novel which opened in New York in October 1959 and which was published in 1960. Warren pares the story somewhat but retains all the main characters of the novel, developing an episodic but intense dramatic tragedy presented with a minimum of props. The drama adds a new character, “the Professor,” who begins by presenting a textbook view of Willie Stark as an evil demagogue who gets his well-deserved punishment. Warren then sends Jack Burden to the stage to protest the Professor’s conventional view and to become the narrator and chorus of the action. The drama unfolds swiftly and relentlessly, and Stark’s residue of humanity and idealism is brought into focus as much as his pragmatism.