By Mike Knowles
I’m sure you’re aware that we Do Some Damagers decided to take part in one of the most celebrated, and hated, Christmas time activities—the Secret Santa. Instead of a low budget gift, we all screwed each other with difficult blog topics.
My topic, probably from McFetridge, is a tough one because I’m not a movie guy. I’ve seen a lot of stuff, but movies aren’t something I’m into at the moment. In the last few years, I’ve found a lot of television that is as strong, if not stronger, than movies and I have devoted a lot of time to the little box as opposed to the big screen. But Secret Santa rules are rules so let’s give the devious title provider, McFetridge, his due.
Most crime movies that were once books suck hard. There are exceptions. Dennis Lehane seems somewhat immune. Mystic River was good, Gone Baby Gone was better. Shutter Island has Scorsese at the helm so I figure that will be good too. Another crime novel turned movie I liked was Out of Sight (one of the only really good Elmore Leonard adaptations). What all three of these movies have in common, if I remember them correctly, is that they worked hard to stay true to the source material. There weren’t a lot of add-on characters, change in time or locales, and the events stayed the same.
It’s when filmmakers start making changes that the train goes off the tracks. I’ll give an example, Payback. As a loyal Stark devotee, I was pumped about the idea of The Hunter again coming to the big screen. It wasn’t the book’s first trip to the silver screen—it showed up as 1967’s Point Blank starring the always cool Lee Marvin. Payback didn’t stay true to the book in a lot of ways. First and foremost, Parker changed. The character suddenly had feelings and connections. He liked people. Right away, the movie and the book separated. The main character, and everything that made him who he was, had divorced. Parker is one of the greatest crime fiction anti-heroes. He likes no one, and cares about nothing but his own self-preservation. In the movie, Parker has a girlfriend, and a sort of puppy love thing going on—it could not have sucked more.
The movie did keep a lot of the Stark written material in terms of events and cool scenes, but there were a lot of add-on’s. Some were to deal with the movie’s current setting, other’s seemed to be added on to create more action. The other most significant change was the end of the movie. Parker winds up being tortured and he somehow manages to endure the pain long enough to pull off a one in a million solution that belonged more in a Rambo movie (not the first one, the third Rambo where he fights with the Afghans and blows up helicopters with a bow and arrow) than in a Stark adaptation. Stark never wrote ridiculous scenarios. Parker was a methodical planner. Stark often compared him to a contractor who did a job with no feelings about it. As such, there were never Ramboesque scenes, just Parker getting the job done with ruthless efficiency. The end of the book was way better than the movie, because at the end of the book Parker walks away without the money. The reader learns a mean truth—life is harder and more cruel than Parker. In the movie, Parker and his lady drive off into the night with the money and each other—happy ending (never saw one of those in a movie before). The movie versus the book was like Gary Cherone Van Halen compared to David Lee Roth Van Halen. You gave the former a chance because the latter already proved itself time and time again.
I think the fault of a lot of crime novels that turn into movies lies in the fact that often no one knows how to adapt them. Think of it in terms of space. The physical universe is modeled on three dimensions—length, width, and height. Movies are a universe presented in two dimensions—sight and sound. Novels, however, aren’t constricted to this concept. They introduce a third dimension of thought that cannot be depicted on film as well as it can on the page. Often in movies, a lot of extra dialogue has to be written by a third party to compensate for the inability to convey the numerous thoughts and feelings expressed by a character on each page.
Crime novels are more complex than most people give them credit for. There are a lot of thoughts and emotions at play and these elements are crucial because they are the motivation for how characters act and react. Often when screenplay writers are confronted with a character like Parker, they are stumped. Without access to the third dimension, screenplay writers feel compelled to recreate the character as something else. Maybe there were countless meetings that went long into the night and the consensus was that the real Parker couldn’t transfer to the screen well. Maybe they thought the movie would never work if it strictly adhered to the book. I doubt that’s true. I think, given a better shot by someone more in touch with Stark and Parker, he could have made a much better character than Mel Gibson’s Porter. Example, No Country For Old Men was a book which involved numerous characters who were not long on talking. But the Cohen Brothers found a way to make everything work in the two dimensions they had. They didn’t screw with the source material, they instead used the two dimensions of flim creatively and they weren’t afraid of a little less talking and action.
I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that what happened with Payback has happened to a lot of other crime novel adaptations. A lot of them were good books that just ended up in the wrong hands. So I guess the person who gave me this topic, McFetridge, was pretty much right "No good ever comes from turning a crime novel into a movie."