Sunday, December 27, 2009

"No good ever comes from turning a crime novel into a movie."

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."


Sam said...

Brian Helgeland, who adapted L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, directed Payback. Apparently Mel Gibson took it away from him and added the feel-good stuff and the torture scenes at the end.

Anyway, Helgeland got a chance to fix that, and the original film is out as Payback Straight Up: The Director's Cut. It's much more true to the book, it cuts out the Kris Kristofferson character and the torture completely, and the end is actually bleaker than the novel. Highly recommended.

Paul D Brazill said...

That Gibson loves a bit of torture, doesn't he? Pervy, I reckon... The Godfather is a better film than it is a book. Jacky Brown is a better film than it is a book. LA Confidential is probably a better film than it is a book.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think both versions of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE were pretty good films. MILDRED PIERCE wasn't bad. REAR WINDOW was as good as the source material. As was PSYCHO. THE THIN MAN is charming if not as compelling. IN COLD BLOOD was pretty terrific. On the whole, I think many crime novels are turned into better movies than literary novels because they have a plot. LAURA is another one.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Ajh, you were given a bum deal. As already mentioned a lot of great movies came out of crime novels--The Godfather, Jackie Brown, LA Confidential, Thin Man, Cold Blood, Psycho are excellent examples. So are Maltese Falcon, Asphalt Jungle, The Big Sleep, Kiss Me Deadly, The Lady Shanghai and so many others of the great film noirs. And even when a filmmaker veers widely from a great book, like Altman did with The Long Goodbye, they can still end up with a great film. But the greatest good that can come from turning a crime novel into a movie--even a bad movie like Blood Work, is what it can do to the author--as I heard Michael Connelly say, regardless of how bad Blood Work might have been, because of that movie he was able to quit his day job.

Max Allan Collins said...

But POINT BLANK is a great film, and a nice take on Parker via Lee Marvin. That film probably kept the Parker novel franchise alive when it would have gone the way of most pulp. THE OUTFIT is also a terrific Parker film, straightforward where POINT BLANK is stylish.

This is a fairly ridiculous premise to have to defend. Among the already mentioned great films from novels that are outstanding (ASPHALT JUNGLE and KISS ME DEADLY among them) there are many, many others -- THE KILLING comes from A Lionel White novel, Peckinpah's THE GETAWAY from a Jim Thompson novel (maybe not great but worthwhile), NIGHTMARE ALLEY from a Will Lindsay Gresham novel, GET CARTER froma Ted Lewis, THE BIG SLEEP and MURDER MY SWEET from Raymond Chandler, and on and on.

Even the acknowledged great micro-budget B by Edgar Ulmer, DETOUR, came from a Martin Goldsmith novel. W.R. Burnett, by the way, wrote many scripts for great films of his -- Burnett adaptations including LITTLE CAESAR, HIGH SIERRA, and the aforementioned ASPHALT JUNGLE. My favorite crime film, GUN CRAZY, came from a story written by my fellow Iowan, MacKinley Kantor.

I am very happy with ROAD TO PERDITION from my own work, and the recent THE LAST LULLABY (from my novel THE LAST QUARRY; I co-wrote the script).

Chris said...

I'd call No Country For Old Men a crime novel, and I think I preferred the movie to the book as well.

Mike Dennis said...

And let's not forget THE GRIFTERS, which was virtually a scene-by-scene recreation of the book, leaving much of the original dialogue intact, thereby underscoring Mike's point.

Steve Weddle said...

You can blame me for the topic, Mike.

Nice work getting folks chatting about this. Some really good points here made about some movies I now plan to watch or re-watch.

Anyway, nice work, Mike.

And thanks for stopping by during the holidays, folks.

Now I gotta find out who to blame for the topic I ended up with.

Bryon Quertermous said...

The worst thing you can do to yourself when watching a movie is compare it to the source material. I liked Payback quite a bit (and I liked the director's cut even more) but I had to seperate the books from the movie.

I think Get Shorty is one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations because it fixes some problems that were in the book. Same with Devil Wears Prada and Legally Blonde (yeah, tough crime movies I know).

last year's girl said...

This post made me giggle for reasons the Weddle has already elaborated on. Man, I love being the evil DSD puppetmaster.

Mike Knowles said...

This post was totally worth it. Sure one of my idol's, the only source of new Spillane, and the man behind the great crime movie Road To Perdition wrote a comment that was pretty much longer than my post refuting most of what I said and made me feel uneducated about crime movies and their book roots. But, on the positive side, I have no questions about what to rent over the next few months.