01 October 2014
Virgins in the Volcano
Today I saw A Walk Among The Tombstones, the new movie based on one of Lawrence Block's novels about Matt Scudder. It was good, and you should go see it if you don't mind some blood and guts. Block called it "a thriller for grown-ups," and the New York Times called it "intelligent pulp" (I'm working from memory in both cases) which sort of captures it. It's grim, it has lots of suspense, and it doesn't force you to suspend disbelief to the point where you will strain yourself.
By that last I mean it doesn't rely on unexplained connections and bizarre coincidences, like so much that passes for TV/movie crime stories. We get to see Scudder doing the legwork to piece the story together and if the final link is made by someone else, it is at least completely in character.
If I don't seem to be overflowing with enthusiasm, I guess I'm not. The fact is, I think private eye stories tend to work better on the page than the screen, because of their very investigatory nature. To make that work on the screen the B-level characters need to be deeply interesting. (This one picks up considerably when Scudder's young "associate," T.J. shows up).
But that's not actually my main point. It is almost always a depressing thing to see a movie made from one of your favorite books. Partly because it can't precisely match the film in your head, partly because Hollywood genuinely tends to do horrible things to good books. For example, A Walk Among The Tombstones is Citizen freaking Kane compared to the earlier movie about Matt Scudder, Eight Million Ways To Die (based on a much better novel, in my opinion).
Jim Thomsen recently pointed out an anecdote that is mentioned in the new Library of America collection of some of Elmore Leonard's novels. Apparently Leonard got very upset over the movie version of his novel Stick. His friend Donald E. Westlake - who had a reason or two of his own to complain about Hollywood - said to him: "Dutch, why do you keep hoping they'll make good movies out of your books? The books are ours; everything else is virgins in the volcano. Be happy if the check cashes."
Another example of that philosophy: someone supposedly told James M. Cain it was a shame what Hollywood did to his books. He replied: "They haven't done anything to them. They're right there on the shelf."
At the other end is former screenwriter Sue Grafton who refuses to sell ther Kinsey Milhone books to the movies. She claims she is well-respected in Hollywood, because they haven't been able to purchase her. Once their books have been acquired writers tend to be extremely unloved by the studios. I recently read an old interview with Harlan Ellison in which the multi-award winning author claimed to have received a phone call from a producer's secretary, apologizing that her notes on his script were late. That was when he found out that everyone in the producer's office, including the secretary, had been invited to critique his work.
Here's my favorite example of what goes wrong between a book and a movie: Gregory MacDonald's award-winning Fletch. The book revolves around two crimes: a businessman who wants to hire someone to kill him, and a drug ring. These separate events have precisely one point in common: the apparent homeless man who the businessman picks to commit the murder is actually an undercover reporter investigating the drug ring.
Nice and simple. A single coincidence that the whole plot hangs on.
In the movie, there is a second coincidence (spoiler alert) and it's a doozy: the businessman ALSO happens to be the head of the drug ring! Because in 1980s Hollywood every businessman had to be a crime boss. When I saw that happen in the theatre my eyes rolled so hard I'm surprised they didn't tumble down the aisle. Thank heavens nothing like that happens in A Walk Among The Tombstones.
To end on a more cheerful note, and to give you something to argue with, here is a list of my ten favorite private eye movies. It is possible that after I think about it for a year or two Tombstones might muscle its way in.
The Big Sleep
Farewell My Lovely
The Late Show
The Maltese Falcon
Put your own alternatives in the comments.