And that said, the focus of this piece is pretty narrow, dealing mostly with just one aspect of the movie vs. the book. But a major one.
***SPOILERS AHEAD – DO NOT TREAD BEYOND THIS POINT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE OR READ THE BOOK***
There are several differences between the novel and the movie. But the main thing is that the book is a pretty straight-forward story about a psychopath who murders for fun, if not profit. In the book, he’s a novelist who sponges off his uncle…and worse. The movie (written by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, and directed by Nicholas Ray) is about a screenwriter with a temper and poor impulse control, to say the least. He’s a war hero. A previously successful screenwriter trying to get his mojo back, though I doubt that’s a term he would recognize.
In the book it’s pretty straight-forward. He’s guilty—he’s a psychopath who gets off on killing. In the
The novel is, to me, a much more straight-forward story about a serial killer and a more overt bad guy. He’s a psychopathic killer, no doubt about it. In the movie, we’re just not sure. That makes all the difference, especially in his relationship with Grahame. The movie is more ambiguous and with a more ironic ending. Because of this, in my opinion, the movie works much better and seems to strike a fuller chord. However, maybe when the book came out dealing with this psychopath it was more shocking and in turn seemed to have more depth than I see in it today.
Also, in the movie, Dix Steele is much more complex with many more layers to his personality. We like him or at least want to like him. But it’s hard, just as Laurel finds it harder and harder to like him, and especially trust him as time goes on and she sees the dark sides of his personality. We relate to Laurel’s dilemma and find ourselves going along with her and doubting Dix’s truthfulness. We start to believe he really is the killer. We judge him and convict him in our heads just like Laurel does. And we eventually realize how wrong we were as we and Laurel discover the truth.
In the end, Dix and Laurel’s relationship is destroyed by doubt, fear and distrust, even though he’s innocent, because she’s seen that other side of him. And even though Dix Steele doesn’t turn out to be the killer, this is far from a Hollywood happy ending. Very far from it.
The movie takes the basics of the book and adds an ambiguity that leads to a much more bittersweet and poignant story and ending than in the book. So this is a case where the filmmakers did change a certain essence of the story, but it works out for the better.
The movie is noir in the sense that Bogart is tripped up by his own Achilles Heel, his fatal flaw. To me, the thing that most makes something noir is not rain, not shadows, not femme fatales, not slumming with lowlifes. It’s a character who trips over their own faults: somebody who has some kind of defect, some kind of shortcoming, greed, want or desire…temper or insecurity, that leads them down a dark path, and then his or her life spins out of control because of their own weaknesses or failings. Here, Dix is innocent, but a loser, at least in a sense, and will always be a loser. His personality has driven away the one woman who really loved him. Love loses here too, as does Grahame’s character. Her inability to completely trust and believe in Dix leads to her losing what would have been the love of her life. It’s this ambivalence that make it a better movie than book, at least for me. There is, of course, much more to say about this movie, but my point in this piece is just to point out why I like the movie better than the book.
Dix and Laurel love each other, but they can’t be with each other—summed up in some famous lines from the film:
I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a
few weeks while she loved me.
Ultimately both versions need to stand on their own and they do. But for me, the bottom line is: I’d say: Good book, great movie.
Also, here are some pictures from my book signing last week with Pam Ripling at The Open Book in Valencia:
And my radio interview at KHTS AM 1220. Click here for the podcast.
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