Why aren’t you afraid?
Why did I watch it?
It was @jameskpoulter put me on to the Matt Scudder books many years ago. The Sins of the Fathers didn’t grab me at the time, but I re-read it more recently and appreciated the dialogue and the atmosphere, which count for far more than the plot. I read a couple more Scudders and enjoyed them.
In September I discovered another of Lawrence Block’s series – the Bernie Rhodenbarr stories. These concern a gentleman burglar – he is literate (he runs a bookshop and always discusses a particular author and I appreciate his choices, who include one of my favourites, Robert B. Parker, and Sue Grafton – although I have a suspicion this is mostly for the title gags, eg. ‘A is for Train’ or ‘I is for Claudius’). These are very funny whodunnits and I’ve been devouring them. I’ve also discovered his Evan Tanner series – Ambler-esque stories featuring the globe-trotting exploits of a man who can no longer sleep.
Anyway, this new enthusiasm for Block means I have been burning through the Scudders, too. I just finished book 10, so I thought I’d check out the film adaptation.
Did it meet expectations?
It’s not only adapted but directed by Scott Frank, who also adapted one of my favourite films Out of Sight along with another excellent Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty. Expectations were high.
It stars Liam Neeson, but my in my head Scudder is somewhat more William H. Macy.
In reality: the reverse. This is a terrible adaptation, but Neeson is probably the best thing in it, and comes very close my notion of Scudder.
The book itself is slightly problematic, in that at this point in the series, Block seems to have become very focused on extremely sadistic villains. It’s graphic in its nastiness in a way that the earlier books are not. The film, unfortunately, majors on the sadism, and loses all of the elements that I think characterise the Scudder series. Perhaps that’s because hanging around and chatting in bars isn’t so visually compelling when you’re making cinema. But I can see no excuse for losing some of the best characters in the book, and in particular, transforming TJ from a witty, savvy and extremely capable youth into a sulky and rather dull juvenile.
Tombstones is the second book TJ appears in but it’s the first where he has a major role. He makes two contributions to solving the case but in the film he’s basically excess baggage. In the book Scudder gives him $500 and he spends $200 of it on a pager, which Scudder thinks is a waste of money.
“Cemetery’s weird, man. I can see havin’ a stone, tells who’s underneath it, but some of ’em has these little houses an’ all, fancier than they had when they alive. Would you want somethin’ like that?”
“Me neither. Just a little stone, don’t say nothin’ on it but TJ.”
“No dates? No full name?”
He shook his head. “Just TJ,” he said. “An’ maybe my beeper number.”
The beeper turns out to be indispensable. But in the film, it’s Scudder who buys TJ a mobile phone (the film, inexplicably, is set 7 years later than the book, in 1999). Even though Scudder has no understanding of the technology, the initiative for some reason cannot be TJ’s.
In the book, TJ literally reflects on a silly movie trope when he witnesses the exchange in the cemetary:
“Then I thought, if this here’s a movie, what I do is slip in the back an’ hunker down ’tween the front an’ back seats. They be puttin’ the money in the trunk an’ sittin’ up front, so they ain’t even gone look in the back. Figured they go back to their house, or wherever they gone go, an’ when we got there I just slip out an’ call you up an’ tell you where I’m at. But then I thought, TJ, this ain’t no movie, an’ you too young to die.”
“I’m glad you figured that out.”
This is literally what happens in the movie. They seem determined to go for the obvious clichés. For example, the incident where a child is killed by Scudder’s bullet occurs before the first book, but Scudder doesn’t stop drinking until several books in – but the film has to have it on that very day.
Another crucial missing character is Elaine Mardell. The development of the Scudder/Mardell relationship in the book is what leavens the horror of the crimes, but she also plays a valuable role in finding a surviving victim. The surviving victim, however, is also written out. As a result, the only women who actually appear in the film are dead. (Frank apparently cast a woman as Scudder’s police chum Durkin, but then cut out all of her scenes).
Also missing from the film are the Kongs. They’re great characters, but deserve to have been included just for the name TJ refers to them by:
“The Kongs,” he said. “Jimmy and David.”
“Ain’t no family resemblance far as I can see. Jimmy Hong is Chinese and David King is Jewish. Least his father is Jewish. I think his mother might be Rican.”
“Why are they the Kongs?”
“Jimmy Hong and David King? Hong Kong and King Kong?”
I have various other gripes (why, for example, have the Palestinian victim and her Lebanese husband been made white?) but essentially, at this point, the story has been robbed of all of its atmosphere, wit and its redeeming romance. Not worth watching.
You should watch it if…
- You’re a Liam Neeson fan (he’s much better than the film)
- You’re curious to see a Block adaptation (and can withstand the disappointment)
You shouldn’t watch it if…
- You want to see a good Block adaptation.
Next up: La La Land (2016)