Warner, 1998, 498 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60262-0
Anyone with the slightest interest in how badly Hollywood can botch a book adaptation has to take in account Clint Eastwood’s 2002 take on Michael Connelly’s Blood Work. While I’m sure this is hardly a unique case of a screenwriter savaging an original work, BLOOD WORK has the particularity of featuring not only a completely new ending (a common enough event in cinematic adaptation) but a brand-new villain! Indeed, the identity of the serial killer is switched from one character to another from book to movie, along with the villain’s family name just to make things even more confusing. The result, as you may expect, is a bit of a mess, bringing down a rather good novel to the level of a predictable crime thriller.
In light of this, reading the novel after seeing the movie can be a very interesting experience.
The initial premise stays the same, mind you: A convalescent detective (Terry McCaleb), recuperating from a heart transplant, is asked to investigate the murder of his very own organ donor. Mix in a romantic entanglement with the client, (the sister of the donor), a steady accumulation of clues as well as a sadistic serial killer who just won’t quit and you’ve got yourself a delicious little crime thriller.
Alas, other aspects are decidedly less endearing. The various nauseous double-entendres about hearts, blood, love and whatnot are tiresome, and so is some of the romance between McCaleb and “the client”. Feel free to be queasy as you see fit.
Also less successful is the exasperating ending, which was thankfully shortened in the movie. Rather than wrap up the book in a timely fashion, we get an entirely new act in isolated Mexico. The movie’s wrap-up may have been indistinguishable from dozen of other movie shoot’em ups, but at least it had the merit of being over in five short minutes.
Fortunately, Connelly’s writing is fluid enough to make even a padded ending still feel interesting. His writing is crisp, flows well and has an eye for detail. The novel usually hits its stride whenever it turns to the purely procedural elements of the plot. Our protagonist’s forays in the workings of the organ donor system, his careful examinations of crime evidence, his intuitive leaps of logic are easily the most fascinating elements of the book.
It adds additional interest that McCaleb is a convalescent detective. Unlike the usual manly, two-fisted private detectives that usually drive crime thrillers, McCaleb needs a driver, can’t get too worked up and has to consult a medical specialist before engaging in strenuous activities. I’ll bet you haven’t seen that elsewhere in crime fiction. The biggest difference between the book and the film, and the biggest mistake made by the film, isn’t the ending or the different identity of the serial killer, but the nature of the changes made to McCaleb. Whereas he’s a portly forty-year-old in the novel, production concerns dictated that the protagonist of the film became none other than seventy-years-old Clint Eastwood. (It’s hard to say no when he’s also directing the film) This completely modified the impression left by the story on-screen, where we’re more liable to worry about Eastwood slipping and breaking a hip than having a heart attack. The various action scenes gratuitously thrown in the script also didn’t help the film’s credibility given the condition of the protagonist. One thing is for sure: you won’t read about McCaleb firing a shotgun at a speeding car in this novel, no sir!
None of this matters, of course, if you’ve never seen the film. All in all, you’re still better off reading the book. The story slowly gives way to a pretty cool twists (which most seasoned readers will see coming, but is still pretty nifty nonetheless) and the wealth of procedural details is fascinating in its own right. Blood Work is worth a look regardless of the movie tie-in. After all, it surely doesn’t come across as any surprise to learn that the book is usually better than the movie, right?