L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy

Mysterious Press, 1990, 496 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-89296-293-3

Faithful readers of these chronicles will remember that I had finally seen L.A. CONFIDENTIAL shortly after it was re-released in February. Given my reaction (“…as enjoyable as a good book… triumph of storytelling… masterful script… excellent performances… L.A. CONFIDENTIAL gives me back my faith in cinema.”), it was only a matter of time until I broke down and read the book.

So, when I had the chance to buy a (very bruised, very tattered, very cheap) first hardcover edition, I didn’t hesitate and plunked down the change.

No regrets.

Opinions about book-to-movie adaptations are usually uniform: People prefer the book, are disappointed by the movie and hate the unnecessary changes the scriptwriters thought necessary. In the worst cases, the entire message of a book can be completely perverted by the adaptation, not to mention the novel’s storyline.

So, it’s a surprise to notice that in the case of L.A. Confidential, they not only made significant changes, but that they work.

Both versions of the story are about crime and corruption in Los Angeles during the fifties. Three cops must unravel a complex cover-up and learn to deal with each other: Bud White, a thug who likes to impose his justice on wife-beaters. Ed Exley, a straight-arrow policemen with dark ambitions. Jack Vincennes, Hollywood junkie and no stranger to the occasional bribe.

The novel L.A. Confidential is huge and takes place over an eight-year period. The movie has an unspecified duration of about six months. Two of the three main characters are considerably less honourable in the book. The “dead father” subplot has been added to the movie, while entire chunks of the book are missing from the film. A significant character loosely based on Walt Disney is completely gone. The orders of certain event has been switched around, as well as who did them.

Given this, it would be natural to believe that the movie has no resemblance to the book any more. That’s not far from the truth: Save from the opening sequences and the final scene, the film adaptation takes considerable liberty with the material.

But what remains is the noir atmosphere, the attitude itself of corrupt cops, flawed protagonists, seedy crime and burgeoning California that permeates the book. James Ellroy’s sparse but incredibly dense style is the same one used in the movie. Despite the complexity of the tale, only a few rough spots exist.

As a crime novel, L.A. Confidential deserves the term “epic”. It mixes together cops, criminals, Hollywood, politics and real-estate development. At least three separate crimes are intricately mixed up together. It features a breadth of characters that’s hard to match elsewhere. Ellroy has attempted big, and mostly succeeded.

However, it might be a good idea to see the film first. Not only does it clears up the opening of the book considerably (and gives you the impetus to go forward), but it’s sufficiently different to keep you surprised throughout.

In fact, I think I will take the heretical position of saying that I like the movie storyline more than the book: It’s more focused, offers more thematic closure and is probably more enjoyable as a movie than the novel is as a book. As William Goldman said in his March 1998 “Premiere” article, the final eight minutes are unnecessary, but it’s still a great movie. The screenwriters fully deserve their Best Adaptation Academy Award: They have produced a very complex yet gripping work of art from another work of art.

Whether you’ve seen L.A. CONFIDENTIAL or not, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is still strongly recommended for crime fiction fans. Don’t miss it!

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