Mystic River, Dennis Lehane

Harper Torch, 2001, 448 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-73185-1

Books are usually better than movies; that’s not a revelation. But reading Mystic River after seeing the film may provide the clearest illustration of why this is so. Hint; it’s all about bandwidth, baby.

The first mistake in comparing cinema with prose is using mis-matching examples. Bad books novelized from bad films. Great books that end up being sucky films. Good books that are adapted in good movies that are completely different from the source. No, comparing the two requires an adaptation that is as close as possible to the original material. Needless to say, there aren’t many of these: For some reasons (usually money, insecure production personnel and the perils of collaborative endeavours), film adaptation usually bear only a passing resemblance to the original material. Endings are different. Characters are concatenated. Subplots are eliminated. Only very rarely do you find an adapted film that adheres to the original. It’s even rarer to find a good movie that stays true to a good book.

MYSTIC RIVER is all that. Scripted with great skill by Brian Helgeland, it does an astonishing job at following the novel almost scene by scene, beat by beat. It’s exceedingly rare to find such fidelity, even more unusual to find that both versions are excellent. (Helgeland himself is no stranger to adaptations, though his 1997 take on L.A. Confidential is a perfect example of a good book turned in a great film that is nonetheless very different from the source)

There’s no doubt about it: Mystic River is a great story, on the page or on film. A rich crime drama featuring complex characters and heart-wrenching choices, Dennis Lehane’s story escapes from the strict confines of crime-fiction by studying the effects of a murder on the victim’s friends and family, not strictly through the lens of the investigating sleuths. There is a mystery to be solved (and entertainingly so, should I add), but it’s not the main focus of the story. It’s the fragile relationships between three old friends, the environment they live in, their grief and their misguided attempts at justice that end up providing a quasi-tragic feel to the story.

Anyone with a good grasp of the mystery genre already knows about the book’s reputation or the honours received by the film. There’s no need for me to say that it’s almost an essential piece of genre fiction. Just read or watch it already.

But for literary film geeks like myself, reading Mystic River after seeing the film is a breathtaking demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of cinema as an art-form. Given the fidelity of the story, it’s easier to see what, in the background, makes the two ways of telling the story so different.

To put it simply, the book’s 450 pages allow for a deeper understanding of the story. There is simply more information given about the characters’ state of mind than on the screen. It may not be so atmospheric nor so immersive (It’s easy to sit and watch the film, giving it two hours and a half to just flow without conscious effort), but it certainly communicates the author’s intention more effectively. In On Writing, Stephen King memorably refers to writing as a crude attempt at telepathy. Here, it’s obvious that the prose gets to the marrow of the characters more efficiently that the complicated narrative mechanics of a film. It wouldn’t have mattered in an action-driven film (oh, why don’t you go read the Godzilla novelization?), but it’s absolutely crucial in a story that takes some much time and effort fiddling with its characters as Mystic River.

Even for fans of the film, the book delivers an entirely new experience; it’s like getting the real story behind the story, with all of its ramifications, historical antecedents and complicated motivations. Suddenly, sketchy movie moments become iconic representations of messy situations. None of that should be a knock against Helgeland, director Clint Eastwood or any of the talented actors involved in the making of the film. It should just be seen as a honest, all-cards-on-the-table comparison between two ways of telling the very same story.

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