Harper, 2010 movie tie-in reprint of 2009 original, 328 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-171304-0
Repo Men can be said to be a dark satire about the flesh and the inner rot of hyper-capitalism, but looking at its movie adaptation and then at the source novel, I can’t help but see both versions of the story as being about tone, the slippery literalization of metaphors and how easy it is to ruin a story by telling it badly. Because even though the novel and the movie share the same creator, (many of) the same characters and (many of) the same plot beats, I hated the film and thought the novel was an enjoyable piece of work. How did that happen?
First, the commonalities: In a not-too-distant future, artificial organs have become reliable and sophisticated enough that people don’t make much of a fuss in getting rid of their natural internals and getting better ones. There’s a catch, of course: said organs are so expensive that they require financing, and if ever you don’t pay, well, the financing company feels completely justified in ripping them out of you.
(Yes, this is a very similar premise to Repo! The Genetic Opera, which has clear antecedents over Repo Men in having been an off-Broadway play about a decade ago. But then again, there are examples of that idea in a number of older SF stories, so let’s stop claiming idea paternity. High concepts aren’t unique diamonds that can be discovered once and thereafter only stolen: Writers can come to the same conclusion from different sources of inspiration, and as this review will keep hammering home, it’s all in the execution rather than the premise.)
It’s not difficult to come up with a few objections to the organ-ripping nonsense: There’s the slight issue of murdering people by removing their innards that defies a bit of common sense even in a satirical future. But here’s one crucial difference between novel and movie: Whereas the novel can gloss over the messy business of organ extraction with a few wry sentences and allusions, the director of the film felt it necessary to show the removal in all of its glistening gory glory, along with a smirking narration that felt more psychopathological than amusing. That’s one way to turn off an audience in less than five minutes and never get them back.
Prose, for all of its deficient audio-visual qualities, is actually quite a bit better at presenting satire, context, justification and depth. So it is that even after disliking Repo Men quite a bit, I found myself enjoying Garcia’s novel even as it covered the same ground as the film, except with quite a bit more detail and a number of significant changes to the third act.
(It would be handy to criticize the film for being a ham-fisted hack-and-slash job on the novel, but the real story, as revealed in the movie tie-in edition’s afterword of the novel, is more a case of parallel development. This being said, I suspect that films become worse when they’re developed over years of studio interference, whereas novels can only benefit from their writer’s sustained vision. Still, it is surprising to find out that the film is quite a bit darker in its ending than the book. This may be a first.)
Readers coming at Garcia’s novel without preconceptions will find an energetic, tangentially-told dark satire. The narrator’s story keeps looping back to his marriages, his war experiences, his anecdotes as a Repo Man, the events that have landed him in such a desperate situation, and what happens after that. Happily, this isn’t a confusing novel even as it hops all over the entire life of its main character: the narration is crisp, the voice of the narrator is enjoyable and the reading experience is top-notch. As Science Fiction, the details don’t quite make sense (which is to be expected from a satirical novel by a writer seen as working from outside the genre), but this isn’t quite enough to harm Repo Men’s odd charm.
The lesson may be that I’m a far more lenient reader than a viewer: Perhaps I’m more patient with dense novels than simple movies. But perhaps it’s also a lesson in how too much is too much, how a dark smile works better in written fiction than on a screen where there’s little wiggle room left to imagination. But the result is the same: Eric Garcia may have scripted the adaptation of his own novel, but the book is clearly the winner here. At the very least, it’s got all of its original guts.