Scribner, 2010 movie tie-in re-edition of 2004 original, 364 pages, C$18.99 tp, ISBN 978-1-4391-9650-2
Sometimes, I wonder if movie adaptations somehow ennoble their source material. Having been made subject to multi-million dollars films and subsequent marketing campaigns, source novels may be given a patina of respectability that would have completely escaped them had they stayed un-adapted. Even unconsciously, readers may be tempted to approach them in a better frame of mind. The movie provides images and sound to the novel’s prose, and so readers may feel as if they’re reading with a subtle wind at their back: they can easily picture characters, read through scenes knowing the overall shape of the plot and enjoy the extra richness of detail that comes from having access to non-spoken exposition, inner monologue and evocative prose. Reader who, like me, have a habit of holding off on books until they’ve seen the movie always benefit by getting more out of the novel after the movie rather than being disappointed by film after the novel.
Those screen-to-page comparisons usually work best when the adaptation is reasonably faithful and when both film and book are worth a look. Pairs like Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves and Ben Affleck’s The Town, for instance. Renamed on-screen, most likely to avoid any confusion with memories of Kevin Costner’s 1992 Robin Hood film, Hogan’s novel is decently adapted, with enough differences to make happy viewers out of happy readers and vice-versa.
Set in 1996 Boston, Prince of Thieves studies a professional bank robber named Doug MacRay, a once-promising hockey player who has since recycled himself in the criminal underground as the planner of elaborate bank robberies and armoured-car assaults. Hailing from the North-shore neighbourhood of Charlestown, Doug and friends are the kind of robbers who do a job every few months, supplementing their cover jobs with extra cash. But as the novel begins, one member of the group decides during a heist to take hostage a young manager named Claire, a decision that puts extra pressure on the FBI’s robbery unit to track them down and leads Doug to check up on the freed Claire days after the robbery. Romantic complications soon ensue. Doug, as it turns out, really wants to escape the criminal lifestyle… but first he will have to come clean to Claire, and find a way to leave his friends behind.
Criminal thrillers are a dime a dozen, but Prince of Thieves is better than most. Its most obvious advantage would be the satisfyingly complex plot, which mixes friendships, romance, drama, thrills and procedural details about bank robberies. Hogan can rely on a plot that allows him to touch upon a number of sub-themes, and the novel is compelling for the way the characters are stuck between mutually contradictory emotions as they try to manoeuver between their loyalties and their true desires. It’s a rich, old-fashioned narrative, occasionally peppered with a few action scenes. The criminals moving the novel forward are experts at what they do, and so are the FBI agents tracking them: the result is a detailed look at the state of bank robberies as of 1996, perhaps the last great era for grabbing physical money.
Hogan can write as well as he plots, and there are a number of turns of phrase in Prince of Thieves that are good enough to appreciate on their own. His writing isn’t pared-down, but it’s straightforward and evocative. Needless to say, the novel has a strong lower-class Boston-based atmosphere that ties the characters and plotting together. It’s the written equivalent to a well-edited film: it just flows forward, rewarding the audience along the way.
Comparisons between both forms of Hogan’s story will note that the film is lighter on technical explanations, and for some mysterious reason avoids replicating the movie theatre robbery that is one of the book’s standout sequences. Much of the structure of the book is otherwise kept intact, save for a greatly reduced subplot involving the FBI agent character. Both versions of the story end up with a daring robbery at Fenway Park and a thrilling chase down nearby streets. The one significant difference that audiences are likely to remember, however, is that the film has a vastly more optimistic ending –one that delivers full satisfaction on the story’s central emotional conflict. Seeing the film will allow readers to select their own favourite ending, which is another unfair advantage for adapted works: It’s easy to blend both takes in memory and think about a hybrid version that incorporates the best dialogue, the most striking moments and the most satisfying ending. When a good novel begets a good film, it’s like getting the best of both medium… and there’s no artificial ennobling involved.