Tag Archives: Chuck Hogan

The Town aka Prince of Thieves, Chuck Hogan

<em class="BookTitle">The Town</em> aka <em class="BookTitle">Prince of Thieves</em>, Chuck Hogan

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.

The Town (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Town</strong> (2010)

(In theatres, September 2010) Who would have thought that barely seven years after the nadir of Gigli, Ben Affleck would re-emerge as a significant director of Boston-based crime dramas?  Strange but true: After wowing reviewers with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck is back with another Boston thriller in The Town, this time taking a look at a gang of professional bank robbers as one of them begins a relationship with an ex-hostage of theirs.  Deceptions accumulate alongside complications as the gang keeps planning heists, the FBI is tracking them closely and the lead character wants out of his own life.  It’s the complex mixture of crime, action, romance and drama that makes The Town work, along with a clean direction, a good sense of place and a few capable actors.  Jeremy Renner is once again remarkable as a hot-headed criminal, whereas Jon Hamm gets more than his fair share of good lines as a dogged FBI agent.  The script feels refreshingly adult, full of difficult entanglements, capable performances and textured moral problems.  The adaptation from Chuck Hogan’s novel is decent, although most readers will be amused to note that a movie theatre heist has been replaced by something else entirely.  More significant, however, is the flattening of the FBI agent character and the far more optimistic conclusion of the film –in the end, the movie feels more superficial in general but also more satisfying in its closure.  The Town isn’t flashy, though, and this may be what separates it from a longer-lasting legacy.  No matter, though: it’s a good a satisfying film, and one that confirms what Affleck is now capable of accomplishing.

The Strain, Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

<em class="BookTitle">The Strain</em>, Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

Morrow, 2009, 401 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-155823-8

Any review of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain can start from an embarrassing number of attention-grabbing hooks: The celebrity stunt-writing aspect; the resurgence of the evil-vampire breed; the post-9/11 New York setting; the first-book-in-a-trilogy angle.  They all compete for attention, obscuring the fact that the book reads like an average middle-of-the-road horror novel with techno-thriller overtones.

It would be easy to focus exclusively on Guillermo del Toro, who’s one of the finest genre horror director currently working.  Few others combine his rich fantastical imagination, his writing abilities and his strong visual abilities.  But his obvious influence on The Strain seems limited to two things.  First: how the vampires have a striking similarity to the ones in del Toro’s own Blade 2.  Second, how his name alone seems to have added 5$ to the book’s cover price for a shoddily-made hardcover.  Otherwise, one would assume that the book has been written in more or less the same way as other celebrity collaborations: Ideas and concepts from the celebrity, actual writing from the below-the-line writer.

The resurgence of the evil vampire as an antagonist is only noteworthy thanks to a blip in popular culture that, from Lestat de Lioncourt to Edward Cullen while passing through a good chunk of the paranormal romance genre, has momentarily de-fanged the vampire in quasi-genre literature.  One notes, however, that most of this vampiric denaturation has occurred at the borders of the genre, and not too often within horror itself: The “return of the evil vampire” was never needed for core horror fans.  Still, del Toro and Hogan make no secret of what they’re trying to do in this novel: As vampires land in Manhattan, it’s time for a zombie epidemic scenario featuring blood-suckers.

The post-9/11 setting offers a few more interesting critical opportunities, especially considered within the book’s techno-thriller affections.  From the Dracula-inspired opening sequence in which a Boeing 777 lies immobile on the JFK tarmac with only four survivors left inside, The Strain co-opts some of the techno-thriller tricks to heighten its depiction of an initial vampire outbreak.  We get short chapters alternating between many narrative viewpoints.  We get tons of historical and technical details weaved into the fabric of the story.  We even get historical flashbacks explaining back-story, familiar characters, one-off vignettes in which the viewpoint character ends up dying horribly and use of landmark locations in action set-pieces.  (Or, as it happens, the use of former landmark locations in action set-pieces.)

It may be familiar, but it works well: The opening sequence is creepy in part because it explains so patiently how official authorities would react to a supernatural mystery.  The picture that del Toro and Hogan end up creating of modern New York feels convincing, and does much to distinguish this novel from others in the same pack.  The use of thriller plot mechanics also allows the story to tackle a bigger canvas than other horror novels, which is practically a necessity in this avowed first volume of a trilogy that seems headed for global apocalypse.

This potential for scope and breath, however, remains the most distinctive element of a novel that remains overly familiar in its other aspects.  If the vampire/zombie hybrids feel as if they stepped out of Blade 2, the human characters also seem to come out of Central Casting: Give me an overworked divorced scientist, a wizened holocaust survivor and a level-headed blue-collar worker! The entire narrative thrust of the novel is just as ordinary, down to the convenient “kill the head of the vampires and the rest will die” plot device.  The inevitable ending is also predictable from the moment we understand that this is the first volume of a trilogy.

The good news are that the first volume does set up a promising follow-up, and that the novel is solid enough to please horror fans looking for an uncompromisingly gory take on the vampire genre.  The Strain is forthright enough to announce that the two other volumes in the trilogy, The Fall and The Night Eternal, will be forthcoming in June 2010 and 2011.  Hopes are that they will take the story in more original territory.

[October 2010: The Fall is a decent follow-up in that it continues the story is pretty much the same way, using pretty much the same characters and monsters.  While the apocalyptic atmosphere is stronger, the techno-thriller detailing isn’t as strong.  Traditional narrativus interruptus is typical for a second-volume-in-a-trilogy.  Recommended for fans of the first book, although it won’t make new converts to the series.]