(On Cable TV, August 2017) As frustrating as it can be to write this, Live by Night should be a much better movie than it is. From afar, it looks like a solid crime epic, spanning years and going from Boston to Florida as a gangster juggles love, crime, social prejudices and warring crime lords. The historical recreation of 1920s Boston and Sarasota is often mesmerizing, Ben Affleck has proven himself to be a capable director and the film can rely on good supporting performers like Elle Fanning, Zoë Saldaña and Chris Cooper. In bits and moments, Live by Night works well: There are a few very good sequences as the bullet start to fly and antique cars go crashing down dirt roads. Seeing criminals sock it to KKK Klansmen is also a sure crowd pleaser. But as a whole, it doesn’t click. It feels long and occasionally meandering, as it tries to bring together a crime story with various other items than don’t necessarily flow well together. Has Affleck gone back once too often to crime drama? Or was the source novel by Dennis Lehane too sprawling to adapt to the screen? I’m not sure, but the frustrating result does no one any favours—especially not Affleck, who gets a dud after three back-to-back successes. Here’s hoping that his next project will be better.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) I don’t think I have fallen asleep during this film, but on the other hand so little happens through it that I can’t be sure. Adapted from a shorty story by Dennis Lehane, The Drop concerns itself with an unassuming man stuck between warring organized crime lords, trying to rescue a dog and keep his job at the local bar when that bar, used as a money drop, is brazenly robbed. Pay attention to “adapted from a short story”, because The Drop feels like a fifteen-minute segment of a longer story stretched over an entire feature film. The rhythm is maddeningly slow, and Tom Hardy fails to do much more than growl and be underestimated. Meanwhile, Noomi Rapace’s role feels a lot like the one she had in Dead Man Down. There is an overall feeling of empty familiarity about The Drop that makes it feel far longer and duller than it should have ben. There’s a thing about making gritty dramas, but sometime, they end up too gritty and unpalatable as a result.
(In theaters, February 2010) First five minutes: Promising direction by Scorcese. Last fifteen minutes: Pretty much the same as in Dennis Lehane’s mind-bending thriller. In-between: Your reviewer slept through a terrible headache. Consider this a placeholder for a real review coming shortly.
(In theatres, March 2010) As suspected, staying awake during the film does improve the experience quite a bit. While I can’t see the film anew without any idea of what’s coming (first having read Lehane’s novel, then having caught the big end revelations during my first sleepy viewing), it’s not such a bad way to evaluate the film. Even knowing the ludicrousness of the underlying premise, the film is still satisfying: it’s a brilliant illustration of what a skilled director like Scorsese can do with pulp-thriller plotting. There are, as it turns out, plenty of subtle and unsubtle clues about the real nature of the film even from the get-go, and the filmmaking itself is compelling: The cinematography is clean, the scenes move well, the actors are interesting and the stormy atmosphere, so important in thriller, is all-powerful. At times, it feels like a realistically-presented waking nightmare, and that’s already quite a bit better than the average cookie-cutter thriller. The premise is still as aggressively nonsensical as it has even been, but that doesn’t matter as much: Shutter Island is an engaging thriller built upon a flimsy foundation, and it works a lot better than a flimsy thriller built upon an engaging foundation. Even those who feel “spoiled” by knowing the film’s twist may end up liking it better than those who come at it perfectly cold.
Harper, 2004, 400 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-73186-X
(Experienced as an abridged audio book, read by David Strathairn) Harper Audio, 6 hours (abridgment approved by the author): ISBN 0-06-055417-7
I have always been dubious about audio books. Why waste X number of hours listening to someone reading a book when you can spend even less time reading the perfectly serviceable paper original? Given my speed of reading, my dislike for abridgements and my right to flip forward or backward whenever I like, audio books always come up short when compared to the real thing.
But what happens when you can’t read? Faced with the prospect of at least a week of reading downtime following an impending laser eye surgery, I decided to use audio books as a lifeboat, a way of keeping sane at a time where I wouldn’t even be able to see properly. My first selection was Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island: I could use a good crime thriller as an easy “read”, and I thought I knew what to expect after Lehane’s Mystic River.
The setup for Shutter Island is immediately familiar. It’s 1954 and Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall, is on a boat headed from Boston to Shutter Island, an isolated strip of land with a lighthouse and an insane asylum. Daniels and his partner are there to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a murderous inmate who somehow managed to slip away from her cell. But as the investigation evolves, things aren’t as they appear on Shutter Island: Things don’t match, people lie, strange clues accumulate and Daniels begins to suspect that there’s a lot more to the story than just a missing patient. What’s more, it all seems to involve him.
The days following an operation involving painkillers are, so put it nicely, not entirely rational. Your first impulse is to sleep, and so you pass the next day or two in bed, slipping in and out of slumber. Now add to that a paranoid thriller in which Dennis Lehane does M. Night Shyamalan and you’ve got a recipe for one seriously weird “reading” experience.
I usually speed-read thrillers at a pace of nearly two hundred pages per hour, so being restricted to a narrator’s cadence can be both maddening and revelatory. Lehane can write, that’s for sure: His turns of phrase and the way he sets up his scenes are interesting, and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of the prose had I ended up reading the book the traditional way. On the other hand, things can get a bit too long. Six hours to listen to a book I’d read in 120-150 minutes? In most circumstances, I’d say no thanks.
It’s made even worse by the lop-sided way the plotting is handled. After a fantastic build-up, the Big Twist is revealed at around the end of the third cassette, leaving one more cassette to go. That last cassette is spent listening to the intricacies of The Twist, even as we readers don’t need to be convinced. Then, just as you think all is wrapping up, there’s another fifteen minutes of needless flashback as Lehane laboriously explains the real story, a real story that we readers didn’t need to be told after all of the clues left throughout the novel. This may be an area where the abridgment may be at fault (It’s possible that the last quarter of the novel was left untouched), but I doubt it: It’s likely that Lehane, as a rational mystery writer, is ill-equipped to handle twists best suited to fantastical stories.
But even with this problem, Shutter Island is a fine paranoid thriller, with enough buildup to hold the reader’s interest throughout. Definitely not the same thing as Mystic River, but that’s not a problem.
As far as the audio book is concerned, I truly enjoyed David Strahairn’s narration: He manages to give distinctive intonations to most characters, up to a point where you wonder why they didn’t simply give in and make this a radio play. While being oddly pleased by the experience, I’m sticking to my original opinion: While audio books are better than no books at all, they’re no replacement for the real thing.
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.