Adapting Evil

download.jpgOne of the most common and clichéd questions in reading groups is, Which was better: the book or the movie? In order to retain your elitist card you must unhesitatingly announce, The Book, of course! But it’s not always true.

Many times the authors, even though their books are quite good, tend to spread the narrative loosely over several characters and numerous scenes; they might even throw in a secondary plot or two or a particularly juicy love interest. Then when they go to make the movie they discover that all the by-the-page profits from the original publisher are never going to cover the extra cost for film and self-absorbed actors, so the writer of the movie script might combine a few characters or scenes, eliminate extraneous material which is not needed to advance the narrative, and hopefully create a tighter, more marketable product for the Silver Screen.

images.jpgMy go-to example of just such a successful adaptation is the movie Hud with Paul Newman, Brandon De Wilde, Patricia Neal, and  Melvyn Douglas. A great movie with three of its top stars winning Oscars. Hud was based on the novel Horseman Pass By by Larry McMurtry. Although the film followed the book to an extent, the movie script reassigned much of the dialogue to fewer characters and fewer scenes. This, in my opinion, allowed the themes and sentiments of the novel to be more focused and therefore more powerful. Read the book and watch the film and see if you agree with me that the film was better than the book.

Today I had the interesting task of comparing a recent read—The Badge of Evil— with the last great Film Noir by Orson Wells—Touch of Evil—based loosely on the aforementioned book by Whit Masterson. First let me say that The Badge of Evil was not a Noir but it still was a pretty good book despite the silly ending. I did feel that Masterson’s book was more suited to an episode of Law and Order than to a Noir film, but in the hands of Orson Wells, it worked just fine.

images-2.jpgBefore iterating some of the modifications made to create the unique screenplay, let me announce that I’m going to expose the narrative and give away the ending, so if you want to read the book and watch the movie first, please do so. The film, especially, is worth watching over and over.

The basic story of the book is that of a successful Assistant District Attorney in an unnamed city that looks a lot like San Diego who is not quite comfortable with the conclusions being developed in a murder-by-dynamite case. Two sure-fire veteran cops are brought in to investigate and they rapidly solve the case with incontrovertible evidence. But the Assistant DA pokes around some more and finds another suspect who confesses to the murder. But there was incontrovertible evidence?

Now the DA suspects the evidence was planted and maybe these old hot-shot detectives have been salting their cases to assure convictions all along. From then on the story reads like a Grisham legal thriller until the bad guy is caught.

images-1.jpgOver at the movie show Wells has turned the story into a greasy, murky Noir played out against the background of a small Mexican border town. Two things stand out which do nothing to further the plot: first, Charlton Heston plays a Mexican detective, replacing the Assistant DA (although that DA is still a part of the narrative, his central position is supplanted by Heston). I’m sorry but I can’t take Heston as a Mexican, especially when he is overly made-up next to a very white Janet Leigh. In black and white he was practically in blackface. The second non-plot element to watch for is a complete catalogue of DeSoto automobiles from the late 1950s roaring around the streets of Tijuana arcades and oil derricks.

Here are three small points of difference I noted. First, the planted evidence was right up front: Heston knocks an empty shoebox off the shelf in the bathroom, the police go into the bathroom and bring out that same shoebox with two sticks of incriminating dynamite. Second, when the character with the same name as the confessed murderer from the book is spotted on the screen at the construction site where the dynamite was stolen, he flinches but is never heard from again (he didn’t do it in the movie). And third, the wife in the book is Mexican whereas the husband (Heston) is Mexican in the film.

images-3.jpgThe one change that threw me was the shift of the crooked cop from one of the partners to the other. Having seen the film many times before I read the book, it was natural to assume the character who was overweight and walked with a cane, as Orson Wells did in the film, was the real bad guy. It didn’t work out that way in the book but for the movie Wells, who admittedly better matched the character, made Quinlan, the good cop who begins to doubt the honesty of his partner, into the bad cop, and the partner theme is minimized until the final shoot-out.

So, two stories developed from the same idea, if you will: uncovering police corruption. Although Badge of Evil is good fun, it’s real value is that it spawned one of the greatest Noir films and gave us Orson Wells in his most despicable role.



5 thoughts on “Adapting Evil

  1. My go to example are the Agatha Christie novels! Which, as I live in Torquay, I hear quite enough about, the TVs adaptations are much better fleshed out in the BBC to series than the Poirot novels. I read the books as a teen, but on rereading in my fifties I realised the poor plots and limited characterisations, faults that seem to be amended in the TV series. The only other film that approaches the book, although not exceeding it is that of Hardy’s “Far the Madding Crowd” with Julie Christie. The book is wonderful, and the film excellent. However, the different genres mean that one must judge them both by different values. Hence, I normally prefer the book, as it has my pictures, not those of the casting team and the director.


    1. Interesting. I am prompted to ask two questions: First, are film adaptations better received when they are based on relatively unknown works, and second, do adaptations of well-known (even beloved) works create more controversy?

      Of course the quality of the film adaptation is most important (well, right after the selection of the leading actors) whether the piece is well-known or not, but a lesser known work would not result in the knee-jerk controversy and often elitist poo-pooing. And, as you point out, movies are a completely different genre from books.

      I concentrated on drama (literature) in Graduate School and thinking about it just now, most adaptations are making movies out of plays, but there are many examples of turning novels into plays. I suspect we would see a great deal of modification and editing during this process since the conventions of the novel differ considerably from the conventions of the stage.


      1. I agree, the stage or film does somethings superbly well especially action and dialogue. However, fiction has its own strengths. Film can’t depict internal thought, except as a voiceover, which always seems a clunky convention to me. There is also the issue of how to depict on
        film long works such as “War and Peace” or “Les Miserables”. Both have been attempted, but seem to fail when compared to the novel, even although they can work remarkably well. If we judge them by their own standards. I suppose the thing to do is to just judge a film by its own standards and a novel by its own, resisting the urge to compare apples with pears, neither is better, just different. We should compare film with film, novel with novel. Do they work as art in their respective arenas.


    2. Pears are the Colley Cibber of fruit! Peaches are the avatar of the trochee all over the world (and very juicy too). Apples and my dentures are just too antagonistic.


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