Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Book Review: Marathon Man by William Goldman; the Original Novel (Macmillan, 1975), Basis for the 1976 Movie

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

After an announcement about the exclusive interview with Darwyn Cooke over on The Violent World of Parker – conducted by VWoP supremo Trent and myself to mark the publication of Cooke's latest graphic novel adaptation of a Richard Stark novel, The Score – it's back to the books which begat perhaps more famous films. And as with Alistair MacLean's Where Eagles Dare, Elmore Leonard's Mr. Majestyk and James Dickey's Deliverance, this next novel was actually adapted for the screen by its author. Unlike Messrs MacLean, Leonard and, to an extent, Dickey (he's as celebrated for his poetry as much as for his prose), however, the author in question this time is probably better known as a screenwriter...


First published by Macmillan in the UK in 1975 – the year after the Delacorte edition – under a dust jacket designed by Stan Fernandes, Marathon Man was William Goldman's ninth novel. Even by the mid-1970s, though, Goldman was already arguably achieving greater fame and attracting more acclaim and plaudits for his screenplays than for his prose; his adaptation of Ross Macdonald's The Moving TargetHarper, 1966 – had amply demonstrated his way with snappy dialogue, while his original screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) had netted him an Academy Award. And two years after initial publication, Marathon Man would itself be turned into a film, again scripted by Goldman.


Now, I must admit that before picking up this first edition of Marathon Man – which I spotted in the window of a Lewes antiques shop – I didn't realise there was an original novel, let alone that it had been written by Goldman; I always figured Marathon Man had been written for the screen. So it was a pleasant surprise to find there was a book, and an even more pleasant surprise to discover that the novel is even better than the movie.


In terms of plot, the two are almost identical: Thomas Babington Levy – "Babe" to his brother Henry, whom he calls "Doc" – a student and aspiring marathon runner hoping to write a thesis that will clear his father's McCarthy-muddied name, falls for a beautiful fellow student who, astonishingly (to Babe), falls for him too ("It was his fate, he knew," Goldman narrates in the novel, "to fall in love with Venuses and marry a plugger with a face like a foot"). Meanwhile, in Europe, an American assassin named Scylla finds he himself has become a target for assassination. These two strands intertwine when Doc turns up at Babe's apartment having been stabbed, dying in Babe's arms, after which Babe is abducted and tortured by a Nazi dentist named Christian Szell – a (fictional) former associate of Josef Mengele – who inflicts excruciating levels of pain by drilling into Babe's teeth whilst repeating a question: "Is it safe?"

If all that comes across as a little confusing, that's because I've left my synopsis intentionally oblique in case you've never seen the movie of Marathon Man – unlikely as that may be. Directed by John Schelsinger and starring Dustin Hoffman as Babe, Roy Scheider as Doc and Laurence Olivier as Szell, the film has become infamous for that aforementioned torture scene, but there's much to recommend it besides – the three leads' performances for one, and of course Goldman's sparkling script. But pretty much everything that's great about Goldman's screenplay has its basis in the book, which additionally benefits from its breathless style of prose: dialogue and description tumble across the page in a frantic fashion, as if the story flew from Goldman's fingertips and it was all he could do to rush to get it down on paper.

Moreover, because it's a novel and not a movie, Goldman is able to withhold the identity of Scylla until halfway through the book; obviously having already seen the movie adaptation, I knew who Scylla was, but even given that, I was able to appreciate the level of suspense Goldman maintains. And the ending is different too: Goldman has expressed his frustration at being made to tone down the finale – reputedly at Hoffman's insistence – and has also lamented the loss of a much earlier, violent scene from the novel which grants added insight into Scylla's psyche (although I must admit that Wikipedia's suggestion that a murdered character was Scylla's lover rather flew over my head).


Interestingly, Goldman wrote a belated sequel to Marathon ManBrothers (1987), which apparently somehow resurrects the deceased Scylla, and which, if this note is anything to go by, sounds completely bonkers. Having enjoyed Marathon Man so much, though, I'm kind of minded to give it a go, and maybe one or two others of Goldman's novels as well.

Moving on, and we're staying with the villainous Nazis for our penultimate book-and-movie, in which, having only been mentioned in passing in Marathon Man, Josef Mengele takes on a starring role. But more than that, the film adaptation once again stars Laurence Olivier, this time playing an aging Nazi-hunter rather than an aging Nazi...

22 comments:

Adam said...

Ah, William Goldman. I've not read any of his novels, but his non-fiction book about life as a screenwriter, Adventures in the Screen Trade, is an absolute classic (the belated follow-up What Lie Did I Tell? is not as essential, but still great).

His famous maxim about Hollywood actually applies pretty well to many aspects of life in general I find: 'Nobody knows anything.'

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

I forgot to mention Adventures in the Screen Trade (which I still haven't read, despite constantly quoting that maxim), so thank you for that, Adam!

Bill Crider said...

I've read a lot of Goldman's novels and loved some of them (especially THE PRINCESS BRIDE), but BROTHERS bites the moose.

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Hahaha, right, thanks Bill, consider me duly warned! I was reading up about The Princess Bride whilst "researching" – I use the term loosely – this post, and it does look interesting. Mebbe I'll give that a go instead of Brothers.

AlistairMacLean.com said...

I still haven't gotten around to reading The Princess Bride, but it's one of my three favorite movies, with an endless supply of wonderfully quotable dialogue. So, whether or not you read the book, see the film!

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

I think I might have seen the film, but a long time ago – certainly long enough that I can't remember much about it. But I'm intrigued by the reported metatextual monkeying about in the novel.

Sextonblake said...

Read MARATHON MAN many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I've a mind to track it down, and perhaps some other of Goldman's books. I remember MM as being part of that very 70s type of paranoid thriller where you really can't trust anyone. Whilst he has done some smashing film scripts, I've always thought that it's a shame that he more or less dropped the novel writing, as he obviously has a real skill for it.

John said...

Great movie. I saw this with my Dad when it first came out. It was the first R rated movie I ever saw in a theater and had to go with him as I was two years shy of the age limit (17 at the time) which was hugely enforced in my Connecticut hometown. Getting carded at the movies was a humiliating thing when you were too young and refused entry. I remember squirming during the sex scene. Not very fun having your stern Catholic father sitting next to while watching athletic simulated sex between Dustin Hoffman and Marthe Keller. I turned several shades of red. Never read the novel. I'll skip the sequel based on Crider's assessment. I don't think much of MAGIC (book or movie) either. Too much rehash from 1950s and 1960s TV shows about disturbed ventriloquists.

Let me guess: the next post will be on a book by Ira Levin and alludes to a country in South America.

faithful researcher said...

I read "Brothers" when it was first published. A very bad book and not in a good way. Full of padding and digressive episodes and not much plot. Something to do with terrorists using exploding children to start WWIII.

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Sexton: Yes, it doesn't appear as if he's written another novel since Brothers. Mind you, from what people are saying about that particular work, that might not be such a bad thing...

John: I did have my eye on a first edition of Magic in a Lewes secondhand bookshop, but I wasn't sure if it was my cup of tea. Based on your assessment, I think I'll pass. And yep, got it in one.

FR: Right, that's nailed it – I'll give Brothers a miss.

Jason said...

Well, I enjoyed Brothers. In fact, I've read it three times, I think. I admit It's a crazy bugf*ck of a thriller, but Goldman keeps you turning the pages to see what crazy thing will happen next. I'd say it's definitely worth checking out, but then I've read and (mostly) enjoyed all Goldman's books from The Princess Bride onwards. Magic ain't so good, but you should also try Control, and of course, The Princess Bride - which is superb.

Great Darwyn Cooke interview, by the way.

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Oho, a difference of opinion on Brothers. Well now I'm totally confused. To read, or not to read...?

Thanks, Jason! Glad you enjoyed it.

sloopcity said...

I think i've read all of Goldman's novels. I think Boys and Girls Together was ahead of its time and has been much copied. Control was great as we Princess Bride. Magic got out of hand. As to Brothers, I loved the beginning and I've sort of forgotten the rest of it. I love a book that starts out on an isolated island....

Chris said...

I saw The Princess Bride movie several years before I read the novel, and as fun as the movie is, the book is a revelation. Far far deeper, and funnier as well, but there's so much sadness in it. Goldman really keeps you guessing as to whether he's pulling your leg about this being a real book his dad read him as a child--and there' other references to his personal life that you can't believe anyone would put into a book like this--only is he putting one over on you there as well?

It's a rousing yarn, and a rumination on the promises and disappointments that make up life in any era.

And I believe you can still write to his publisher to get the famous reunion scene omitted from the published work. I did, and I was not disappointed. Or was I? ;)

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Right, well I make that two votes for Brothers and two votes against – but plenty of votes for The Princess Bride. Contrary sod that I am, though, I'll probably end up reading Brothers rather than Bride...

Brian Busby said...

I've never been keen onThe Princess Bride - novel or film - though I do like a good percentage of the Goldman oeuvre. I recommend, without reservation, Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow and Boys and Girls Together. At 623 pp, the latter is a bit of a doorstopper, but well-worth the investment.

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Thanks for that, Brian. A dissenting voice on The Princess Bride! Of course, the question remains: is it safe? No, wait, I mean: what do you make of Brothers...?

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I'll also chime in for a quick defence of BROTHERS, which is certainly a peculiar sequel, right from its resurrection of Scylla, to a story that (like his earlier novel CONTROL) more than borders on science fiction in some respects and which has a crushing, cruel finale that is admittedly very typical of the author. You mention how the book manages to keep Scylla's identity secret in a way the film can;t - Goldman expands on this technique on the sequel several times and pulls a number of very neat reversals in the process.

Incidentally, the concluding parts of the movie adaptation were re-written by Robert Towne, which may help explain some of the differences with the original novel.

Brian Busby said...

Louis, Brothers ranks amongst the Goldmans I've not read. That said, with Sergio's comment it has vaulted to the top of my "must read" list. Any book described as "peculiar" is a book for me!

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Me too, Brian. Seems the critical consensus is swinging round in favour of Brothers!

Sergio: thanks for the Robert Towne info. I didn't know that.

faithful researcher said...

I gave "Brothers" another go recently, and it's not much like I remember it. Rather subdued. Like a sub-par Quiller novel. But apart from the digressive, padded first quarter, the rest is a very smooth, pleasing read. Glad I gave it another go. But be forewarned, more than half the book is "set-up".

Sergio is right about the "crushing, cruel finale". That alone makes the book worth reading.

There's even a grisly sub-plot that Goldman seems to have "borrowed" from Thomas Harris's novel "Red Dragon" (played up in the sequel "The Silence of the Lambs").

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Sub-par Quiller doesn't sound too bad, FR, and that finale sounds intriguing too. Ta for that!