Friday 29 June 2012

Mr. Majestyk by Elmore Leonard (Dell, 1974); Book Review, Original Novel, Basis for the 1974 Movie

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

From one 1974 Charles Bronson-starring movie and its original novel, next in this series of posts on books which begat perhaps more famous films we turn to another 1974 Charles Bronson-starring movie and its original novel – or, perhaps more accurately, novelization...

First published as a paperback original in the US by Dell in 1974, Mr. Majestyk is Elmore Leonard's adaptation of his own screenplay for the same year's Bronson-headlining, Richard Fleischer-directed Mr. Majestyk movie. I found this copy of the Dell edition in the basement of the fine Cecil Court secondhand bookshop Tindley & Chapman, along with another, earlier Elmore Leonard paperback original, one which I'll be blogging about down the line, and which shares with Mr. Majestyk a similarly monikered – but unrelated – character.

Though it's true that Mr. Majestyk (the novel) is, in effect, a novelization, it's also true that it's one of Elmore Leonard's best books. It's a long time since I've seen the movie, but I don't remember it being anything other than a pretty decent action flick – an estimation borne out by this contemporaneous New York Times review (although that review strikes me as being a little too dismissive). Leonard's novel, on the other hand, is short, taut, lean, and moves like a well-oiled machine.

The story centres on Vincent Majestyk, a melon farmer eking out a meagre living in the dusty midwest. Vincent is confronted by a hood named Bobby Kopas, who tries to foist a crew of inexperienced melon-pickers on Majestyk instead of the more skilled migrant workers Vincent usually uses. Rather than capitulate, Majestyk thumps him and sends him and his men on their way, and is promptly arrested. In jail awaiting a bail hearing, Majestyk meets mob hitman Frank Renda, and gets caught up in Renda's escape attempt; after unsuccessfully trying to turn Renda over to the cops, Majestyk finds himself beset by both Kopas and Renda – along with Renda's right-hand man, Eugene Lundy, and assorted hired thugs – leading to a violent climax.

Mr. Majestyk was only Elmore Leonard's third crime novel – prior to 1969's The Big Bounce he'd concentrated exclusively on westerns – but even by this stage his distinctive tone and style was firmly established. I've written before about his seemingly effortless storytelling – see, for example, this review of his most recent novel, Raylan (2012), or, more appositely, this post on Pronto (1993) – and that sublime and unique sense of a tale being told is present and correct in Mr. Majestyk. But Leonard's genius also resides in his handling of characters, and in the way he can elicit sympathy for even the most unsympathetic of players.

Of course, the "good guys" are compelling too, simply and deftly defined with just the merest hint of background (brief recollections from Majestyk of his time fighting in the jungles of Asia; Vincent's foreman, Larry Mendoza's loving family; Nancy Chavez, with whom Vincent becomes involved, and her hard life as a drifter and union organiser); but Leonard spends just as much time, if not more, on the "bad guys". Frank Renda in particular is a fascinating creation – cold, calculating, and yet troubled by doubts over his effectiveness as a killer, driven to pursue Majestyk even though common sense (not to mention his lawyer and mob bosses) dictates that he should leave well alone – but even Kopas and Lundy (who, curiously, share in common with Renda five-letter surnames) are given space to live and breathe, so that when their ultimate fates unfold, it's oddly touching.

I've been asked a couple of times recently where the best place to start is with Elmore Leonard; I've duly directed said interested parties to to his 1990 masterpiece, Get Shorty. Actually, though, on reflection, I reckon Mr. Majestyk is just as good a place to dive in: if you don't "get" Leonard after reading this one, you probably never will.

Next in this series of posts: another film from 1974, this time a cult car chase flick inspired by – but in fact markedly different from – an obscure early-1960s crime novel...

Thursday 28 June 2012

Death Wish by Brian Garfield (Hodder & Stoughton, 1973); the Original Novel, Basis for the 1974 Movie

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

The two movies I've spotlighted thus far in this series of posts on books which begat perhaps more famous films – Where Eagles Dare and Jaws – are at least the equal of their source texts, and arguably better. But of course, that's not always the case with book-to-film adaptations – rarely the case, even – as this next novel amply demonstrates:

This is the British first edition of Brian Garfield's Death Wish, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1973 – the year after the US David McKay edition – with a dust jacket designed by Jefferson Godwin. I nabbed this copy at last year's London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair, for the princely sum of nine quid – which, considering the cheapest Hodder first on AbeBooks at present is twenty quid, with the remaining five copies ranging from £95 to well over £200, was quite the bargain. 

Death Wish wasn't Brian Garfield's first novel – he'd had over a dozen published prior to Death Wish, a mixture of crime works and westerns (a number of them pseudonymous) – but it was the first of his books to be filmed. That film, directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey (Paul Benjamin in the book), was released in 1974, and would become notorious for its perceived glorification of vigilantism, with a quartet of sequels appearing in its wake. It's a long time since I've seen the movie, but I don't remember it being terribly good, and I certainly don't recall it possessing any of the depth of the original novel, which is a powerful, pacy meditation on loss, bereavement and revenge.

Unlike the comparatively toned and svelte Bronson of the film, the Paul Benjamin of the book is a middle-aged, overweight New York accountant (Bronson is an architect in the movie), and where Winner visualizes the opening assault on Paul's wife and daughter – throwing in a rape for good measure – in the book the attack happens "off-page". The first Paul hears of it is via a phone call from his son-in-law, and when he eventually learns of his wife's death at the hospital, he plunges into a spiral of rage and depression, frustrated at the police's inability to find the attackers, reduced to drifting about his apartment or aimlessly walking the streets of Manhattan.

It's not until halfway through the book that he starts to actively seek out trouble, fending off a knife-wielding kid using a kosh made of coins and then, in the closing stages of the novel – and having acquired a gun during a business trip to Arizona – embarking on a murderous spree. But there's no sensationalizing here: Garfield doesn't shy away from depicting these shootings as the squalid, sordid affairs they are, and leaves us in no doubt as to how damaged and increasingly unhinged Paul has become. Though there are glimpses of approval from the press, the public and the police, Paul's taking the law into his own hands is self-evidently a symptom of his grief and madness, thrown into stark relief by Garfield's extensive detailing of Paul's ordinary, humdrum day job.

Garfield went on to pen a further twenty-five or so novels after Death Wish, including Gangway! (1973), a collaboration with his friend and poker buddy, Donald E. Westlake – hence why I'm cross-posting this review on The Violent World of Parker blog (although Death Wish will be of interest to VWoP regulars in its own right) – and the Edgar Award-winning Hopscotch (1975). He also wrote a sequel to Death Wish, Death Sentence (1975, itself adapted for the screen – even more loosely than Death Wish, although more to Garfield's liking – in 2007), in which Paul continues his one-man war on crime in Chicago – where, oddly enough, Charles Bronson winds up at the end of the movie Death Wish. I haven't read the sequel yet, but this Pulp Serenade review got me interested enough to order a copy, so I'll be reviewing it myself at some point. And while we're on the subject of other folks' reviews, Olman turned his beady eye on Death Wish (the novel) earlier this year, noting Garfield's vivid and unnerving portrayal of 1970s New York, so go read his review for an alternative take on the book.

As for the Charles Bronson movie sequels to Death Wish, well, probably the less said about them the better – and who the hell knows what the mooted Joe "The Grey" Carnahan remake – set to star either Sylvester Stallone or Liam Neeson, depending on who you believe – will be like. But Bronson did star in a number of other interesting movies in the 1970s, including one in the same year as Death Wish – and it's to that film, and its attendant novel, that I'll be turning next...

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Jaws by Peter Benchley: the Original Novel (Andre Deutsch, 1974), Basis for the 1975 Movie

Next in this series of posts on books which begat perhaps more famous films, we turn to a 1974 thriller, the 1975 movie adaptation of which has taken on a near-mythic status over the years – not least due to its problematic production – and is currently once again showing on cinema screens here in the UK:

First published in Britain by Andre Deutsch in 1974 – the same year as the US Doubleday first edition – Jaws was American author Peter Benchley's debut novel – although not his first book; he'd already had a couple of non-fiction works published by the time Jaws arrived. I found this Deutsch first edition/first printing at the Midhurst Book Fair a few months back, a snip at £9.50; copies of the Deutsch first edition/first impression (it went through multiple printings) can go for anything up to £100 – depending on condition – so I was rather pleased with this score.

It's worth taking a look at Tom Simmonds's full design for the dust jacket – which differs to the American edition – as it stretches round to the back cover:

As for the book itself, I must admit it's bloody ages since I read it – I probably borrowed it from Beckenham Library decades ago, maybe even in this edition – and so I recall more about Steven Spielberg's film than I do the original novel. Certainly the memorable opening scene of Jaws the movie, with the shark savaging the hapless female swimmer, is lifted straight from the book, and the novel ends much as the film does, with Brody paddling towards the shore after his close encounter (ahem) with the Great White (although with one significant change). But I do remember it being a darker affair than the adaptation – for one thing, Brody and his wife, Ellen, don't get on terribly well in the book – and there being a subplot concerning an extramarrital affair which didn't make it into the movie. Handily, IMDB has a list of differences twixt novel and film, although be warned that by its very nature the list is somewhat spoilery.

Thankfully, my memories of the next book I'll be blogging about are rather better, because I read it only recently; it's the movie adaptation I can't recall terribly well, although given its standing in the cinematic pantheon, that might not be such a bad thing...

Monday 25 June 2012

Book Review: Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean; the Original Novel (Collins, 1967), Basis for the 1968 Movie

Behind every great man, or so the old saying goes, there's a great woman – and I'd suggest you could make a similar claim for great films: often as not, the movies that live longest in the memory have their basis in a brilliant book. So, with the summer blockbuster season well underway, I thought I'd embark on an extended series of posts on novels which begat perhaps more famous films. Some of the films to be featured in this run will be of the big budget, big box office returns variety; others more obscure or cult; and still others staples of the afternoon television schedules; but all share in common a terrific source novel, and over the coming weeks I'll be showcasing some of the first (and other) editions of those novels from my collection – beginning with a classic World War II action-adventure-spy thriller:

First published in hardback in the UK by Collins in 1967, under a dust jacket designed by Ian Robertson, Where Eagles Dare was Alistair MacLean's tenth novel (under his own name; he had a couple of others published under the nom de plume of Ian Stuart), and is the story of a daring raid by a squad of specialist British troops – plus one American – on the remote Alpine castle of Schloss Adler – headquarters of the German Gestapo. I bought this first edition/first impression in Dim and Distant in Heathfield, East Sussex, but there are plenty of firsts available on AbeBooks, although be aware that the Collins edition did go through a few printings, so many of the listings may well be for later impressions.

Now, I think I'm safe in saying that, for an entire generation, the movie adaptation of Where Eagles Dare has gone beyond cult status to become a totemic cinematic icon. Originally released in 1968, directed by Brian G. Hutton and starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, Where Eagles Dare always seemed to be on telly on a Saturday afternoon when I was a kid (see also The Eagle Has Landed, The Magnificent Seven, etc.) – which, I suspect, is part of the reason for its popularity. But it's also a tremendous film in its own right, stuffed with perilous action sequences, quotable lines and a showstopping cross-and-double-cross scene set deep within Schloss Adler. Both Quentin Tarantino and comics writer Garth Ennis cite it as one of their favourite films, and it even has its own dedicated website.

What's interesting is how so much of what's great about Where Eagles Dare the movie has its genesis in Where Eagles Dare the novel. All of the major beats are present and correct – the initial parachute jump into the Alps; the cable car set-pieces; the aforementioned double-bluff (or possibly triple-bluff) scene – while Richard Burton is the novel's Major John Smith personified, from his stoic cynicism to his legendary callsign to HQ ("Broadsword calling Danny Boy, come in, Danny Boy") – which, given that MacLean effectively wrote the novel for Burton, and actually penned the film's screenplay before the book (big thanks to both Paul Simpson and Jeremy Duns for pointing that out to me), I guess isn't so surprising. The only real differences centre on the character of Lieutenant Schaffer, played in the film by Clint Eastwood. Schaffer is rather more gabby in the novel than the taciturn Eastwood, and a lot less murderous: where Clint merrily machine-guns his way around the castle, the original Schaffer barely harms a soul.

Indeed, and as the Where Eagles Dare website notes in its introduction to the novel, the level of violence in the book is considerably lower than that of the movie. Smith and Schaffer actively go out of their way to avoid killing anyone in the book – the exceptions being the traitorous double-agents who meet their doom atop the cable car. It's an altogether jollier affair than the film, although no less tense and gripping.

That said, I think I still prefer the film to the novel, if only because it was the film I fell for all those years ago. And the same is probably true of the next book I'll be showcasing – the similarly totemic motion picture adaptation of which is currently on re-release in cinemas in the UK...