Friday 13 July 2012

Book Review: The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin; the Original Novel (Michael Joseph, 1976), Basis for the 1978 Movie

For this penultimate post on books which begat perhaps more famous films – yes, you read that right: we're nearly done now, thank the Lord – we turn from a 1970s thriller with a Nazi as its chief villain to another 1970s thriller with a Nazi as its chief villain – one who actually gets a mention – and is the model for – the Nazi in the previous novel-and-movie...

First published in the UK by Michael Joseph in 1976, Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil is the story of a crazed quest by Josef Mengele – the Angel of Death, and the basis for Christian Szell in William Goldman's Marathon Man – to bring about the Fourth Reich, and of the efforts of Nazi-hunter Yakov Liebermann – modelled by Levin on real life Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal – to stop him. There's much more to the book than that, of course – it's well written, quietly stylish and pacy, and even if you know the central conceit behind the story – which I'm not going to spoil, other than to say it involves cloning – the cat-and-mouse game between Mengele and Liebermann effectively ramps up the suspense, climaxing with a bloody battle of wits in a remote farmhouse.

But at root, The Boys from Brazil is a brilliant idea, one that's perfect for a film – which is precisely what it became (adapted fairly faithfully; there are only a few relatively minor changes) in 1978, directed by Planet of the Apes' Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Gregory Peck as Mengele, Laurence Olivier (him again) as Liebermann (renamed Ezra Lieberman, one "n") and featuring a young Steve Guttenberg in one of his earliest roles. Indeed, despite only having written four novels prior to Boys, Ira Levin already had serious form with adaptations of his work: A Kiss Before Dying (1953), Rosemary's Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972) had all been filmed (and A Kiss Before Dying would later be remade) to great success, while after a fifteen-year gap Levin would find himself in favour in Hollywood once again with Sliver (1991), adapted for the screen in 1993 – said adaption becoming mildly notorious for a racy Sharon Stone/William Baldwin sex scene.

A big part of the reason for Levin's Hollywood success is that his novels are perfect one-line high concept movie pitches: "Disgruntled suburban husbands replace their wives with robots"; "A woman learns her unborn baby is the devil", and so forth. Chuck Palahniuk put it another way when he said that Levin's novels were "a smart, updated version of the kind of folksy legends that cultures have always used" – basically what Stephen King, who called Levin "the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels", would be doing slightly later. Certainly The Boys from Brazil adheres to both those edicts, benefitting additionally from its use of real people in the narrative, which helps to anchor some of the more fantastical elements of the story. Mind you, cloning might have seemed far-fetched back in 1976, but it's rather less so now.

Speaking of mixing fantasy and reality, there's a fair amount of that going on in the final book-and-movie I'll be looking at: a World War II-set tale of a daring raid on Great Britain by German troops attempting to kidnap a world leader. Moreover, the copy of the first edition of the novel I'll be showcasing is pretty special, and acts as a precursor of the next series of Existential Ennui posts...

Before that, though: an unscheduled review of a pseudonymous '60s Donald E. Westlake novel...

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...

Richard Stark's Parker: The Score – Exclusive Darwyn Cooke Interview, on The Violent World of Parker!

Interrupting my ongoing series of posts on books which begat perhaps more famous films momentarily – the next instalment of which will be up shortly – an announcement: if you head over to The Violent World of Parker blog – where, lest we forget, I'm co-blogger – you'll find a massive, exclusive interview with comics creator Darwyn Cooke on his latest graphic novel adaptation of a Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake novel, this time the fifth Parker outing, The Score, which is published today by IDW.

The interview was conducted by Violent World of Parker proprietor Trent and myself, and covers all manner of topics, from the particular challenges adapting The Score presented, to Darwyn's history with Westlake and Parker, to which Parker novel he'll be tackling next; there's even a heretofore little-known piece of info concerning how Westlake came close to writing Batman comics. Darwyn only does one big interview each time he publishes a Parker graphic novel – previously he spoke to Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter for The Hunter (Parker #1) and Tucker Stone at Comics Alliance for The Outfit (Parker #3) – so it's a huge honour that Darwyn chose The Violent World of Parker to be his platform this time out, and, on a personal level, for me to have had some small involvement (witness this post and this post for a taste of my boundless enthusiasm for Darwyn's endeavours on the Parker books). Darwyn told us he's a lurker on both TVWoP and Existential Ennui, and while I'm sure the former is true, even if he was just being kind on the latter, it was still nice to hear.

Anyway, go read

The Violent World of Parker Darwyn Cooke Interview

and I'll be back in a bit with the next book which begat a perhaps more famous film...

Monday 9 July 2012

Deliverance by James Dickey: the Original Novel (Hamish Hamilton, 1970), Basis for the 1972 John Boorman Movie; plus The Hunter by Richard Stark (1962), Basis for the 1967 Boorman Movie Point Blank

And so begins the third week of posts on books which begat perhaps more famous films. Bored yet? Well, tough: I've still got a handful of these to get through, so it's a case, I'm afraid, of like it, lump it, or find some other equally soporific and supercilious books blog to read (good luck with that). But I can at least promise that each of the remaining books/movies will be of the stone cold classic thriller variety, featuring as their villains a motley assortment of, well, Nazis, Nazis, and, er, more Nazis. Before we get to all those Nazis, though: some leering backwoodsmen! As, in the wake of David Morrell's First Blood, we head even deeper into the American south. Unlike Morrell's novel and its movie adaptation, however – indeed, unlike the vast majority of book-to-film adaptations – in this instance, I reckon the film – adapted by the author himself – is better than the source text...

James Dickey's Deliverance was first published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1970, the same year as the US Houghton Mifflin edition. The jacket of the Hamilton edition was designed by Bernard Higton, a man who I've waxed lyrical about before, as he's based in Lewes, the East Sussex town in which, lest we forget (unlikely, I know, since, I'm always harping on about it), I live and work; he even, at one time, had his studio in the building in which I currently work. Anyway, Higton has had a hand in countless books over the years – not only as designer but also author and illustrator – among them the wrapper for the Hamilton first of Joseph Hone's The Private Sector.

Deliverance, as if you didn't know, is the story of a canoe trip by four white collar types through the Georgia mountains that goes disastrously – and horrifically – wrong; it was Dickey's debut novel, but he'd already had ten years as an acclaimed poet before Deliverance arrived, something which is evident in the prose of the novel: there are long descriptive passages peppered throughout. I actually found it somewhat overwritten, but then that probably speaks to my preference for leaner prose; in this 1976 Paris Review interview, Dickey claims that "Deliverance was originally written in a very heavily charged prose", but that he "spent two or three drafts taking that quality out". Certainly once the canoe trip gets underway there are passages of high tension and moments of memorable terror, notably one uncomfortable sequence that John Boorman's 1972 Dickey-scripted movie adaptation would turn into one of the most iconic cinematic scenes of the 1970s.

That scene is, of course, the assault by the aforementioned backwoodsmen on Ed (the book's narrator, played by Jon Voight) and Bobby (Ned Beatty), during which encounter Bobby is raped. It's a shocking episode in both the novel and the film, but it's lent an added horror in the movie by the ad-libbed "squeal, piggy" dialogue, which appears neither in Dickey's book nor, apparently, his screenplay. Indeed, stripped of Ed/Dickey's verbose narration, Boorman's film emerges as the superior beast, assisted by the genius casting. Voight and Beatty are great, obviously – as is Ronny Cox as the doomed Drew – but it's Burt Reynolds as the macho Lewis who steals the show, especially with the benefit of hindsight: all those action flicks he'd soon be starring in post-Deliverance, and here he's incapacitated and sidelined halfway through the movie. And the ending is rather more downbeat than Dickey's novel, too, suggesting that Ed is more scarred by his experiences than he is in the book.

Given my abiding preoccupation with all things Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark, it would, I feel, be remiss of me not to mention that besides Deliverance (and a good many other fine not-adapted-from-novels films, among them Excalibur, 1981, and – a personal favourite of mine – Hope and Glory, 1987), John Boorman also directed another notable adaptation: the 1967 film of the debut Stark/Parker novel The Hunter (1962), alias Point Blank. As I'm sure is the case for other Stark/Parker fans, Point Blank was my first unwitting exposure to Parker – renamed and fairly drastically remodelled for the film as Walker (Lee Marvin) – and though the book and the film are quite different and separate entities (and not all Parker aficionados are that keen on the movie), for me, Point Blank still stands as one of my favourite ever motion pictures. But more than that, it was falling for Boorman's adaptation decades ago that would eventually lead to my finding Westlake and Stark, and in turn becoming co-blogger on The Violent World of Parker. So in a way, you can blame John Boorman for all the Westlake blogging that's ensued.

Now then. A question: is it safe?