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April 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Reading the Screen
The Remaking of Pelham One Two Three
John Godey’s 1973 novel, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, has been adapted for the big screen two times—with radically different results. The novel is a lean, efficient thriller: four men hijack a New York City subway train and demand $1 million in exchange for the lives of the passengers. Tension runs high, and Godey’s cleverly orchestrated conclusion is full of surprises, including the unexpected fates of the hijackers.
The first film version was released in 1974. Robert Shaw turns in a quiet, cold performance as Ryder, the mastermind, and Martin Balsam is perfect as Longman, the fatalistic ex-motorman with a score to settle. Director Joseph Sargent works with an almost military precision, and he clearly understands and respects the source material.
Commanding the movie’s center is Walter Matthau as Zachary Garber, a Transit Authority police officer. Tied to a desk for most of the film, communicating with the hijackers and other law-enforcement people by radio, Matthau portrays Garber as a coolheaded professional in the midst of a potentially explosive situation.
Viewers who know the novel will note two fairly substantial changes. First, the ending is different: the filmmakers have reconfigured Godey’s cleverly choreographed ballet of treachery. Ryder does come to the same end as he does in the book, albeit in a more visually arresting manner, but the classic final scene of the movie—Longman sneezes, and Garber comes back in through the apartment door, a wry “gotcha!” look on his face—is brand new.
The second, more significant, alteration involves Matthau’s character: he isn’t in the novel. The filmmakers stitched Garber together out of several of the book’s characters: a Transit Authority lieutenant who appears only briefly, another lieutenant, and the cop who nabs Longman in the final scene. The surgery was necessary both to give the movie a central hero and to involve him in the movie’s closing scenes. The movie actually ends more strongly than the novel, and its pairing of Shaw and Matthau, villain against hero, creates a more dramatic story line.
The second adaptation appeared in theaters in 2009 and has already been released on DVD. Directed by Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Top Gun), it’s shot in a flashy style that makes frequent use of fast cuts, slow motion, and abrupt zooms. It’s like a music-video version of the 1974 version, and Scott’s visual style is a far cry from Godey’s evenly paced, methodical storytelling.
Extensive changes were made to the story, too, most of them unnecessary. The movie is set in 2009, so updating some things is only logical: Ryder, for example, has a laptop computer that is integral to his plans. But where Shaw’s Ryder is a cold, efficient military man, John Travolta plays him as a raving lunatic, stomping around, dropping clusters of F-bombs. Shaw was dangerous; Travolta is simply cartoonish. He chews so much scenery, you expect him to spit out bits of it when he talks.
Denzel Washington, as Walter (not Zachary) Garber, is significantly better than Travolta, and his restrained, professional performance matches the tone of the novel. But the filmmakers give Garber a lot of unnecessary baggage: under investigation for taking a bribe, he’s been demoted, and he has a supervisor who clearly despises him. Washington does what he can, but he’s nearly drowning under the weight of his character’s backstory.
Like the 1974 version, the 2009 version introduces a new character, this one a hostage negotiator named Camonetti. John Turturro is very good in the part, but it doesn’t much matter. Camonetti attempts to take over negotiations with Ryder, but Ryder demands to have Garber back, and Camonetti spends the rest of the movie on the sidelines, giving advice but not contributing in any meaningful way. Even viewers unfamiliar with the novel will immediately see that his character is entirely superfluous and that all of his scenes are irrelevant.
The filmmakers make substantial changes to the book’s ending, too, giving us a ludicrously over-the-top gun battle followed by a coincidence-laden chase. Inexplicably, too, they turn Longman’s character into a pointless waste of time. It is hard to watch the movie and believe that the people who made it cared anything about the source material.
Hopscotch Lands on Its Feet
Sometimes, of course, making large-scale changes to the source material is the only way a film can succeed. The cinematic Jaws eliminated an entire subplot, streamlining and improving the story. And, in 1980, Walter Matthau starred in Hopscotch, Ronald Neame’s film of Brian Garfield’s 1975 novel about a disillusioned CIA agent who decides to stick it to his former bosses by writing a tell-all book. The novel is an elaborate cat-and-mouse story: Miles Kendig, the hero, moves around a lot, staying one step ahead of his former bosses, who would dearly like him to stop writing. He doesn’t have a partner, or even a sidekick, and in many scenes, Kendig is alone, thinking.
That won’t work in a movie. If the audience is expected to understand what’s going on, the hero needs someone to talk to. So the makers of Hopscotch created a new character, Isobel von Schonenberg, Kendig’s old friend and occasional lover. Kendig still moves around, but not as much; mostly he stays in Austria, at the house of Isobel, who is played by Glenda Jackson. This gives him somebody to talk to, and it also gives the movie a recurring location instead of many locations that appear for only a scene or two.
The filmmakers made substantial alterations to the book. Besides adding a new character, they turned Garfield’s lean, mean spying machine into the rumpled, likable Walter Matthau. They even turned the hard-edged, dramatic novel into a light comedy (Matthau and Jackson were paired up in 1978’s House Calls). But the changes are largely cosmetic. The movie remains faithful to Garfield’s story—he co-wrote the screenplay, which surely helped—retaining its intricate twists and turns, and even its political commentary. It’s still a story about a man who isn’t ready to lie down and play dead. It just looks different, that’s all.
Marathon Man Finishes Strong
Like the 2009 Pelham, John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976), based on William Goldman’s 1974 novel, alters the story’s ending. But this time, the alteration makes sense. Laurence Olivier plays Christian Szell, a Nazi war criminal whose brother has been using a courier to smuggle diamonds to him in South America. When Szell’s brother dies in a car accident, and Szell suspects the courier may be about to betray him, he comes to New York to retrieve the diamonds from a safety deposit box. But first, just to be on the safe side, he murders the courier, who turns out to be the brother of Tom “Babe” Levy, the star of the piece, a young history student and would-be marathon runner. In the book, it’s a major shock when we find out that Babe’s brother and Szell’s courier, who have both been in the story for a while, are the same person. In the movie, it’s not quite as shocking, because we can see the same actor, Roy Scheider, playing both characters.
After he kills Doc, Szell abducts Babe, straps him to a chair, and tortures him to find out what he knows. Olivier plays Szell as an elderly man, uncomfortable in his surroundings and afraid for his safety. But underneath the fear is a quiet sort of evil: when he softly asks, his face partly obscured by the metal arm of the lamp, “Is it safe?” we, like poor Babe trussed up in the chair, quiver a little.
Eventually Babe escapes—the movie retains Goldman’s very good twist during this scene—and, in the final scenes, holds Szell at gunpoint. In the novel, Babe kills Szell, becoming like the people he was running from: a murderer. In the movie, however, Szell accidentally kills himself by falling down a flight of stairs and impaling himself on the knife he used to kill Babe’s brother. Both symbolically and in terms of character, this works better than Goldman’s original ending. Babe is changed by his ordeal but retains his moral center.
The Boys from Brazil No Day at the Beach
Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Christian Szell. He was nominated again for his work in 1978’s The Boys from Brazil, based on Ira Levin’s popular 1976 novel and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. The movie follows its source material very closely—and, really, it shouldn’t have.
The plot of The Boys from Brazil is well known. In the present day, a bunch of former Nazis, led by real-life sadist Josef Mengele, are killing off male civil servants in order to make sure that their young sons, who were cloned from the corpse of Adolf Hitler, grow up to be new Hitlers for the modern age. Olivier is brilliant as Nazi hunter Ezra Liebermann (in the book he’s called Yakov). Gregory Peck is Mengele, playing heavily against type as the pale, black-haired, white-suited villain. He is chilling in the role, if slightly over the top.
Like the novel, the movie is structured as a mystery: Liebermann gets wind of Mengele’s murderous plot, follows the clues, and, when he finally learns the terrible secret (the boys from Brazil are clones!), it is the only reasonable explanation for what has been going on. Levin’s buildup to the Big Surprise is slow, steady, and methodical. It needs to be: this is the mid-1970s, and most people haven’t heard of cloning. Levin knows he’s about to ask us to believe something unbelievable, so he gives us all the evidence we need before he asks us to make that leap.
But when you make a movie out of a smash-hit novel, you’re making it for people who already know the story. Schaffner keeps the big revelation under wraps until an hour and a half into the two-hour movie, but does he need to? The final cut retains extraneous and expository scenes that kill the movie’s momentum. The worst may be a lengthy sequence in which a scientist explains to Liebermann, with the aid of a film strip, the mechanics of cloning. Yes, the audience needs some explanation, but not this much.
The Boys from Brazil is one of those rare cases (like The Da Vinci Code) where the filmmakers could, and probably should, have cut chunks out of the source material. The cuts wouldn’t have materially affected the story while making the audience’s journey faster, smoother, and more enjoyable.
Thirty years ago, thrillers talked to us. Now, too often, they yell at us. Marathon Man, Hopscotch, and 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three—even the flawed Boys from Brazil—have one important thing in common: they move at a steady pace, allowing us to get acquainted with their characters, to become familiar with them in their settings, to see how they think and react. Contemporary thrillers often trade character and storytelling for stick figures, jittery editing, and loud noises. There are exceptions, of course: the Bourne movies move at a lightning-fast pace, but they also build three-dimensional characters and tell intelligent, compelling stories. Too many, though, are like the 2009 Pelham: slick, flashy, and deeply unsatisfying.
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