Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book vs. Movie: L.A. Confidential

The likelihood of a given movie these days being based on a book or a short story or some other extra-cinematic source is pretty high these days.  Equally high is the chance of, when in conversation with others about such a movie, some motherfucker opening their mouth and saying, "it wasn't as good as the book!" as if this adds anything reasonable to the discourse.  In 'Book vs. Movie,' a title that sufficiently demonstrates my preternatural brilliance for nomenclature, I am that motherfucker.

I have to kind of flip it for this one, though, because the film version of L.A. Confidential is not only a great movie but is a great adaptation of its source material.  The novel, written by James Ellroy, was published in 1990; the movie came out in '97.  It's is shelved as a mystery novel in most bookstores, since that's where people generally put the crime fiction.  Like many of Ellroy's novels, it features three intertwining narratives, in this case three L.A.P.D. detectives; Bud White (played in the movie by Russell Crowe), Ed Exley (played by Guy Pearce), and Jack Vincennes (played by Kevin Spacey).  The novel spans more time than the book, necessary because the conspiracy the three men stumble upon, each through their own avenue, covers much more ground than the one in the movie.
For a long time I held that the movie was better than the book, but the more I return to both the less certain I am about this.  The movie is good, even great (it holds, if you can believe it, a 99% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, as well as, you know, Oscars and shit) but the more I come back to the book the more I find in it and the more certain shortcuts the movie takes bother me.  However, there are things that the movie gets undeniably right, and those moments do justify a lot of the omissions.

The character that loses out the most in the transition to screen is Jack Vincennes.  Spacey's portrayal isn't bad (although the more I revisit his performances the more limited I find him as an actor), but unlike Exley and White, whose motivations and passions survive mostly intact, Spacey's Vincennes loses nearly all of what drives him, and I wonder about origins of the toothless reversal into someone who might have a conscience.  Did it come from the sceenwriter or did it come from Spacey himself?  It wouldn't be the first or the last time an actor has requested a script be changed on their behalf, and Spacey's involvement is a large part of why we were able to get Pearce and Crowe's involvement in the first place (coming as it did before either of them had really done much that American audiences would have seen).  It's also why Spacey plays so prominently in the movie's advertising even though Vincennes is a relatively minor character.

In the book, Vincennes starts out much as you see him, a spotlight-seeking glory hog who consults for a popular television show and sells tips to Danny DeVito's Sid Hudgens, a scandal-rag writer who loves writing up hop-head movie stars (and, incidentally, a character described as tall and scarily thin in the book, making DeVito's casting hilarious).  His past, which isn't touched on in the movie, is that he himself used to be a drug addict and alcoholic, and that he killed two innocent people while drunk and high, an incident buried partially by Hudgens himself so that he could have some dirt on Jack.  Jack then gets involved in chasing some strange pornography after his transfer to Administrative Vice, something that really sends him off the rails into alcoholism and addiction again and tanks his new marriage.  He's somewhat disconnected from the main narrative (and dies a blink-and-you'll-miss-it death during one of Bud White's chapters), and so the way the movie brings him back in isn't exactly objectionable, but there's a bite to Trashcan Jack's fall and third-act redemption in the book that I would have liked to have seen more of in the movie.

Said movie, however, decided to focus on other elements, and here is where that's to its credit.  It spends much of its time oriented on one of the most effective elements of the novel, which is the hate-hate relationship between Ed Exley and Bud White.  Exley is a straight-arrow, by-the-book kind of guy, but also something of an opportunist, while White has a good heart, a mean right hook, a weakness for women and not a lot of smarts or fondness for rules.  Together, as seen in the movie, they make one great cop.  The book, drawn out as it is over a longer period of time than the movie, is able to embellish and extend their reasons for hating each other, but the movie really hits the high points without belaboring it or making it seem unmotivated, and it does a good job at establishing the shaky alliance they need to make to get at the true perpetrator of the Nite Owl crime.

The scene in the evidence room where White almost kills Exley is incredibly effective at blowing off that tension and establishing their shaky working relationship that I misremember it as happening in the novel.  In reality nothing like that scene ever happens; by the time Exley sleeps with Lynn in the novel, White's learned to let his rage burn cold, and before he can confront Exley with anything he discovers Dudley's involvement on his own and realizes his only chance of taking Dudley down is by joining with Exley.  The tension in these scenes and the build to the three cops meeting up and sharing what they've learned separately to put the picture of the conspiracy together is great, but the scene itself is dry as hell, long chunks of dialogue and almost mechanical exposition putting together what we as the readers half-know already just through following the men.  When I talked about the movie being better, that scene was largely what I was talking about.

The other thing is the scene where White confronts Lynn about sleeping with Exley.  The build-up is pretty simple and the mechanics of it are easy to see: Bud White, when he was a young boy, came home to his father beating his mother.  White tries to stop his dad, his dad chains him to a radiator and beats his wife to death while White watches.  This fuels White's decision to become a cop, his crusade against wife beaters that we get a taste of at the top of the movie, and it fuels, in the book, an obsessive pursuit of a multiple-murderer who targets prostitutes.  However, when confronting Lynn he ends up hitting her; like father, like son.  Not a new idea, but well-executed.

The book gives us this passage:

Bud turned on the porch light.  "You gonna tell me what happened with you and Exley?"

"We just talked."

Her makeup was tear streaked - it was the first time he'd seen her not beautiful.  "So tell me about it."

"In the morning."

"No, now."

"Honey, I'm as tired as you are."

Her little half smile did it.  "You slept with him."

Lynn looked away.  Bud hit her - once, twice, three times.  Lynn faced straight into the blows.  Bud stopped when he saw he couldn't break her.
White's been doing grunt work for Dudley running mobsters out of town by basically beating the shit out of him, which makes 'when he saw he couldn't break her' hit differently.  It works, but it doesn't sing like the equivalent scene in the movie (this clip encompasses the scene I was talking about a couple paragraphs up as well).

 There's something in the speed that Crowe goes to violence, his rush to follow up, and then the realization of what he's done.  To me the text is a college freshman cellist; the clip is Yo Yo Ma.

White's character is mostly intact in the movie, but a major element gets sacrificed at the altar of running time, which is the investigation into the 'hooker snuffs,' as the book puts it.  Early on White braces a sort-of prostitute who might be a Nite Owl witness; later, he finds out she's been brutally murdered.  As the novel progresses he discovers more cases that he's convinced have been committed by the same man, and the mystery perpetrator becomes his bĂȘte noire; he even goes to school to become a better detective so that he has the tools to pursue the case.  Eventually he finds the guy and, since this is White and not Exley, beats him to death with his own hands, in the process suffering the wounds that put him out of action for the rest of the novel.

In the movie White is a good-hearted thug, all muscle and no brains.  The reason he's heroic in the book is because he surpasses these limitation and becomes, by virtue of being the least compromised and the least interested in personal gain, the best man of the three.  When he's in the hospital, Exley visits him and we get this:

 Bud White made the wait unbearable.

He had tubes in his arms, splints on his fingers.  His chest held three hundred stitches.  Bullets had shattered bones, ripped arteries.  He ad aplate in his head.  Lynn Bracken tended to him - she could not meet Ed's eyes.  White could not talk - being able to talk in the future was doubtful.  His eyes wer eloquent: Dudley.  Your father.  What are you going to do about it?  He kept trying to make the V-for-victory sign. Three visits, Ed finally got it - the Victory Motel, Mobster Squad HQ.

He went there.  He found detailed notes on White's prostitute-killing investigation.  The notes were a limited man reaching for the starts, pulling most of them down.  Limits exceeded through a brilliantly persistent rage.  Absolute justice - anonymous, no rank and glory.

Exley has his own complicated relationship with his father in the novel, the removal of which from the movie makes that theme so tenuous it might as well be nonexistent.   He is the novel's most compromised character from a moral standpoint, and yet he is, by virtue of being the only one left standing at the end and having the most power in the universe of the book, the closest thing we have to a clear main character.  He professes to believe in absolute justice, and yet what he really believes in is personal advancement.  He rats out fellow cops for personal gain, eventually ascending to the post of Internal Affairs Commander.  For those of you who don't watch as many cop shows as I do this makes him King Snitch of Snitch Mountain, since he's responsible for investigating fellow police officers.  The movie makes a pretty clear point of lining up all the things that 'practical' police officers do, up to and including shooting a suspect in the back if you knew he would walk free.  Exley-the-movie-rookie says he would never do any of those things, and the movie ends with him shooting the man who asked the questions in the back a la the question.  Exley-the-book-character has already, before the events of the story even begin, faked an incident in World War 2 that made him look like a war hero and got him out of the conflict with medals he didn't earn.

And yet he is the best pure detective in an investigative sense of the three; Vincennes doesn't quite play Watson to Exley's Holmes, but both of them sort of circle it.  In the book-to-movie transition we lose Preston Exley, Ed's father and the man Ed compares himself to and competes against.  In the movie Exley has to re-open his own career case and solve it for real; the book has him re-open not only his own career case, but his father's (there's a searing scene where Ed plays Russian roulette with a gun in his mouth because he's afraid of what this will do to his father that doesn't make it into the movie although, this being a James Ellroy adaptation, we still get some Russian roulette during the interrogation scene).  The culmination of this pursuit is that his father, his father's friend and his on-again, off-again lover commit suicide together because of the potential revelations at the heart of that case.  As Lynn says to Ed at the end of the book, ". . . my God I don't envy the blood on your conscience."

Having not read any of the other L.A. Quartet books (The Black Dahlia, which received it own apparently dreadful movie adaptation, The Big Nowhere, and White Jazz, which is apparently in development hell after George Clooney dropped out due to scheduling conflicts) I can't say whether there's something ineffable that lends itself to adaptation in Confidential that its counterparts don't have, or if everyone else is simply doing it wrong.  The Underworld USA books are apparently being adapted, although given how compressed they are comparatively I don't envy the screenwriter.  Regardless, it's hard for me, book lover though I am, to declare a clear winner here; both versions have their advantages, both take advantage of their respective mediums, both offer indelible images and both have their strengths and weaknesses.


  1. If only term papers in college had had subjects like this...

    Or writers capable of this.

  2. I read the book in 09' after enjoying the film for years since it's release. I Also, have difficulty picking one over the other. I treat the book and film as mutually excellent in their own fashion. I did enjoy the fact that much of the dialogue in the film was virtually straight from the pages, whether direct quote in the appropriate scene or reorganized to a different scene but fitting to the character.

    There is one scene that is a personal favorite in the film, when Exley asks Vincennes, "Why did you become a cop?" Vincennes replies, "I can't remember." You can see a change in Vincennes' eyes when he has a shift of conscience (a change that didn't manifest in the book). That entire scene was excellent. As you pointed out, there a film scenes that accomplished something that would not have otherwise similarly translated from the book's text tot he reader.

    Being a fan of the film, I enjoyed the book for supplying backdrop for events that were very briefly mentioned in the film. Also, the book had more character plot line than the film allotted for many of the film's characters in addition to some that did not make the film (Mickey Cohen, for example).

    Despite deviations in plot, I agree with you the characters in the film were consistent and intact with the book (as humanly possible), despite constraints of the script.

    The additional plot lines were interesting in the book, like Inez Soto's "relationship" with Exley.

    On a different topic, the film's musical score was superb. Great film and book.