Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
Header

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955The line separating bravery from idiocy is finer than you might think.

The same self-assurance that helps you triumph in the face of insurmountable odds is what causes you to beat your head repeatedly against a brick wall. The same refusal to succumb to tempting lies is what keeps you from accepting uncomfortable truths. The same unrelenting confidence can lead you to glory or damn us all.

Kiss Me Deadly is Robert Aldrich’s noir masterpiece, and one that ensured we’d never be able to see the genre the same way again. It was — and is — a knowing study of itself…a loving condemnation of hardboiled detective fiction, while also managing to be one of the screen’s best examples. What’s more, its success hinges entirely upon its willingness to second guess its source material.

I love noir. I can’t make that clear enough. The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Thin Man, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Long Goodbye…when I brainstormed a list of titles to cover for Fiction into Film, those and many more rushed to the top. In fact, I could base an entire series around noir adaptations only, and while nobody in their right mind would read it, I’d have a hell of a fun time keeping it pointlessly alive. So I consider it something of a personal triumph that I waited a whole four installments to get around to covering one. And now that I am, there’s no more fitting emissary than the brutal, desolate, devastating Kiss Me Deadly.

Based on the book of a similar name (Kiss Me, Deadly, with a comma) by Mickey Spillane, the film follows private investigator Mike Hammer through a conspiracy that centers around a dead woman…and what she did or didn’t know. Hammer is warned off the case by the police, but he follows what little of the trail he can anyway, in the hopes of unraveling the mystery and finding a big pay day at the end.

As his secretary in the film puts it, “First you find a little thread. The little thread leads you to a string. And the string leads you to a rope. And from the rope you hang by the neck.” It’s a metaphor Hammer adopts himself — intentionally or not — when he explains his motives to another character…conveniently leaving out that last bit.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

In print, Mike Hammer was a grizzled, world-weary detective in the tradition of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. But Aldrich saw something in Hammer that he didn’t see in those other, spiritual colleagues of his: he saw that Hammer was a jackass.

The film, as a result, is a passive deconstruction of what was (at the time) an immensely popular character. It was a daring move…one that earned Aldrich the scorn of Spillane and his fans, but one which also ensured that the film would outlive the character. While Hammer might have fallen from the cultural consciousness, characters like him have not, and Kiss Me Deadly is just as damning a condemnation of Hammer’s type as it is of Hammer himself.

Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly toys from its first scene to its last with a single idea: what if this central detective figure is dead wrong? What if the man we’re trusting to sort things out for us is actually making them worse? What if this character who is meant to be one step ahead is always, unknowingly, several steps behind?

The exploration of this theme is by turns hilarious and horrifying. From the page Hammer retains all of his swagger, his wit, his brash charisma, his sexuality, and his willingness to work behind the back of the law. But the film robs him of the one essential thing that all hardboiled detectives secretly need: the authorial promise that he’s right.

As a result we get a detective film that plays entirely by the rules of the genre, and still manages to deliver us into a hopeless and inescapable climax; a nuclear nightmare in which the cool confidence of the main character has doomed us all to a slow and torturous death. It’s like a version of The Maltese Falcon that ends with Sam Spade going door to door gunning families down in search of the real thing.

It’s tempting to see this adaptation as a mean-spirited jab at Spillane’s talent, but I don’t believe it is. In fact, the first time I read Kiss Me, Deadly I was surprised by how effective the writing was. It wasn’t great, and certainly wasn’t the kind of thing I’d recommend to anyone who wasn’t in desperate need of detective fiction, but Spillane was good at what he did.

He wanted to create a cruel world of crime and violence, with one manly chunk of justice keeping karmic balance in the center, and that’s what he did. By his own rules of his own universe, Spillane crafted experiences. You’d taste the blood, feel the sweat, smell the danger. You were there along with detective Mike Hammer and you’d better be grateful for that, because otherwise you wouldn’t be getting out alive.

But once you remove Hammer from his element — from his necessary context — you see other, less admirable sides of him that the novels kept hidden. It takes no work to recontextualize the man as a vindictive, reactionary bully; all one needs to do is view him in isolation. Hammer shifts immediately from being a heroic figure to a sociopathic and dangerous one when you take no more than one step back from the action. Aldrich saw that, and crafted his film around the distance between what Mike Hammer thinks he is, and what he actually is.

Ralph Meeker plays our thick-skulled protagonist marvelously; more than half a century later I’m not convinced the screen has ever had a better portrayal of unearned, unchecked confidence. Hammer — on the page and on film — is a legend in his own mind. The difference is that on film we shy away from him. He question him. We wonder if his brutal, abusive, gleefully cruel methods are, strictly speaking, necessary. Meeker portrays him as a man who knows everything, except what the hell he’s doing.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Whereas Spillane never noticed (and whose success as an author hinges upon us continuing not to notice) that Hammer was a violent numbskull, Aldrich makes that the primary conflict of his film. His version of Hammer is a protagonist he positively dares us to root for. “Go ahead,” he says. “Follow this guy. See where it gets you.”

Both versions of the story open the same way. Driving alone at night, Mike Hammer nearly strikes and kills a panicking woman. She’s naked apart from a trenchcoat, and he gives her a ride away from whatever it is that she’s fleeing. He learns that she’s escaped from a mental institution, and at a service stop she mails a cryptic letter to him…just in case she doesn’t survive the night.

Sure enough, she doesn’t. Hammer is run off the road by a group of goons who kill the woman while torturing her for information that she never gives up. They then shove Hammer’s car off a cliff — with an unconscious Hammer and the woman’s corpse inside — and when he comes to, our hero sets out seeking answers of his own.

In the book, he picks up the thread fairly quickly. The woman had Mafia connections, and the men who killed her were trying to get their hands on two million dollars worth of drugs. The identity of the MacGuffin comes to light relatively quickly and easily, and Hammer spends the bulk of the novel trying to track it down before the Mafia does.

The film, however, plays it coy. Hammer doesn’t know what he’s chasing down until he finds it. In fact, he doesn’t even know what it is until well after he finds it. It’s not a cache of illegal drugs, and he’s not up against the Mafia. No…compared to the actual situation he finds himself — too late — embroiled in, those things would be a comforting reprieve. He’d trade every ounce of his reality to be at the mercy of the Mafia, because what he finds instead is something even he can’t convince himself he can handle.

Staring into the cold eyes of organized crime is nothing, after all, when compared to the raw, undiscriminating, destructive power of the Manhattan Project.

I started reading Kiss Me, Deadly as I was finishing Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (which will likely be covered here at some point, but not the version you’re thinking of). It was a nice opportunity to compare and contrast the way Chandler and Spillane handled their signature characters.

Both Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer operated outside the law, and they each viewed themselves as a lone kind of justice in a world that desperately needed them. But, operationally, that was where the similarities ended…and I think reading Kiss Me, Deadly and The Big Sleep so close together illustrated that quite well.

As The Big Sleep comes to a close, Marlowe’s client — the dying Colonel Sternwood — is made aware of the fact that Marlowe lied and misrepresented himself while working on the case. “And do you consider that ethical?” Sternwood asks him, clearly rhetorically. “Yes,” Marlowe replies. “I do.”

If, ultimately, it serves his client well, Marlowe is willing to bend the rules. It’s an adherence to a kind of ethics; one that may not match up with yours or with mine (or with Colonel Sternwood’s), but one he can justify to himself. One that allows him to look in the mirror and see a man he respects staring back at him. Marlowe is the damaged and weary heart at the core of his stories, the character who elevates Chandler’s novels above mere works of detective fiction and allows them to become complex, interlocking character studies. Marlowe will do the wrong thing in service of the right thing, and hate and admire himself in equal measure for it.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

As Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly opens, Mike Hammer outlines his own code of ethics. He explains to his secretary Velda why he’s going to see this dangerous case (which nobody hired him to investigate) through to its end: “I hate the guts of those people. I hate them so bad it’s coming out of my skin. I’m going to find out who ‘they’ are and why and then they’ve had it.” Importantly, he grins at Velda before he says this.

His code of ethics? Fuck you; that’s his code of ethics.

Hammer takes joy in hatred. He relishes it. He’s fueled by vengeance and bravado. And for Spillane, that’s enough. There’s no need to explore or undercut his attitude; it’s Hammer’s. If you don’t like it, you can shove off and find another book.

Flawed heroes by no means suggest “lesser” works of art, but the author must be aware that his heroes are flawed. Spillane, clearly, is not. He operates on Hammer’s side, watching him booze and batter and romance his way along the sunny California coast. In Spillane’s mind, that’s what Marlowe did, too. And he’s right…except that Marlowe suffered for it. Sure, Hammer comes away beaten and bruised, but Marlowe slinks back to his lonely apartment to play chess alone and wonder why he’s still alive. Marlowe’s suffering is emotional, spiritual, psychological. Hammer’s is expressly physical. Spillane doesn’t see a difference. I find it hard not to.

This is probably a large part of why Spillane’s writing hasn’t seen the kind of critical reappraisal that Chandler’s has. For all of their superficial similarities, the fact is that Chandler wrote about terrible things with a kind of love, a jilted affection, a hopeless hope for a better — or at least a decent — tomorrow. Spillane wrote about the same terrible things with a frothing hatred, a frenzied desire to inflict revenge until the karmic tally balanced out. One of those approaches proved to resonate through the years. The other, flatly, didn’t.

Spillane’s blindness to the weakness of his own prose is what holds the Mike Hammer novels back from critical recognition. Spotlighting that blindness is what allowed Aldrich’s adaptation to achieve it.

In the film, Hammer is portrayed as the worst kind of man; an imbecile who won’t keep himself in check. And Aldrich also gives him an identifiable reason for that: greed. Hammer on the page is a successful private eye. Sure, he don’t play by no rules and a couple-a noses get busted here ‘n’ there, but he ultimately proves himself correct. He gets his man. His methods are vindicated. Importantly: he wins.

Meeker’s Hammer doesn’t seem to have won in a long time. He might never have won. Sure, he’s got the charm, the nice suits, the sexy secretary. He’s got the sideboard full of booze. He’s much like his textual counterpart in those ways. But part of the reason he gets wrapped up in solving the mystery — what Christina Bailey, the mysterious woman, knew…what she was killed for knowing — is that he imagines a substantially larger payout than he usually gets. See, in an early — marvelously tense — scene, a board of inquiry grills Hammer as soon as he gets out of the hospital. And it’s there that we learn, if we couldn’t tell already, what a shit he is.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Christina Bailey’s dead. Hammer gave her a ride that night and lied to police at a roadblock to keep them from knowing that fact. Later they find her corpse and Hammer’s unconscious body in the wreck of his car. He’s obviously peeved to be asked about it, but you can hardly blame them for treating him as a lead.

He refuses to talk, however…so they talk for him. We learn that he’s what they call “a bedroom dick.”

He hounds out infidelity by creating it himself. He schmoozes the wife, and he sics Velda on the husband. They dig up whatever they can and sell the information to the other spouse.

He’s not an honorable man seeking justice; he’s a lowlife with dollar signs in his eyes. He’ll knowingly and deliberately hurt others and interfere with their relationships in order to maintain his station in life.

He sits there while the investigative committee asks him questions and tries to prod a response out of him, but when you’re comfortable with being that much of a jerk, you’re beyond the reach of insult. Their sharp words about his business practices don’t seem to faze him at all. No surprise there, and as its main purpose in the film is background exposition I admit the scene doesn’t faze me much either.

Aldrich, however, doesn’t leave it there. We get a much more affecting reprise of the theme later on, when Hammer lets himself into Velda’s apartment late at night. She’s in bed…sweating and unhappy. She reports to him about the man he sent her out to see, and we see that she’s not happy with the way Mike essentially functions as her pimp.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Maxine Cooper’s Velda is a harrowing creation…all vulnerability and desperate to please. She’s a beautiful woman with a good heart who is trapped in a toxic arrangement with her boss. It’s off-putting, disgusting, and perfectly handled by the film. Throughout Kiss Me Deadly she worries about Mike. She worries about his safety. She advises him not to dive head-first into a search for something people are dying over and which he can’t even identify. (Not bad advice, you have to admit.) But here, for perhaps the only time, she’s worried about herself.

She doesn’t want to say so. And she never does get around to saying it directly. But the toll that this “dating” is taking on her is clear. She uses the four-letter word “date” in place of another four-letter word films might use today. She feels filthy and disappointed in herself for having to “date” these men simply because her boss tells her to, and tonight’s brings her pretty close to the breaking point. All we need to know is expressed in her shivers, in her unfocused, desperate rambling.

“He…tried to date me,” she explains to Mike, who is only half listening. “With a few drinks…and one thing leading to another…I suppose I could get some more information…”

She’s hoping, clearly, that Mike will tell her she doesn’t need to go any further. She’s keeping the door open for him to say exactly that. We get the sense that she’s always leaving this door open…and that he closes it every time.

When he doesn’t respond, she asks him outright: “Do you…want me to date him?”

It’s in line with his narrative treatment of her in the book. Hammer is constantly proud of having such an attractive girl on his arm. He relishes the looks other men give her. For lack of a more tactful way to put this, he gets off on it. Strangers stare at Velda getting into and out of cars in Spillane’s version of Kiss Me, Deadly, and Hammer couldn’t be more proud of himself. They’d kill for the chance to touch her, but he knows she’s never leaving the palm of his hand.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Velda isn’t his wife, his girlfriend, or his love interest. She’s a pet. She’s someone over whom he exercises control, right down — as the film assures us — to who she fucks, and when, and for what purpose.

He toys with her across both media, but only the film gives us a scene like this, in which she’s on the verge of breakdown while her concerns are ignored. Sure, by this point in the film we knew he was a bedroom dick. There are no narrative surprises here. But the toll it’s taking on Velda has the capacity to shock. To upset. To revolt. And it does all three.

It’s scenes like this — raw with unspoken pain — that remind us that though Kiss Me Deadly is having a lot of dark fun with the troubling conventions of noir, and is at least passively interested in exaggerating them so we can see how ugly and ridiculous they are, we aren’t watching a parody.

There’s a lot of great comedy in Kiss Me Deadly, but it’s hard to laugh, because there’s a lot of hurt and anguish and crushed innocence as well. No, in spite of its inversions and subversions and intentions to tease out each of the genre’s many hypocrisies, it’s not a parody; it’s a serious film that just so happens to star a jackass.

Funnily enough, Aldrich’s adaptation tones down Hammer’s jackassery. It’s sharper and more critical in its development and presentation of the man, but a large amount of awfulness is actually excised from the character. Mickey Spillane was unsurprisingly unhappy with the way Hammer was portrayed in this film — an unhappiness which may have led the man to portray the character himself in the eventual adaptation of The Girl Hunters — but he should have been happy that his most troubling material never left the page.

There’s his treatment of Velda…which does largely carry over, but is missing an integrally offensive scene in which he assures her that, as a woman, she is incapable of taking care of herself. This, mind you, while he’s sending her out on what he knows is a dangerous mission. (Some pep talk, there, Hammer.)

In both the novel and the film, Velda ends up kidnapped and ultimately rescued by Hammer. In the film, however, that at least manages to play like poor planning on the part of the detective, whereas the book has an inherent “Told ya so” attitude to the development of her going missing. And, like Spillane playing Hammer in The Girl Hunters, the moral of that part of the story seems to be “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” Neither Spillane nor Hammer could trust the delicate business of slapping a city around to lesser people.

But there’s more to Hammer than the shitty way he treats Velda. For instance, there’s the shitty way he treats everyone else on Earth.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

The novel sees him following clues that lead to an apartment. When he tells a woman in the building that he’d like to see the superintendent, she informs him that she is the superintendent. He tells her he wants to speak to her husband, then, because she’s nothing to him.

It’s only mildly stomach churning until the climax of the scene, in which Hammer’s behavior inspires her husband to start being dismissive of her as well. In fact, her husband shutting her down plays like a triumphant moment…one we’re meant to enjoy, and one which is meant to reinforce Hammer as being the hero.

Look! He just helped this guy in his marriage! Before he met our heroic private eye, this guy was probably treating his wife as some kind of equal!

Now, of course, we need to take into account the time during which the book was written. That’s the same reason we didn’t get into the socially problematic portrayal of “the black boys” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and it wouldn’t be fair to deride Kiss Me, Deadly for being complacent in its sexism when it was published in the early 1950s.

However there’s a difference of intent between scenes like this and a background level of sexism: Spillane’s work isn’t merely comfortable with or accepting of the treatment of women in 1950s America; it celebrates it. Spillane has Hammer right wrongs by showing uppity women their place. He makes sure they stay where they belong, and don’t get any big ideas. He equates their silence to a necessary male triumph, and that’s the difference.

A novel like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can contain a problematic portrayal of black people as residue of the culture in which it was written. By contrast, a hypothetical novel that celebrates segregation and sees its hero organizing lynch mobs to keep blacks in line cannot fall back on the same excuse.

The superintendent moment does have an analogue in the film, but it’s much shorter there, and is at least played for laughs. It’s also one small part in a much larger, more artistic work that conclusively condemns Hammer’s behavior, which is important to keep in mind. The same scene that makes the woman look like a bitch in one context makes Hammer look like a bastard in the other.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

We also see sexism manifest itself in a bizarre way through the character of Michael Friday. Michael is female, and in the book there’s some back and forth about the fact that she shares her first name with Hammer. However nothing really comes of it, making it seem like Spillane started telling a joke and forgot to get to the punchline, which is why her incarnation in the film is just named Friday (and is that much better for it).

In both versions, Friday is the half-sister of Carl Evello, a dangerous cog in the machine Hammer is attempting to dismantle. However her film incarnation doesn’t have anything to do with the plot after Hammer flirts with her and uses her fondness to gain access to Evello’s estate.

And that’s fine. After all, even the best detectives in these kinds of stories need to use and manipulate others. A little bit of eye contact and double entendre over hard drinks is nothing. Hammer knows that Evello won’t be happy to see who’s schmoozing his sister, so there’s a psychological element at play here in addition to the simple, logistical one. In a Marlowe story we could question the ethics here (and there’s no doubt Marlowe would question them himself, alone at night in his empty apartment), but we already know that Hammer doesn’t have a code of ethics; he wants to win and doesn’t want to lose. It doesn’t get any deeper than that. Keeping that in mind, his treatment of Friday in the film is about as positive as one can ever hope to see.

In the book, however, both he and Spillane have bigger plans for her. She gets involved — and used as a pawn — in the conflict between Hammer and her half-brother. He gets information from her. He strings her along romantically (though it does appear, at times, that his feelings for her are genuine). And, ultimately, he sends her off, deeply entangled in a situation she wishes she knew nothing about, on a fact-finding mission that is likely to get her killed. She goes…and we never hear from her again. There’s no resolution, and she is apparently murdered on this mission without Hammer ever following up to rescue her or to make sure.

It’s an uncaring end for a character that seemed integral to the novel, and it gets even less caring when Hammer reveals that he’s mainly disappointed by her death because he’ll never get to fuck her. All that foreplay for nothing! Our poor hero. Fortunately, though, when he rescues Velda his first thought is that he will fuck her, so I guess everything worked out after all.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

In fact, in the book Hammer has a habit of going through femme fatales like dental floss.

The character type is a staple of the genre, but when they keep getting introduced and killed on his watch — the mysterious woman at the beginning, Michael Friday at some point off camera, Lily Carver toward the end of the book, very nearly Velda — it borders on unintentional self-parody. Spillane never realizes how ridiculous it feels to read this.

Introducing one femme fatale and immediately disposing of her — as with the mysterious woman at the novel’s beginning — works as a shock to the reader’s system. That’s the reason Janet Leigh’s structurally untimely death in Psycho hits the way it does; we meet a character and believe, at least to some extent, that we know what to expect from her arc. When an outside force — the unseen passengers of another car, Anthony Perkins — derails that character’s trajectory, we feel it. We have our sense of security shattered. We feel lost…and there’s nobody’s hand to take but the storyteller’s. We are, as they say, in their grip.

It’s an effective method of audience manipulation, but Spillane keeps doing it…and numbs its impact. It becomes comical at best, and a reminder that Spillane isn’t totally in command of his material at worst.

And all of this doesn’t even touch on the violence throughout the book. While a fair (okay…a more than fair) amount of violence is to be expected in hardboiled detective fiction, it’s typically violence that occurs to and around our detective figure. That, after all, is what separates him (and it is always a him) from the bad guys.

Not so in Kiss Me, Deadly, in which Hammer takes a dimaying pleasure in causing others pain. About midway through the book he murders two people who have designs on his life…which makes sense and was likely necessary. Less sensical and by no means necessary is what he does next: he arranges their dead bodies in a “cute” tableau against a sign reading DEAD END. Like James Bond, Hammer is always ready with a quip after besting his adversaries, but I don’t recall Bond’s sense of humor stretching to include the desecration of corpses.

He also confronts a character, Dr. Soberin, toward the end of the book, and kills him in cold blood rather than turn him over to the authorities. This after he breaks all of Soberin’s fingers just for the sport of it. And at another point he searches for the man he believes has taken Velda, and anticipates “the pleasure of killing him slowly.”

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

In Spillane’s world, though not in Spillane’s perspective, the hero’s actions are indistinguishable from the villain’s. The only real way to tell them apart is that one of them has the benefit of first-person narration. If we were watching from an outside perspective, the line between them would grow hazier, and eventually non-existent. Villains, by their natures, like to drag pain out…inflict it with gusto…relish the agony. Hammer, by his nature, appreciates the same things on the same level.

He’s ostensibly on the side of justice, but he believes that everyone should be able to appreciate some good, unnecessary torture. (Dick Cheney was a huge fan of the Hammer bibliography.) Chandler would definitely have said that Marlowe was a flawed man, but Hammer makes Marlowe look like Barney the Dinosaur.

These are all things that don’t carry over to Aldrich’s film. His version of Hammer — the one so gloriously, smugly inhabited by Ralph Meeker — is informed by this behavior, this mindset, this callous disregard for the feelings and needs and respect of others, but he does Spillane a favor by eliminating Hammer’s more sociopathic excesses.

It’s a favor Spillane could only repay with spite and vitriol, but had Spillane allowed himself to view Meeker’s portrayal as the kind of guy Hammer would be in real life, he’d have gained invaluable perspective.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

One of the most interesting structural changes in the adaptation is the role of Pat, a police offer attempting to untangle the same web of clues Hammer is. In the film, which I saw first, Pat embodies an identifiable — almost necessary — type of character: the adversarial lawman.

Our lone wolf detectives may always get their men, but in order to do so they need to operate on their own terms. This is where the lawman comes in. He warns the detective to leave the job to the guys with badges. He may threaten our hero’s safety. And while he may be either honorable or crooked, he represents an approach to crime solving that is hindered by its own process and procedures. A private investigator answers to none of that — though he may ultimately have to account for it — which is why PIs are so often the heroes, and straight-laced emissaries from the precinct so rarely are.

In the film, Pat seems to fit that adversarial role quite well. Aldrich has him do all of the things we’d expect: warn Hammer off the case, try unsuccessfully to get Hammer to share the information he’s uncovered, and, ultimately, shake begrudging hands with the resourceful man who solved the case before the boys in blue could.

…only we never get around to that last part, because all Hammer succeeds in doing is leading the bad guys to the dangerous nuclear material they’ve been chasing, and obstructing the official investigation that could have stopped them in time.

Hammer’s army-of-one approach to the case is precisely what bungles it, as sharing even the most basic information would have immediately made the scope and nature of what was happening more clear. In perhaps the most obvious example, Hammer tracks down Lily Carver, the frightened roommate of the recently deceased Christina Bailey. He spends the majority of the film with her, sheltering her and protecting her as he chases down his leads. When she disappears toward the end of the film — conveniently after he discovers the location of the stolen nuclear material — he mentions her to Pat…and Pat replies immediately that Carver’s body was found a week ago.

Hammer realizes then that he’s been used…that he’s the reason the bad guys are going to win. The smallest sharing of information, the narrowest attempt at cooperation, would have prevented this. Hammer was too preoccupied with holding all the cards to realize that he’s been slipped a counterfeit. He took a lie at face value, and the human race is endangered for it.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves with that last sentence, there. All of this is meant to be compared to Pat’s role in the book, which is much different. In the film, he’s an identifiable archetype (albeit one who, subverting our expectations, knows what he’s doing). In the book, he’s Hammer’s pal.

Pat, on the page, is a hopeless boob. He’s ineffectual, and impressed (isn’t everyone?) by Hammer. He does his best to help Hammer and makes only token warnings about his safety. He calls in favors with the other officers and he dutifully stays out of the PI’s way, knowing (as he must) that nothing can stop our hero.

Compared to Pat on screen, this is a much less satisfying character. Indeed, he only exists to remind us of the ostensible danger over which Hammer regularly triumphs; as we experience the plot through Hammer’s eyes, and Hammer is a vial of pure, distilled confidence, we need somebody else to tell us just how incredible he is for succeeding. Mike Hammer makes surviving the streets and single-handedly taking down the entire Mafia look easy…so if he’s to be our filter character, we need someone else to remind us that, no, actually that’s pretty hard; Mike Hammer is just that rad.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

In the film, Pat knows better. He views Hammer the way most of us would in real life: as a putz who doesn’t know better than to get out of the way. In fact in both the book and the film, Hammer has his PI license and gun permit revoked. In the book, this is presented as the work of the powerful, connected Mafia who are pulling strings to keep Hammer off their backs, with Pat expressing worry and remorse over this development. In the film, however, Pat takes great pleasure in revoking that license and permit himself, and even issues a direct threat for disobedience: “If I catch you snooping around with a gun in your hand,” he says, savoring every word, “I’ll throw you in jail.”

The book wants us to believe that Pat and Mike are old friends who have earned each other’s respect over a lifetime of bailing each other’s asses out. The film knows better; no cop in the world would want, or would benefit from, an impulsive brute like Hammer dragging his knuckles all over a crime scene. And so the revocation of license and permit are a necessary first step for Pat in the film. Whereas his literary counterpart hopes Hammer can win in spite of the handicap, Film Pat personally handicaps him to keep him out of the way.

We even get a great line in the film that isn’t revealed as great until the ending puts it into perspective: when told to step aside and let the police do their jobs, Hammer asks, “What’s in it for me?”

He finds out too late, and so do we: he and a lot of other people would have gotten to stay alive. Hammer serves up the sort of confrontational attitude that is so often framed as a positive quality for detective figures, and the film then guides us through a long series of scenes that make clear that it’s a positive quality for nobody.

As he explores and teases out the mystery of Christina Bailey, we follow him along on a trail identifiable to any fans of the genre. He checks in with landlords, with friends. He hears a few names uttered in relation to hers and he tracks them down as well. He finds kindly old gentlemen, haunted family men, boxing managers. He assembles a network of willing and unwilling informants, and pieces together what they know. On the surface, it’s every detective we’ve ever seen before.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

But beneath the surface, there’s something darker. We see it in how quickly Hammer gives himself over to anger. How cruel he can be, and how perfectly amused he is by that cruelty. In one scene he tracks down a man who may or may not have some information about another man who may or may not have some connection to Christina’s death. It’s a hunch several other hunches deep, but before he even asks a question he pulls a record off the man’s shelf, identifies it as “a collector’s item,” and snaps it in half.

Meeker’s look of smug satisfaction is perfect here. The man hasn’t withheld any information, nor is Hammer even sure he has any. He just sees the man’s extensive collection, pegs him as a music lover (the man was singing enthusiastically along to opera records when Hammer arrived), and decides to be a dick about it.

It’s one of the single cruelest moments in the film, because it’s one of the only times we know that a character truly cares about something. Hammer deliberately destroys it and leaves him with the pieces not because the man wouldn’t talk, but simply to assert himself. A man who had nothing to do with anything Hammer’s seeking has one of his prized possessions snapped in front of him, and Hammer couldn’t be happier about it.

His behavior is a far cry from Marlowe’s, as the latter is painfully aware of how rare goodness is in the world around him. When he finds those uncommon “straight” folks, he remembers them. When he sees how the world treats them for being straight, he’s tormented by it. Harry Jones in The Big Sleep is an example of a character with a good heart who doesn’t hope for anything more than to take another character away from all the madness and murder and misery. When Jones is killed before Marlowe can get to him, our detective feels the world grow that much colder. Hell, the entirety of The Long Goodbye could be said to focus around this idea, as Marlowe befriends Terry Lennox, a disfigured war hero the world — and seemingly everyone in it — beats down for no other reason than that they can. And when Marlowe learns later that Lennox himself isn’t such a great guy, either, it’s a charged, raw, painful revelation for him…a kick in the pants for being dumb enough to believe that goodness could even exist nowadays.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Compare that to Hammer’s treatment of a rare straight, honest fellow that he encounters in his travels: in both the book and the film, the desk clerk at an athletic club refuses to accept a bribe in return for information on one of its members. Marlowe, whatever his subsequent course of action, would be (at least temporarily) reassured by the knowledge that there still exists a kind of man who can’t be bought. Hammer, by contrast, grabs the man by the lapel and slaps the shit out of him.

This also highlights another difference of approach between the two detectives: Marlowe’s not a particularly big guy. He can’t count on winning a battle of sheer brutality, which ultimately results in a better character because it means he needs to outwit his opponents. On the page — where we can very clearly see the workings of mind but never the workings of body — this works very well. And where Marlowe out-thinks, Hammer overpowers. Both are valid approaches, but one is far better suited to the literary bent of the genre.

In fact, throughout Kiss Me, Deadly, Hammer reveals himself to be exactly the kind of guy Marlowe is regularly bringing down a peg. Someone with an inflated sense of self-worth without the ability to see that he’s ridiculous. And while this could — and should — rightfully feed a pride-before-the-fall approach to characterization, Spillane doesn’t see this as a flaw to begin with. Hammer just comes across as a meathead.

His dimwittedness is passive — and clearly unintentional — in the book, but Aldrich was a close and a respectful reader. He emphasizes Hammer’s intellectual failings, even as he reconstructs the central mystery to make it more satisfying.

In both the film and the book, Hammer receives a cryptic note from the mysterious woman (played in the film by an unexpectedly sexy Cloris Leachman)…after her death. She mailed it from a gas station in the final minutes of her life, having gotten his address from his license in the car. So far, so similar.

But the message in each case is very different. In the film, it’s two words long:

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

“Remember me.” That’s all. And yet…that’s not all. Because while she can’t spell out what she needs to tell him — for rightful fear that the note will fall into the hands of those seeking the nuclear material for their own nefarious purposes — she can hope that he’ll put several different pieces of information together and figure it out. He is a detective after all…right? That shouldn’t be such a novel idea…

And yet it is, because compared to Spillane’s original “mystery,” Christina’s message conceals its secret much more intricately.

There’s the note, of course. But the film adds layers. There’s also the way she introduced herself to Hammer: “Do you ever read poetry? No, of course you wouldn’t. Christina Rossetti wrote love sonnets. I was named after her.”

When Hammer goes to investigate Christina’s old apartment, he finds a book of Rossetti’s works…including one that begins with the words “Remember me.”

He pores over the poem with the woman he believes to be Lily Carver, Christina’s old roommate, and she helps him to decipher its meaning as it relates to Christina’s predicament. Hammer doesn’t realize it — though he would if he’d worked with the law rather than against it — but “Carver” has a vested interest in finding the item’s hiding place, too. In fact, she has more of an interest than even Hammer does; she actually knows what she’s looking for, and what it’s worth to others. Hammer, by contrast, is still chasing what Velda referred to as “the Great Whatsit.” By this point in the story he’s even sacrificed her to his search…without knowing what it is he will find.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Eventually, it clicks for him…and it clicks with the following lines: “For if the darkness and corruption leave / a vestige of the thoughts that once I had.”

He works through it:

“If it’s a thought, it’s dead because she’s dead. It’s got to be a thing. Something small, something she could hide. But where would she hide it? She didn’t have time at the gas station. She swallowed it!”

He heads to the morgue to demand an autopsy, where they find a locker key in her stomach.

That’s a mystery. And whether or not you buy Mike Hammer of all people stumbling upon the solution through impulsive poetry analysis (as much as I love the film, I’m not sure I do), it is a puzzle that gets solved. What’s more impressive is the way that Aldrich built all of this around Spillane’s source material.

He finds a real-world poet who has written a poem that can be boiled down to both a seemingly simple phrase and a deceptively rich clue…one that will lead his Hammer to the same conclusion Spillane’s found, but in a less direct and (dare I say it?) more “mysterious” way. It requires renaming a character (Christina Bailey was called Berga Torn in the book), but it’s worth it. See, because while I might have seemed like a smartass above about the novel idea of treating Hammer like a detective, Spillane didn’t really do it.

His version of the message is embarrassingly direct: Berga writes to Hammer, “The way to a man’s heart–” and leaves it at that, essentially structuring the novel’s central mystery around a Kiddie Korner fill-in-the-blank puzzle.

It’s especially (and again unintentionally) comical when both Hammer and the entire sprawl of the Mafia are angrily unable to solve it. It’s absurd that nobody in the universe of this novel has heard the idiom before (apart from Berga Torn, I suppose), and the net result is that we have a state-wide life or death scramble over what may as well be the solution to “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

In filming Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich knew that wouldn’t fly. There’s more to a mystery than a withheld solution…especially one that the viewer would guess the moment the question is raised. He may have revealed Spillane’s central character to be a helpless dolt, but he had respect for his audience.

The final stretch of the film is christened by a scene in which Hammer finds the Great Whatsit and realizes he’s out of his depth. It’s a realization that literally scars him.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Having solved Christina’s dying riddle and arrived at the object of his search, Hammer locates the mysterious box in a locker at the athletic club. He relishes the approach, taking his time with the buckles and clasps that keep the case closed. He never questions whether his search has been worth it; his only question is how much it’s worth. The tension is high, but the stakes, as far as he’s concerned, are non-existent. He’s already here.

He’s already won.

So Hammer takes a well-deserved peek at his prize. It’s not a cache of drugs. It’s not a sum of money. It’s not even something that can be divided and sold: it’s unstable nuclear material, and a moment of panicked exposure is enough to disfigure Hammer’s wrist.

It’s also a moment that has resonated through the years, with the searing light of an unseen force being visually reprised in films such as Repo Man and Pulp Fiction. Hammer’s nightmare endures.

He jerks away, bitten and shaken by what just blinded and howled at him from a hiding place that suddenly feels far too exposed.

The injury to his wrist smarts, but one gets the sense through Meeker’s deeply affected performance that the real scar is psychological. However much it hurts on the outside, it’s the blow to his dignity, his confidence, his self-assurance that he’ll never recover from. He had this. It was right there. It was in his hands. And now he wishes to god he never found it.

Lily Carver, who made the trip along with him, goes immediately missing. The clerk at the athletic club is terrified. And Hammer can’t even turn to Velda, who’s been taken by the very goons who were searching for this dangerous weapon. The very goons that Hammer just led directly to it. The very goons who even did him the courtesy of coming to the bar to tell him they took Velda away…but he was passed out drunk when they arrived, and so he still doesn’t know who they are, or where to find her.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

He’s some guy, that Mike Hammer.

He returns to his apartment and finds Pat, but there’s no more swagger, no more confidence in his gait, no more questions of “What’s in it for me?”

Meeker incredibly, deeply, disarmingly sells the emptiness. The hollowness. The complete and immediate wrenching change within. The distance between Charles Bronson and Al Bundy covered in the shift of an eyebrow.

Hammer is a broken, defeated schlub…all mussed hair and rumpled suit. His smug, self-satisfied grin is replaced by a hangdog sense of impending doom. He hasn’t just fumbled a case, or lost out on a nice payoff; he’s well and truly fucked a lot of people…and he can’t prevent the damage that’s about to unfold.

This is still Mike Hammer, but he’s Mike Hammer as Mickey Spillane could never imagine him: as a human being.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Pat is here with the upper hand, to rub it in, to remind him, and us, of what he’s done. He speaks with a gentle brutality throughout the film’s best speech…an expository patch that functions also as punishment for a misbehaving toddler. The Hammer who slapped and punched and abused his way forward has found the implications of those actions to be beyond his control. Pat rightfully lays into him without breaking his calm, which somehow renders the entire thing that much scarier.

“You’re so bright, working on your own. You penny-ante gumshoe. You thought you saw something big and you tried to horn in. […] Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters, scrambled together…but their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. Manhattan Project. Los Alamos. Trinity.”

Harmless words. Just a bunch of letters…scrambled together. There’s only the meaning we give them, but that meaning is very important. That meaning can change everything.

Mike, deeply abased, delivers the most fragile three words he’s ever said. They’re three harmless words. Just a bunch of letters. But their meaning is very important:

“I didn’t know.”

It halts Pat in his tracks. It’s the sort of thing that might have mattered this time yesterday. Now, at this stage, it’s too late. “You didn’t know,” Pat spits back at him. And then, “Do you think you’d have done any different if you had known?”

And that exchange…those two lines between two characters…betray a deeper, richer, more fascinating story on their own than the whole of Spillane’s source text managed.

Obviously the proper response here is that Spillane wasn’t interested in telling the same kind of story Aldrich is telling, and that’s okay. But there’s something reassuring about the fact that Spillane’s masculine, abusive cavalcade of triumphant violence didn’t last, while Aldrich’s dark, cynical undercutting of the same events did.

There’s a comforting reminder about the resonance of art, its staying power, its tenacity in outliving its inspirations and its creators. Its ability to take on a life and a legacy of its own. Books, movies, music, any kind of media will always have its comfort food, and that comfort is always fleeting…but art survives. It outlives the countless deaths around it. It carries forward into a world that has been somehow altered by it. It stands and remains a monument to itself.

While humanity fumbles and falls, a work of art is unchanged. It endures. It lives.

The end of the film sees “Carver” succumbing to her own curiosity and opening the box. The hungry force of destruction inside devours her as she burns and screams in agony.

It then devours the room.

And the house.

And the darkness of the night sky.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

The destruction comes fast, and is unexpectedly thorough. Our hero is on the scene, but only to be made painfully aware of his own helplessness, his impotence in the face of a real obstacle. In his escape he finds Velda, but there’s no feeling of reunion, of relief, or of anyone living happily ever after.

Together they stumble onto the beach with the nuclear disaster unfolding at their backs, and they take what minor, temporary comfort they can in the ocean as the swelling, repeating blast beats down on the world around them.

In the book? Oh, the book ends with Hammer being deeply repulsed by the fake Carver, who reveals that her body is disfigured and therefore she wasn’t worth all the time he spent trying to fuck her. He sets her on fire and leaves her to slowly burn alive.

How that — that — resolution could be reworked to become this horrific nuclear nightmare is a genuine example of spinning straw into gold. Aldrich did a great job not of adapting Kiss Me, Deadly, nor of improving it, but of sounding its hollows. Finding what it said without saying it. Ascribing grand meaning to a bunch of letters, scrambled together.

It’s tempting to give Aldrich the benefit of timing…arguing that the social climate in which he made his film was different from the social climate in which Spillane wrote his novel. But in truth they were released only three years apart — the cultural blink of an eye — and nuclear anxiety didn’t look much different in 1955 than it did in 1952. It’s not a matter of Aldrich filming in a different world than Spillane was writing; it’s a matter of Aldrich being interested in reflecting the needs, the fears, the paranoia of the world around him, whereas Spillane, flatly, was not.

In Aldrich’s hands, the story was elevated from an effective though forgettable bit of pulp to a Cold War horror show with a modernized Pandora’s Box as its central metaphor, the entire mess fed through a warped noir filter.

He did a lot more, that is to say, than point his camera while characters recited somebody else’s dialogue.

He created something that outlived the novel. He created something that outlived Spillane and himself, and is destined to outlive Hammer. He created something that still shocks today, something that continues to ring with terrible, destructive power. Something that reminds us that the wrong person in the wrong place can wipe out everything we’ve worked to build…often without even realizing that he’s done it.

The world of the novel was fragile. It splintered under the barest touch. But in the patterns of those splinters, Aldrich found something of harrowing beauty.

Instead of ignoring Spillane’s shortcomings as an author, Aldrich spotlighted them. He didn’t hide the flaws; he rearranged them so that they’d form a statement. And he didn’t redeem Spillane’s creations…he quite literally blew them up, along with the entire genre.

Kiss Me Deadly is often spoken of as noir’s grand finale…the last word that could ever be said on any one of its subjects. It’s a daring, definitive piece of punctuation that doesn’t only wrap up its own story, but seems to wrap up the stories of every hardboiled gumshoe, every dangerous dame, every nobody who’s ever been in over his head. It’s a blaze of glory that irreversibly consumed the genre that had given rise to it.

It was a great trick…but as Daffy Duck once observed, you can only do it once.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Kiss Me Deadly
(1952, Mickey Spillane [as Kiss Me, Deadly]; 1955, Robert Aldrich)

Book or film? Film. So much for all that “the book is always better” talk, huh?
Worth reading the book? If you’ve read all of the Chandler and Hammett and Cain you can get your hands on, then maybe.
Worth watching the film? Definitely.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Not only is it a better adaptation than the book deserved, the film makes a strong case for being the most intelligent noir in cinema history.
Is it of merit in its own right? The film is of merit, I’d argue, even to those who dislike noir. It’s one of the most daring and least apologetic adaptations I know of, and is a quietly damning study of Hollywood male bravado.

Blade Runner

Fiction into Film has already gained some pretty awesome traction, due in large part to the official Vladimir Nabokov social profiles sharing my Lolita piece, and John Carpenter himself sharing my writeup on They Live. If you wonder why those have a few thousand likes and shares on Facebook while everything else I write maxes out at about four, there you go.

So I’m feeling pretty good about the series, and I have a nice long list of things to cover on what I hope continues to be a monthly basis.

But there’s one stubborn holdout: Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This is why I’m asking, openly, if anyone out there would like to cover it.

Blade Runner is an important film in general, and I believe firmly that a piece discussing the process of adaptation would make for a great read. It’s something I’d like to have. In fact, the series would feel incomplete without it; it’s a film that people keep suggesting that I cover, and for good reason.

But here’s my hesitation: I don’t know enough about the film’s multiple cuts and tortured editing history. In most cases I’d just need to watch a film and read a book, then whack out a brilliant essay about what I learned. (I AM SIMPLIFYING)

In this case, the question of which version of the film to watch, what to consider (or disregard) from the various incarnations and edits, what actually happens and how those events are presented in order to guide our understanding of them as viewers…well, it’s just a bit too much.

It’s something I certainly don’t trust myself to handle authoritatively, and I think it’s wiser for me to step aside and let somebody else take the reins.

Are you interested in covering Blade Runner? I won’t pay you because WHO THE FUCK PAYS ME, but it may get some pretty cool attention and put your name out there. And I can promise you that though these take a hell of a lot of time to write, they’re also a lot of fun, and you’ll find yourself noticing things you hadn’t before, just by virtue of trying to put your thoughts into words.

I’m not requiring that all edits are covered…it’s just that I’m not well-versed enough in Blade Runner to know what should be discussed and what — by and large — we’ve decided not to.

I’d definitely be interested in hearing from you if you think you’re up to the task. If you want to be the gal or guy to cover Blade Runner for Fiction into Film, get in touch. I’d love to have you.

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

They Live, 1988How do you ensure that your social satire is remembered and referenced for generations? You cast “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and you let him shoot a shitload of aliens.

…that’s how the original draft of this Fiction into Film began. In the time between that draft and this one, we lost Piper to a heart attack, and my advice is no longer valid. Social satires will be forever poorer for it.

Casting a professional wrestler as a lead in your film is something that should probably be handled with caution. For every Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride there’s Hulk Hogan in Santa with Muscles. For every Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson there’s a Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Wrestlers act every time they step in front of a camera, but it’s a very specific kind of acting that rarely prepares them for a feature film, where they can’t rely on their gimmicks, the adrenaline of a crowd, or the suddenly-not-as-important fact that they do their own stunt work.

They Live enlists “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as its protagonist, a man who made his living as one of the WWF’s greatest heels, and you’d be forgiven for thinking of that as a misstep. He wasn’t meant to be liked. He wasn’t meant to be adored. He was a petty egotist who fought dirty and had nothing but contempt for any human being who wasn’t named “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. He was an ass — as far as his stage presence went — and the only joy he ever seemed to bring into people’s lives was when he found himself pinned at the end of a match. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was a legend in his own mind, and a putz in everyone else’s.

And you know what? He was great at it.

They Live, 1988

This necessary approach to character development may be why Piper was able to successfully transition into They Live and other roles. Whereas somebody like Hulk Hogan fed on the goodwill he engendered with crowds (and mandatory paeans to patriotism and eating your veggies), Piper thrived on hatred. Hogan was allowed, and encouraged, to share in the joy he created. Piper was forced into a disconnect; he had to spit upon it. Hogan was a hero and an idol. Piper didn’t care if you lived or died.

In Hogan’s case, this didn’t require him to be or to become a good actor; he simply had to embody his own image. It’s why he appeared in numerous films and TV shows and cartoons and music videos, but always as some version of himself. He needed his blonde hair, his mustache, and his tear-away tanktop. He wasn’t a character; he was an idea.

Piper, by contrast, built a character. He had to understand how that worked. He had to know how to improvise in front of a crowd. He had to know how to shift and pivot around a change in somebody else’s approach, because shattering the illusion would be detrimental to his career. The moment he broke character — and, God forbid, smiled — he wouldn’t be the villain anymore. Or, at least, not as much of a villain. He couldn’t pass it off the way his contemporaries could. He wasn’t allowed to take part in the fun.

And so, consciously or not, he studied what worked and what didn’t. And even if you were not a wrestling fan — I never was — you benefited from it, from his starring turn here, in John Carpenter’s brilliant commentary on consumerist America, to his self-aware (and oddly poignant) recurring role in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He knew how to make a character work…how to inhabit somebody that wasn’t himself…and how to portray somebody who refused to admit he was as downtrodden as he really was.

They Live casts Piper as a nameless drifter (though the credits refer to him as “Nada,” the surname of his equivalent in the original short story) seeking work in a decaying America. His first lines are to an ineffectual clerk at a job center, as he explains that he was last employed in Denver, but couldn’t find work there after the banks started closing. (He’s in California now, which suggests just how difficult his search has been.)

That’s the opening to a 1988 film, and it would be just as appropriate opening one released in 2015. And just as suitable for 2015, Piper is told that there’s nothing they can do for him.

They Live, 1988

They Live is odd. It’s the sort of film that may actually play better now than it did upon release, if only because the nearly 30 years that have intervened have done nothing to soften, alleviate, or address the concerns on display. In 1988 it was a cynical, biting look at a bottomed-out America, which makes it even more painful to watch in 2015. If it was maddening then that we were there at all, how much more painful is it that we’re still there today?

Carpenter’s violent, brutal deconstruction of his own country’s willful blindness is a vision entirely his own, even if he does, technically, build the film around somebody else’s source material.

They Live is based on a 1963 short story by Ray Nelson: “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.” They share several of the same plot points (which we’ll discuss in turn), but are miles apart in terms of artistry. In fact, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” becoming They Live is one of the most charitable processes of adaptation I’m aware of. A short, lifeless, didactic parable becomes a genre-hopping, hilarious, chilling punch to the gut. Carpenter didn’t just improve upon Nelson’s source material; he did him the favor of fleshing it out, expanding upon its shallow ideas, and — in short — making it worth experiencing.

To take a great story and turn it into a great film is a great (…ahem) thing, but aside from the obvious answer of money, it raises the question of why one would bother doing it. If something wonderful already exists in an accessible format, why recreate it?

The Live doesn’t face that problem. It takes a forgettable dash of mild sci-fi and spins it into a gritty, cynical yarn whose echoes still resonate throughout pop-culture today. Unless you visit this site (or have friends who really need to improve their taste in literature) you won’t hear “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” come up in many conversations. And yet They Live‘s flourishes are everywhere.

Those Shepard Fairey OBEY stickers you used to (and may still) see everywhere? They’re spreading the subliminal messages that Piper discovers in They Live. The X-Ray Specs from Bart vs. The Space Mutants that let you see which characters are actually aliens? Those are lifted directly from the sunglasses in They Live. And Duke Nukem’s “kick ass and chew bubblegum” line? That’s born of one of Piper’s improvisations that made it into They Live…and has since been co-opted by everything from Dazed and Confused to King of the Hill.

They Live, 1988

“Eight O’Clock in the Morning” is the insect preserved by They Live‘s amber. I’d recommend reading it not because it’s very good, but because it’s very short, and it serves as an insightful rough draft of what They Live would have been without the immense writing, acting, and editing talent behind it.

The story’s main plot is very similar to that of They Live. George Nada (the prototype for Piper’s character in the film) accidentally awakens “all the way” to the truth around him. He sees that the Earth is populated partially by Fascinators, reptilian creatures from outer space that secretly run the world. There’s little more to the story than that, and it’s impressively plagued with issues for something so short. For starters, it’s odd that the space creatures are referred to immediately as Fascinators. It’s the kind of name you can easily read into, but it smacks of cleverness for the sake of cleverness, and it makes Nelson’s intentions too clear. Since George would have no way of knowing what they’re called — and doesn’t invent the name himself — it sticks out early and oddly, and guides the reading of the story a bit too tightly.

It’s also amusing that George awakens “all the way” after a performance by a stage hypnotist. It’s a rather silly way to open what is an otherwise humorless, preachy slog, and Carpenter does well to build his film around a more universal sign of entertainment: the television.

Carpenter’s television is both master and liberator, serving a conflicted role in a conflicted film; for Carpenter, the medium is emphatically not the message…his characters are pulled in both directions by its gravity, toward slumber and toward awakening, toward slavery and toward freedom, toward ignorance and toward enlightenment.

They Live, 1988

Television is a weapon, working for whomever is holding its signal at the time. By handling television this way, They Live at times feels of a critical piece with films like Network and Videodrome, similarly dark, comic meditations on what television does to us…and what we let it do to us. I’m unaware of any films that consider the sociopsychological role of stage hypnotism to the same successful effect.

The main problem with “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” though — and the main reason I’m keen to poke a little fun at it — is how seriously it takes itself. It’s very much a cautionary parable, and it’s hard to read much of it without assuming that the final line will be something like, “Don’t you see that this story applies to you, dear reader?”

Its message is also a dangerous one. George awakens, begins murdering strangers, ties up and verbally abuses his girlfriend, and goes on a suicide mission to the local TV station to expose the truth. It’s a story that positively begs for unreliable narration, or at least some ambiguity, but we don’t get any. We are assured throughout the text that George is correct; he really is the only sane human being, and the only one capable of exposing the truth. But how does George know that?

His behavior — like the narration that describes it — is too self-assured. Consider the early moment during which George encounters a homeless man in an alley:

George picked up a brick and smashed it down on the old drunk’s head with all his strength. For a moment the image blurred, then the blue-green blood oozed out of the face and the lizard fell, twitching and writhing. After a moment it was dead. […] George dragged the body into the shadows and searched it. There was a tiny radio in its pocket and a curiously shaped knife and fork in another. The tiny radio said something in an incomprehensible language.

We aren’t meant to doubt his actions; the third-person omniscient approach with its constant reassurance that George is correct prevents us from ever doing so. But removed from the narrative and appraised only on its content, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” should be the tale of a man going dangerously insane. There’s enough in that short paragraph above to raise more narrative red flags than the whole of Lolita, but Nelson wants us simply to buy into it.

Faces flicker into different shapes. Without a word George caves in a stranger’s skull with a brick. Hey, it turns out it was a scary lizard man only George could see. It was carrying a radio broadcasting “in an incomprehensible language.” Being that almost all of the languages on Earth are incomprehensible to anyone, anywhere, at any given time, this should have been a clue to question George’s thought process. (It’s also interesting that George is in a social position to beat a homeless man, whereas in They Live Piper is the homeless man.)

Everything about that passage should be terrifying. Nelson agrees, but he thinks we should be terrified of the lizards. A reader paying any attention would instead be terrified of George.

For both Nelson and Carpenter, the world around these characters is one thing, while appearing to be another. But Carpenter has the good sense to let others in…to let each of the characters involved verify the truth in their own way. There’s no third-person presence repeating “Keep calm…” over the horrors; there’s an ugly truth that the characters would prefer not to face…but once they know the truth, there’s no going back.

In fact, one of the greatest — and most memorable — scenes in the film unfolds between Piper and Keith David (playing Piper’s fellow laborer Frank) in a filthy alleyway. The former has a pair of sunglasses that reveals the world as it truly is, and simply wants the latter to try them on. Frank’s refusal escalates quickly to violence, which itself builds to a protracted scene of mutual, relentless brutality. Piper’s request to Frank is nothing more than to try on the glasses…it’s as simple and benign as a request can be. But the lengths — and the desperation — that we will go to in order to avoid seeing the truth is explored here in a comically literal way.

They Live, 1988

Frank has a wife and children in Detroit. He’s laboring on a construction site in California, living in a shantytown and sending all of his money home. Like Piper’s own trek from Denver to the west coast, this is further evidence of how difficult things have gotten for honest, hardworking people. There’s no laziness on display in They Live. There’s no struggling character that could possibly try harder to elevate himself or herself. There’s simply a dead end, and they’re all stuck.

There is no chance of getting ahead…but Frank has to try. He knows he won’t succeed, but that doesn’t mean he can give up, or jeopardize what little opportunity he has. Putting on the glasses may reveal the truth, but revealing the truth will mean he no longer has the comfort of his illusion. He’ll no longer be able to believe that he’ll see his family again, or that his daily sacrifice will put them in a better position to get ahead. He’ll no longer be able to hide.

So he refuses. He fights. He bludgeons and topples and beats relentlessly against what Piper is trying to show him. The first time I saw this film, I actually suspected it would end here, with our hero being beaten to death by the closest thing he has to a friend, the lonesome death of the only man who knows the truth in a world that doesn’t want to hear it.

It doesn’t end there, and I’m glad, but part of me still feels like it’s a dark enough thought to be in tune with the rest of the film’s idea of comedy.

The brutal scene between Piper and Frank is our mid-film reminder of its star’s origins: it’s a chance for “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to do some fighting. And like the WWF, it’s theatrical, over the top, and absurdly full of false victories and fake-outs. Unlike the WWF, however, there’s something at stake. And as funny as the scene is, there’s a genuine sadness that runs through it.

There are no cheering (or booing) fans. There’s no play-by-play. There’s no ring. There’s a filthy alley, broken glass, splintered two-by-fours. There’s bleeding and bruising. There’s sweat. There’s wheezing. In their own way, each of them is fighting for their vision of the world…and in both cases, it’s a vision they don’t particularly want. Piper seeks change, Frank seeks stasis. And they’re both willing to beat to oblivion one of the only people that has ever showed them kindness. These are men who have almost nothing to lose; all they have left is what they believe in, and the moment someone tries to take that from them, they’ll fight to the death to keep it.

They Live, 1988

But there’s more to Piper’s casting in this film than his ability to pull off convincing fisticuffs. He plays the central role, remember, in a film about how what we think we see isn’t really what we see. And the man was a professional wrestler.

The discovery that wrestling is staged is right up there with learning the truth about Santa Claus for many children. It’s a confusing, maybe painful, rite of passage. And Piper, like countless other men and women in that field, was directly responsible for creating the illusion.

Wrestling was a series of characters waving their arms and legs around and pretending to injure and be injured by that. There was more to it, of course, but it was stagecraft. It was illusion. You were watching at home, or in the audience, and the participants made you see something that wasn’t actually happening.

Piper himself was a creation. He’s credited by that name in They Live and his other acting roles, but he was really Roderick Toombs. He put on a show as Piper, and then put on another show either in the ring or in films. He was an illusion several layers deep, and a man famous for sustaining it with caustic aplomb.

Piper playing the role of the only man aware that there is an illusion — and to fight tooth and nail to tear that illusion down — must have been cathartic to him. He made his career by hiding the truth, and arguably peaked in that career with this portrayal of a man who would — and does — die to bring it to light. It’s the kind of stunt casting that would have worked in theory with any professional wrestler, but Piper was the right choice. In addition to being an impressive actor in his own right, he had the willingness to look less than glamorous, the ability to play against type (a serious rarity for wrestlers-turned-actors), and also had what John Carpenter called “life written all over him.”

Piper wasn’t a pretty boy. He wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t even someone you could be sure was going to accomplish whatever the hell he thought he needed to accomplish. He was a guy you’d question, but also worry about. He was a man whose motives couldn’t possibly be pure, but who you wanted to trust anyway. He was a physical brute who seemed as helpless as a pussy cat. He was a casting choice that both raised and addressed what should have been the central question of Nelson’s story: just what the fuck is this guy doing?

They Live, 1988

The difference between Carpenter’s keen understanding of the material and Nelson’s dull bungling of it is best illustrated by a significant scene that both versions of the story share. In They Live it’s Piper taking refuge in the home of Cable 54 employee Holly Thompson (played just cagey enough by Meg Foster), while in “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” it’s Nada taking refuge in the home of his girlfriend Lil.

On the surface, both scenes fulfill the same need: they give the protagonist a safe space and a confidant, and we get a brief recap of the story in the main character’s own words. But Nelson’s execution is muddied, and upsetting. We’ll look at his first, and we’ll do it in a way that the story itself does not: we’ll look at it through the eyes of Lil.

Remember, only George Nada knows of the Fascinators. Only he can see them, and nobody else has any evidence (or suspicion) that they exist. When we read “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” we know he is correct in his actions…but what of the other characters in the story? What do they see? Well, let’s break free from the narration, and just list George’s actions in this scene.

Lil doesn’t know what her boyfriend knows, so all she sees is his behavior. Ready?

He shows up unannounced, in a panic. He steps into her apartment and switches her television off. He demands that she “wake up,” which she doesn’t understand, so he slaps her across the face. He then murders a man who comes to the apartment to see what the fuss is about. He does this by stabbing him in the neck with a knife. He drags the bleeding corpse into her living room, and she recognizes the man as her neighbor, Mr. Coney. George commands that she not scream, and that she tell him where Mr. Coney lived. Then he ties her up and gags her, and leaves to murder Mr. Coney’s family. (A slight cheat here, as she doesn’t see this happen, but based on what she’s seen already she can’t expect that he disappears to help them weed the garden.) When he returns he takes her car keys and leaves her bound and gagged in the room with the body of her dead friend.

And we’re supposed to like this guy, and view his actions as heroic. See now why the story screams for an unreliable narrator? As it stands, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” unrolls a litany of horror underscored by a confusing reassurance that it’s nothing to worry about. You’d think it was some kind of attempt at thematic resonance (the subliminal messages of the Fascinators serve a similar purpose), but at best it’s a symptom of trying to say too much in too short a space, and at worst it’s very poor writing.

It’s problematic to say the least, which is why it’s good that Carpenter reconfigures it substantially. For starters, Holly is not Piper’s girlfriend…she’s a woman he apologetically carjacks when there’s no other way to escape the creatures that pursue him. From Holly’s perspective, much of this must be unfolding as it does for Lil. In her case, however, it’s a stranger. It’s not a trusted (and presumably loved) man who has suddenly become a lunatic; it’s a stranger who she immediately knows she must be careful and diplomatic with. She’s on her guard; no trust is betrayed. It’s a terrible situation, but there’s no pretending otherwise.

Carpenter’s lens allows Holly to show her discomfort in a way that Lil cannot. We see Holly on edge, and we know that Piper may be treating her in a necessary way, but certainly not in a heroic one. She gets to be a human being…and it helps (just a smidge) that Piper is actually interested in explaining to her the situation, rather than murdering her neighbors and piling the corpses around her living room.

They Live, 1988

After Piper’s equivalent raving, Holly doesn’t get bound and gagged while he steals her car, either, forgotten for the rest of the film as Lil is in the story. Instead, Holly patiently listens, and then summarizes the situation back to him: “Okay. You’re fighting the forces of evil that none of us can see without sunglasses.”

Nelson needs to reassure us that what George is doing is right. Carpenter keeps leaving room for us to suspect that what Piper is doing is wrong. Nelson wants us to believe him wholeheartedly. (One might say, obey.) Carpenter wants to keep us locked in an uncomfortable and anxious dance of moral ambiguity.

The confusion echoes through Piper’s performance, as he seems to teeter on the line between hapless putz and action hero without definitively falling into either category. His faltering, reluctant ascent to ass-kicking savior status gives the film some of its biggest laughs and memorable moments. Unlike George in the story — who takes to bashing skulls and slicing throats with disconcerting ease, and without provocation — Piper is forced into his armed rebellion.

He reveals in a corner store the fact that some of the customers have a very different appearance when he wears his sunglasses: “I take these glasses off, she looks like a regular person, doesn’t she? Put ’em back on…formaldehyde face!” This causes the creatures to swarm toward him, while relaying his physical description through their wristwatches. Almost immediately he is approached by creatures in police uniforms, and must do the unthinkable:

They Live, 1988

Shooting the cops doesn’t quite play as triumphant, and even if you manage to see it as such, it’s tinged with the knowledge that he’s even more, to put it diplomatically, fucked.

He takes two guns with him and flees into the nearest convenient building…which just happens to be a bank. The tableau thus created — the guns, the sunglasses, the American flag — is packed with heroic imagery, but Piper oozes awkward desperation. Whatever he’s stepped into, he’s not ready. He knows it. He also knows there’s no going back.

They Live, 1988

It’s here, in this very moment, that he coins the film’s most famous phrase. Unable to explain to onlookers what he’s actually doing there, how he got there, or what he could possibly do next, he haltingly declares:

I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.

It’s nonsensical, but perfect. It says everything while saying nothing. It’s a perfectly structured dash of macho action movie palaver, however it lets its own absurdity bleed through. Piper’s character is not an action star, but he’s suddenly the star of an action film. All he can do is do his best.

We get further quips like this throughout…ones that work very well in context, the decidedly clunky attempts of a man to fill his own big boots.

“Life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

“Mamma don’t like tattle tales.”

“You look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957.”

“Ain’t love grand?”

But it culminates, shockingly, in an emotional scene between Piper and Frank. In a hotel room they discuss what they’ve seen, and what to do about it, but Piper seems lost in thought. Frank contributes to the conversation, but it’s unclear whether or not Piper hears much of what he says.

They Live, 1988

He shares with Frank the most backstory we ever get out of him: a single, inebriated speech about the abuse he suffered at the hand of his father. He tells the story of a time his father took out a shaving razor and attempted to saw through young Piper’s throat, “like he was sawing down a little tree.” (Presumably George in the original text would see this as a very inspirational story.) He tells Frank about how he screamed and cried for his father’s mercy, and Piper’s far from dull to the pain this many years later.

It’s all in buildup to one more macho threat, which also suggests a crucial moment of growth for Piper. While the story is about his father, he ends it with a threat to the aliens: “I got news for them. There’s gonna be hell to pay. Because I ain’t daddy’s little boy no more.”

It’s a difficult moment to pull off in a sci-fi action horror comedy, this moment of quiet, human vulnerability, but I’d actually argue that this is Piper’s strongest scene in the film. For a man who was never known for subtlety, he gives this speech incredible depth and sadness. It feels real. It feels honest. And it takes his unpracticed heroism and explains it by, suddenly, revealing depth of character.

To Nelson, triumph is a brick to the head. To Carpenter, it’s a broken man taking control, for the first time, of his destiny.

But no true 80s action hero is complete without a sexy love interest, and it’s here that poor Piper makes a bad choice.

After he forces Holly to take him home and explains the situation to her, she breaks a bottle over his head, hurls him through a plate glass window, and calls the police.

They Live, 1988

Ain’t love grand?

But Piper knows as well as we do that all romantic subplots have their hiccups, and they never end halfway through the film. Which is why he’s so happy to see her at a meeting of resistance members as They Live nears its climax. He concludes from this that she’s seen the truth…that he did his part in opening her eyes. He sees that he’s saved her, and that they can now work together to dismount the alien ruling class.

In short, he’s a bit dim. She’s a mole. And he doesn’t even second guess things when she says she assumed she’d killed him.

The creatures storm the meeting and murder almost every resistance member outright. Piper and Frank survive the onslaught, but Piper is convinced that he needs to go back for Holly, blind to the fact that she’s been directly responsible for having him nearly killed twice now.

It’s a sweet impulse completely overshadowed by its foolishness, and once they do find Holly, she wastes little time in putting her gun to Frank’s head and murdering him.

They Live, 1988

The entire end of the film is tonally chaotic, in the best imaginable way. The action, the comedy, the sci-fi, and the social satire all jostle for primacy, but it works. In “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” George simply strolls into a TV studio, shoots everybody, and imitates the Fascinators for the viewers at home: “Wake up. Wake up. See us as we are and kill us!”

It’s an underwhelming solution compared to Carpenter’s, which sees Piper and Frank stumbling into an underground gala event, at which the aliens and their (willing) human accomplices celebrate the fall of the resistance. It’s “backstage at the show,” as one character puts it, and we get to tour it along with our heroes.

Nelson was concerned at this point mainly with wrapping up his story, but Carpenter is concerned instead with deepening it. And it’s a trick Carpenter pulls off with the return of a minor character played by George “Buck” Flower…another nameless drifter who lived in the same shantytown as our heroes. Only now, he’s found prosperity.

They Live, 1988

The two nameless drifters (Piper and Flower) meeting up at this moment, after an entire film apart, suggest parallel adventures, with each of them stumbling upon the same truths, but processing them in decidedly different ways. Whereas Piper’s character is horrified and disgusted to see that we’ve been used and manipulated by an outside force, Flower’s chooses to hitch his wagon to that force, and help them in exchange for being helped himself. “We all sell out every day,” he explains. “Might as well be on the winning team.”

Flower’s character isn’t alone. At the resistance meeting it was made very clear what the biggest threat to an uprising was: humans choosing to side with their own conquerors. “They sell out. Promotions, bank accounts, new houses, cars.” And then the six words that explain everything: “We’ll do anything to be rich.”

What’s really impressive is how Carpenter spins this into both an obviously negative thing, and also the reason Piper and Frank get a foothold at all. Humans want money and status, but they also want to show those things off…and when Flower’s character takes them on a tour “backstage,” he’s doing so in order to impress them. That’s the only reason they get within shooting distance of humanity’s salvation.

Before the fireworks at the TV station — and the shorting out of the device that hides the true identity of the aliens — Flower’s character ducks out. He vanishes from the action through the escape functionality built into his wristwatch, and it’s possible to conclude that he survives. It’s important, I think, because he’s not necessarily a bad guy. Like Piper and Frank, Flower had nothing. He was in an identical situation, and he was doing anything he could think to do in order to survive. Piper hiked from Denver to California for the barest hope of a job. Frank sent every dollar he made back to a family he’d never see again. Flower exchanged his pride for a life of financial security…and you can’t really blame a guy who hasn’t had a roof over his head or a good meal as long as he can remember.

We can identify with Flower, which is the scariest thing. Our conquerors don’t have to come with bullets and billy clubs. They just need to give us what we want. We’ll stop fighting the moment we think being conquered is a good deal. And I’m glad that Flower (potentially) survives the film; it keeps the morality nice and muddy, where it needs to be.

But, ultimately, Piper destroys the signal. He, Holly, and Frank all die, and the true faces of the aliens are revealed to the world at large. “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” sees George dying at this moment as well: “George did not live to see the victory that finally came. He died of a heart attack at exactly eight o’clock.” We’re then assured that he had universal success and we can all go out for frosty chocolate milkshakes.

They Live

Piper’s death is one we can only hope has the same result. We don’t know what happens after the aliens are revealed. They could be defeated…or they could make the same offers that won over people like Flower. The illusion may be shattered, but unlike in Nelson’s story, the power of the conqueror is rooted more deeply than that. A new day will dawn, but won’t we sell out on that day, too? Won’t most of us still want to be on the winning team?

I originally wanted to cover They Live for this series because I think it’s an incredibly inventive adaptation. It doesn’t so much re-tell a story as it does inject life into an idea that didn’t initially reach its own potential.

The unexpected and unfortunate death of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is going to make this seem like at least a little bit of a tribute, and that’s okay, but if you haven’t seen They Live, don’t conclude that the only reason to watch it is to pay homage to the man.

It’s an important, influential, intermittently brilliant piece of brutal social commentary. And it’s a damned good movie as well.

It’s too late to cast “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in your movie and let him shoot a shitload of aliens, but don’t worry. Somebody already did it for you.

They Live, 1988

They Live
(1963, Ray Nelson [as “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”]; 1988, John Carpenter)

Book or film? Film
Worth reading the story? It’s the kind of story that loses nothing by simply having it summarized to you so…no.
Worth watching the film? Oh come on. Just look at this and tell me it’s not worth watching.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Even better than the story deserved. It’s an adaptation that isn’t worried about remaining true to the source material, and a perfect example of why that’s not just okay; it’s often beneficial all around.
Is it of merit in its own right? Definitely. It’s a deceptively clever bit of pulp that does a great job of threading its own world through the one we know. It takes a painfully wimpy story and a painfully macho genre and blends them both into a work of art.

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the film that originally piqued my interest in the process of adaptation. I first saw it in junior high. (This surprises me now, as there’s a good deal of profanity, some nudity, discussions of rape, and simulated masturbation, so we must have had a pretty inattentive substitute that day.) Toward the end of high school, I picked up the novel…and I was shocked by something the moment I started reading it: Chief Bromden was the narrator.

This is an experiment I’ve enjoyed repeating over the years. Whenever I meet somebody who’s only seen the film, I casually mention that the book is narrated by the Chief. Every time, to some degree, I’m met with disbelief and confusion. They go through that same, silent questioning that I went through way back then. Questioning which, I believe, is a testament to the strength of Milos Forman’s adaptation. Bromden narrating the source material doesn’t just land as a quirky surprise…it makes it immediately clear that the book must be a different kind of story entirely.

And it is. The shift in perspective narrows and sharpens the film’s focus, but it also sets into motion waves of less-perceptible effects. This ends up creating a welcome duplication of the original experience, familiar and just far enough removed that the film was able to take on a very deserved legacy of its own.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is probably my example of an ideal adaptation; instead of having one version that trumps (or attempts to trump) the other, we have two versions, existing in two different media, functioning together and also independently. A massive, important, gut-wrenching statement in print managed to become also a massive, important, gut-wrenching statement on film. They share a title, they share a roster of characters, and they arguably share a grander social statement, but the execution in each version is so perfectly tuned to its medium that they’re easy to keep separate. A single ray of light split into two similar but distinct images.

The story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t, on the surface, feel different between the book and the film. Randle Patrick McMurphy — a brash, charismatic criminal — feigns mental illness so that he can ride out his prison sentence with relative ease in an institution. It works, but he soon finds himself locked in a fateful (and ultimately fatal) struggle with Nurse Ratched, who rules with unchecked authority over her numb and defeated patients.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The struggle between McMurphy and the Big Nurse (as Bromden calls her in the book) is what nearly anyone would talk about when asked to discuss the plot of either version. Rightly so, but its not the only plot Kesey set to the page, and it’s only one filter through which his novel explores the world. Forman — I’d say wisely — eschews everything that doesn’t tie directly into this plot, building continuously and without digression toward the showdown between these two giants. While that means that his film loses a lot of Kesey’s warped, cynical playfulness, it also results in a sharper work…one that has a single, specific, inevitable outcome. There aren’t other threads to wrap up or questions to answer; a story of many things finds what matters most to what it neeeds to say, and discards the rest. It’s a movie about its conclusion; no blinking, no distraction, and nowhere to hide. It knows what it’s doing, like McMurphy. And like McMurphy, it barrels forward anyway, knowing full well that it won’t find a happy ending.

The book takes its time. There are lighter, humorous interludes. It moseys along and takes every opportunity to enjoy (or, at least, linger upon) the view. It knows what has to happen as well, but it finds sober, voyeuristic pleasure in the low-stakes poker games and quiet interactions that its cinematic twin ignores. The novel and the film amount to two journeys past all of the same landmarks, but at a much different pace, with a very different tour guide.

Both approaches work, and they work equally well. This is because Kesey and Forman are both in command of their form. At no point does either version of the tale stray from its creator’s intentions. They’re equally potent. Equally memorable. Equally brutal. They’re different, but I think it would be very difficult to declare with any confidence that one is “better.”

Sweeping Bromden from the central role does more than shift the weight of the story. After all, the novel actually weaves three levels of narrative; by edging him out of the spotlight, we end up with the film’s (cold, deliberate) one. The novel features the McMurphy / Nurse Ratched power struggle, of course, but there’s also the story of Bromden’s tribe (an exploration of America’s treatment of its native population), and his intricate hallucinations of an oppressive social force that he calls The Combine.

All three of these are integral to what Kesey considers to be the story. Forman, by contrast, isn’t interested in Bromden’s background or his daydreams. Very little of either of those makes it into the film, because to Forman’s story, they’re irrelevant; the director obviously came away from Kesey’s book with a powerful message, but it didn’t have much to do with the plight of the American Indian. And so we don’t need Bromden in the central role…which has the logistical benefit of Forman not needing to maneuver the seemingly deaf/dumb Indian into every important scene; in the film, the character simply does not appear where he does not fit.

But with him out of the way, we lose, too, his unreliable narration.

Kesey had a great deal of morbid fun showing us the experience through Bromden’s eyes, eyes crucially warped by the specter of mental illness. Stripping Bromden of narrative detail meant that we lost much of the loopy charm (a sequence in which Santa Claus visits the ward and is forcibly committed [“They kept him with us six years before they discharged him, clean-shaven and skinny as a pole.”] is a cruel delight that could only possibly have a home in the book), but in the absence of an unreliable narrator, the central conflict of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object gains potency.

With Kubrick’s Lolita the source material lost a massive amount of its identity in the absence of an unreliable narrator, but that’s mainly because Kubrick failed to replace this crucial component of the novel with much else. Forman, on the other hand, knows exactly what to do in the absence of Bromden’s unreliable narration: he doubles down, hard, on the reality of the situation. Bromden’s fantastical narration made for some great (and chilling) reading, but Forman offers no distraction. No respite. This is real. This is happening. And you are going to have to endure every moment. Where Kesey dazzles, Forman refuses to blink.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Of course, Forman had a great reason to devote his attention exclusively to the novel’s central conflict: two incredible actors inhabiting the necessary roles. To distract from their performances — however artfully — would have been criminal. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher are the two main reasons the film works as well as it does, and their roles in making this film a success — of any and every kind — cannot be overstated. Most literary adaptations would kill to have just one actor that perfectly inhabits a character; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next has two.

Both of them illustrate (if it still needs illustrating) why it’s far preferable for an actor to inhabit rather than simply resemble a character. Neither Nicholson nor Fletcher match Kesey’s physical descriptions at all, but it would take an extraordinarily warped perspective to conclude that this meant poor casting. In fact, Ratched’s physical appearance, almost entirely a creation of the film, is one of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s most enduring visual touchpoints; her hair and wardrobe now serve as a convenient shorthand for a very specific type of character — always female, interestingly — and we see it in everything from the deliberate homage of Cloris Leachman in High Anxiety to the suggested similarities of Tilda Swinton in Moonrise Kingdom. Nurse Ratched’s physical appearance sticks with us long after the film is over. It’s a triumph of rendering the ordinary horrifying.

Nicholson plays McMurphy as an agent of calculated chaos. He rips into the meticulous order of the ward from the moment he’s uncuffed (literally that moment, as the first thing he does is whoop joyously…something that even this early in the film we know doesn’t happen often here). He sets about introducing himself to the other patients, interrupting their games, and making sure they know his name. He treats them — to their clear surprise — like human beings. That doesn’t mean that he treats them well, exactly, but that’s okay. He treats them the way he’d treat anyone else. And that in itself is enough to set the wheels in motion: the patients begin to suspect they might not be so different after all.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

By contrast, Fletcher inhabits Nurse Ratched as a looming wraith. She rules her ward not with an iron fist — a simplification that must have been tempting for both authors of the tale — but with perfect calm. With a smothering delicacy. With glares and implications. And she is — pardon the language — fucking terrifying.

She’s a villain perfectly secure in the knowledge that she can never be threatened, because she also has the final say in who wins. As Bromden observes in the book, you can probably beat her once, but you need to keep beating her forever. There’s no victory state for her hypothetical antagonist…just an endless series of wins and losses until, all at once, there are no more wins.

In the struggle between them McMurphy is the clear hero, but at no point is it reduced to a simple conflict between “good and evil.” McMurphy may be the more humane combatant, but he fleeces, cheats, and uses his fellow patients in service of his own ends…and saying nothing of the fact that he was imprisoned for statutory rape, which is something he even brags about. And Nurse Ratched, for all that is clearly wrong with her methods, is ultimately in her position for a reason: many of her patients do have legitimate mental health issues, and her ostensible concerns (medication, respect for the schedule, the dangers of McMurphy’s schemes) are sound.

Nurse Ratched may be doing a number on the confidence of the men in her ward, but she’s seen (in both the novel and the film) by the rest of the hospital as one of their most valuable members. We also see her at her worst, but to her supervisors and colleagues, she’s great at her job and a valued member of staff. Clearly she’s doing something that at least seems like good work, and it can’t all be illusory.

The complicated nature of the struggle is part of why it works so well. Nurse Ratched isn’t pure evil, which is why she’s so often able to stymie McMurphy; she makes fair points. Her intentions may be less noble than his, but her reasoning — she makes very sure — is solid and defensible. And McMurphy isn’t pure good, coming across as an obnoxious braggart while still serving, remarkably, as a savior. She’s a cruel angel of mercy, and he’s a selfish asshole who makes the ultimate sacrifice. such a balance is hard enough to achieve in writing; on screen, Nicholson and Fletcher each achieve the impossible.

Fletcher masterfully embodies the personable horror that is Nurse Ratched. Hers is the most natural portrayal of an unnatural terror that I have ever seen, and her flat expressions and piercing glares are positively withering. The film does such a great job of building the dread one feels when she just steps into a room that when she finally has reason to bare her teeth in anger, it’s genuinely scary.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Hers is a silent brutality…effortlessly chilling and immensely dangerous without displaying any emotion whatsoever. The moment emotion does come to the surface, it’s unbearable. We know exactly how she maintains order on her ward; keep everyone that close to breaking, and it doesn’t take much to finish the job.

In the book, we Bromden in a position to tell us all of this in as many words. In the film, Forman conveys all of the same things visually…hanging on her icy glare long enough for us to sense, innately, in our bones, how unbreakable, untouchable, undefeatable she is. She reduces patients to tears and dismay without so much as raising her voice. She fixes the aggressive and the docile with the same look, and they wither equally.

One interesting thing Forman does is forbid her, nearly always from sharing the frame with any of her patients. In passing, yes, there are times that she does share space…but when she does it’s with McMurphy, who is meant to be seen as toppling barriers anyway. The rest of the time she engages with them we cut from the patient to Nurse Ratched, and then back to the patient. She exists behind invisible boundaries that they dare not cross, and which she is perfectly happy to maintain her end. She does not share their space…and she does not allow them to share hers.

Forman emphasizes this silently, visually, gorgeously. The camera functions like the glass window of the nurses’ station; it invisibly isolates the patients from the one who is ostensibly there to help them. And, like that glass window, it’s McMurphy who eventually shatters it.

She is, however, framed frequently with other members of staff, in particular her three orderlies. The orderlies, in turn, are often framed with the patients, and this establishes — completely visually — the entire caste system of the ward.

The patients are on one end, the Big Nurse is on the other. The orderlies go where they’re needed in order to execute Nurse Ratched’s wishes, and she never needs to get her hands dirty. Bromden tells us all of that in the book. Forman doesn’t say a word.

And when this visual restriction is shattered for good with the film’s climactic strangling, we feel a barrier being destroyed. McMurphy takes control of Nurse Ratched’s space at last…and we know, unquestionably, that this must be the last time it happens as well.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Though Forman’s take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest feels like a pretty straight adaptation on the surface, there are a lot of significant alterations, nearly all of which benefit the film.

For instance, we don’t get the series of patient deaths that we do in the novel. There, at least three patients (Old Blastic, Rawler, and Cheswick…the latter two by suicide) die before the fateful ward party that takes Billy Bibbit and (indirectly) McMurphy, but in the film Billy is our first casualty, and it ends up having more weight in Forman’s telling as a result. The film doesn’t let show us patients dying, so when Billy cuts his throat we feel it all the more deeply; this wasn’t something that we thought could happen.

The death of Billy has more bite in the film, I’d argue, and that’s probably because it was unprecedented. Billy isn’t the next death…he’s the death. And when McMurphy reaches for Nurse Ratched’s throat, it’s not because it happened again, but because it happened at all.

And just as Billy’s death is repositioned as the death, McMurphy’s role becomes singular, too. In the novel, we get a few flashback featuring a patient known as Taber, who questioned Nurse Ratched’s authority and methods. Taber was, essentially, pulling the same duty as McMurphy. He needled the Big Nurse, refused to take his medication, and raised issues that the other patients were too docile or embarrassed to raise. Nurse Ratched, in return, made sure that he was embarrassed, abused, and eventually broken by electroshock therapy. Though he was discharged, he was not the same man. His story, relayed briefly by Chief Bromden in the book, is McMurphy’s entire arc in micro. A nice touch, but in comparison to the film this makes McMurphy less of a singular force. In the book he’s the latest in a line of disruptions, whereas in the film, he is the disruption.

Most interesting about this change is the fact that Forman includes Taber in the script. He’s played by an underutilized (but still very good) Christopher Lloyd, and he’s right there on the ward with McMurphy. What’s more, many of his lines from the book are given to McMurphy.

While it would have been easy to not include Taber at all, Forman wants us to see that what happened in the book did not happen in the movie. We don’t get to imagine that at some point in the past there was a Taber. Forman wrenches him out of the flashbacks and sits him down right where you can see him, all so you know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that McMurphy isn’t just offering another chance to the other patients; he’s offering the only chance they’ll ever have.

Probably the smartest major change, though, is Forman’s abandonment of the “Matriarchy” nonsense.

In most ways, Kesey’s novel has aged extraordinarily well. It’s gorgeously written, effectively harrowing, and socially sharp. Yet his seeming concerns about the Matriarchy read as preposterous — and more than a little embarrassing — today. The idea that men would be castrated (literally and figuratively) by an all-powerful Womanhood, to whom they’d sacrifice their autonomy, and which would hold all of the power and authority in the nation, reads even sillier today than it must have in 1962. Perhaps back then it was possible to see this as a cause for some concern; and, hey, for all I know One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest single-handedly prevented America from sliding helplessly into the tyrannical grip of unbridled femininity. I don’t and can’t know. Today, though, it’s patently absurd, and the belief that women hold (or are in danger of holding, or who would systematically destroy mankind once they managed to hold) absolute power requires a complete disconnect from anything even resembling reality.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

It’s tempting to handwave the book’s suggested misogyny as stemming from the diseased mind of Chief Bromden, but it manifests itself in too many facets (several of which have nothing to do with Bromden) to be entirely a product of his narration. It’s Bromden’s mother, it’s Nurse Ratched, it’s Harding’s wife, it’s Billy’s mother, it’s even the teenage girl McMurphy rapes. The Matriarchy — which is mentioned and cautioned against by name — is a very real threat in the world of novel, and it’s one that beats down each of the men. Forman, intelligently, ignores this entirely, and even announces as much at the beginning of the film when McMurphy is admitted. There we get a shot of patients from other wards looking upon him with curiosity…and they’re women. In the novel, the patients are exclusively male. Here, with one shot, Forman brushes aside the distasteful paranoia and lets us know something important: these things are horrible not because they’re happening to men, but because they’re happening to people. Gender doesn’t enter into it.

This is also reflected in the revised role of Dr. Spivey, who in the film is ineffectual, rather than henpecked. In the book he is present at all of the ward meetings, mainly to demonstrate the fact that he’s under the thumb of Nurse Ratched as well, even though he is technically her superior. In the film, he rarely leaves his office, meaning we get less of a sense that he’s under her (or anyone’s) control.

This is important, because this version of Dr. Spivey is not cowing in fear…yet he still fails to be of much use. He’s not rendered powerless by the Matriarchy; he’s simply not very good at his job.

If the film has a weakness (and I’d personally say it has a few), it’s the fact that it’s made up of big scene after big scene. As nice as it is to have the sharper focus of Forman’s vision and the inexorable march toward the climactic gut-punch, the novel’s quieter scenes are missed. Nearly every scene in the film is a confrontation, the build-up to a confrontation, or the aftermath of a confrontation. It’s exhausting; it can feel draining to watch…which, admittedly, is likely enough a deliberate way of getting us to feel some of what McMurphy must feel. But this comes at the expense of the feeling of misfit community that the book conjures up so wonderfully. Card games, small talk, a trip to the hospital library. Scenes that, sometimes, do little more than make the tiny universe of ward life feel more real…but that’s exactly why they’re missed. When we jump from big moment to big moment, that sense of gradual build is sacrificed in favor of something more like an emotional slideshow.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Much of these missing quiet moments are down to the reimagining of the character Harding, who in the novel serves repeatedly as McMurphy’s verbal sparring partner. That Harding is as intelligent as McMurphy is brash, and they form a begrudging respect for each other; each has what the other is too proud to admit he wants. Like McMurphy, the novel’s Harding is one of the least sick men on the ward, and most of his troubles (such as they are) seem to stem from worries about his wife’s sexuality, and suspicions about his own. Outside of McMurphy and Bromden, he’s the most important of Kesey’s patients, and it’s through him that most of the novel’s foreshadowing unfolds.

In the film, Harding is more helpless than intelligent, and Nicholson’s McMurphy, for whatever reason, can’t stand him.

It’s a major shift in dynamics from the book. Book Harding rises to McMurphy’s taunts…and the two settle into a kind of unexpected friendship. Film Harding shrinks before McMurphy’s taunts…and therefore never earns his respect. The book and the film, as a result, seem to form a pair of realities, each of which exploring the way in which Harding’s role changes, based upon two different, hypothetical reactions to McMurphy.

So far away from the often chummy banter the two share in the book, in the film McMurphy ruins his Monopoly game, spits a pill in his face, cuts in front of him in line for medication, teases him about his sexuality, kicks him out of the basketball game, and — the biggest slight of all — he introduces him as Mr. Harding before the fishing trip, whereas everyone else gets to be Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Taber, Dr. Scanlon (the famous Dr. Scanlon), and so on. In short, McMurphy treats Harding noticeably worse than he treats the other patients.

It’s an interesting change, as though Book McMurphy sees in him a source of valuable advice (and information), while Film McMurphy sees him as someone who needs to be knocked down a peg. This, I think, is due to the fact that Harding’s purpose in the novel is rendered redundant on film. In the book Harding had to relay information to the reader; he was the only character who could. Bromden can’t (ahem) speak and isn’t to be entirely trusted anyway, Nurse Ratched wouldn’t dare vocalize her intentions, McMurphy is new on the ward and learning things along with us…but Harding fit the role nicely. He was relatively sane, relatively reliable, relatively friendly, relatively talkative, and had been on the ward long enough to know which end was up. In the book, his was the most trustworthy voice.

In the film, however, there’s no need for him. Forman conveys with quiet visuals what Kesey detailed in meticulous text. The audience picks up on things by virtue of simply seeing them, and the film trusts them enough to fill in the blanks.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Forman also skimps decidedly on the foreshadowing. Whereas Kesey needed Harding to explain the nature of electroshock therapy or lobotomy, Forman doesn’t want him talking. When those moments hit, he wants them to hit both hard and unexpectedly. Just as the string of deaths was stripped from the film and Taber was stripped of his role as proto-McMurphy, Harding was stripped of his warnings. Forman didn’t want the audience to be told what was coming. The audience would know, because that’s how inevitability works, but somehow it’s scarier, more effective when it’s not spoken of aloud.

I’d argue that Forman’s rollout of horrors is handled more artfully than Kesey’s, but that’s just a matter of opinion, and even then I can’t say that I have a strong preference either way. What I do prefer is that Forman’s methods force us to side with McMurphy. In the novel, we know ahead of time what he’s getting himself into, and we have every right to question his intelligence (and, erm, sanity) when he pushes forward anyway. In the film we learn as he learns…which is as the punishments are lashed upon him. This makes us feel protective, feel angrier on his behalf, and see clearly the importance of his rebellion.

Forman’s unblinking lens (the precise opposite of an unreliable narrator) illustrates the toll this rebellion takes on McMurphy by refusing to cut away. The electroshock therapy scene makes for intensely difficult watching, simply because of how naked it feels. There’s no movie magic here; it’s a man on a gurney, acting out his pain. We don’t get any fake electricity sound effects, we don’t cut to black and leave the audience to imagine things, and we don’t have another character explain to us what the experience is like. Kesey’s depiction of the punishment is entirely internal, relayed through Bromden. Forman’s is entirely external, captured through a camera’s lens. Both of them in perfect keeping with the strengths of their format.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This is McMurphy, writhing in agony, and we are not spared a second. Whatever the strength of his swagger after this scene, from this point on it’s impossible to not be aware of the effect it’s having on him. We’ve seen him at his most vulnerable. We’ve seen how doomed his rebellion really is. It’s something he’ll never reveal to the other patients…but we’ve already seen it.

Of course, the electroshock therapy scene is also where we learn that Chief Bromden is neither deaf nor dumb…a significant change considering that we know these things from the very start of the novel.

It’s yet another very interesting effect of sidelining Bromden. What was one of the very first things we learned in the book — one that shaped the way in which every event was reported to the reader — becomes a mid-film surprise. In both cases Bromden speaking represents a major evolution for the character, and is crucial evidence of the positive impact McMurphy is having on his fellow patients. But the film allows us to share McMurphy’s surprise, and his incredible series of reactions to the development.

At first he can’t bring himself to believe that the Chief thanked him for a stick of gum, so he does what any good scientist would do: he offers him another, to see if he can repeat the result. Nicholson’s performance throughout this entire scene is a thing of beauty, starting with the fact the he can’t decide if this is evidence that he’s helping Bromden, or going insane himself.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

When Bromden does speak again (“Ah, Juicy Fruit.”) it’s just after McMurphy loses hope, and looks away. At this point Nicholson leaps into a state of elation and laughter, as we likely do in the audience as well.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

And this quickly shifts into worry as he remembers where he is. “What are we doing in here, Chief?” he asks, immediately sobered.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Nicholson cycles through this series of emotions flawlessly…and they each feel as though they spring from the previous one naturally. It’s profoundly sad that when he realizes that he has a confidant in the Chief, he opens right up to him. It demonstrates how starved he is for somebody, anybody, that he can communicate with in a significant way.

The surprise of Bromden speaking is probably the most famous moment in this film, apart from — of course — the ending. And it succeeds because of how perfectly, and simply, it balances everything that’s happening in the entire story. The idea of actual vs. feigned mental illness, power rendering its victims helpless, the punishment that’s unfolding in the background and about to engulf them, the psychological retreat of the men, the fleeting smallness of triumph.

It’s an equally powerful moment in both media, but it plays differently in each. Which might actually be the best part about it; if you’ve already experienced it in one version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the other still has the capacity to surprise.

This commiseration with the Chief is perhaps the first sign of the toll McMurphy’s rebellion is taking on him, and the electroshock therapy that follows cements it. In the novel, that same toll is relayed in a much different way. There, McMurphy takes a short detour after the fishing trip to show the patients his childhood home. He doesn’t get out of the car…he just tells them stories. He seems to be the same person he always was, except that Chief Bromden catches a glimpse of his face in an expected splash of light, and he sees a tired and hurting man. Bromden sees then what their all-too-human savior is going through.

It’s one of the most significant and important moments in the entire novel…and Forman snips it. That’s not a problem in itself, since — as with most of his snips — it’s in aid of showing rather than telling, and it’s a change that suits the medium. The problem is that Forman doesn’t also snip the fishing trip. Its most important moment has been excised, but the outing is still here…a bloated, uncomfortably silly sequence robbed of its purpose, breaking the sense of suffocation and claustrophobia for no real narrative or artistic gain.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

It’s an unfortunate example of flab in an otherwise perfectly constructed film, one which thrives on (and is weakened by any distance from) the central conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy.

The extraordinary tension between the two, even (or especially) when they are both completely silent, makes the film what it is. At no point in their scenes together does one get the sense that we are watching two actors give us a performance; this is real, cold, calculated abuse, and as the story progresses both Kesey and Forman do a great job of ratcheting up the pain, the desperation, and the stakes.

It begins with their very first meeting, a group therapy session on McMurphy’s first day. And we know something is wrong not because the characters tell us, but because they say nothing. Forman catches Nurse Ratched flicking her eyes to her new charge. McMurphy just sits back and observes. Neither of them have any concept of the struggle they’re already locked into, but they both know well enough to size each other up, and identify whatever weaknesses they can. Whether in the prison or the mental institution, they each know the threat that one person with power can wield.

When two actors work well together, it’s often referred to as chemistry. What Fletcher and Nicholson have is something more like toxicity. There’s a genuinely scary, deeply affecting darkness that runs between them from the beginning of the movie through the end. At no point do we or can we suspect that they will come to respect the other’s point of view. There will be no compromise. When it ends, only one of them can remain standing. They both know that, and neither would dare give up the fight.

Throughout everything — the fishing trip, the patients pretending the watch the World Series, the basketball games, the electroshock, the group therapy sessions — this is the conflict that looms. This is the knowledge that is never far from what we are watching unfold before us. Like McMurphy laughing when the Chief thanks him, any joy we feel on the ward is fleeting. We can chuckle at the funny parts and ponder the profound parts, but quickly, sadly, soberly, we remember where we are.

What are we doing in here, Chief?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Several times throughout the course of the film it’s made clear that Nurse Ratched — for all her perceived good — cares more about demonstrating her power than she does about what’s right for the patients. One of these demonstrations comes in the electroshock therapy scene, and it’s more than just the fact that this method of “therapy” is being deployed as punishment.

She sends three patients, after all, for the treatment. Sending McMurphy makes sense; he smashed the window to the nurse’s office and punched one of her orderlies. Sending Bromden, too, makes sense; he participated in the ensuing brawl. But the third patient, poor Cheswick, did nothing. He was neither violent nor uncontrollable; he was voicing his concerns about cigarette rationing in a way that was indeed aggressive, but was by no means deserving — as she well knew — of severe punishment. What he needed was somebody to help him calm down, but she decided instead to us him to make a point: when you enable or support or befriend her enemy, you become her enemy.

A more significant example comes at the end of the film, when she finds Billy Bibbit the morning after the party, having lost his virginity and freed himself of his stutter. She breaks him down, threatening to tell his mother, refusing to give anything in the way of support even as he is dragged screaming down the hallway. She tells her orderlies to lock him in the doctor’s office, alone. Even if he didn’t commit suicide in there, it’d be difficult to find any kind of therapeutic value in her verbal abuse and threats toward the boy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

When Billy takes his own life, a direct result of his treatment at the hands of the Big Nurse, McMurphy snaps. The rage building behind Nicholson’s eyes is a perfect (maybe the perfect) example of why he’s one of the best actors we’ve ever had. He isn’t Jack Nicholson. He’s R. P. McMurphy. An angry dog at the end of his chain, just before breaking free.

We know what’s coming, and Forman’s camera lingers, letting them share the same shot longer than he has before, McMurphy seething while Nurse Ratched must see him, but is unable to process it. She’s in crisis control mode, but it’s for a different crisis.

The camera holds steady until McMurphy breaks, and he takes her by the throat.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Now, Forman’s careful, deliberate shooting instantly and artfully shatters. His was a calm camera. His takes were long. His editing deceptively simple. Everything was carefully blocked and arranged. He was documenting, after all, a ward of order.

Until McMurphy gets both of his hands around order’s neck, and throttles it against the wall.

The camera can’t keep up. Patients keep getting in the way of the shot. There’s not a clear view of what’s happening, at least never for long, but we can feel it. We see it even when we can’t.

He beats her against the wall. He tackles her to the ground. He chokes her long enough that the life begins to leave her, and the camera is as shocked and unable to process all of this as the patients. It, too, seems to have still been reeling from Billy’s suicide. It only just barely manages to catch the next development. And it doesn’t get a chance to breathe until Nurse Ratched does too…as McMurphy is knocked unconscious from behind by one of the orderlies she — literally — could not live without.

In the end, McMurphy is removed from the ward. As in the novel, rumors spread of his escape. As in the novel, he returns after an extended absence. As in the novel, Nurse Ratched has had him lobotomized.

But there a few differences here, and significant ones. Bromden euthanizes him, in both cases so he will not serve as a barely-alive testament to Nurse Ratched’s incontestable authority, and escapes.

In the novel, this happens after McMurphy’s body has already been on the ward for a while, and has been examined and processed by the other patients. In the film, Forman returns McMurphy to his bed in the middle of the night, and Bromden is the only one to encounter him in this vegetative state.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This means that in the novel, in a relative sense at least, Nurse Ratched got what she was after. McMurphy didn’t live long on the ward after his operation, but every minute that he was there registered as a triumph for her. He was a monument to her success.

In the film, she has no such monument. Bromden, heartbreakingly, tells McMurphy that he’s finally ready to escape…and then sees the scars. He’s too late. He hugs McMurphy, or what’s left of him, to his chest. And then he smothers his friend with a pillow.

None of the other patients see McMurphy before he’s killed. In fact, they don’t realize anything is happening until Bromden hurls the control panel through the window and escapes…his final gesture serving as a moment of conflicted triumph in both the book and the film, and the perfect ending to each.

But something happens as Bromden runs away in the film that can’t happen in the book: his fellow patients (Chewsick, Taber, Harding, et al.) watch him go. In the book, those people are all gone for various reasons. Largely, they’ve found the strength to leave the ward. And they do, before McMurphy’s body is ever returned. This is evidence, obviously, of the effect McMurphy had on them. The patients may have been committed voluntarily, but they still could not leave. Thanks to the acts and miracles of McMurphy, they finally do. They sign themselves out, and they don’t look back. Bromden remains because he’s not a voluntary patient…and by the time McMurphy returns, he’s one of the few on the ward who would recognize him.

This makes Bromden’s gesture that much more important in the film. The patients were strong enough to leave before this moment in the novel, but they were still not strong enough to leave in the film. In Forman’s vision, Bromden is the first one out, not the last. His final gesture is as important to the rest of the patients as anything McMurphy did for them, whereas in the novel it’s unlikely that any of them even find out it happened.

Though the Chief’s final decision plays out the same way in both versions, in the novel it’s mainly for him. In the film, it’s for everybody. It’s for everybody left. It’s a final chance for them to act on everything McMurphy had been trying to get them to act on all along.

In the novel, McMurphy succeeded…though he’d never know it. He did convince them that they were no more crazy than anybody on the streets. He did convince them that life was worth living, and that fear was not worth nurturing. He did convince them that there was more to being alive than safety and routine. None of them got the chance to thank him for it, but they all took it to heart…and they all signed themselves out.

In the film, if anyone succeeds, it’s Chief Bromden. The spirit of McMurphy lives on through him…a testament to a friendship deeper than either of them realized it was. It’s an incredible and enduring moment in cinema, and one rendered more important to the other characters by directorial decision, and the simple shifting of narrative perspective.

In the novel, the ending had to be more significant to Bromden, because it was Bromden’s story. In the film, the story belonged to McMurphy, and when he died the ending belonged to everybody.

That’s why it’s so surprising for those who start with the film to find out that Bromden is the novel’s narrator. It means that however similar the two tellings might be, the shift in perspective makes it an entirely different kind of story.

And that’s bound to be at least a little bit of the reaction; the welcome surprise that they’ll get to experience it anew, in a different format, all over again.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
(1962, Ken Kesey; 1975, Milos Forman)

Book or film? I genuinely can’t say. Each is a powerful, devastating, nearly-perfect work in its own right. I’d love to hear from somebody in the comments who does prefer one to the other, because I’m unable to view them as anything other than glorious equals. If I must choose for the sake of choosing, though, I’ll go with the book. It’s portable.
Worth reading the book? Definitely.
Worth watching the film? Definitely.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Yes. The casting and performances could not possibly be bettered, and a hypothetical smoothing out of its rougher edges wouldn’t necessarily make for a better film, nor would including a larger sample of the book’s content. It endures for a reason, and it’s hard to imagine a version working better than this already does.
Is it of merit in its own right? It does exactly what an adaptation should do; it preserves the integrity of the source material while making all changes necessary to suit the medium of film. It not only has merit in its own right; it is its own unforgettable, profound, haunting experience, which both enhances and stands entirely apart from the novel.

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

Lolita, Stanley KubrickIt’s mandatory in any discussion of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece to mention that the film’s very trailer asked, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”

The implication was an obvious one; Nabokov’s original novel was incredibly popular, and its cultural reputation preceded it.

Its reputation helped to sell the book, but not to engender any kind of understanding. As far as anyone knew, Lolita was a filthy book. Just god-awful, stomach churning stuff. It was page after page of vivid depravity, a blast of societal rot so potent that merely walking past a copy of it was enough to damn your soul for all eternity.

“How did they…?” was a question that was wise to ask, but it was being asked for the wrong reason. What the purposefully inflammatory trailer was asking was something like “How could such filth make it onto a movie screen?” What it should have been asking is, “How could such inventive, complex prose translate to a coherent visual experience?”

Because Lolita, against all odds, is anything but pornographic. There’s sexual content — much of which is indeed disturbing — but pornography aims to titillate. To arouse and satisfy desire. To provide in convenient form an experience you can’t as easily find on your own.

So imagine the surprise of those who picked up the book expecting to be immersed in a world of smut, finding instead a dazzling, gorgeous, intricate array of prose that elevated even its darkest moments of filth to high poetry.

Yes, as a novel, Lolita is about a young girl who is chronically victimized by a sexual predator. As a novel, however, Lolita is also about the English language, and how we use it. And as a novel, Lolita is a comic road-caper through inner conflict made manifest.

In short, as a novel, Lolita is a perfect example of why asking what a story is “about” is tremendously unhelpful.

Lolita, if it is “about” anything, is about the experience of reading it. It takes a sensational, taboo germ of an idea, and then buries it deep within mountains of complicated, contradictory, confused narration.

And it’s glorious.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Nabokov was an immensely playful author, and though it’s no doubt the ostensible subject matter of Lolita that got people talking about him, it’s still the perfect introduction to who he was as an artist.

The entire book functions as both a series of cruel jokes on the characters, and at least a couple of additional jokes at the expense of the readers. Those who came in expecting raunch and smut were met with the oblique musings and passionate defenses of a traveling literary scholar, who made digressions so lengthy and frequently that it was impossible to know when, if ever, he’d get to the sex. And those who came in expecting exactly that kind of narrative trickery and linguistic playfulness were cursed with a book they couldn’t dare be caught reading in public. (I, for one, will vouch for the awkwardness of reading Lolita on a stuck train.)

Conveying that aspect of the book — its defining aspect, I’d argue — in a film would be difficult at best. In fiction, a talented writer can say one thing while artfully revealing something contradictory. Film has a tougher job of it; whereas the unreliable narrator at the heart of Lolita provides readers with an obviously flawed perspective (for which a careful reader is always attempting to compensate), director Stanley Kubrick has only a camera’s lens. There is no accepted equivalent of unreliable narration in film; the audience accepts what they see.

What films can do is get an audience to reconsider what they’ve seen, but it’s something that happens after the fact, and not during. Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window pieces together the details of a murder, but while his reliability is of the utmost (rightful) importance to the other characters in the film, it’s not as important to us watching at home; we can see everything he sees, and we can follow our own trains of thought. We may care about what happens to Stewart, or how seriously he’s taken by those around him, but he doesn’t have dominion over what we think. The character tells us something, but his perspective isn’t the one through which we actually see the story unfold. We’ll side with our own eyes every time.

In fiction, however, that’s not the case. Unreliable narration is a thrilling, circling game of cat and mouse between the reader and the author, with the narrator as phantom intermediary. Here, we don’t have a camera’s lens. There is no imagery we can freeze-frame in order to prove a character wrong. We are told what we are told, and once we begin to doubt its reliability we begin a separate, synchronous journey alongside the narration itself. We are reading one thing, and understanding another.

Half (or less) of the story is written; the rest of us unspools within us…a significant difference from film, which is unspooled before us.

Kubrick’s Lolita, however, isn’t interested in doing that. It doesn’t play with our perceptions, or really try to. In a way this is smart, because even a genuine talent like Kubrick shouldn’t be trusted to carve in cement what Nabokov weaves with vanishing clouds.

On the other hand, however, it means that Lolita the film attempts only to reconstruct the events of Lolita the novel, and not the atmosphere, the trickery, the intellectual puzzle. And when the events are stripped of their literary trappings and satisfying opacity, we aren’t left with much.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Let’s start with a great byproduct of that unfortunate fact, though: in both film versions (this one and Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation, which I’ll probably cover at some point as well), much of the empty space is turned over to playwright Clare Quilty, a figure from the novel that originally served as more of a presence (and arguable scapegoat) than a character.

The need for actual, intelligible, filmable material to bridge the gaps between Nabokov’s setpieces meant that Quilty, brilliantly, ascended to third-lead status. This was both befitting of his third-wheel role in the book, and a perfect (deliberate or not) twist of the knife for poor Humbert, who gets his sad, personal history adapted for the big screen only to find his textual nemesis getting the meatier part.

In Kubrick’s Lolita, Quilty is played by incomparable scene-stealer Peter Sellers, and that’s the biggest and best joke on Humbert in the film. The very first scene — chronologically the last — sees Humbert, loaded gun in hand, confronting a dazed and hungover Quilty in the latter’s home. This sequence bookends the entire film, and looks an awful lot like a moment of triumph (or at least vengeance) for our protagonist…how it actually plays out, however, is much different.

Humbert has the gun, and the presence of mind, and the full knowledge of what’s happening, but it’s Quilty who holds the upper hand. What’s most impressive is how he manages it: it’s not through power, but through sheer showmanship. An icon of the stage in the universe of Lolita, Quilty knows how to command attention, and hold sway over an audience. Humbert comes to his home to murder him, but Quilty is used to critics coming to his plays to crucify him; he’s prepared for it.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

He ultimately doesn’t survive the encounter, but he still emerges the victor. Throughout the ordeal, it is Humbert on the ropes, and not the technically helpless Quilty. Humbert is constantly interrupted, ignored, and deliberately misinterpreted. He enters the mansion with an itchy trigger finger, and Quilty impressively waylays him into a game of Ping-Pong instead. (Tellingly, Quilty serves.)

When Humbert finally does force Quilty to process what he’s saying, it’s by handing him a sheet of paper and forcing the chatty playwright to read it out loud. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory, as Quilty reads these words — composed in earnest, painful, heart-rending seriousness — with the silly voice of a cartoon cowboy. Humbert abandons this idea as well, and snatches the paper away. Point: Quilty.

Even in death he one-ups Humbert; the fatal encounter with Quilty both opens and closes the film, providing the character with a long, interesting, humorously dramatic death scene. Humbert’s death occurs off-camera, at some point in the future that the film doesn’t even bother to capture. It’s reported with a sentence on a slide. It’s an offhand dismissal of the man who is trying desperately to assert control over his own story, cinematic salt in the deepest wound.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Throughout his scenes, Quilty charms. He entertains. He takes on various personas as he pursues the same underage object of Humbert’s affections, and we in the audience perk up whenever we see him…just as little Lolita herself does.

The film has significant issues with pacing, which we’ll get to later on, and Quilty’s scenes — as great as they are — function more as impressive improvisations than they do as pieces of a greater, cohesive whole. They’re emblematic of Kubrick’s struggle to make the story work on screen (something else we’ll discuss later), and what feels like a lack of confidence in his ability to do so, but it’s impossible to stay mad at them. They’re brilliant blemishes; pieces that don’t fit into this particular puzzle, but which are beautiful in their own right.

While Quilty may have been the right character to explore, Kubrick can’t think of much new to do with him apart from point the camera and watch The Peter Sellers Show. It’s exactly the kind of artless Hail Mary that I want to hate…but I can’t, because Sellers is, simply, a delight. He wins me over in a way that such a speed-bump shouldn’t be able to. (Of course, the idea pointing the camera and letting Sellers run wild was integrated far more effectively, organically, and rewardingly in Kubrick’s next film, Dr. Strangelove.)

In the novel, Humbert is a charming monster, seducing his readers with his one truly sexy feature: his mastery of the English language. He manipulates us, demands that we identify with him, insists that he win us over. But in the movie of his life, it’s Quilty who comes out on top.

Quilty is more charming. He wins Lolita’s heart. He sees greater success in the arts that Humbert ever does. The audience is bound to laugh with him more than it laughs with Humbert. While Humbert struggles to conjure up sympathy for the devil, he has it siphoned right out of him by a superior devil.

Of course, the problem with this, at least in terms of bringing the novel to the screen, is that this buys into Humbert’s vision of Quilty…and of everything.

One of my favorite things about the novel is how hazy (wink wink) the characters are. We know how Humbert would like for us to view them, but we don’t know much beyond that. Everything we get is filtered through our obsessive, controlling, demanding narrator. He paints Quilty one way, Charlotte another, and himself a third. Our experience is his experience, because it must be; he does not allow us to draw our own conclusions, nor does he trust us to do so. If we did that, after all…why, wouldn’t we just see him as another pedophile? Yes, it’s far better not to leave the thinking to us.

On film, however, we need to commit to a vision. For a novel like Lolita, that’s problematic. Did Quilty really look like Peter Sellers? Could he possibly have been as funny, or as quick-witted? Was he really even stalking Humbert at all? The film gives us no reason to doubt any of this, while the novel gives us reason to doubt everything.

Humbert, especially, seems to be taken laughably seriously. When I picture the “actual” Humbert Humbert from the novel, I picture somebody who looks quite a bit like Nabokov: some nebbishy, aged introvert whose reflection in the mirror doesn’t at all match what anybody else sees. He dotes on himself with a romance and lust that seems to exceed even that which he feels for Lolita…the young girl whose inescapable beauty and allure require him to write this novel-long defense of his behavior in the first place. He’s careful about how he presents himself…too careful, in fact, which is our cue to start wondering about the truth.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

In this film, Humbert is played by James Mason…a casting choice of which I’m sure the novel’s protagonist would approve. In Lyne’s later film, he was played by Jeremy Irons. In both cases, he’s portrayed exactly as he tries to convince us he really is in the book. He’s gorgeous. Suave. Effortlessly charming and naturally attractive. In the book we may well picture somebody like James Mason when Humbert is describing himself, but once we peer through the cracks in his narration it’s unlikely that we’d continue to see any kind of Hollywood heart-throb.

In film, however, we don’t have the luxury of disbelief. We can’t have Humbert look like James Mason in some scenes and Steve Buscemi in others. Visually, such shapeshifting would confuse rather than enhance. Textually, there’s no difficulty whatsoever, and there’s the added bonus of each reader pegging the necessity of a real Humbert hiding in the shadows at his or her own pace.

If a film did attempt such a switch, we’d be tied to noticing it when the film demands we notice it. In the book, readers can recognize Humbert as a fraud to any number of degrees at any point in the story. There’s a sense of achievement the first time you manage to peer through the blinds…or pull the curtain back to reveal who’s really speaking. And it’s achievement because we did it…unlike in a film, in which the director will have done it. We won’t have earned it ourselves; we will instead have simply waited long enough for somebody to give it to us.

Mason, it has to be said, does some intermittently fantastic work in this film, but his very casting marks a permanent disconnect between it and its source material. Film Humbert isn’t Book Humbert; he’s who Book Humbert wishes he could be.

Taken on his own merits, the Masonic Humbert gets in a few great moments, and periodically manages to help us forget that he’s embodying a sexual predator’s self-important daydream. He’s especially great in the aforementioned confrontation with Quilty, in which his deadpan seriousness boils quietly to rage as he’s unable to get Quilty to focus on his own impending execution.

Mason is also able to handle Humbert’s innate dickishness in a way that impressively transforms it into cleverness. The best example of this is probably when Charlotte tells him that she has good news, and he guesses that their irritating neighbors the Farlows have been arrested. The success of the line is due entirely to its delivery; it brings a very specific kind of life to the line, and it does manage to sell Humbert, for an instant, as two different kinds of people at once. (Something that’s reflected in the fact that his surname is also Humbert…an important detail with which the book has tremendous fun, but which the film, unless I missed something, acknowledges in only a single scene.)

In a very small number of cases, this duplicity is handled quite well, illustrated perfectly with a scene of personal celebration in which Mason sips Scotch in the bathtub after his new wife is killed by an inattentive driver. The Farlows come over and conclude that the scene is one of despair, misinterpreting entirely the significance of the handgun on the counter…with which he intended to murder Charlotte before fate did a cleaner job of it.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

In this short — but perfect — scene in the bathroom, the neighbors he hates believe themselves to be his friends. They find him spending a carefree afternoon in the home that he no longer has to share with his wife, but see him to be despondent and in need of support. Humbert is a man who feels no guilt about the plan he’s formulating to rape the orphaned daughter of the woman he decided to kill in cold blood…and the Farlows are trying to help him feel better about himself. The film could use more scenes along these lines, and it’s sadly low on them.

Kubrick, as director, doesn’t seem to know exactly how to bring the story to life. With comparatively little that “happens” the in the book (and littler still that can be shown in traditional movie theaters), he feels stuck. While the man was no stranger to chatty films, he often struggles to make this one feel alive, opting too frequently to shoot it like a play staged for public television.

In only a few sequences (the confrontation with Quilty, the school dance, the pan down from Charlotte falling on the bedroom floor to Humbert preparing to poison her in the kitchen) do we see evidence of Kubrick’s visual artistry. And while that doesn’t make for a bad film, a workman’s approach to such daring, nimble source material feels almost disrespectful, like a documentary about the Beatles that only uses library music.

Two shots in particular stand out, however. Firstly, there’s our introduction to Sue Lyon as the title character (more on whom in a moment).

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

The shot is perfectly framed, scored with the playful “Ya Ya” that marries Lolita’s ostensible innocence to a hopeful, lingering melody that flits just around her like Humbert’s gaze. It’s the single most recognizable image from the film, which says a lot when it doesn’t feature James Mason, Peter Sellers, or Shelly Winters. It’s just the girl, sunbathing in her mother’s garden.

It’s a loaded image, in several ways, but it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to be appreciating the view with Humbert (for different reasons, hopefully) or worrying on behalf of Lolita, as we all know where this story is heading. One thing is for certain, though: we’re not supposed to share in Charlotte’s obliviousness.

It’s such a perfect and immortal shot that Adrian Lyne borrowed it for his own later version of Lolita. There, however, for the purposes of contrast, we were meant to see her as Humbert does. That’s why we watch the sprinklers get her gradually wetter in a translucent frock, as she scrunches and spreads her toes, the camera tracing, lovingly, her every curve.

If that sounds creepier than Kubrick’s version, that’s because it is…but it is also worth pointing out that Kubrick cast an unknown, somewhat ordinary young girl as his female lead; any sexual longing that the audience felt for this Lolita would have been there well before the book or the film arrived. Lyne, on the other hand, cast minor sex symbol Dominique Swain, which made the lust felt for that version of Lolita a little too relateable. But that’s a story for another time.

The other perfect shot is technically two shots, and it’s something I didn’t notice until this most recent viewing. In bed with Charlotte, Humbert has some trouble rising to his husbandly duties…until he spies a photograph of Lolita on the nightstand.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

It’s the most overtly sexual connection between him and the girl made by the film, but that’s not why it works; it’s merely the setup to Kubrick’s visual punchline, which comes when Charlotte tells him that Lolita won’t be coming back from camp; the little terror is being shipped directly to a boarding school.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

He rolls over, and Charlotte, who has just unknowingly emasculated him, is on top. He’s gone from considering a photograph of the girl to considering the loaded handgun. His darkening mood is absurd, but palpable, and he stews gradually in this position. This moment lays the groundwork for the fight they will soon have that leaves her dead in the street, and her daughter in the possession of the man who intends to rape her.

It’s a punchline, like I said. But god damn is it a dark joke.

As good as Mason and (especially) Sellers are, and in spite of a lack of ambition in Kubrick’s direction, two figures emerge as the real stars: Shelly Winters, and Sue Lyon.

Lyon owns the film. That’s her innocently tonguing a lollipop on the poster. That’s her in the movie’s most indelible shot. Hell, that’s her that the film is named after. (Technically the character’s name is Dolores; Lolita is a nickname that, since the novel, has come to see usage in line with the story’s reputation.)

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

She was a perfect find. I genuinely cannot imagine a human being better inhabiting such a strange part. Strong and helpless at the same time. Youthful and mature. Trusting and suspicious. Innocent and worldly.

Kubrick did say at one point that if he’d realized how limited he’d be by the restrictions of the time, he never would have adapted Lolita in the first place. But, for all of its flaws, I’m glad he did, as I honestly don’t think any young actor could inhabit the role as convincingly, effectively, and masterfully as Lyon did. (Though in 2010, Chloe Moretz demonstrated a disarmingly impressive mastery of a not-wholly-dissimilar character in Kick-Ass.)

She plays Lolita recognizably; she’s like any little girl would be with complete control over her own development, enshrouded in the trappings of youth while dabbling in as much or as little adulthood as she pleases…always able to retreat back to childhood when she likes, but never willing to do so when she’s asked.

Lolita, in the film, is powerful. In her own way, she’s admirable. She maintains a true sense of identity throughout the movie. She believes in herself. She’s resourceful and strong enough to break out of a situation that really should have had her trapped. And, at the end, she finds something very much like love, starting a family with a man named Richard Schiller who appears to care for her and treat her in a way that no other male (of any age) had before. And this is a happiness she achieves after being held captive and victimized by not one but two pedophiles.

Through all of that, she remained herself.

Of course, this is true of the book, too…right?

Well…kind of. Again, the book is told from Humbert’s perspective, so the “real” Lolita gets little or no screentime, so to speak. We can infer an awful lot, but it’s always in spite of the narration, and I don’t think we can identify any conclusive character traits about her. Book Humbert wants us to see him as the victim, so of course he hammers hard the idea that she seduced him. But Movie Humbert is just along for the ride; we see things unfold at the same rate and in the same way that he does. His Lolita is real, in a way that the novel’s could never (and would never want to) be.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

There also remains the major, though easily missed, change of Lolita’s fate.

The book makes it clear (in an absurdly playful way) that Lolita (Dolores Haze, Mrs. Richard F. Schiller) died in childbirth. The single scene we get of her with her husband is similar on both the page and the screen, but the page doesn’t allow it to stick. Like Humbert, and Quilty, and Charlotte, Lolita does not make it out alive. Her happiness — or the nearest equivalent she’ll ever know — is snatched from her on what should have been a time of celebration: childbirth…which also happens to occur on Christmas Day. Ouch.

The film offers no such cruel termination for her. We see Quilty get shot. We see the aftermath of the accident that killed Charlotte. We get flat, textual assurance that Humbert died behind bars and is no longer prowling the streets, wiggling his fingers at your daughter.

But Lolita?

We don’t know.

We see her at home. Her first real home. We see her in a far healthier relationship with a man who comes off as a bit uneducated, but is clearly polite. They don’t have much, but they’re together. A new life for her, with a new life inside of her.

And the movie leaves it there. It doesn’t promise us that Lolita lived happily ever after. (To be frank, how could it?) But it lets us believe. It keeps hope alive. It condones the idea that, after everything she’s been through, things might turn out for her in a way that they turned out for nobody else.

That’s a remarkable difference, and it’s one that lands, mainly due to how likeable Sue Lyon is. Once Lolita has a face — a real face, this face — it’s hard to condemn her to the same fate as her textual counterpart. To treat the character that way in print is a dark narrative gag. But a person, of flesh and blood, that’s come this far, that’s so close to having what she might actually need…to treat her the same way would be unconscionable.

It says a lot about the performance of Sue Lyon that such a significant departure from (and altered morality of) the original novel feels not like a betrayal, but an evolution.

The real star of the film, though?

That’s Shelly Winters, who is only in half the film, but gives us such a strong idea of what a great movie Lolita could have been.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

As Charlotte Haze, Winters acts very similarly to what we likely pictured in the book. She’s an older (of course, in this story that word is very relative), doting, lonesome widow with a daughter she can’t control. So far, so similar.

In the book, however, she’s a comic character, submerged always under Humbert’s prose (and, once, under the water at Hourglass Lake). He paints her in ridiculous colors. He wishes for us to point at her, and to laugh. His narrative treatment of her is itself a form of abuse…and that’s a fact acknowledged when she stumbles upon his journal and reads exactly what he’s been saying about her…a revelation that immediately precedes her death.

In the book she plays a memorable role, but is essentially an obstacle for Humbert to overcome. In the film, she’s devastating.

It’s impossible to laugh at Charlotte in the movie. Winters inhabits the aging, desperate woman who lost her happiness so long ago so perfectly, so identifiably, that watching her struggle to court the man with designs on her daughter is just heartbreaking.

Her need to feel loved is perfectly real, perfectly flawed. She’s every bit the comic character Humbert in the book wanted us to imagine, but when we actually see her, she becomes immensely sympathetic.

Does she not deserve happiness as well? Of course she does…and yet, this is where she looks for it. With Humbert, and (at some point before Humbert’s arrival), with Quilty. In short, with both of the men who would later rape her daughter.

She’s blind to everything that happens around her, but it’s a willful, protective blindness; watching this film one gets the sense that the moment she opens her eyes she will die of despair.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Her late-night attempt to seduce Humbert is particularly difficult to watch. He clearly has no interest in her. He’s rude and dismissive. But she doesn’t give up. She tries to get him to drink with her. She dances embarrassingly for him in the vain hope that he will join her. She won’t allow herself to see what’s actually happening, to accept his disinterest, because she doesn’t understand why somebody would be disinterested. If she were to accept that — accept the fact that she’s past her prime, that she’s an old woman, that nobody could love her without having ulterior motives — what reason would she have to go on?

There’s a scene in the film in which she speaks of her late husband. Mr. Haze, Lolita’s father. They were in love. They were a family. But illness took him away, and now this is where she’s left. For an all-too-brief stretch of her life, she was happy. And then this happiness was taken from her, and every day since has been a doomed and devastating attempt to believe that she could find it again.

Winters is incredible in the film, and it says a lot that when she dies at the halfway point, the film does, too.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Her death, adapted from the novel, is a painfully fitting one; once she discovers her new husband’s sexual longing for her daughter, she flees the house…and is killed by a car as soon as she steps into the street. Her sudden, unexpected death coming at just the right time for Humbert, and the worst possible time for her. It came, after all, right after she realized her foolishness, the danger she’d placed her daughter in, the fact that the man she loved at no point loved her back.

She died, that is to say, without being allowed to believe that she was happy. She had to watch the bottom fall out first. Hers was not a peaceful death.

In the book, this moment also marks the rough halfway point, with Humbert taking Lolita on the road and the plot moving forward from there. But while the text can get away with the meandering, seemingly aimless back half of the tale on the grounds that the more rigidly structured front half was still pretty damned meandering and aimless, the film lacks Nabokov’s prose. Robbed of that, and with Kubrick at his visual dullest, the film grinds to a halt.

Winters brought a kind of sad enthusiasm to her role, but I think what really carries the first half of the film is the structure. As in Nabokov’s original, there’s a complete story introduced and told in the first half. The second half sees the barriers collapse, the restraints come off, the open road spreading out before them (and us). But Kubrick doesn’t seem to be as interested in exploring the world of infinite possibility. He’s not nearly as thrilled as Nabokov is by the idea that the story has essentially ended…while we still have half the runtime left to go.

Nabokov saw this as an excuse to let his imagination, his creativity, and his playfulness run rampant…unfettering his artistry at the precise moment Humbert Humbert unfetters his libido. Kubrick, by contrast, isn’t sure what to do. The second half of the film is markedly weaker, because it’s little more than a series of scenes that are required to transport us to the ending. The fact that the entire thing lasts more than two and a half hours suggests an unfortunate aversion to efficiency as well.

Mounting a film version of Lolita was clearly a difficult task, as even one of the most talented directors who ever lived struggled with it…but Shelly Winters gives us a sense of how it could have worked: turn it into a story about Charlotte, featuring Humbert and Lolita, rather than leaving it as a story about Humbert and Lolita, featuring Charlotte.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Charlotte’s arc is classically tragic, and Winters gives the most memorable performance in the film. She, ironically, is what Humbert was in the book; delusional. Film Charlotte sees something other than Shelly Winters when she looks in the mirror, I’m sure. But we know better, and the inevitability of her realization, which hits us with every ounce of the pain she’s forced to process, is downright painful to endure.

Of course, a film about Charlotte wouldn’t be Lolita…but that’s okay. The book still exists, in all of its twisted beauty. In terms of filmability, though, both adaptations have fallen at that same hurdle; once Charlotte is gone, the movie feels like it’s been robbed of its central, most dangerous, and certainly most identifiable conflict.

Nabokov didn’t want audiences to identify. (He’d probably have been quite worried if they had.) He could keep going without Charlotte, because the convenience of her death was just one more reason for Humbert to laugh at her and to expect us to join in. It was a plot point. It was thematic. And the novel, like the rest of the world, got along just fine without her.

But in a film, it’s not only too abrupt; it’s too soon. There’s mileage in that character…in her relationship with her daughter. In her lost history. In her desperate scramble to be loved. You can still tell much of the story of Lolita, but you could improve it by re-centering it, letting the action rise and fall (and ultimately conclude) within the first half of the source material. Because that, after all, is what can be filmed. That, specifically that, is the one aspect of this notoriously difficult book that translates to the screen.

And, what’s more, it translated well. In the same way that the opaque, difficult text enshrouded readers who expected forbidden titillation, the sad story of a hurting housewife could have stood between audiences and their unnatural interest in her daughter’s sex life.

Kubrick would later demonstrate that very mindset with his adaptation of The Shining; by stripping away almost all of the paranormal content that didn’t also tie to the cabin fever concept, he created a leaner, smarter, more haunting compliment to Stephen King’s original. Of course, King was never Nabokov, and you’d be hard-pressed to identify any of Stephen King’s novels that wouldn’t be improved by substantial editing, but the comparison remains. In both cases, Kubrick adapted a novel that was swollen with material that could only work as text. In only one of those cases, though, did he re-center the focus, and deliver the story in a way that was enhanced by the cinematic medium, rather than hamstrung by it.

There’s an imaginary version of Kubrick’s Lolita that qualifies as a masterpiece, and we definitely catch glimpses of it here. Shelly Winters knew exactly what it looked like. The same basic story, with an equivalent — though importantly different — subversion…one that plays to the strengths of this medium, and one that would be more fondly remembered because of it.

How do you make a movie of Lolita? It’s not really that hard…you just have to know when to stop.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Lolita
(1955, Vladimir Nabokov; 1963, Stanley Kubrick)

Book or film? Book.
Worth reading the book? Absolutely. It’s one of the best and most impressive in the language.
Worth watching the film? Yes, to a lesser extent, if only for Sellers and Winters.
Is it the best possible adaptation? No. Pacing issues and a too-trusting approach to the novel’s narration hold it back.
Is it of merit in its own right? Half of it certainly is.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...