A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about Lawrence Block's fine novel A Walk Among the Tombstones (thanks, Miranda!). I concluded by saying I was looking forward to seeing Scott Frank's film adaptation. Well, I've now seen it and I was irresistibly reminded of the days when I was a young teenager illicitly attending what were then called "X-certificate" films — films you had to be 18 or over to see. And not because Frank's movie is an 18-certificate picture, although it is very much that.
What I remember is a particular occasion when I went to the cinema with a bunch of friends. We were all about 15. And we were challenged. Before they let us in to the movie, they asked us how old we were. Each of us in turn said, "I'm 18" — except for one of our party. He faltered and said, "I'm 17." Now, he was 15 just like the rest of us. So his answer has always struck me as very strange. That is, he managed to lie. But he just couldn't bring himself to lie enough.
This came to mind during A Walk Among the Tombstones because the book was published in 1992 and, due to some technological aspects of the novel, it is very much tied to that period. It was the days of pagers, long before cell phones ruled the earth. And this was crucial to the plot. So I wondered whether Scott Frank would update the movie to make it contemporary, or do it as a period piece (which would enable him to leave some of the subplots intact).
Well, it turns out he's done neither. The movie isn't contemporary or set in 1992. It's set in 1999. For no apparent reason. There's endless references to Y2K in the dialogue, in newspaper headlines, in ads on passing buses and even on a giant graffiti mural Liam Neeson strolls past. But it's all irrelevant, and rather pointless. In other words, Scott Frank managed to backdate the movie, but he just couldn't bring himself to backdate it enough.
Scott Frank — who is a terrific screenwriter and no mean director — has taken considerable other liberties with Lawrence Block's novel. Some of which are good, others not so much. He's injected the tragic backstory of the hero Matt Scudder as a major element of the movie, cunningly played out, and that works supremely well.
But numerous subplots and characters from Tombstones have bitten the dust. Frank has preserved the big setpiece ending with the ransom payment in the cemetery and much of what happens afterwards. And he's kept — and even built up — the role of TJ, who is Matt Scudder's teenage streetkid sidekick. And he's really gone to town on the Alcoholics Anonymous aspect of the book.
But he's got rid of, for instance, Scudder's callgirl girlfriend — which makes the movie considerably bleaker than the book and has the unfortunate unintended side effect of making Scudder's relationship with TJ seem a bit suspect.
Two of Scott Frank's great early screenplays, Out of Sight and Get Shorty were adaptations of novels by Elmore Leonard, and they succeeded largely because Frank remained remarkably faithful to the source material. He even preserved many of the quirky little details. But his approach to Lawrence Block's book seems dramatically different. Maybe he doesn't regard Block as quite so important a novelist as Elmore Leonard. If so, he's mistaken. And if he'd stuck more rigorously to Block's orginal he could have avoided some of the more ridiculous contrivances of the movie and his reworked plot (a sinister network of video shops; counterfeit banknotes with wet ink; a magical escape from handcuffs).
A Walk Among the Tombstones is a good movie. It's dark and engrossing and well worth seeing. But it's not a great movie. And Lawrence Block's book is a great book. In fact it's a classic of the genre. It's a pity Scott Frank didn't seem to feel the same way. And perhaps therefore he missed coming up with a film which could also have been a classic.
My verdict? Read the book and then see the movie, and see what you think of the changes Scott Frank made.
(Image credits: Thin pickings at Ace Show Biz.)