Sunday 31 March 2013

Dick Francis: Enquiry

Kingsley Amis always loved the thrillers of Dick Francis.

Apart from being a terrific writer himself, Amis was no snob. He didn't hesitate to sing the praises of thriller writers like Peter O'Donnell, for example — creator of Modesty Blaise.

Given my admiration for Amis, and O'Donnell, it's amazing how long it's taken me to get around to Dick Francis.

But I've just read my first novel by him.

Enquiry tells the story of a jockey (all of Francis' books were about jockeys and horse racing) called Kelly Hughes who has been 'warned off'.

This is like a doctor being struck off. It means he can't ride, or even visit a stable. He has been convicted of cheating in a race. His career is over.

Of course, Hughes is innocent and sets out to clear his name.

It's an impressive, compelling thriller. The first thing that struck me was how deftly Dick Francis got me emotionally involved. By the time he'd finished recounting the unfair and one-sided enquiry where his hero is framed, I was fuming with rage.

He's also extremely adroit at deploying suspense and sudden bursts of violence. 

Other striking features are his beautiful, succinct descriptions. There's a well handled love interest in the book — Roberta Cranfield. She instantly seduced me with her 'petulant mouth'. Some of Francis' finest prose is reserved for describing her. I was delighted by her sweater which was the colour of a 'stagnant pond'.

Excellent and insightful characterisation, gripping plot, terse and amusing dialogue and a deceptively simple prose style. Dick Francis is obviously a master.

And the best part is, there are over 30 more of his books to read. 


(Picture credits: the bold and striking bondage mask cover is by Colin Thomas. I got the image from an excellent Dick Francis website by Jan-Willem Hubbers, whose knowledge of photography informs his appreciation of the Colin Thomas covers for Dick Francis. The stylish green cover with the retro painting is by Greg Montgomery. The artist's website is here. The film-strip cover has been taken from Good Reads.)

Sunday 24 March 2013

The Slap: a Model of Screen Adaptation

The Slap is the story of a bratty child running amok at a suburban barbecue. 

A man who is not the child’s father gives him a slap — some would consider it a very well-deserved slap.

But as a result, all hell breaks loose…

The Slap is a novel by Christos Tsiolkas. It was adapted into an eight part television drama with episodes written by Cate Shortland (who also wrote and directed the excellent film Somersault), Kris Mrksa, Brendan Cowell, Alice Bell and Emily Ballou.

It’s a compelling story. As a result of the incident the police are called in, and a supposedly tightly-knit group of friends begins to unravel…

Their relationships gradually rip apart along the fault lines of race, class, and sex.

I was lucky enough to get a copy of the novel and a DVD of the television serial at the same time, so I could do a close comparison of them. It’s been both fun and fascinating.

Because The Slap is a classic example of a screen adaptation in which substantial, even radical, changes are made to the source material — while remaining crucially true to the spirit of it.

Just two examples.

In the book the babysitter Connie looks at her beautiful party dress and fantasises about dropping in on Hector, the older man she’s been having an affair with, and showing it off to him. This remains a fleeting fantasy in the novel but in the television version she does drop in on Hector and he coldly rejects her — providing a crucial motivation for her later lie about him raping her. A lie which, in the book, remains oddly under-motivated.

And in the book Rosie, mother of the slapped child, merely imagines getting up on the witness stand in court and having her say. In the TV episode, she actually does go up on the stand, with catastrophic consequences.

The television version of The Slap is full of these clever expansions and transformations. It’s an exemplar of adapting prose to the screen.

If I was teaching scriptwriting, I’d use The Slap as a model to aspire to.

It’s also full of dodgy sex scenes, which would keep the students amused.

(Image credits: The DVD cover of The Slap is from Hey Guys.  The running feet book cover is from Book World. The shouting child's face cover is from Smart Artists which has an interesting article about Tsiolkas. The Penguin book cover is from the Penguin site.)

Sunday 17 March 2013

Richard Stark's Parker is Back

When I saw that there was a new movie coming out called Parker, I held my breath. 

Could this be an adaptation of one of the great Richard Stark thrillers, featuring an implacable gun-toting professional thief called Parker? 

(I’ve previously written about the Parker novels here. And there's a fab website about them here.)

The fact that this new film starred Jason Statham, who specialises in hardnosed action heroes, boded well. And yes, indeed, it is that Parker.

Based on the novel Flashfire by Richard Stark (a pseudonym for Donald Westlake), Parker is directed by Taylor Hackford with a screenplay by John J. McLaughlin.

This is all good news. Taylor Hackford is responsible for two of my favourite movies, the under-rated Devil’s Advocate and the deeply moving Proof of Life, while McLaughlin co-wrote the excellent Black Swan and provided a witty and intriguing script for the recent Hitchcock; he also worked on the TV series Carnivàle.

And Parker is terrific. I loved it. It has the advantage of Flashfire being one of the best late-period Parker novels, involving a revenge campaign in the grand tradition of our hero, plus a great female character and a nifty jewel heist in Palm Beach.

Hackford and McLaughlin are to be congratulated on doing such a splendid job in bringing this strong material to the screen intact.
Statham is excellent as Parker and Jennifer Lopez is great as the Miami real estate agent who gets caught up in his violent schemes.

(In my post about Steven Soderbergh last week I should have mentioned another masterpiece of his — Out of Sight, adapted by Scott Frank from an Elmore Leonard novel — which featured Jennifer Lopez in an outstanding role.)

Anyway, Lopez is terrific in Parker, along with an outstanding cast that also includes Michael Chiklis and Nick Nolte. The film is fast-moving, thrilling, funny and true to its source material.
I have to say, it is very nearly the best Parker movie ever. It’s surpassed only by Point Blank.

Point Blank is a work of art and a masterpiece of cinema. Parker is ‘merely’ a great thriller and a terrific piece of popular entertainment.

I’m also delighted that there has finally been a movie that uses the actual name of Westlake’s character — indeed, it trumpets the fact by using his name as the title, in the style of Jack Reacher.

Just for the record, here’s a list of previous screen versions of Parker novels.

Made in USA (1966) based on The Jugger: Anna Karina as ‘Paula Nelson’.

Point Blank (1967) based on The Hunter: Lee Marvin as ‘Walker’.

Pillaged (1967) based on The Score: Michel Constantin as ‘Georges’.
The Split (1968) based on The Seventh: Jim Brown as ‘McClain’.

The Outfit (1973): Robert Duvall as ‘Macklin’.

Slayground (1983): Peter Coyote as ‘Stone’.

Payback (1999) another adaptation of The Hunter: Mel Gibson as ‘Porter’.

Now, finally —

Parker (2013) based on Flashfire: Jason Statham as Parker (yay!).

As you can see, Parker as well as having issues with his name being constantly changed, has been played by an Englishman, an Australian, three white American guys, a black American guy, a Frenchman (of Polish Russian extraction) and a Danish woman who became a French citizen.

Donald Westlake once shrugged and smiled and said, “I guess the character lacks definition.”

I beg to differ. Parker is indelible. The strength of Westlake’s character burns through even the most distorted and flawed adaptations.

And his newest movie incarnation is one of his finest.
Go and see it.

(Image credits: The striking red Parker movie poster is from Wikipedia. The blue movie poster is from Watch Hollywood Movies. The nice black and red poster is from Book My Event. The stylish British paperback of Flashfire is from the publishers, Quercus. The American Mysterious Press edition of Flashfire, which reveals the gun under the table gag, is from a review on ebook3000. The movie editions of The Split and Point Blank are from that wonderful Parker website I mentioned, The Violent World of Parker.)

Sunday 10 March 2013

Side Effects: Soderbergh & Burns Ride Again

I was dismayed last year when Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from film making. Soderbergh, in addition to having crafted such earlier masterpieces as Traffic (whose script owed everything to the genius of Simon Moore) had recently been on a roll with such splendid films as Haywire, Magic Mike and Contagion. 
However, the reports of his retirement seem to be thankfully exaggerated with the appearance in cinemas this week of his marvellous new movie Side Effects which is written, like Contagion by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns

Burns also co-wrote The Bourne Ultimatum and worked on the TV series Californication.

I am a great fan of Contagion (you've got to love a movie where they kill Gwyneth Paltrow in the first five minutes and cut off the top of her skull).
I’d be embarrassed to confess how many times I saw that film (certainly three or four). It was a perfectly crafted thriller based on topical concerns, well researched, with biting dialogue and vivid characterisation. It was also breathlessly well paced and entirely gripping.

All of these things, and more, can be said about Side Effects, a drama concerning the use of anti depressants.

Unfortunately there is very little more I can say about Side Effects because I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment when you see it. 

I urge you to avoid reading any reviews whatsoever (probably even the links I've included here) — they can only reduce your pleasure in this magnificently crafted film — and rush to see it right away.

The movie also has a fine David Newman score and the cast is excellent; I have to single out Rooney Mara, who has been one of my favourite American actresses ever since she portrayed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in David Fincher's film.

One of my top movies of the year, splendidly written and directed, and we’re only in March.

(Image sources: the standard poster for Side Effects was taken from Wikipedia and is the official poster for the film. While researching images for Contagion I found that I didn't like the official poster much so I used the lovely gas mask design which is by a very talented chap called 'Karezoid', actually Michal Karcz from Poland (the Poles have a distinguished history of stunning film poster design). My hat is off to you, sir. His work is on a site charmingly called Deviant Art. The other non-official Contagion poster is a striking sort of Saul Bass homage and is from a site called  Minimal Movie Posters which is devoted to this kind of graphic design and is well worth a look. It's evidently by another gifted artist called Anna Underhill. Lastly we have the Rooney Mara poster for Side Effects (hi Rooney, loved you in The Social Network) which came from IMP Awards, a serious movie poster site. Many thanks to all concerned.)