Novel by Tom Wolfe (Vintage 2010 [1987])

Film by Brian de Palma (dir), 1990.

The dates above show that this was a relatively quick adaptation, one perhaps that sought to catch a zeitgeist. That would perhaps imply an intention to be faithful, or at least to look at the same scenes through contemporaneous if different eyes.

            By the time I got around to considering this adaptation I’d got somewhat over confident in my novel to film pairings. I’d begun to predict how it might have been done. In this case I guessed that Tom Wolfe’s almost obsessive English references might be dispensed with, and I was not far out. Certainly the character of Peter Fallows had been transmuted from the pathetic English drunk to the boorish American one, convincingly played by Bruce Willis.

            The character had also been elevated to the role of narrator and guide, both opening and closing the film, in addition to providing some voice-overs in between, as well as his own scenes. This skews the focus of the film, shifting our attention away from the protagonist, Sherman McCoy, and from the almost as important (in the novel) Assistant DA, Kramer. The city too has been downgraded, not quite to the status of anyplace at anytime, but certainly without the specificity of the Bronx versus Park Avenue/Wall Street that Wolfe gives it: so much for zeitgeist.

            The film is more character driven than the book, a subtle shift, which sees the characters driving the action, rather than being driven by their situations. Yet the book goes deeper into the characters, especially the minor ones, which leads me to the realisation that books, unlike films, do not have to pander to the celebrity of their actors. It may muddy the waters of a story to have more rather than fewer interesting characters (look at the numbers in Life and Fate), but it does not lead to problems with billing, contracts, and so on. Likewise with subplots, parallel plots, and comparative storylines, all of which tend to enrich novels, but diffuse the narrative thrust of movies.

            The most significant change wrought by the adaptation here though is in the person of Judge Kovitsky. Here is a white character blacked-up by the casting of Morgan Freeman in this role. This casting decision kicks away a major prop of the novel. No longer is McCoy being tried in a white man’s court, planted like an island in a sea of blacks and Puerto-Ricans. This situation is crucial to the narrative drive of the book. It is what the story is about, and specifically, it is the collapse of that white hegemony that it is about. The film ducks this issue except on the shallowest of levels, and the casting of Morgan Freeman is the most adroit move of that ducking.

            Consider the ending of the courtroom scene, when the case against McCoy collapses. In the book it leads to riot; in the film to Freeman’s statesmanlike quelling of the mob, and his command to them to go home and live decently. Nowhere in the book is this remotely suggested. Instead, Kovitsky, recognising his (white) powerlessness, says, referring to himself, ‘Their only friend, their only fucking friend’, before turning to flee.

            That is not all. The film ending allows McCoy to get off ‘Scot free’, unchanged by his experiences in any obvious way. The book sees him spoiling for a (suicidal) fight, telling Kovitsky ‘I’ll go with you’, as he considers confronting the mob. The book, in fact, may be largely about the changes to McCoy, which the film is most certainly not.

            Wolfe has prepared us for the change, and he has done so by showing McCoy’s ordeal in a much more scary light than the film does. In the scene where McCoy and Maria are lost in the Bronx (which goes on for much longer than in the film), and in those where he is processed by the courts, the detail is more threatening, more violent, more dehumanising, and more at odds with his white middle class existence. There is no silly slapstick with the shotgun. Nowhere is the change greater than in the scene where he is incarcerated before being arraigned. The protracted scene of menace and terror in the book is reduced, in the film, to a single headshot of him behind bars, with black faces close behind him.

            The issue that the film-makers are ducking here is Wolfe’s presentation of the world of the Bronx as being an alien one. His story is about a white man learning to live, and fight back, in the metaphoric jungle of the Bronx. It is with grazed knuckles that McCoy appears in court for the trial, and with something like joy that he responds to the riot at the end. His life, and his view of life have changed, and the change is about him losing his white middle class ‘liberal’ attitudes. That this is Wolfe’s intention seems clear from his introductory essay, which tells us why, and how, and against what literary and social background, he wrote the novel. Novels can be about thought, and be thought about. They can raise issues and examine them, and show us characters going through changes that we might not all approve of. Films, I suspect, cannot, or at least not in the same way.

            The racial awareness of the book is a mainspring of the story. Not only the black-white divide, but divisions within the broadly white community are addressed: Jewish, Irish, Polish and WASP identities are described and dissected, and narrated. Catholic and Protestant divisions are considered. Much of this is either removed, or toned down in the film. Most toned down is the visceral sense of threat that McCoy feels, and the equally visceral anger that prompts that feeling. When Reverend Bacon talks about steam in the book we are aware of it building up, and feel the heat, but in the film it seems a comic statement, and is entirely absent from that final courtroom scene, in which Freeman pours oil on waters that are barely rippling, let alone boiling.

            Books and films are both forms of entertainment, but where books provide opportunities for us to reflect upon what they have told us as we read through, films hold reflection at bay until after they are over. This is why, perhaps, that they seem to have simpler stories to show.