Tuesday, 13 July 2010

You Really Don’t Want To See That! - The Unfilmable Novels of Jim Thompson

This year, at Grimm Up North, we will be looking directly at the transition from page to screen, with a series of discussions, seminars and screenings in association with the Manchester Literature Festival. We’ll be seeing how accurately that transition can be made, what is lost and what is gained in the process. We’ll be looking at genre writers who have made the move onto the big screen, considering why some have had more success there than others, looking at what translates well, and what doesn’t.

It might seem a strange observation for a film programmer to make, but there are certain things which really do defy the art of film. There are books that are genuinely unfilmable. There are images which should remain on the printed page.

Fear not, Grimmfans, I am not getting all morally self-righteous here. I am not advocating censorship, nor would I ever. The first rule of cinema is Show Not Tell. And this goes double for horror cinema, where the purpose is to expose an audience to its fears - to everything that sickens, appals and traumatises.

And yet there are some horrors best left to the written word - not because they are too much to bear, but because they simply do not translate to the screen. I found myself thinking this during a recent viewing of Michael Winterbottom’s film version of Jim Thompson’s classic hardboiled noir novel THE KILLER INSIDE ME.

James Myers Thompson (1906 - 1977), the “Dimestore Dostoyevsky”, is cited by Stephen King and Harlan Ellison as their favourite crime writer. Stanley Kubrick described this particular novel as “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered”. But significantly, though Kubrick collaborated with Thompson on a couple of screenplays, he never even attempted to film any of his books. He knew better than to try. Nevertheless there have been various noble efforts to capture Thompson‘s worldview on screen, most notably Sam Peckinpah in THE GETAWAY, and Stephen Frears in THE GRIFTERS. But none really comes close to the original books.

And now there is Winterbottom’s KILLER INSIDE ME. The film of course generated acres of press controversy over its graphic depiction of violence against women, with defenders claiming this was true to the book, and detractors claiming the director was glamourising the violence. This is a very minor illustration of the difficulty of translating words on the page into images onscreen. It is one thing for Thompson to talk of a woman’s face being pounded to “stew meat, hamburger”. It is another to show it. But, hell, we’re hardened horror fans, here, right? We can cope with a few shocking images of violence? Of course we can.

But this is not my bone of contention. Where I think the film actually falls down is in failing to understand how dependent the novel’s success is on its entirely interior perspective of events. THE KILLER INSIDE ME is a first person narrative by a paranoid schizophrenic, and it is the worldview of this narrator, Sherriff Lou Ford that unifies what is actually a rather ramshackle and rambling plot. So dominant is Ford’s voice in the book, that I was convinced that the film had added all of the messy unconvincing scenes towards the end. It was a real shock to go back to the original text and discover that the film was following the book verbatim. The narrative failings were Thompson’s, not Winterbottom’s. And yet the novel succeeds where the film does not, because the narrative is less important to Thompson than the narrator. This is a study of Lou Ford’s gradual exposure and mental collapse. Once events are exteriorised, objectified, separated from the perspective of Ford himself, all we are left with is a series of loosely connected events and a melodramatic conclusion. What works on the page does not work onscreen.

And this is one of Thompson’s more straightforward, least grotesque novels. His is a world of political and social corruption, dominated entirely by baser instincts and emotions, and peopled by psychotics, sociopaths, paranoids, hysterics, self-loathing neurotics and oedipal wrecks. The only half-way decent human being in this world is the huckster-lawyer, Isidore Kossmeyer, one of Thompson’s very few recurring characters, who for all of his liberal values and championing of the underdog is more than half-charlatan. Written quickly, even carelessly at times, Thompson’s novels start in a recognisable hardboiled pulp-exploitation world of randy bellboys, womanising travelling salesmen, bank robbers on the run and hitmen on a job, and end up somewhere truly nightmarish. Functional, meat-and-potatoes pulp prose suddenly grows floridly poetic, wryly satiric, or startlingly experimental. Narratives break down just as effectively as their narrators. The novels eat themselves alive, perform their own literary deconstruction. They implode or explode as messily and spectacularly as their protagonists and narrators. Thus, Frank Dillon’s account of events in A HELL OF A WOMAN becomes ever more unreliable, and self-deceiving, until it finally splits right down the middle. In SAVAGE NIGHT, Charlie Bigger, the undersized hitman, increasingly beset by feelings of inadequacy and his own shrinking influence, ends by describing his own gory dismemberment as the thematic and metaphoric suddenly becomes horrifically literal. Thompson’s novels bleed into one another. A situation one character finds himself in at the close of one book may be a stepping off point for a whole new novel about an entirely different set of characters. Partly, this is the result of a pulp writer’s instinct for getting as much mileage as possible out of an idea, but more importantly it reflects Thompson’s seeming need to take every idea to its darkest, most troubling place. And then find a different approach in a different novel that will enable him to go even further with it.

Thompson has been an inspiration for several generations of literary extremists, in a variety of genres, as well as in supposedly more “serious” fiction, and whether it be through adaptation, or appropriation of theme, his influence dominates contemporary noir and crime cinema, from Quentin Tarantino to John Dahl. But nothing onscreen could ever come close to the horrors Thompson left between the pages of his 20-odd grubby paperback originals.


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