(Editor’s note: This post is relatively free of spoilers, though plots and scenes are discussed regularly.)
When Robert B. Parker released “Appaloosa” in 2005, it was a move welcomed by his long-time fans. Parker has been the undisputed dean of American mystery novels for more than three decades, with his Spenser series of novels balancing a tough-guy private eye with a surprising amount of literacy and romance. His terse writing style and stoic characters falls right in line with the Wild West mythos, and his novel of freelance marshals Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch was a perfect application of those strengths to the setting.
Parker’s books have been successfully adapted to other media over the years – a television show “Spenser: for Hire” ran from 1985-1988 and CBS currently has a series of films based on the Jesse Stone books – and while I haven’t seen them myself the reception from critics and Parker himself has been positive. So with the recent popularity of contemporary Western films such as “The Assassination of Jesse James” and “3:10 to Yuma,” an adaptation of “Appaloosa” made as much sense as Parker writing the original book. And to the film’s great benefit, it follows that book near perfectly.
There’s virtually nothing to complain about if you’re a purist for plot (as I am). The film follows the text chapter by chapter, as Cole and Hitch enter the frontier town of Appaloosa to break the control held by rancher Randall Bragg and make the acquaintance of the widow Allie French. All major elements make the transfer: shootouts that are over in a minute, encounters with Indians that depend on silent understanding, power struggles and shifting circumstances in a typically lawless town. It also keeps the all-important little details, with Cole reloading immediately after every shootout, constantly reading authors like Emerson and occasionally stumbling when using their words in conversation.
About the only major omission to the book is a series of moments where Hitch and Cole find themselves watching an Appaloosa stallion and his mares in the hills overlooking the city. In the book it adds to the silent understanding between the two men and later an undertone to the developing relationship between Cole and Allie, and its omission removes some of that depth. Some other cosmetic changes have been made, such as skimming over the original meeting between Cole and Hitch and changing the role of a key witness against Bragg.
But the removal of one or two scenes can be forgiven because the film preserves the greatest strength of any Parker novel: the dialogue. Parker’s characters feel natural when they talk to each other, particularly the long-running team of Spenser and Hawk, economical with their words but always real and quite often funny. The script feels like it has been literally copy-pasted from the book pages, not trying to transform it into an overly heroic Western or enforce unnecessary back story on Cole and Hitch. Such a transfer would fail on most books, but going off a Parker book a straight adaptation simply makes sense.
It helps considerably that the dialog is delivered by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, actors perfectly tailored to depict Parker characters. Harris has the weathered look and stone eyes of Cole’s seen-it-all yet focused attitude, but Mortensen is the star as he plays Hitch with a slightly amused grin and an eight-gauge shotgun draped over his shoulder. Cole seems to lack a bit of reserve from the book – surprising from the always stoic Harris – but the two preserve the sense of men who have known each other for so long they can have an entire conversation with only a few words.
The rest of the cast is hit and miss for matching characters. Timothy Spall is a treat as town leader Phil Olson, depicting the stuttering pompousness most normal men would have in reply to Cole and Hitch, but the major supporting characters are bland in their execution. Renée Zellweger is underwhelming as Allie, and Jeremy Irons brings a solid menace to Bragg but lacks the suggested subtlety. In the book both had more of a sense that there was something ugly underneath, an underlying need for control, and their portrayals don’t move deeply enough.
Thankfully though their character differences never affect their interactions with Cole and Hitch, which is really all I need out of them. Bragg knocks back shots of whiskey at a table with Cole and tries to lay down the law (he fails), while Allie tries to seduce Hitch to keep a man in reserve (she fails). These characters are there to provoke reaction, to show the code of honor neither man feels the need to put into words – Parker’s code, as at home in the untamed West as it is in the streets of Boston.
Final adaptation score: 9 out of 10. It follows the story without omission, adapts the dialog perfectly and picks up enough little details to regularly give a feeling of satisfaction. Parker fans will have a very hard time being disappointed here.