Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Rum Diary Trailer

September 3, 2011

Long-time readers of this blog will remember that a couple of years back, I wrote a review of the Hunter S. Thompson novel “The Rum Diary,” a novel originally started by the famed gonzo journalist in 1959 and published almost 40 years later. At the time I showered it with a great deal of praise, comparing it favorably to early Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and it’s aged quite well over time. It paints a vivid portrait of the city of San Juan, is full of stories of drinking and journalism (the latter almost always affected by the former) and generally sits on all of my reading pleasure zones.

My enjoyment of the book has been tempered somewhat in recent years however, by the fact that a film adaptation has been lingering in development hell since before Thompson’s death – at one point becoming so gnarled that the Doctor himself termed the project a “waterhead fuckaround.” Nick Nolte, Benicio del Toro and Josh Hartnett all were signed at various points, but dropped off as the film went through multiple rewrites and two producers. Over time, this film has taken on the reputation of a Duke Nukem Forever or Daikatana to me, the project that seemed to have promise but lingered so long that all anticipation had long since atrophied to a stub capable of feeling only echoes of its previous joy.

The last time it came up in the news – around the same time as another Hunter S. Thompson project, the feature article “Prisoner of Denver,” had been optioned as a film – it came up the film was supposed to come out in September of 2010. That obviously did not happen, but I wasn’t expecting it to given the years of disappointment. At the time, I said something along the lines of: “I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.”

Well? They’ve finally shown me a trailer:

So let’s talk more. Leaving aside the fact that there’s still no date given for release beyond the vague promise of “this year,” I’d say that the trailer hasn’t restored my anticipation completely but it does make me feel much better about the finished product. The atmosphere of the trailer captures the vibrancy of San Juan life which made the book such a vivid read, and also presents the right scenes: news rooms, carnival, ratty apartments, parties with big money. There’s a few more hallucinatory aspects (likely to appeal to the Fear and Loathing audience) than expected, but that can’t be faulted as “The Rum Diary” novel was full of moments of borderline madness via late-night rum binges.

Cast-wise, I can’t find too much to dock it for at first glance, mostly because in all its versions the film has retained Johnny Depp playing the Thompson doppelganger Paul Kemp. Between the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film and readings in the Gonzo documentary, Depp has a grasp of Thompson’s voice honed through a long-time friendship, and there’s no other man* I trust to play the Doctor or his alter egos. On the topic of extras, Amber Heard (soon to appear on NBC as the female lead of The Playboy Club) certainly seems to have the sultriness and raw appeal that Chenault exuded in the novel, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Rispoli have the degenerate scruffiness of Moberg and Salas respectively and the always dependable Aaron Eckhardt looks the part of consummate fixer Sanderson.

*Apologies to Bill Murray, but Where the Buffalo Roam has not aged well at all.

It’s story-wise that I have some concerns though, as the tone of the trailer appears to be going for something more overtly adventurous than the source material. It seems to have an almost caper-like atmosphere, putting Kemp and the San Juan Star staff in a position to bring down the real estate deals of Sanderson and his cronies, rather than the sense of pending disaster and near-existential crisis the book centered around. And of course, the omission of Dr. Gonzo-esque Fritz Yeamon is a decision whose impact is impossible to predict – reportedly he wasn’t in Thompson’s original draft of the book, but he was such a vibrant, destructive force in the finished product that absence will color everything.

But of course, you cannot judge the film based on the snippets of the trailer, so I’ll say in summary that it makes the film look very entertaining with at least some grasp on the source material, and I’m certainly going to be first in line to see this when it eventually premieres. And as to that premiere, I’ll quote the Doctor’s own words as to its continual delay: “If you don’t Do Something QUICK you’re going to Destroy a very good idea. I’m in the mood to chop yr. fucking hands off.”

More on this story once we get an actual release date.


Text-to-Screen Retrospective: The Bourne Identity

October 6, 2010

In my younger years, during one of the many chats that my dad and I have had about books – even today we can quote Robert B. Parker plots back and forth without fail – he told me that there were three books he tried to read every year: Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” and Robert Ludlum’s “The Bourne Identity.” I’ve read all three of these since he first told me that, but “The Bourne Identity” has always been the one that we’ve bonded the most over. I received a battered paperback from him freshman year of high school, and as I read through it over a month we’d have many discussions on the progression of the amnesiac assassin and the varied forces pursuing him.

It was for that reason that both of us were so excited when a film version of “The Bourne Identity” was released when I was a junior, and why we went to see it together the first weekend it came out – and it was for that reason that once the film was over, both of us looked at each other, shook our heads and said “Nah.” It wasn’t that the film was bad – quite the opposite in fact – but there was barely a single thing in it we recognized from the story we’d followed so closely. Even now, eight years later, I’m still unable to watch the film without a slight cringe, though now it’s less a purist’s rant and more a mourning for what could have been.

It’s interesting, because from the outset of the film it seems the differences will be negligible. Both open on a man floating in the ocean outside of France, riddled with bullet holes, a bank account number sewn under his skin and absolutely no memory of who he is. Following the number to Zurich, he learns four very important facts in rapid succession: his name is Jason Bourne, he has millions of dollars in the account, several unidentified men are trying to kill him and he is far better than anyone should be at fighting them off. Dodging both their bullets and the rapidly unfolding memories, he desperately tries to put together who he was, aided only by a woman who stars as hostage but becomes his lover.

While the exposition and loose skeleton of the plot is taken from the book, everything else has been stripped away in favor of more generic spy movie elements. In the novel, Bourne is pursued not simply by a government tying up loose ends but by “Carlos,” the most legendary hired killer in the world. His background does not lie in simply being a standard CIA assassin, but an ex-Vietnam black ops agent with an even darker past and motivations. And his search for the truth doesn’t just lead Bourne and his partner/lover Marie to past locations where Bourne was, but to connect the messages and implications of each action taken against him in often heated debates.

The film obviously simplifies the plot elements of the novel, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing – screenplay writer Tony Gilroy was right in many ways when he called the 1980 novel “a very complicated, dated book.” The plot is driven by an interwoven conspiracy that would put “Rubicon” to shame, with agents playing multiple sides layered with different names and settings and sideplots as Bourne tries desperately to piece the secrets surrounding Carlos and himself. Even the most devoted fans can’t deny that a perfect adaptation would drag out for hours, and even if it was adapted to a miniseries it still would only work half the time.

That “half of the time” caveat however is the main issue I have with the film: it doesn’t matter that it failed to adapt the book perfectly, but it missed a lot of what made the book so good. The revelation that not only is Bourne a government agent, but was set up as a professional assassin to bait and snare the legendary Carlos, was a concept that should have survived first editing as it would have added a lot to the film. Not only does it create a more cat-and-mouse sense, but the personal dilemmas Bourne goes through over the course of the book as he realizes what his role means opens up the room for a strong psychological thriller, rather than a comparatively straightforward action film. There are many very good, very tense scenes in the “Identity” film, but not one of its revelations holds a candle to the novel’s scene where he learns he is the notorious assassin Cain – and the ensuing explosion of memories inside his head the revelation sets off.

Indeed, several of the book’s elements could have worked well in a cinematic framework. The first few chapters alone provide excellent scenes, none of which make it into the film – an alcoholic doctor talks him through all the physical signs that he is more capable than he appears, he beats an entire fishing vessel’s crew into submission uttering only monosyllabic martial arts phrases, and he parlays an overheard rumor about an unfaithful rich man into a cash supply. The book could have also supplied the film with some stylistic elements: the doctor’s advice would be well-served as voiceover narration when Bourne realizes his old abilities are coming back to him, and his supposed background as a ruthless any-dirty-job mercenary in Vietnam could be a lead-in to some very dynamic flashbacks.

It’s also disappointing because while the film did fail to explain the majority of what drove and made Bourne who he was, the character of Bourne was perfectly cast with Matt Damon. Not only does he look the part with features that lend themselves to Bourne’s trademark chameleonic appearance, he nails the wound-up tension that the situation has driven him into – while at the same time he remains a professional, his training so deeply ingrained that the tension never breaks him. The fact that he does his own stunts is also to the character’s credit, as he can snap off a flawless succession of martial arts moves and then gasp disbelievingly at what he was capable of without any need to conceal the use of a stuntman.

Damon manages to bring enough of his source’s conflict, but his partner Marie shows no signs of the spark that made her such a compelling love interest, regardless of how competently Franka Potente plays the role. Part of it is the character’s background – an economics professor in the book, an aimless European drifter in the film – but a bigger change is that she’s no longer smarter than he is. What made the relationship between Bourne and Marie so compelling in the novel was that she was frequently able to put the pieces of the conspiracy together before he could, and consequently set him on the right path. In the film however, she just feels like she’s along for the ride, without the loyalty or the fervent belief that the man she knew couldn’t be a professional killer.

The rest of the film’s cast similarly feels like they’re along for the ride. CIA chiefs Ward Abbott and Alexander Conklin have actors with the gravitas to carry their written counterparts (Brian Cox and Chris Cooper respectively), but the characters they play resemble the initial versions in name only – no history, no personality traits, no allegiances. Clive Owen, though his role as the top agent hunting Bourne does not come from the book, earns an honorable mention as his cold professionalism occasionally has some inklings of the gold-spectacled assassin who is Bourne’s adversary in the early chapters.

I haven’t yet mentioned either of the sequels to “The Bourne Identity” in this review in either of their incarnations, and there’s a reason for that. When I later went to see the “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” I went in expecting no parallels to the books – no traces of Bourne hunting an imposter in China or final confrontation with Carlos – and as a consequence I feel I enjoyed those films more than the original. They are adaptations in title only, continuing the story of the Bourne character that the films created rather than the book’s version, and are much easier to appreciate when that consideration is taken.

And taking that consideration with the original film, I am not going to dispute that “The Bourne Identity” is also a good movie. As a straightforward action film it’s well-constructed and well-cast, and the elements it does take from the book allow it to be a cut above much of the genre. It had the right idea in not copying the original scene by scene, but it simply went too far in what it cut out, and in doing so kept a satisfying film from being a deep and effective story. In both stories, Bourne gradually fights his way back to his memories – but it’s the book that makes for a more memorable experience.

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 2)

August 10, 2010

(Editor’s Note: We now bring you to the second part of this analysis, up earlier than expected thanks to the completely addictive nature of “Justified’s” first season and the brisk pace at which Elmore Leonard novels can be read. Once again, spoilers abound for both the season and the related books, so if either bothers you accept a transfer to Harlan County and get caught up first.)

Unless you’re a referee at a limbo convention who’s been paid off to make sure all the contestants win, it’s probably advisable to avoid setting the bar too high. As I mentioned in the first half of this series, the pilot episode of “Justified,” centered around the exploits of Elmore Leonard’s Stetson-wearing U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, did just that thanks to its incredibly strong source material of “Fire in the Hole.” Adapting the original’s plot and dialogue almost verbatim, show creator Graham Yost and lead actor Timothy Olyphant created one of the best pilots I’d seen in recent memory – my gauge for that being an episode of a show where, if we had nothing else, I’d still be satisfied.

But since the pilot saw that short story through to the end, it raised the question of whether or not the show would be able to keep that momentum going, despite having two other Raylan novels (1993’s “Pronto” and 1995’s “Riding the Rap”) to draw from. It’s always a tightrope effort for a film/TV writer to move away from source material and make the characters their own, and the video stores are littered with adaptations that failed as a result of this. After having seen the full first season however, I can safely mark “Justified” in the victor’s category, with a season that picked the best parts from Leonard’s remaining novels and manages to tell its story in a way that feels like a natural extension – and funnily enough, gets better the more its plot becomes independent from Leonard.

As we get started, I must admit that my plans for this piece were derailed early on: my original intention was to read both novels at the same time I watched new episodes, comparing how they matched in terms of voice and story. I could do the former but not the latter however, as the novels predate the events of “Fire in the Hole” by following Raylan as a U.S. Marshal in Miami, rather than post-Kentucky reassignment (“Pronto” actually ends with the shooting that forms the pilot’s opening scene). If the show wanted to adapt either verbatim, they would have to take the form of flashbacks, and spending that much time on past events can be a death knell for a show just starting out.

But while neither novel can be used chronologically as the structure for a season (and are both admittedly weak when compared to “Fire in the Hole”) each novel contains multiple interesting moments in Raylan’s life, and Yost and company decided to use their framework in the show’s early episodes. The third episode “Fixer” heavily adapts the plot of “Riding the Rap,” where a pair of mismatched convicts kidnap a loan shark for ransom and Givens finds himself unwillingly responsible for the man’s safety. Next week’s episode “Long in the Tooth” adopts “Pronto’s” plot of a fugitive criminal – and former prisoner of Raylan’s who gave him the slip – in the crosshairs of his dangerous employers and once again trying to duck Raylan in pursuit of his duties.

Both these episodes and the second episode “Riverbrook” have more of an episodic feel rather than a serialized one, and consequently do come across as much weaker than the pilot. Most of the supporting cast is largely off to the side in favor of sending Raylan on some adventure, and after the thrilling climax of “Fire in the Hole” they almost feel like decompression. Additionally, while the pilot filmed in Philadelphia the rest of the season was filmed in Los Angeles, and early episodes don’t even seem to be trying to simulate Kentucky. The show would later find dependable wooded areas and battered offices to set its action in, but “Justified” sacrifices the opportunity for the setting to be a character as New Jersey was in “The Sopranos” and Albuquerque is in “Breaking Bad.”

But while the episodes feel a little rocky to start off, they are redeemed by the fact that they raid the best scenes from the novels. “Riverbrook” opens with a vignette from “Riding the Rap” where Raylan escorts one of the skinheads arrested in the pilot to jail by himself, and the conflict and conversation that result go a long way to showing how in control of a situation Raylan is. Juicy gunfights come from each book with “Pronto’s” shootout with Italian mafiosi applied to two cartel hitmen looking to collect a contract on Raylan, and “Fixer” taking “Riding the Rap’s” practice face-off between two gangsters that quickly turns bloody. Both scenes are not only thrilling, but also betray how seriously these gangsters take their images, a recurring theme in Leonard books.

After these three episodes burn through the Raylan source material, Yost’s writing team moves back to the central plot of Raylan dealing with old ghosts in Kentucky. His old coal-mining partner Boyd Crowder has survived Raylan’s shot to the chest and supposedly found religion, a conversion even Raylan can’t determine the sincerity of. His old crush Ava isn’t too young for him anymore, and his ex-wife Winona has a new husband making some very bad decisions. And the shooting of Miami cartel enforcer Tommy Bucks, while justified in his moral code, has also earned him the ire of some very powerful and connected people.

And the more these stories take hold – using these threads as the impetus for both A-stories as well as a few sideplots – the better the show gets. The stories it tells are not only tied in with the development of its main characters (Raylan, Ava and Boyd) but also contain a solid balance of action scenes and banter to ensure boredom rarely if ever occurs. Not enough credit can be given to the show’s writers for this – all of them apparently wear bracelets inscribed with the letters “WWED” (for “What Would Elmore Do?”) to guide them through writer’s block, and it shows. One review of the episode “The Hammer” went so far as to say they have “the Leonard voice down cold.” It challenged readers to make a difference between Leonard’s books and the work of show writers like Fred Golan and Chris Provenzano, and I’d have a hard time making that decision myself.

And as with the pilot, the lines of Raylan remain strong because they have Timothy Olyphant to deliver them. I cited in my review of the pilot his “undeterred focus, an understated intensity to his words and the ability to look superb in a cowboy hat,” and the longer the show goes on the more it feels no one else could or should play this character. In both “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” there was a sense that Raylan was underestimated by others but always in control of the situation, and Olyphant holds both sides of the character – able to chat disarmingly with a suspect in one scene, and then slam their head against the table a minute later. (I’m even able to forgive his not using a revolver as he’s so good in his gunfights – plus a semiautomatic was his weapon of choice in both original novels.)

Recognizing how well Olyphant does with Raylan as a character, Yost and the other show writers made the smart choice to play to Olyphant’s strengths and give the character a Seth Bullock-esque tightly focused anger. His anger has many targets, but the most obvious is his father Arlo (a fantastic Raymond J. Barry), a weathered amoral crook who raised Raylan with the back of his hand. My original hypothesis that Raylan would be a man more in conflict with his code was proven incorrect, as he remains committed to his “Old West lawman” image but seems to use it more as guidelines to keep his anger in check – unless he needs to blow off some steam in a bar fight, in which case he takes his hat off.

And in another debt the show owes to Leonard, the show remains consistently voiced when the camera moves off of Olyphant. In my Text-to-Screen Ratio on “Dexter” I postulated that one of the reasons its sideplots and supporting characters are so weak in comparison to Michael C. Hall is because its source material is written in first-person, and it’s rather difficult to extrapolate new characters from that. Leonard’s novels on the other hand are written in third-person, and regularly switch between the protagonists and antagonists in a move that enhances both the character traits and the flow of the story.

As such, “Justified” is able to bring in a strong stable of guest stars actors from week to week, ranging from M.C. Gainey as a boisterous local crime lord to Stephen Root as an eccentric judge to Jere Burns as a sadistic hitman. It’s also drawn heavily on Olyphant’s fellow “Deadwood” veterans, with W. Earl Brown as a dangerous convict in a stand-off with Raylan and Sean Bridges as an ex-con with a desperate plan to provide for his family. With few exceptions, these character actors play their roles with a Leonard-esque zeal, armed with clever lines and an almost theatrical flair to their actions.

When it comes to the original characters from the story, no character has been given such an expanded life as Raylan’s old coal mining buddy Boyd Crowder. I completely rescind my comment that Walton Goggins’ perfomance brought Boyd “somewhat less compellingly” to life, because the conviction Goggins applies to Boyd more than makes up for the differences in background and appearance. Boyd’s born-again arc takes the book version’s modified Christianity into fierce moralism that neither the viewer nor Raylan can be sure if it’s real, and he and Raylan continue to hold an adversarial respect that leads to some wonderful dialogue, particularly as Raylan circles Boyd trying to put him in prison.

And other than Goggins, the recurring cast continues to deliver performances that blend seamlessly with their original versions. Nick Searcy as Raylan’s boss and old Academy training partner Art Mullen has the air of “a big, comfortable man with a quiet way of speaking” that “Fire in the Hole” described, but also shows the frayed patience that anyone would have after more than a few escapades with Raylan. Carter continues the fine work she established in the pilot as Ava Crowder, still a strong and stubborn woman who’s attracted to Raylan for a variety of reasons, and not afraid to defend herself with a sawed-off shotgun.

In the world of characters who Leonard didn’t take as much time with, Natalie Zea is quite capable as Raylan’s ex-wife Winona, an unseen character in all the books but who keeps Leonard’s description of talking “always a little smart-alecky.” While the show leaves out the two sons he had with her in the book, it does keep the plot thread that she left him for the realtor selling their house – a plot point that builds to an excellent mid-season episode “Hatless.” Other minor characters are less well-served, as despite regular credits Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts as fellow Marshals Rachel Brooks and Tim Gutterson are nonentities after the first four episodes, yielding their screen time to the various guest stars.

“Justified” has already been renewed for a second season on FX, and while I don’t plan to write a new installment for that season I will certainly be tuning in. Yost and Olyphant and company have pulled off the rare feat of taking an author’s character and giving them an even better world to play in, raiding all the right pieces of the source material and taking the story in a new and interesting direction. Leonard has mentioned that at some point he might come back to the character of Raylan Givens in a new story or novel, and if he does it’s almost certain he’ll be hearing Olyphant’s voice as he writes.

Extra Credit: Want to know how Elmore Leonard feels about “Justified?” Check out these interviews and also an essay on where Raylan Givens came from.

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 1)

June 24, 2010

(Editor’s note: Welcome to the first installment of a two-part series, focusing on FX’s “Justified” and its origins in the works of Elmore Leonard. In part one, our humble correspondent takes a look at the show’s pilot episode and the short story “Fire in the Hole” that inspired it. Part two, coming later this summer, will look at the entire first season and how it compares with the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap.” For the sake of analysis many spoilers are present for the first episode, so if that bothers you here’s a warning: 24 letters to get out of town.)

A few weeks ago, in the intro to my Text-to-Screen Ratio on “Dexter,” I made the observation that you don’t usually see television networks taking a cue from books to develop their new shows. My argument went that given the range of demands on a television show – dealing with multiple cast members and sideplots, the demands of network executives and fickle audiences – show runners don’t always have the time and freedom to worry about getting every slightest nuance correct. As such, a show can’t promise to be faithful to its source material unless it has a very centralized presentation (i.e. a miniseries) or has enough source material that it can pick and choose.

I actually wrote that introduction a few months before the piece was published, and in the intervening time FX took the opportunity to introduce a supplement to my argument with their contemporary Western drama “Justified.” Based in the works of Elmore Leonard – specifically the character of Raylan Givens, star of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” – “Justified” adds a third tactic in that takes one piece of original material, and jumps off from it to take the story in a new direction. It’s an interesting approach, and one that’s definitely setting the bar high for future episodes given how well its pilot masters the source material.

“Justified” uses Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” (readily available in the 2002 collection “When the Women Come Out to Dance”) as the template for its pilot episode, centered on the clash between two men who grew up together in Kentucky’s Harlan County and now find themselves on opposite sides of the law. On the law’s side is Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal with an old-fashioned interpretation of the law that leads him to shoot a man after he ignores Raylan’s order to get out of town in 24 hours. Against him is Boyd Crowder, Vietnam veteran turned white supremacist who’s built his own miltia and turned his mining experience to building homemade bombs for domestic terrorism.

“Fire in the Hole” is an exemplary short story and a showcase of Leonard’s narrative talents, and show creator Graham Yost wisely decided not to mess with success because the pilot episode barely deviates from its source material. While it does add a few additional scenes, such as portraying Givens’ drawing on the gangster that gets him sent back to Kentucky as the cold open, scenes ranging from standoffs at a widow’s household to a shootout at a hotel are copied straight from the text. While it was shot in Philadelphia as opposed to Kentucky, the atmosphere still retains the small town and vacant country feel, accentuated by distinctive camera work and a nouveau-Western score.

Leonard’s selling point has always been his ear for dialogue, a sharp and wry tone that goes a long way to setting each of his characters apart. Given his writing style, it’s not surprising that most of the dialogue is maintained verbatim in the story, and the best of the scenes – Raylan facing down a neo-Nazi gator poacher, Boyd interrogating a potential undercover agent – are as exciting on screen as they are in print. A few lines are dropped here and there, and given the shortness of the story they’re a bit more noticeable than other translations – in particular, the omission “bunch of serious morons sieg-heilin’ each other” irks me.

Translating Leonard’s dialogue to script is a simple enough task, but the success of that translation depends heavily on who’s speaking it. In my “Dexter” piece I pointed out that one course of action for successful TV shows based on books is to center on the established main character, and “Justified” is also following that course with the selection of Timothy Olyphant as Raylan. Olyphant has already worn a lawman’s star on TV with his turn as Seth Bullock on the celebrated “Deadwood,” and he carries over all the right tools to this role: a sense of undeterred focus, an understated intensity to his words and the ability to look superb in a cowboy hat. (It isn’t the businessman’s Stetson Leonard associates with the character, but Olyphant wears it so well the omission is forgiven – though I can’t forgive him for swapping out the .45-caliber revolver for a SIG P220.)

The performance isn’t just a regurgitation of his “Deadwood” efforts as the two men do have some key differences, and Olyphant has the acting chops necessary to differentiate. While Bullock was a man fighting against his responsibilities and keeping his temper tightly leashed, Raylan’s character is equally focused but much more laconic air, a man comfortable with the code he has chosen and who doesn’t see much need to defend it to others. Olyphant masters that poise, particularly in one scene when confronted with an intruding white supremacist – as in the book, he simply stands up, picks up his hat and “set it on his head the way he wore it.”

On the other side of the law is Boyd, who is brought to life somewhat less convincingly by Walton Goggins. This is nothing against Goggins as an actor – even though I haven’t seen his critically acclaimed performance on “The Shield” – but his unkempt and wiry character seems to have much less physical presence than the story’s Vietnam vet with a “regulation grunt cut… steel bristles crowning his lean, leathery face.” Thankfully, the performance doesn’t go to stereotypical hillbilly, and Goggins does manage to convey a great deal of focus and charisma, particularly in his interactions with Olyphant. The two pace slowly around each other as men who understand the other, “born a hundred years too late” with an unchanging way of doing things.

Olyphant and Goggins dominate the episode’s action, but given that a new series is being established it also needs to lay the groundwork for future story arcs – an equally strong responsibility for “Justified,” given that it’s essentially taking Raylan’s story over from Leonard. There’s a variety of supporting federal agents and white supremacists who have potential to do much more, and there’s a likely love interest in Raylan’s old flame Ava (Joelle Carter, who nails the book’s monologue on why she shot her husband). Yost also makes the decision to have Raylan shoot Boyd to wound rather than kill, a decision that not only complicates Raylan further as a character but makes the smart decision of keeping Goggins around for future episodes.

And complicating Raylan as a character appears to be the biggest move the show is taking. Repeated references to his criminal father which were not present in the book clearly make him uncomfortable, and also hint at a deeper wound in his life. His ex-wife Winona, given a throwaway mention in the story, is here as a supporting cast member who illuminates Raylan’s doubts on the opening shooting by calling him “the angriest man I have ever known.” It’s a departure from the more convicted Raylan of “Fire in the Hole,” although in the story an old girlfriend of Raylan’s does touch on some potential doubts:

“She told him he had an image of himself as a lawman, meaning an Old West lawman without the big mustache, and he believed it might be true in some deep part of his mind. Another time Joyce said ‘The way you put it, you said you called him out. What did you think, you were in a movie?’ Her saying that caught him by surprise, because at times he did see it that way, as something he had borrowed from a western movie. He liked westerns a lot.”

It might be because Olyphant actually has experience playing an Old West lawman with a big mustache, but the way he plays Raylan shows he understands the image that goes along with his code. The hesitations and slight flinches every time his father is mentioned, the slight uncertainty on his face as the ambulance takes Boyd away – these little moments show while he carries himself tall there is a layer of concern for the life he has chosen.

While “Justified” has clearly taken some steps to establish its own universe outside of Leonard’s world, its pilot episode proves it understands just what made “Fire in the Hole” so gripping. The selection of little details and lines dropped aren’t enough to break the immersion of Olyphant’s performance, and the atmosphere and dialogue give the same feeling of flipping through pages to find out what happens next. Future episodes may not have as much to fall back on, but what “Justified” does in its first outing is more than enough to bring Leonard fans along for the ride.

Extra Credit:

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Dexter

May 12, 2010

(Editor’s note: there will be spoilers here, but the only things I intend to spoil are plot threads that deserve it. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the good stuff hidden in a rosewood box inside the air conditioner)

Due to the difference in each medium’s scope, it isn’t often you see books adapted for television. Novels – and films to some extent – are self-contained works with a set beginning and end, while a television series that airs multiple episodes a season is a living entity that often evolves weekly with changes in cast or writers. Additionally, books aren’t usually facing up against yearly battles for renewal, and shows rarely have the luxury of limiting themselves to one source of material unless they’re committing themselves to a limited run or miniseries.

Consequently, mainstream television shows that do use books as their inspiration have a few options if they want to stay alive. They can either leap away from their origin story and create a new world to operate in, such as FOX’s “Bones” (based on Kathy Reichs’ series of novels); they can rely on an extensive library of source material to keep a story rolling, such as the “Jeeves and Wooster” series; or they can bank on a really interesting main character to push it through, as is the case with Showtime’s “Dexter.” Likely the most successful contemporary show based on a book (specifically, Jeff Lindsay’s series of thriller novels), “Dexter” is interesting because it manages to show not only how an adaptation can be hampered by its source material but also how it can rise above it.

Both versions of the story maintain the core plot structure. Dexter Morgan, a forensic scientist with the Miami Metro Police Department, is a completely normal citizen except for one rather glaring difference: he kills people. Traumatized in his youth by an unknown horror, Dexter is a sociopath devoid of emotion who only feels alive when taking someone’s life. Nurtured closely by his cop father Harry, Dexter has channeled these urges into a form of community service, only killing those who are themselves killers, and arranging the events so precisely that he is never even considered a suspect.

Only the first season and the first book “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” have major similarities and plot threads, focusing on an uprooting of Dexter’s status quo when a new serial killer enters the picture who seems to have very detailed knowledge of his bloody activities. Dexter’s chameleon-like life and bloody extracurriculars are adapted faithfully, though (understandably) with a bit less emphasis on torture – kills are handled swiftly and mostly out of sight, with a more orderly cleanup rather than the improvisation of the book. All main characters are also present, including his foul-mouthed ambitious sister Deborah, his loyal and damaged girlfriend Rita, the suspicious Sergeant Doakes, man-eating Lieutenant LaGuerta, dutiful homicide detective Angel Batista and smarmy lab assistant Vince Masuka.

But fittingly for a show and novel with a titular character, it’s that character that makes or breaks the story – and it’s hard to think of how “Dexter” could do better than Michael C. Hall. I’ve preached on his merits in my Capturing the Voice column, but suffice to say he continues to prove his worthiness to stand alongside the strongest central male leads. Slightly goofy when interacting with the rest of the world, coldly brutal when hunting and detached in inner monologues, Hall delivers on each side of Dexter’s persona in a very convincing manner. The monologues in particular exhibit the flow of words that make Lindsay’s novels devourable, particularly the first book and its sequel “Dearly Devoted Dexter.” In fact, Lindsay has gone on record as saying that seeing Hall’s performance was “a jaw-dropping experience… he really nailed it” and that he consults the actor while writing new books.

Of course, Hall’s position as the show’s center has also been accentuated by a frequently limp supporting cast – an issue that highlights the core problem with making a TV show (or even a movie) out of a first-person book. The novel focuses solely on one character’s views and actions, with other characters defined only in their interaction to the narrator, while the B story and C story subplots that form the structure of conventional television have to develop those characters independently. As a consequence, characters have to branch out in ways their creator never intended them to, and in “Dexter’s” case they never quite seem to escape their one-dimensional nature.

The show makes an effort to expand these characters beyond the templates Lindsay created, but the results tend to be hit-or-miss. Dexter’s sister Debra, portrayed as a more soured individual in the books, is carried competently by Jennifer Carpenter as “dearly damaged Debra,” her constant swearing betraying the damage of an absentee father. However, when they try to push her too heavily out of her comfort zone, such as her dalliance with a much older FBI agent in season 2 that has some seriously cringe-worthy scenes (I don’t need to see Keith Carradine smacking the ass of a woman half his age).

Again, the characters that work do so because of their defined reaction to Dexter and how much that relationship diverges from the book. Erik King as Doakes makes an excellent “panther” stalking Dexter (if only because I feel he needs his own blacksplotation film on the strength of how he says “motherfucker”), and Dexter’s fellow lab tech Masuka (C.S. Lee) is smarmy enough that he matches Dexter’s book observation that he also seems to be pretending to be normal. Conversely, David Zayas and Lauren Velez never seem to have enough to do as Batista and Masuka respectively, and their subplots feel scattered like bags of body parts thrown into the Atlantic. Julie Benz as Rita probably gets closer to him than others, but when her ex-husband or mother come in there’s a lot of angst that seems to detract from the way the character works.

But while “Dexter” as a show has its share of storytelling cracks, in many ways it’s still stronger than its source material, chiefly because that source material has been on a downward slope. The “Dexter” novels, after two very entertaining outings, fell victim to what video game journalist Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw dubbed Indigo Prophecy Syndrome in his video review of “Condemned 2: Bloodshot”:

“The main and most obvious symptom of Indigo Prophecy Syndrome is a plot that in the second half goes what is medically known as ‘snooker-loopy,’ with lesser symptoms including total abandonment of subtlety, the introduction of ancient mystical cults, and the main character pulling hitherto unknown superpowers out of their ass.”

This description could almost verbatim be defining the critical failures of “Dexter in the Dark,” the third book in the series, which decides on a new twist for the “Dark Passenger” metaphor Dexter gives his murderous urges. In this book, it turns out that his Dark Passenger is in fact a shard of the dark god Moloch, and a cult that worships the god is tracking him in an effort to recapture this entity, and they do so by bringing him to their temple on an island to be sacrificed in a flaming pit – okay, I’m going to break character and stop here because now that I’ve typed it it sounds even stupider than it did upon first reading. Anyways.

The fourth book “Dexter by Design” tried to remedy this by treating the earlier book as if it didn’t happen, but Dexter felt like he’d lost something as a character, stumbling when he came to difficult circumstances and without the cool patience and resourcefulness that had been one of his strengths in the earlier books. Plus, with a fifth upcoming volume that will be using cannibalism as a main plot point (titled “Dexter is Delicious”), the books are quite clearly trying to push the envelope a bit too far in an effort to keep the character interesting.

“Dexter” on TV, meanwhile, never took that tact with the character’s homicidal leanings but rather took on aspects of a psychological study. Season 2 dealt with several jars to Dexter’s previously unflappable perception of himself and his code, while Season 3 saw him dealing with his impending fatherhood and the fact that another man had discovered his secret. Thanks largely to Hall’s performance, the show takes on elements of a character study that deals with questions of addiction and parental obligation, never divorcing itself from reality or going to the pulp extremes of the book. Dexter feels more like a character that can be rooted for despite his horrific acts, someone you want to come out on top and keep doing what he does – a depth his novel incarnation always felt divorced from.

At the close of “Dexter’s” second season finale, Dexter makes the observation that his experiences have changed him from the template killer he always saw himself as, “an idea transformed into life” – and that descriptor applies neatly to what the show has done for the character and storyline. Despite the burdens of poor plotting, Hall and the writers have carried Dexter to a new dimension past the alliterative killer the books introduced him as. Several critics have complained that the show feels somewhat strained the longer it goes on and the more situations Dexter gets out of, but it’s a world worth immersing oneself in – as long as they can avoid the Babylonian gods.

Extra Credit:

  • For exceptionally solid writing on “Dexter” the show (including examples of that critical complaint I mentioned in the last paragraph), check out Alan Sepinwall’s blog and the A.V. Club’s reviews. Spoilers abound, so be cautious.

Text-to-Screen News: HST Returns to Cinema

May 6, 2010

Hunter S. Thompson at a "Free Lisl" rally in Denver, 2001.

As anyone who has even a passing familiarity with me knows, I love Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve read the great majority of his books, I’ve dressed as him on three Halloweens, I can quote him at will, have a font of trivia at my disposal and do more than a passing impression. The reasons why I love the Good Doctor are long and detailed and far more impassioned than that I simply like yelling about golf shoes in hotel bars, but will have to wait for another time. I mention this now because an interesting bit of Thompson-related news came out on Sunday, and I feel it’s important to cast light on potential bias before discussion.

As the Hollywood Reporter noted on Sunday and which I heard about through The A.V. Club, the Motion Picture Corporation of America has optioned “Prisoner of Denver,” an article Thompson wrote for Vanity Fair in 2004 in collaboration with contributing editor Mark Seal. The article concerns the imprisonment of Lisl Auman, a 21-year-old who was charged with murder despite already being in police custody when the crime occurred – an accomplice who committed suicide did the actual shooting. Thompson became pen pals with Auman and took up the fight for her freedom, rallying several of his celebrity friends to the cause to help earn her release in 2005.

“It is not in my nature to be polite to people who want to hurt me, or to turn my back on a woman who is being brutally raped right in front of my eyes, especially when the rapists are wearing big guns and Denver Police Department badges. And that is why I am telling you this disgusting story about how notoriously vicious cops buried a provably innocent young woman in a tiny cell in the concrete bowels of a Colorado state prison for the rest of her life with no possibility of parole. That is a death sentence, pure and simple, and those rotten, murdering bastards are still proud of it. Proud. Remember that word, because it is going to come back and haunt every one of those swine. The Lisl Auman scandal will whack the Denver law-enforcement establishment like Watergate whacked Richard Nixon.”
– “Prisoner of Denver,” Hunter S. Thompson and Mark Seal, Vanity Fair, 2004

I have not read “Prisoner of Denver” myself as it has yet to make it into a Thompson compilation, and a cursory search couldn’t yield a link on Vanity Fair‘s website or any other site (though the first few paragraphs can be read here), so I can’t comment on whether or not it’s an article that deserves filming. What I will say though is that it opens up room to portray an aspect of Thompson many people overlook. Despite making a career chronicling “the death of the American Dream,” Thompson loved America fiercely, and in his later years perceived violations of her principles sent his fighting spirit into overdrive. “Songs of the Doomed” depicts an excellent example of this, chronicling Thompson’s arrest for sexual assault and drug possession which he soon turned into an assault on his Fourth Amendment rights.

As Ralph Steadman put it, “he felt this deep outrage, because someone was fucking with his beloved Constitution,” and that’s an attitude I think would be good to see on screen to clear up the image of drugs and hyperbole that too often colors Thompson’s public image. Plus, the Doctor as aged patriot might make a great excuse for Bill Murray to step back into the role.

That said, I’m not approaching the release with wide eyes. I think The A.V. Club makes a legitimate point about how it has the potential to be somewhat mawkish, considering Thompson has been dead for five years now and not around to make sure the swine keep him in the right light. Plus, according to the Hollywood Reporter, MPCA are looking for screenwriters “with a focus on Thompson and Seal acting as a couple of gonzo Woodward and Bernsteins,” and that phrase just makes the bile rise in my stomach. Few things do more damage to the Doctor’s reputation than shoddy imitators.

Of course, given that the film adaptation of “The Rum Diary” languished in development hell for a decade and Thompson’s third collection of letters “The Mutineer” delays its release date more than its author did turning in articles, I don’t expect to hear too much out of this project for at least a year or two. A close eye will of course be maintained on proceedings, to see if the eventual ride is worth the ticket price.

(As an aside, the article also states that the long-delayed “Rum Diary” film will be seeing release in September, a fact confirmed by IMDB and Wikipedia. I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.)

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Capturing the Voice

April 14, 2010

As I assume I’ve made apparent in this series of articles, there are a lot of problems inherent in adapting a book to film. Beyond the critical issue of immersion – books require a connection that a flash on a screen can never provide, no matter how much James Cameron might try to convince audiences otherwise – there are questions of detail, the decision on which characters and subplots to cut out, how closely you want to work with the author in developing the film’s storyboard, etc etc. This mix of concerns tends to complicate a lot of releases, either turning them into mediocre offerings that send purists to the streets with torches or creating films that many people have no idea are based on books.

One of the most critical sticking points to getting an adaptation right is the issue of narration, particularly in novels told from a first-person perspective. When the majority of a book is depicted as an inner monologue, reflecting only one character’s reactions and views of the setting around him, the screenwriter adapting it is faced with a particularly difficult choice. Do you change the format to depict other characters, thus moving further and further away from the original version’s story, or do you work that voice in and risk alienating your audience with one voice droning on?

There are plenty of examples of both in film, but in my experience I’ve found that the best adaptations of first-person novels are ones that go for the latter – chiefly on the strength of the actors they’ve selected for that voice. If you want viewers to invest in one character talking through the majority of the film, you need someone who can sell that character, convey in his actions and tone the personality that made the source material such a compelling read.

So with that in mind, please take a moment and review my personal picks for the best actors who perfectly capture the tone of a book’s original narration and perform that wonderful trick of making you hear their voice in your head every time you go back to the source material. I allow that this is based on favorites of mine rather than a broad general view of things, but I stand by each of my arguments.

1. Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Considering this is my favorite film and favorite book, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to start off this list, but from a professional standpoint it’s absolutely essential. Depp’s performance here is the main reason to watch this film – described as “a master of moving as though someone just pulled the plug on his power source” by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, his Raoul Duke is a character soaked in intensity and paranoia. It’s a character that fits the gonzo label, one that can go in any direction, enjoying an anti-authoritarian rant one moment and slouching over a bar stool mumbling the next.

Depp’s tone is noticeably different from recordings of Thompson himself – much more jacked-up with less of the quiet “ho ho” tone – but he’s doing the right thing by varying it. His job wasn’t to match Thompson but the author’s alter ego of Duke, reflecting the strain of no sleep and continual ill-advised self-medicating. Each of the book’s immortal lines on golf shoes and devil ether are nailed, either filled with snap observations or the wisdom of a true dope fiend. In the scenes where he is alone and typing in the hell his hotel suite has become, the tone becomes sagelike, almost omniscient: someone who has fallen over the Edge but miraculously made it back with a report.

Off-screen, Depp’s performance earns bonus points for the level of immersion he took into preparing for the role. A long-time friend of Thompson, he lived in the basement of the Owl Farm compound for a few months to prepare for the role (as chronicled in his excellent obituary “A Pair of Deviant Bookends,” later adapted as the introduction for the oral history “Gonzo”), spending endless hours talking with him and reviewing the original manuscripts. In fact, his outfits in the film were mostly lifted straight from Thompson’s closet, the originals worn by Thompson as he was living the book in 1971. Depp was afforded a rare opportunity to literally step into the shoes of the character, and he took advantage of it in a way only a very talented actor could.

There was a very good reason why 2008’s “Gonzo” documentary featured Depp reading from Thompson’s books, and why the (hopefully) upcoming “The Rum Diary” film has him once again playing a Thompson doppelganger. No other actor inhabits the Doctor or his alter ego so completely.

2. Edward Norton as the Narrator (Jack), “Fight Club”

I could technically call this award a split between Norton and Brad Pitt for obvious reasons, but it’s Norton’s everyman who sells this film for me each time I watch it. A man trapped in a thankless job that quantifies death (automotive safety), he is unable to sleep and unable to cry, nullified by the washed-out mass-consumer world that surrounds him. In every one of his scenes, Norton portrays a caged helplessness, an anger and despair he doesn’t even know how to express anymore.

The insomnia and resignation all match the narrator’s tone, but what particularly sells Norton’s performance is how perfectly suited his style is to the style of the author who wrote his lines. Palahniuk’s writing has always depended on a spartan, borderline nihilstic economy with words, which he described in an intro to “Fight Club”:

Instead of walking a character from scene to scene in a story, there had to be some way to just – cut, cut, cut. To jump. From scene to scene. Without losing the reader. To show every aspect of a story, but only the kernel of each aspect. The core moment. Then another core moment. Then, another.

There is nothing extraneous in Norton’s character, no wasted gestures or extra tangents in his mumblings – we receive instead an excellent focus that seems determined to shut out all the distractions surrounding him, matter-of fact details and observations. When he eventually does snap, such as when he coldly explains to his boss how a hypothetical someone could go postal in the office if pushed too far, you don’t feel like he’s been waiting for this or the tension’s been building, but that some invisible switch has been flipped without warning, setting off the next core moment.

Sam Rockwell made a good effort as another Palahniuk narrator in “Choke,” but Norton set the bar so high he was destined to be compared unfavorably. If the “Survivor” movie ever finds its way out of development hell, the star would do well to study Norton as much as the source material.

3. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, “A Clockwork Orange”

Sigh. Whatever happened to Malcolm McDowell, o my brothers? From a promising start to his career in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Caligula” he seemed to vanish from the right roles, showing up in throwaway films like “Tank Girl” or “Star Trek Generations” where he’s cashing in on his wonderfully creepy voice and evil genius looks. His most memorable roles have been the one where his voice is king, video game roles, be they Admiral Tolwyn in “Wing Commander” or John Henry Eden in “Fallout 3.”

But while his career has gone through what most people would term a decline, he began it with a truly memorable turn as Anthony Burgess’ psychopathic teenager Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” While the most memorable images of him are silently staring out under false eyelashes as electronic classical plays, when he speaks the performance gets its hooks out. His voice had a distinctive lilt, youthful and yet dangerously jittery, as if you could never tell when he would take a knife to you – an almost joyful disregard for truth and consequence matching the book’s rapid Nadsat phrasing. He was skipping towards hell to the tune of the Ninth, and loving every moment of it.

And once the Ludovico technique forced his eyes open to the horror of violence, his performance betrayed the loss of control it delivered. In an ill-fitting suit, arms pulled in clutching his belongings, he had an almost Luke Skywalker-esque expression of dumbness at how the world moved on without him. He becomes almost sickly, his smile even more plastic than the fake sympathy he put on for his parents or his latest rape victim – a performance in many ways harder to watch than the scenes of ultraviolence.

The hiccup in matching this to the book however comes in with the long-debated 21st chapter, excised from the book’s American release and the film script. This chapter sees Alex grow up in a sense, disillusioned from his raping and beating and deciding it’s time to settle down with a nice girl. Stanley Kubrick hadn’t read this version and never considered it for the film, and it’s hard to see McDowell agreeing that “Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.” His character comes across as so irredeemable that such a change is beyond his abilities.

But then again, I’m of the school of thought that the book’s better without that chapter, and honestly McDowell’s performance here makes for a supporting argument. The joyous abandon and manipulative actions he takes here fit the 20 chapters adapted in a most horrorshow way.

4. Mickey Rourke as Marv, “Sin City”

When “Sin City” first hit theaters, what made the posters distinctive – beyond the black-and-white noir shading style – was the alteration of one word in the description of the main characters: the change from “as” to “is.” It was a declarative shift, proclaiming that actors such as Bruce Willis and Clive Owen weren’t just portraying the roles but filling them completely, filling Robert Rodriguez’s vision of “a translation, not an adaptation” of Frank Miller’s neo-noir graphic novels And no actor contributed to that vision as much as Rourke, portraying the nigh-indestructible brawler and gunman Marv.

Willis and Owen were certainly at home in their roles, but it was Rourke who defined the film in “The Hard Goodbye,” the film’s first and best story. Rourke’s Marv had a graveled weariness that spoke of taking a lot of beatings and giving as well as he got, a tone most noir writers would kill to capture on the page. Unlike the nauseating adaptation of “The Spirit” where every line seemed soaked in self-parodied cliché, Rourke made his lines believable, packed with pure investment in his actions:

Hell? You don’t know what hell is. None of you people do. Hell isn’t getting beat up or cut up or hauled in front of some faggot jury. Hell is waking up every god damn morning and not knowing why you’re even here. Why you’re even breathing.

The other aspect so key to this character was the almost amused acceptance he has of his circumstances. Defined early on as a man who’d “be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face,” Rourke displayed no reluctance at dragging someone’s face on the street while driving a car or leaving a quadruple amputee to be chewed up by a wolf. He didn’t revel in it as some of the film’s other violent types, but he was clearly a man who knew his place and enjoyed what he did. Consequences seemed to mean nothing to him – he smirked his way through every beating and smirked even harder as obstacles presented themselves to be knocked down.

“Sin City” remains a testament to faithful adaptations – Rodriguez used the original graphic novels as the storyboards – and its sequels ever come to be, Rourke’s participation will make or break their legitimacy. Luckily despite his electrocution in the first film, Marv still has a role to play.

5. Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, “Dexter”

When a TV show makes unethical actions its central plot point, it seems to be a requirement that an incredibly strong actor or actress serve as the main character to win audiences over. James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos,” Michael Chiklis in “The Shield” and Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” all dominate this field of antiheroes, and Michael C. Hall has carved out a place just below them as the titular lead of Showtime’s “Dexter.” As a serial killer with a strict moral code, Hall keeps his show afloat despite a string of hit-or-miss side sideplots.

What makes Hall so compelling in this role is the fact that he manages to inhabit all the aspects of “Dexter” that Jeff Lindsay writes about. His voiceovers – like many others in the list, a neutral monotone slightly humming with menace – are key to the show, coldly scientific in their analysis of his targets and his sociopathy but also betraying his nervousness at the cracking of his mask. When interacting with friends his character’s openness is convincing but visibly fake to an audience in the know, and when interacting with his targets there is a relaxed savoring of the bloodshed to come.

There’s also some great dark humor that results, as like in the book the audience is privy to knowledge no character beyond Dexter knows, and Hall manages to straightforwardly deliver some wonderful lines that would be throwaway without the context (such as this one with his girlfriend Rita):

Rita: Deb must be a mess. I mean, falling for a serial killer?

Dexter: What are the odds?

It’s a hard combination to be funny and scary in equal doses, but Hall pulls it off with a shark smile and an inner voice both analytical and poetic. You don’t see a lot of books making their way to the small screen, but if they had actors like Hall backing them it’d make for an easier transition.

Honorable Mentions

Ewan McGregor as Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton, “Trainspotting”

While the book is split between a variety of characters and perspectives, Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton is as close to a protagonist as Irvine Welsh’s Scottish drug novel can provide, the most normal one in the group and the one who comes out on top in the end. McGregor has the thick Scottish brogue and the twitching empty junkie look, and his delivery of the “Choose life” monologue is the hook that defines both the film and the book irrevocably.

Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell, “No Country for Old Men”

Again, while not a first-person novel, Sheriff Bell’s speeches open and close the book’s chapters, and are imbued with the language that has made Cormac McCarthy one of our finest living writers. Jones has precisely the right inflection in his tone, and whenever he speaks to a character or to himself you can feel the world-weariness in each sentence: a dry aged quality that tightens the throat in response.

Viggo Mortensen as Everett Hitch, “Appaloosa”

I’ve talked at length about this in my Text-to-Screen review of “Appaloosa,” so I’ll avoid too much detail. What I will emphasize is that Mortensen sets a very solid bar in all of his characters, and his Hitch has the terse attitude necessary to be a Robert B. Parker protagonist. The graveled voice that made him so convincing in “The Road,” matched with the inner reserve of the son of Arathorn, give him a lawman’s bearing even Seth Bullock could take a lesson from.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, “Jeeves and Wooster”

Anyone who only knows Laurie from “House” is missing out on the fact that he built his career on the absurdities of British comedy, and his role as the idly rich Wooster was a key part of it. While the show doesn’t capture the majority of the brilliant text that makes Wodehouse a joy to immerse oneself in, Laurie still conveys Wooster’s dimwitted nature in a very enduring way, nailing the foppishness, goofiness and good nature in turn.

Peter Weller as William Lee, “Naked Lunch”

Again, please refer to my original Text-to-Screen on “Naked Lunch” for the pertinent details on this performance. Briefly, Weller’s poise fits the possession and vision that led Rolling Stone to eulogize Burroughs as “anarchy’s double agent,” and readings of routines like “The Talking Asshole” come very close to the inimitable drawl Burroughs set in his live recordings.