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Drive vs. Drive

(See here for my review of Drive, the film.)

It’s pretty much a rule in Hollywood that when you adapt a book for a movie, you’re going to fuck it up.  That’s not to say that the movie is necessarily going to suck (although it’s a pretty safe bet – see Dune for the classic example), but rather that writing allows you to do things that are difficult, if not impossible, to do on screen – the screenwriter has no choice but to fuck it up.  Written stories give us the benefit of an omnipresent narrator (or, in the case of first person narratives, a narrator who can at the very least provide the sort of internal monologue we can usually only imagine when dealing with film) who can weave important bits in and out of the narrative and who can explain what’s going on in the characters’ minds.  Obviously, movies can employ narration, but only sparingly (if there’s an example of a movie that employs the same degree of narration as a novel, I’m blissfully unaware of it).  A picture may say a thousand words, but which words?  While the written word is still subject to interpretation, the interpretation of pictures is hugely reliant on the viewer himself and therefore requires more expert handling if we’re to draw anything but perilously subjective conclusions.

I’ll make no bones about it: having now read Drive by James Sallis (of whom and whose work I know absolutely nothing at this point), I can’t help but feel that something went terribly, terribly wrong during its transposition to the silver screen.  The movie’s departures from the source text are as radical as they are puzzling.  I suppose that its the right of the filmmaker/s to interpret the work and create something of his/their own, but with that right ought to exist the onus to create something that works both on its own and with respect to the original.

Reading Drive the novel (really more of a novella/short story.  Very quick read and available for ~$5 on kindle) served to draw into sharper relief the flaws in the film I had enumerated last night as well as to highlight things missing from the film that I hadn’t even yet realized it lacked.  The book itself deserves significant analysis, however for the purposes of this essay I’ll focus only on comparing/contrasting with the movie (I may write a more focused analysis of the book later).  It will be impossible to avoid spoilers in the comparison, as some of the differences are significant and surprising, so if you plan on reading the original then you should probably ignore the rest of this.  Otherwise, let’s dig in.

In the novel, much like in the film adaptation, Driver* is a preternaturally gifted stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway car driver for several low-rent Los Angeles-based knockoff artists.  He moves between seedy motels and rundown apartments, never getting really attached to locations, people, or even the cars that are so important to his livelihood.  While he keeps most people at arms’ length distance, he does engage several in conversations based on philosophical or sociological topics but, like in the movie, tends to avoid small talk.  Sallis portrays Driver as a deeply introspective young man (not quite the semi-autistic savant that Gosling portrayed), discussing Borges with associates (try to argue that Gosling’s character might even know who Borges is.  You can’t) and possessing the noir-requisite haunted past that informs much of his thinking.

(*I will refer to the character in the book as Driver, the character in the movie as Gosling.)

That haunted past is implied in the film only by Gosling’s apparent skill with violence, but in the book it’s explained in lurid detail.  When Driver was a young boy, he would help his father on various burglary assignments, crawling into small spaces for which his pre-adolescent frame was ideally suited.  Once Driver hits his growth spurt and is unable to help his father out, his father essentially ignores him.  Turns out that he ignored Driver’s mother, too, and one day Driver witnessed his sanity-challenged mother brutally murder his father in the family kitchen.  Driver spends the rest of his youth in foster care with a nice family in Tuscon, AZ until shortly before his 16th birthday, he leaves a note thanking the foster family for their care and steals their car, heading off to Los Angeles where he’ll attempt to make his way in the world.  Like his father, he soon gets involved in crime (and his emphatic preference for only acting as a driver now seems more interesting given his background as the son/helper of a murdered burglar).

Recall now what I said earlier about writing’s ability to narrate.  Recall what I said in my review of Drive the movie about the lack of exposition.  At no point in the film was any of this back story communicated.  We’re never told that his father was a criminal, we’re never told that his mother murdered his father, we’re never told that he had a foster family, let alone that theirs was the first car he ever stole.  This presents two possibilities as we attempt to re-interpret the film: either that back story still exists and we just aren’t made aware of it, or that back story doesn’t exist and we’re not given a replacement.  I understand the appeal of the man-with-no-name-and-no-history (Clint Eastwood essentially built his career on this), but having now read the original I feel the absence of these elements from the film that much more acutely.  The lack of back story does nothing to detract from the look and feel of the movie, but in this case Gosling’s character could have benefited from any sort of exposition that might have made us give a shit about him.

The major plot structure of the book is the same as the film: a heist gone wrong thanks to a double cross by a hidden player, Driver attempting to remove himself from the conflict, Driver killing everyone when they won’t let him walk away.  One difference between the book and movie here is that in the book, Driver seems to relish taking revenge on those who seek to hurt him.  He taunts the various members of the Nino conspiracy group with Nino’s own pizza place business cards, circling the “Free Delivery” line on each with red ink as he leaves them on people’s dashboards or slips them under their front doors.  Gosling, as I recall, seemed particularly freaked out when he spoke to Nino (Ron Perlman) on the phone.

The characters of Nino and Bernie themselves are also more completely fleshed out in the book.  The two have been friends since they were children, growing up together in a rough part of an increasingly gentrified Brooklyn.  Wanting a change from the mob life they’ve grown up in, they set out for the west coast where, naturally, they fall into the same pattern of running protection rackets and ripping people off.  Bernie, apparently the more intelligent of the two, is wary of Nino’s desire to be a criminal big shot and has little sympathy for his old friend when Nino tells him about the heist gone wrong, about how he put a hit on Driver after agreeing to take the money and how Driver has evidently taken it all very personally.

Driver states several times heading up to the climax of the novel that “People make deals.  They need to stick to them,” which seems to be the ethical justification for his murder of Nino (it barely needs to be said that this happens differently in the book than the movie) and which also serves to underscore his chagrin when he is eventually forced to kill Bernie (it barely needs to…well, I just won’t even say it).  The fable of the scorpion and the frog, which seems to be the key to understanding the movie, doesn’t literally appear in the book but the final confrontation between Bernie and Driver can nonetheless be viewed as an iteration of the fable.  The book also ends with the two meeting in a restaurant (Polish, not Chinese, in the original – the ethnic diversity of LA is much more prominent in the book) where they discuss their disillusionment with Los Angeles and the life of crime and where, it seems, they agree to make peace and walk away from each other.  Bernie turns out to not be so different from Nino after all, though, and instead of shaking hands with Driver he pulls a knife, with which Driver kills the old man.  The narrator tells us that Bernie’s death is the only one Driver mourned and maybe the fable of the scorpion and the frog can help us to understand why. (End intertextual interlude)

Now for something completely different: love.  Sallis apparently deemed a love interest completely unnecessary to the story.  That’s right: Cary Mulligan’s character (Irene the pixie-like, doe-eyed blonde in the movie, Irina the latina in the book) is basically a blip in the original.  Before she’s accidentally killed (you read that right) by stray gunfire and her orphaned son is shipped off to live with relatives in Mexico, Irina appears maybe a dozen times (in fact, a Kindle search shows that Standard is mentioned almost twice as much as Irina).  Love may be a motivating factor in the movie (and a love interest is basically a pre-requisite for a wide release), but it’s not on the agenda here.  I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with using a love interest as the catalyst for the film’s events, but if that’s the route the filmmakers wanted to go, it required a more significant treatment than it received.

As for the money/MacGuffin, like Gosling, Driver ultimately has no desire for the $250k ($1 million in the movie – I guess the filmmakers felt that movie audiences aren’t impressed by sub-seven-figure heists) haul.  Sallis probably never figured how “cool” it would be for Driver to just leave the money in a duffel bag in a parking lot, though, because instead Driver takes the money and leaves it in his foster parents’ house (along with a recently deceased friend’s cat) with a note expressing that he’s always felt bad about taking their car and that he’s always appreciated the care they once gave him.

So here we have Driver attempting to make good on a time he did a (very) dick thing to people who cared for him when he had no one else, demonstrating the sincerity with which he struggled with his past as well as representing the innate goodness that exists in him, despite all the murder and whatnot.  Gosling, recall, had no haunted past to address, so the duffel bag full of non-consecutive bills just sat there in the parking lot, an unfortunate symbol of one million missed opportunities for Amini and Refn to grant resolution to a beautifully shot film that could have been so much more.

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