I had been thinking a little about some of the features I would like to incorporate into this blog alongside the reviews of new and old books when it occurred to me that it might be interesting to take a look at a novel and an adaptation of that work in some format. The idea would be to comment on whether it captures the tone and spirit of the original work, some of the changes that were made and whether I felt it does the original work justice.
The novel and film I have selected to start with is Devil in a Blue Dress which I read for the first time over a decade ago. At that time I had never read a hard-boiled detective novel before and while I enjoyed aspects of the novel, I struggled to engage with the writing style and the novel’s grim outlook on the world.
Had it not been for an Audible special offer I might never have given the book a second thought but when the chance came to snap up an audio recording read by Michael Boatman for under a dollar I snapped it up on an impulse. Boatman brought Mosley’s hard-boiled prose and the character of Easy Rawlins and the characters he interacts with to life for me.
If you have never read the book or seen the movie, here is a potted summary:
It is 1948 and we are in Los Angeles. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is out of work and in desperate need of some money to help him pay his mortgage when into the bar walks DeWitt Albright, a white man who is offering to pay him to help locate a missing girl, Daphne Monet who he believes may be frequenting an African-American bar. That is, of course, just the start of an adventure that sees Easy getting beaten up, accused of murder and manipulated by just about everyone.
The first thing to say about Walter Mosley’s novel is that it is an incredibly significant and influential work within the hard-boiled mystery genre. Mosley was not the first successful African-American mystery novelist but he remains one of the most widely read and enjoyed. Easy Rawlins sees Los Angeles from a different perspective than other hard-boiled characters do and encounters different barriers in his investigations.
Simply being historically significant does not mean that the experience of reading it will necessarily be rewarding or enjoyable. After all, the first time I read the novel I was just as aware of its reputation but perhaps focused my attention on the plot without appreciating the skillful way Mosley builds a sense of time and place. What I noticed in my second reading that I had missed the first time through were the discussions of perception of a person’s race, of the lack of integration within society in that time and the way that Easy prizes his sense of agency above security at several points within the novel.
His story is compelling, especially in those sequences that feature the character of Mouse who is something of a wild card within Easy’s life and perhaps the ultimate example of the destructive friend who is really bad news. We learn about their relationship in flashbacks throughout the novel, building our anticipation for the moment when Mouse will inevitably enter the story.
While I found the narrative engaging, I did feel that the female characters in the story were somewhat one-note being defined primarily by their sexual presences. I recognize that this is hardly unusual for a hard-boiled work but it does make those characters seem a little flat and two-dimensional which is a shame when the characters of Easy and Mouse are so well drawn.
I am curious to see where the series leads and plan to listen to the next story at some point soon.
Carl Franklin’s movie adaptation stars Denzel Washington in the role of Easy. By the time this film was made he was one of the highest profile actors around, having found critical and commercial success with Glory, Malcolm X and Philadelphia. Looking at the cast list, he was really the only established star in the mix which may help explain why the film was not a box office hit in spite of some strong reviews from critics.
Franklin keeps the initial set-up of the story the same but makes some changes to some character motivations and adds a new subplot to help condense and simplify the narrative. Characters such as Frank become less of a presence in the movie than they do in the book while Terrell’s significance is increased.
There are two changes to the story that I found to be particularly significant however. The first is that Daphne’s relationship with Easy is not consummated as it is in considerable detail in the book. That choice, in my opinion, strengthened her character and made her feelings about a third character clearer.
The second change really arises from the first and is hard to write about without spoiling both the book and the film. What I can say is that while many aspects of the ending remain in place in the film, the character motivations in those final scenes are notably different and give the ending a very different tone. I think that this different ending largely remains in keeping with the themes of the novel but it does put a different spin on a key relationship.
Generally though I was impressed at how well the film bought the world of 1940s Los Angeles to life. Visually the film is not glossy or lush but it is competently directed and does a good job of setting the scene and evoking a sense of time and place.
I was also quite pleased with the way most of the parts were cast with most of the characters being fairly good matches for how I had imagined them when reading. The exceptions were Todd Carter and DeWitt Albright. In the case of Carter I had imagined someone a little younger and childish, though the actor cast matched the character as portrayed in the film. In the case of Albright however I had thought the novel had mentioned being from the Georgia and I imagined him to physically look like a lawyer rather than the enforcer interpretation we see from Tom Sizemore. While those changes may sound cosmetic, in the case of Albright I felt it diminished the character a little, simplifying him.
Where the film gets it absolutely right is in the casting of Don Cheadle as Mouse for which he won a number of awards. While I cannot say that Cheadle is how I had imagined the character physically, his interpretation makes a lot of sense and captures the character’s sense of bravado. When you consider just how much material from his story is cut, in particular the flashback descriptions of how he committed two murders and his discussion with Easy about guilt, it is remarkable just how complete his presentation of that character is. The film noticeably shifts a gear when he arrives in the narrative and he gets several of the most powerful moments in the picture.
As for Denzel Washington, he does a very solid job with the role of Easy, particularly given we are only treated to the character’s internal monologue as a bookend to the movie. Given how important his internal voice is to the character and to helping the reader understand what he is doing and his feelings about the people around him, it is impressive how much of those feelings Washington is able to convey through his physical performance.
Overall, I think the film has stood the test of time fairly well and works well as an adaptation of the novel. I was struck as I watched it though that the material would surely be even more suited to television where the story could be given more room to breathe.