Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Novel and the Movie: The Maltese Falcon

In the ever-involved interest of trying new things, I thought maybe the time had come for a direct and objective contrast to the sometimes over-trusted phrase, "The book is always better than the movie." Sometimes, maybe the movie is just better than the book? In this new series, I'll experience a story, in the forms of both the original printed novel, and the subsequent movie adaptation, and make my own judgement as to which was better, going into detail on the why one worked or didn't work, in an effort to give each a fair shot in telling their tale.

This series was inspired by the latest source of inspiration for my College Fashion "Looks from Books" series: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Written in 1930, and adapted three times by 1941, this book has some serious street cred in both the book and movie industries, and adapting its key thematic elements for college students to wear was some significantly hard work, without weighing in the benefit of suspense and visual inspiration that the 1941 adaptation - starring the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor - provided so bountifully. (Click for the link to my article here.)

A densely-packed and quick-paced detective story, full of the genre's typical ingredients for intrigue: a gorgeous mystery lady, telling lies and covering up schemes, but all with a schoolgirl smile that you just can't help believing; a strange mystery foreigner, seeking a  strange mystery artifact, with a quick hand for a gun and an eye for his gunmen; a fat mystery collector also seeking said strange mysterious artifact; and at the center of it all, Sam Spade, prolific private detective.

Like solving a puzzle from the center outwards, Spade pieces together a mystery involving legendary lost treasure by double-thinking his opponents and smacking people around like speed bags. Ruthless but never reckless, Sam always gets his man... especially when the chase ends up being the end of his partner.

A fully-formed and hole-less mystery (rare, honestly), whose distinct emphasis on visual focus and deliberately innovative forms of description paint a landscape of crime and dark doorways with questionable intents lying on either side. Suspenseful, solid, sure to suck you in completely, Dashiell Hammett launches a legacy in an often "cheap" genre.

Humphrey Bogart smolders and Mary Astor simpers through this film classic, as the two leads, Sam Spade and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, respectively.

Bogart tackles the iconic role with tenacity and focus, and physically represents the character description of Sam Spade to perfection; however, sometimes he comes of as manic and over-bearing where the strength of the character should have lied in solid stoicism and composed calm. Astor makes for a convincing damsel-in-distress, but  takes some of the edge out of the "femme fatale," by whimpering and waffling between the doe-eyed waif and the wanton honeypot in an exaggerated attempt to come off as manipulative. Her true power lies in her otherworldly ability to reflect emotions through her facial expressions, and I feel like we could have gotten through the movie solely based on her numerous soft-focused close-ups.

Both characters seem mistreated by the script, which alters key scenes in the hopes of skewing power and responsibility more in the favor of the male lead (common practice for a still man-centric media back in the '40s). The scandalous nature of the plot is continually dulled by the deliberate soothing of the story line to comply with the cultural status quo back in 1941, muzzling some of the more notable moments within the tale, and thus taking away some of the edge so apparent in the novel.

The movie is considered highly by virtually everyone, and was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture. It was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989.


Well, so much for striking off this series by depicting a balance, but in my opinion, the book overwhelmingly overrides the movie: the detective and mystery genres themselves exist to inspire suspense, and in relation, the novel allows for a lot more cool-headed calculation than the noisy and over-acted film.

However, that being said, the adherence to the plot of the novel in itself is wholly remarkable - despite its dallying deviations - because you'd never see something that stuck so close nowadays. The disappearance of the subtleties and nuance of the novel is what I mourn in the film category, but even so, it's a solid work of cinema, and definitely worth an hour and forty minutes of your time.

1 comment:

  1. I like this comparison and I like the general idea of the column. I think it will be hard to find a movie better than a book due to the limitations of film over text. I would like to throw one out there. The Shining. Considered a Kubric masterpiece, Stephen King did not like it. It would also make you read a book and watch a movie that you would not likely choose on your own.