I’m a pretty big fan of David Cronenberg’s 2005 film, A History of Violence, and this semester had occasion to revisit it. The first-year writing seminar I teach, Love and Crime, gets a little grisly down the stretch, and I like to put a movie in the syllabus around week twelve, to slow things down and give the class some air. Last semester we did Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, which is a wonderful movie, but did not incite the fervor I hoped it would. So this spring I’m considering swapping in A History of Violence, which I recalled ranking pretty high in both the “entertainment” and “thematic richness” categories.
I had not realized, however, what two minutes of research revealed: the movie is based on a well-regarded 1997 graphic novel. This was great news–I’ve only taught graphic novels a few times before, but students seem to enjoy them, and this particular mix of media comes with great, readymade discussion topics (narrative point-of-view versus the camera eye; cinematography versus graphic design; blocking actors versus drawing action; etc.). So I read the book, visions of essay prompts dancing in my head, and, well . . . it’s not that good.
Let me clarify. The original A History of Violence isn’t bad–it’s stylish and pulpy and fairly gripping. John Wagner, who wrote it, was a co-creator of Judge Dredd in the 70s, and Vince Locke, who drew it, also does the covers for Cannibal Corpse albums. The plot was not radically altered for movie, and I imagine the trailer for a more faithful adaptation would look exactly the same as the one you can find on YouTube. And yet, even on a first read of the book, I thought that every deviation the Cronenberg version made was an improvement. Screenwriter Josh Olson (whose work was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) shows less interest in splattering brains and more in human relationships, and the film is better for it.
Here are the three reasons I think A History of Violence the film is better than A History of Violence the book. This is not a comparison of craft, nor of mediums. I’m talking purely about narrative choices. Heavy spoilers to follow.
So the owner of a small-town diner delivers swift justice when some bad guys happen through. His heroics make the news, and gangsters from the big city see it, and travel out to the sticks for a visit. They’re convinced that the diner owner is someone they’ve been looking for . . .
That’s the setup in both versions, and the central turn. “Tom,” the mild-mannered family man, used to be “Joey,” whose past is full of violent crimes that haven’t exactly been forgiven. But the nature of those crimes differs greatly in the two versions. The film is more vague about the protagonist’s backstory, but one thing is clear: the old Joey was a bad guy, someone who hurt people for business and pleasure, who was involved with the mob because he wanted to be. His reinvention as “Tom” was not merely a name change, but an ostensible attempt to leave the dark side. Consider the dialogue with his wife, when Edie finally asks the direct question:
“You did kill men back in Philly, didn’t you? Did you do it for money, or did you do it because you enjoyed it?”
“Joey did–both. I didn’t. Tom Stall didn’t.”
Edie runs to the bathroom to be sick.
But the novel is categorically different. Chapter Two, an extended flashback, gives us a teenage Joey who gets into trouble with his best friend Richie. They’re young neighborhood guys who steer clear of the mafia until Richie’s older brother is executed, at which point Joey is roped into a fairly typical revenge story. He and Richie ambush some heavies, it goes wrong, and Joey barely escapes to flee the city and become Tom. (Not before dropping a bag of cash–gained in the shooting–off with his grandmother, who is sick and needs an operation she can’t afford. Seriously.)
This, of course, is a much safer version of the protagonist. Less complicated and easier to root for. Book-Joey did something bad, certainly, but for the right reasons, and only that once. The stakes, to borrow a creative writing term, are higher in the Cronenberg version. And speaking of stakes . . .
The Richie of the book is basically a hothead version of Joey. But unlike Joey, Richie doesn’t make it out of Brooklyn–he’s caught and presumably killed by friends of the gangsters he robbed. A late twist reveals that he’s alive, however, and has been imprisoned all these years by Little Lou Manzi, son of the mob boss that Joey and Richie ambushed. Little Lou is the big boss now, and also an accomplished psychopath fond of power drills and chainsaws. And Richie becomes the bait that lures Tom/Joey into a final, gruesome showdown.
Josh Olson’s script for the film makes a number of amendments, but to put it simply: the Richie and Lou Manzi characters are combined into one person, and that person is Joey’s brother. The maniac shtick gets reeled in, and the torture-happy man-baby becomes more of a slick professional. Credit where credit is due: William Hurt elevates the Richie of the film with a kind of lethargic malevolence. (His single scene brought an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor.)
The difference here, again, is that Richie is a bad dude. Not a friend in distress, a relative innocent in need of rescue, but a former accomplice of Joey’s and the surest representation of what Tom has rejected, brotherly love notwithstanding. And so the line between hero and villain is further blurred, setting up a confrontation that features less dismemberment than the book version, but far greater psychological intensity.
But the biggest difference between iterations has nothing to do with the cast of ex- and current killers. Edie, Tom’s wife in both versions, initially trusts her husband’s claim that the bad guys have mistaken him for someone else. And in both versions, her faith is tested when his history of violence (and the present danger) becomes impossible to deny.
While this is a subplot in the novel, I would argue that it is the primary conflict of the film. The book gives Edie a smattering of the expected lines–“My god, all these years and I don’t even know you”; “Who are you Tom?”–but once he’s explained things, resolution comes almost instantly. In fact, it happens in two panels. Here they are:
There’s nothing so tidy in Cronenberg’s film. Edie is shocked, wounded, frightened, and very, very angry. The hospital scene ends not with a handhold, but with her throwing up and storming out. There’s a famous sex scene on the stairs of their home–aggressive, emotionally ambiguous, and hard to watch. After the Joey revelation, she defends him to the police, but distances herself. The answer to the question in the panel above is not a forgone conclusion. Not even when the threat has been overcome and the family is safe.
After the novel’s grisly final act, Edie embraces Tom as he’s wheeled away–safe at last–on a stretcher. “Manzi’s dead, Edie,” he tells her. “It’s over. It’s all over.” But in the film, the climactic shootout is followed by a wordless epilogue. After “it’s over,” Tom drives home to his family, and finds them sitting at the dinner table. He stands awkwardly just outside of their circle. Edie won’t look at him. After a long hesitation, the young daughter sets a place for him. He sits, and the son passes a plate of food. Finally Edie looks up. Does she forgive him? Cut to black. Curtain.
And so the central question of the (film’s) narrative is never resolved. This is not about whether Tom has the nerve to finish a fight, but whether damage so deep can be healed. Consider how the movie remakes the three central characters into a spectrum. Richie is wicked, as Tom used to be. Edie is compassionate, as Tom wants to be. He makes his choice by rejecting Richie–decisively–in a Hollywood face-off that’s well done but not entirely surprising. Then the final, quiet minutes remind us that, once the shell casings have cooled, it’s not Tom’s choice that really matters, and resolving things with his family will not be as easy as shooting it out with the mob.
Of course, mileage will vary according to the audience. The original take on this story is certainly less complicated and probably easier to enjoy, depending on your stomach. But the examination of violence is superficial. The gore is overblown and the characters are undercooked. The Cronenberg version marshals its themes more effectively, and winds the emotional coils tighter. It has fewer answers, and better questions.