You’ll hear it said by novelists time and again, whether from relative unknowns or the frequent bestseller list residents: When the rights are sold to Hollywood for a project, just cash the check and forget about it.
Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block knows that all too well, and can point to the 1986 film adaptation of his 1982 hard-boiled Matthew Scudder detective series novel Eight Million Ways To Die as a prime example, right down to the film’s inexplicable title change to “8 Million Ways To Die”, as if audiences needed the numeral instead of the word for some strange reason. There are understandable pragmatic reasons studios modify novels for the big screen, length and location costs the most common. Sometimes it’s merely a screenwriter’s or director’s whim or conceit. And sometimes it’s just who-the-hell-knows-why?
Now, to be clear: Unlike many, I don’t hate the Hal Ashby 1986 film starring Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and a young Andy Garcia in his first leading role. It garnered some pretty bad reviews and wasn’t a box office success, though not for lack of trying with then-popular stars, a script by no less than Oliver Stone and Robert Towne, some thrilling sequences and no shortage of retro-eighties style sexy violence, sexy voyeurism…and just sex. I’ll admit that I’ve always like Bridges’ many brooding and cynical performances, and happen to consider Arquette one of the 1980’s – 1990’s under-rated talents. But the minute you see palm trees and the sun-drenched Pacific beaches on the screen, you have to wonder what the hell the studio was thinking.
Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways To Die, the 5th Matthew Scudder novel, takes its title from the Oscar winning 1948 film noir The Naked City and the 1958 – 1963 ABC television series of the same name, it’s concluding narration one of the mystery/noir genre’s many memorable lines: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
No one would ever accuse prolific writer Lawrence Block of being lazy. Since pounding out paperback originals in the 1950’s under various pen names, he’s earned shelves full of awards and launched multiple series, the Matthew Scudder hard-boiled detective series nearing twenty novels as of 2019. The Scudder books are New York books, and Eight Million Ways To Die is 1980’s New York in every way. Just as we stereotype the 50’s as bobby sox and poodle skirts, the 60’s with either mods or flower children and the 70’s with John Travolta in a white polyester suit on a lighted dance floor, we tend to see the 80’s through a filter of VHS taped clichés from teen sex comedies and neon lit erotic thrillers, all dressed up in fuchsia spandex and over-moussed mall hair. But Block’s novel is the real New York of the 1980’s…Ed Koch’s New York, teeming with Wall Street white-collar embezzlers and pimps and dealers working the streets beneath the elevated tracks. It’s dark, wet, grimy, dirty and dangerous. And it’s a hell of a place for a struggling alcoholic with a gun and no P.I.’s license.
Hollywood took Block’s novel and didn’t even bother keep the name intact, much less the plot or setting. But John K. Snyder III honored this book in one of the most impressive graphic novel’s I’ve ever read, rivaling the very best of Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ work, and for me that’s saying a lot.
The IDW Publishing 140 page+ hardcover is a work of art from front to back, sticking painstakingly close to Block’s novel, lifting text and dialog direct from the book, and rendering it all in an utterly sumptuous painterly style that’s incredibly moody and relentlessly dark, like the source material itself. I’d read about this graphic novel at Crime Reads and the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City e-magazine (screen grabs from its article shown here), couldn’t wait for its release, and wasn’t disappointed. And, in a weird way, I’m pleased as could be for writer Lawrence Block, not that someone of his stature needs this unknown blogger and writer-wannabe’s well wishes. But his iconic P.I. character and one of the series’ very best books finally got its long-overdue treatment. Not in a movie, but in a graphic novel that could serve as a ready-to-shoot storyboard for a properly done film.
If you’ve read Block’s book, you’ll still enjoy this graphic novel. If you haven’t read the novel and want an intro to Block’s Matthew Scudder character, this is just as good a place to start before you pick up one of the Scudder series books. So, enjoy Block and Snyder’s graphic novel, but still…go get a Matthew Scudder novel too.