James Ellroy’s novel LA Confidential is almost five
hundred pages long, it has over one hundred characters, it is
set over a period of eight years. The story is told mainly by
the thought processes of the three main characters. The plot is
so complex and intricate that reading it is the literary equivalent
of studying particle physics.
Imagine trying to condense all of this into a coherent movie.
Credit Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland for having the guts to
try. The two spent a year working on a screenplay based on the
third installment of the L.A. Quartet, Ellroy’s epic vision of
crime and corruption in fifties Los Angeles. Hanson took their
finished script and directed the movie.
The question Ellroy fans had: would he pull it off?
Doubts started as relatively unknown Australian actors were cast
in two of the three lead roles. James Cromwell as the maliciously
joyful Dudley Smith, Kim Basinger as prostitute Lynn Bracken,
and Danny DeVito as tabloid muckraker Sid Hudgens didn’t raise
too many eyebrows. And Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey as Jack
Vincennes, the flamboyant cop with too many secrets, seemed like
a safe enough bet. But Guy Pearce as the ambitious but cowardly
Ed Exley, and Russell Crowe as brutal Bud White seemed risky choices:
two Australians were going to have to carry the weight of a distinctly
American story and not be overshadowed by the star power of the
rest of the cast.
When L.A. Confidential was finished, it was taken
to the Cannes Film Festival and won rave reviews from critics.
The movie has already been compared to the classic Chinatown
and there are rumors of Academy Award nominations not only for
the film, but for Pearce and Crowe also. However the box office
fares, the movie is already a hit with most of the film critics.
Almost everyone seems to agree, L.A. Confidential
is a great movie.
But is it a faithful adaptation of the novel? Has Ellroy’s dark
vision of corrupt men and their hard won redemption survived Hollywood
intact, or has the story been cannibalized for the popcorn crowd?
Even the most hard-core fans of the novel would admit that major
portions of the plot and several characters had to be sacrificed
for L.A. Confidential to make it to the big screen.
Among the characters who didn’t make the cut were Preston Exley,
Ed’s rich father whose success as a police officer haunts his
son. Karen Morrow, Jack Vincennes wife is nowhere to be found,
nor is Ray Dieterling, a Walt Disney-type tycoon. Inez Soto, the
rape victim who becomes Exley’s love interest and a source of
contention between him and White, is only on screen long enough
to create confusion about the Night Owl Massacre. Countless other
characters aren’t used or are merged with others as the film’s
Trimming the plot to a reasonable length also required the elimination
of several sub-plots woven through the book. Since Preston Exley
and Ray Dieterling aren’t in the film, there is no Atherton case,
nor deranged serial killer David Mertens to trouble the movie
version of Ed Exley. Bud White’s pursuit of prostitute killer
Duece Perkins is edited out. Trashcan Jack Vincennes loses almost
his entire history. There is no mention of Vincennes accidentally
shooting two civilians while drunk and doped, and since that doesn’t
happen, Vincennes never has to desperately chase the blackmail
information that Sid Hudgens collected on him. Which wouldn’t
matter anyway because he has no wife to hide secrets from – and
that should leave him free to pursue his obsession with high class
porn, but even that makes only a token appearance in the finished
version of the movie. Poor Jack even loses his Trashcan nickname.
Listing all the elements of the book that didn’t make the movie
makes it seem like Hanson and Helgeland took a chainsaw to the
novel. This is not quite the case. Despite all the dramatic changes,
L.A. Confidential, the movie, remains surprisingly
true to its source material in terms of plot and atmosphere. The
huge changes are all done in the interest of preserving the core
story of the Night Owl murders, and the toll it takes on everyone
Perhaps the cuts don’t seem as cruel because the movie takes special
care to make even the parts that are different seem the same.
The use of the character Dick Stensland is an example of this.
Ellroy has Stensland as White’s partner who goes to jail because
of Exley’s testimony about the Bloody Christmas scandal. After
his release, he becomes a criminal who ultimately ends up in the
gas chamber. In the movie, Stensland stills gets busted because
of Exley’s testimony, but instead of being executed by the state,
he takes the place of Mal Lunceford as Night Owl victim. The plot
then makes Stensland one of the participants in the conspiracy
behind the murders. This plot switching serves several purposes.
It gives the movie version of Bud White a reason to examine the
Night Owl murders: he wants revenge for his partner’s death –
an overused Hollywood gimmick, but one which works with the meatier
subject matter of L.A. Confidential. It also eliminates
Lunceford which saves another subplot, but since this a substitution,
not a deletion, it doesn’t seem like a disservice to the book.
Another well used character switch concerns Buzz Meeks. Meeks
is one of the three main characters of the second novel of the
L.A. Quartet, The Big Nowhere. His theft of Mickey
Cohen’s heroin is the key event that fuels L.A. Confidential,
but Meeks is killed in the prologue of the book. The movie has
Meeks as bodyguard to Pierce Patchett and as with Stensland, the
course of the movie reveals him to be one of the men whose unseen
actions started the bloodbath. Meeks also takes the place of Duke
Cathcart as the corpse that Bud White discovers hidden under a
house. Once again, the combining of characters doesn’t feel like
it betrays the novel because it was a nice way to tip the cap
to Meeks while trimming subplots.
Not only are characters switched in the movie, one major event
is transformed: Buzz Meeks’s final shoot out at the El Serrano
Motel is changed into the movie’s climatic moment. Instead of
Meeks, Exley and White battle Dudley Smith and his minions, and
the battle ground isn’t the El Serrano, it’s the Victory Motel,
a place familiar to Ellroy readers as one of Dudley’s haunts.
Yet again, another major change from the plot of the book, but
it’s familiarity helps appease any grudges Ellroy fans may have
So Hanson and Helgeland have managed to trim the massive story
down to movie length while still retaining it’s major elements
and providing enough twists and turns to keep a viewer from blinking
for fear of missing something. Despite the many changes, the plot
still feels like Ellroy’s work and fans shouldn’t grumble too
much about that aspect of it.
However, it’s impossible to cut away that much of the story and
pay no price and, unfortunately, the toll for creating a viewable
plot comes at the expense of the major characters.
Jack Vincennes takes the biggest hits. The Big V of the novel
was a man desperate to hide his secrets from the woman he loved.
With the subplot of his past and his wife gone, Vincennes lacks
the running-scared feeling that defined his role in the book.
There is also no role for him as Ellis Loew’s bagman. The movie
tries to make him the typical corrupt Ellroy cop solely on the
basis of his shady deals with Sid Hudgens to arrest movie stars
for money, and this just doesn’t make Vincennes the tortured man
he is in the book. Nor does it provide any motivation for him
to go after the Night Owl killers. The celluloid Vincennes feels
guilty after one of his Hush-Hush shakedowns goes sour leaving
a male prostitute dead, and this is then tied in with the murders,
but it’s too convenient, as is the conscience Kevin Spacey’s Vincennes
suddenly develops in the movie.
Ellroy’s Vincennes starts out as a celebrity cop at his peak.
The events surrounding the Night Owl murders pull him down and
make him despise himself. He regains his self respect but loses
his life. Vincennes in the film never gets dragged through the
gutter and this robs him of the essence of the character. Spacey
portrays this part exactly as scripted, so we never see the really
dark side of Vincennes despite a good performance.
Another factor that dilutes the movie Vincennes is that his death
comes much earlier in the film than it does in the book. This
makes the end of the movie the Exley/White story instead of letting
Vincennes have a full third of the action.
Ed Exley fares much better than Vincennes, but the movie character
still falls short of Ellroy’s original. There is the same problem
with a lack of sub plots. Without Inez Soto and Preston Exley,
there is a near-absence of motivation for the character’s actions.
The book portrays Exley as ruthless, ambitious, cowardly. The
Hanson/Helgeland screenplay removes the ruthlessness and makes
him appear as a rule-abiding cop without the physical presence
to enforce his ideals. This Exley is still willing to use any
political means necessary to advance his career, but he lacks
the cruelty that Ellroy’s Exley uses to his advantage.
Perhaps the biggest mistake made with Exley is a change in the
nature of his killing of the black suspects who rape Inez Soto.
In the novel, Exley shoots them in cold blood while they are unarmed.
A pivotal moment that shows just how far he will go to get what
he wants and to shed his coward label. The film Exley shoots the
men only after they pull out a gun and kill another officer. This
one act totally changes the whole nature of the character and
rings very falsely when compared to the novel. An argument could
also be made that without Inez as a love interest, there is no
reason for Exley to murder the men, but this is one of the most
critical moments of the book and every effort should have been
made to keep that scene identical. Changing it, changes Exley.
Bud White seems to be the one character who is done entirely in
the same spirit as the book and Russell Crowe gives a great performance
in the role. It would have been easy to overplay the violent White,
but by keeping the character quiet and low key until he explodes
at crucial moments provides some of the film’s best scenes.
White is the simplest of the three main characters. His main motive
consists of revenge. The simplified plot benefits him by giving
ample reason for his actions, and his scenes are among the most
faithful in terms of recreating the book, particularly his rescue
of Inez Soto. White also has the advantage of not having the main
woman in his life cut from the film. Keeping Lynn Bracken in the
movie gives White the opportunity to expand on his background.
A scene with the two of them has White telling Bracken about the
death of his mother at the hands of his father, precisely the
back story of the character in the novel. It also give White a
chance to express his desire to be something better than he is.
He dreams of one day becoming a real detective who uses his brains
instead of his fist. This explanation, which takes only a few
minutes on screen, speaks volumes about why White acts the way
he does. Ellroy has a subplot about White worrying about becoming
a soulless henchman of Dudley Smith, and he also has White’s growth
from thug into a cop who has the brains to figure out who is behind
the Night Owl murders. The movie plot dumps these events, but
the few lines that White has about these subjects help keep the
flavor of the book alive while preserving the nature of the character.
Fans of the book will probably find White the most appealing because
he is the one who is most faithfully recreated.
Dudley Smith suffers from a lack of screen time as well as the
lack of subplots. James Cromwell is barely shown enough to let
his presence be known, let alone become the evil force of the
LA Quartet. In all fairness to the film makers, Dudley is a part
of four Ellroy novels, and there is no way that one movie could
convey his full presence. The movie almost seems to downplay Dudley
in an effort to keep unsuspecting audiences from guessing that
he is the chief villain, and the revelation is done in such a
way that it is extremely shocking, even to those who know it’s
However, the Dudley Smith of Ellroy’s books was always someone
to be feared, if not respected. It is part of Ellroy’s uniqueness
that he used the bad guy as the main recurring character in three
of the four books of the L.A. Quartet while the good guys usually
got killed. Dudley was always the one pulling the strings behind
the scenes, and his lack of true menace short changes a vital
part of the L.A. Confidential story. Compared to
Ellroy’s Dudley, James Cromwell is a pale imitation of the literature.
An early scene having Dudley question Exley about what he was
willing to do to insure justice. This gives a hint about the true
nature of Dudley, but the questions come from Preston Exley’s
speech to his son in the book so it still doesn’t have the same
nasty Dudley quality.
The movie inexplicably passes up an easy opportunity to give some
insight to Dudley during the scene where he informs White that
he has saved his job after Bloody Christmas. Ellroy has White
asking Smith how he got the witnesses to retract their statements,
and Dudley simply shows him a pair of bloody brass knuckles. This
scene is played out in the movie, but the brass knuckles are omitted.
This would have taken only seconds, and it would have been an
terrific way to give the movie a dash of the book version of Dudley.
There are a few scenes with Cromwell directing the beating of
gangsters at the Victory Motel, but these still don’t provide
him with the sense of pure evil with a badge that Ellroy did.
It would be easy for a fan of the book to criticize Hanson and
Helgeland for their movie because of what is lost from the Ellroy
original. However, the film makers must be given credit for what
they managed to accomplish, namely taking an immensely complex
novel and retelling it in visual form while staying true to the
basic spirit of the book.
There’s also another small fact that the book’s fans should think
about before howling about the injustices done to it.
James Ellroy loves the movie.
The self-proclaimed Demon Dog of American Literature, who has
never been shy about handing out stinging criticisms, has become
a cheerleader for the film version of his dark epic. He has journeyed
to Cannes and Toronto to promote the movie despite the fact that
the only revenue he’ll ever see from it is the option money he
was paid when Warner Brothers bought the rights in 1990.
This doesn’t mean that Ellroy didn’t have reservations about the
script when he first read it. In an interview with The Kansas
City Star, he has admitted that he was frustrated after he first
read the screenplay.
"They weeded out all but the bloodiest and most immediate
subplots. For example, there’s little casual racism in the movie,
while it’s on practically every page of the book," Ellroy
stated in the interview. "But Curtis Hanson explained to
me that films tend to magnify touchy subjects like that. He said
they couldn’t have a character like Bud White saying ‘nigger’
in every speech because it would end up overwhelming every scene."
Viewing the movie seemed to have dispelled any doubts Ellroy had
about it when he gave an outdoor lecture at a book fair in his
adopted hometown, Kansas City. The Dog screened clips of the film
for the audience. He howled and barked with glee when the crowd
cheered and applauded his first mention of L.A Confidential.
He triumphantly declared that Hanson had created "the ultimate
visual expression of my novel." He also praised Hanson for
"brilliantly telescoping the action of the book."
Some Ellroy fans may fear that the unconventional author has gone
mainstream with his endorsement of a major motion picture. They
shouldn’t worry. When asked about a negative review of the movie
in The Wall Street Journal, the Dog went on at length about how
he and Hanson had planned to kidnap and drug the critic who wrote
that review. He claimed that they planned to put the critic in
bed with a seven-year-old boy and take pictures in order to blackmail
him into a good review. Their plan went awry when the police detained
them. Classic Ellroy bullshit that shows he hasn’t gone Hollywood.
Despite his high praise for the movie, Ellroy made it clear that
he still considers his novel the superior work.
"Curtis Hanson has made a brilliant film that is profound
and ambiguous," the Dog told the audience, "but the
book is three times as profound and three times as ambiguous."
Perhaps part of the reason Ellroy likes the movie so much comes
from his belief that it will be the only good one made from his
work. He has disowned the dismal Cop which came from
his novel Blood on the Moon, and he is extremely
pessimistic about any more of his novels making it to the screen.
When questioned about the long rumored Black Dahlia
film, he flatly states that it will never be made. He also doubts
that the White Jazz screenplay he wrote will ever go before a
"L.A. Confidential is probably the last book
of mine that will ever be made into a movie," he says. He
cites the bizarre Hollywood studio system as the primary reason,
but he seems perfectly content to let L.A. Confidential
stand as the lone film to represent his work.
Before fans of the novel trash the film they should consider Ellroy’s
prediction about the future of any big screen projects based on
his books. If he’s right, L.A. Confidential will
be the last opportunity to see the Dog’s characters portrayed
visually. Perhaps it’s best to just relax and enjoy a great film
that pays homage to Ellroy’s style instead of concentrating on
The Dog sums it up at his lecture as he holds up a copy of the
book in one hand and points at the film poster with the other.
"Great fucking movie. Better fucking novel."
Copyright © Scott Reder 1997
Scott Reder is a long time James Ellroy fan who has the good fortune to live in Kansas City,
Ellroy’s adopted home town.
He can be emailed at <[email protected]>