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“Great fucking movie.
Better fucking novel.”
A feature item by Scott Reder

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LA Confidential (UK Paperback)

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 plot demands.

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 involved.

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 about it.

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 coming.

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 camera.

"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 its shortcomings.

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]>


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