Friday, 28 March 2008

When Adaptations Go Bad - Cutter's Way

Contains spoilers for Cutter and Bone and Cutter’s Way

From a purely financial standpoint, I can see the pull that adapting a successful novel would have for any good-to-go (and suitably flush) production company. When you’re in the realms of a big time unit shifter such as Harry Potter, these properties come ready supplied with their own fan base, so not turning a profit from any film adaptation should be unheard of (unless that adaptation is directed by Chris Weitz, of course). Even if you love the books but don’t consider yourself a huge cinema fan, you’d probably want to check the film out anyway, just out of curiosity – which is the mistake I recently made with Cutter’s Way.

Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg is a superb book – a downbeat seventies hangover that twists and turns all the way to the final sentence (just don’t expect anything that Thornburg wrote afterwards to be even half as good). Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) spots a man dumping a body in a trashcan, and sets out – with his disabled and violently bitter Vietnam veteran buddy, Alex Cutter – to blackmail the man they think is responsible. The conclusion is literally gobsmacking, purely because the two broken losers we have spent the entirety of the narrative following are actually proved to be right, which seems almost as shocking as the fate that befalls both Cutter and Bone.

So, the one part of the book you would expect the film to remain faithful to is the ending. Big problem: it isn’t. Cutter (John Heard) and Bone waltz into a glitzy reception being thrown by their quarry (thereby cutting out the immense and melancholic road trip they make across the US in the book) where Bone gets roughed up by a couple of security guards and Cutter takes off round the property for no good reason on a stolen horse (for a one-armed, one-legged veteran, he sure gets about pretty well). Disappointingly, the ending is a complete reversal of the book: justice is seen to be done (even if it does seem a little hollow). The book does exactly the opposite: money, power and influence win out, and Bone realises - too late - that neither he, his buddy Cutter or Cutter's wife - stood a cat in hell's chance. What made the book so powerful is watered down in the film to such an extent that all you can do is throw your hands in the air and stomp off like a spoilt eight year old.

All of which begs the question: why bother adapting a book for the screen when what made the book so memorable and powerful is discarded?

Apart from the disappointment of the ending, there’s nothing wrong with the film adaptation as such – it’s just a bit, well, dull. The seventies hangover that the book portrays so well merely comes across in Cutter’s Way as ennui, which means that it isn’t exactly very exciting to watch. John Heard chews up the scenery as Alex Cutter as you would expect any actor to in this role, but even this isn’t enough to redeem the film.

Turns out that Thornburg wasn’t too enamoured of the movie either, according to this:

There's one thing about Cutter and Bone, Newton Thornburg's 1976 masterpiece, that irritates its author. "People know it mainly through the movie", he says, "there's this great book and they haven't read it - but this mediocre movie and everybody's seen it."

Read an extract of Cutter and Bone here.

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