Is the book always better?
To most, Drive is a slow burning crime drama directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. They will remember Ryan Gosling’s perfectly still and stoic performance. They will remember the striking cinematography, the retrowave soundtrack, Kavinsky’s Nightcall, and the tremendous and visceral explosions of violence.
Most perhaps do not remember, or even realise, that it was first a novel.
It is a lean, mean thing from 2005, written by James Sallis. Like the movie, it follows the un-named Driver who works as a stunt man by day, and a getaway driver by night. It is a simple premise, and in the movie the events unfold in a simple, chronological manner. In the book, Sallis takes the time to explore the world a little more, ducking and diving through the timeline, allowing us a glimpse into The Driver’s troubled childhood, and further developing some of the other esoteric weirdos that inhabit his particularly existential version of Los Angeles.
The Driver operates on what I’ll call the Robert De Niro in Heat Principle. As career criminal Neil McCauley, in Michael Mann’s heist classic, he says:
“A guy told me one time, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner”.
That is the principle on which McCauley and Driver live their lives. If he can’t fit it into a bag or into the boot of his car, Driver doesn’t have it. He moves from anonymous apartment to anonymous apartment and keeps few friends anywhere. This is true of Novel Driver and Film Driver.
I like the novel. It is a tight piece of neo-noir, although Sallis’ sometimes forgoes substance for style and as such his prose is at times cliched, and at worse adolescent:
‘Hips and rear end a marvel in her jeans.’
But overall, I like it a lot. Sallis paints an existential picture of a hard-boiled America, and Driver is the kind of capable but emotionally crippled male protagonist popularised by original noir novels and movies in the 40’s, brought realistically by Sallis into the 21st century.
The problem is that the story is better served as a film.
The Driver of Refn’s story is far more mysterious. The novel, as novels are likely to do, gives us inner-sight into Driver’s mind. We see his past, his present, his future. I suppose, as a character, he is more developed in a sense, but he is also more explained. As a more mysterious figure, he takes on a kind of mythical quality, which Refn leans into. He talks less, and Gosling does his best to paint a picture of a stoic man, well-practised in the art of hiding emotions, desire, thought.
Then, the costume, and it really feels like a costume: the scorpion jacket. It is a bold and brazen choice of outfit for a man like the Driver to wear, adding to the mythical sense that surrounds him. Where is it from? Why, even when it is bloody and dirty, does he wear it? It is never explained. It doesn’t need to be, it shouldn’t be.
Refn’s Driver exists only in the present of the move. His past is mysterious, and only hinted at by Bryan Cranston’s Shannon. His future, at the end of the movie is unsure. All that the movie is concerned with is the now. Driver has no motivations at the beginning of the picture. He works two jobs and practises utter professionalism and perfectionism in both. He is the best. He is alone. When he finds companionship in Irene and Benicio, his neighbours, we are told of his affection for them in smart cinematic language, we never see the equivalent of: ‘Hips and rear-end a marvel in her jeans.’
There are no corny love scenes, no dramatic declarations of emotion. There a wistful, loaded glances, and the soundtrack is emotive and colourful. The cinematography captures the ticking clock on this perfect trio: the Driver, Irene, and Benicio. It must all come to an end, the love can never truly blossom. And this is all communicated without hampering the mysterious, unknowable nature of The Driver.
When Oscar Isaac’s Standard, Irene’s husband, returns from prison, things go to pot. To protect his temporary family Driver takes a job with Standard, and it goes bloody wrong. Standard is killed and Driver is left with a bag of cash that he does not want. He is pursued for said cash, although he is happy to return the money, but when it is clear that Irene and Benicio are still in danger, something emerges from him. It is only hinted at before, but a violent, dangerous, creature lurks within him. When he stomps a man’s head in before Irene, the look on his face as the elevator doors separate them tells us that The Driver believes that the thing that he was attempting to conceal with his emotionless mask has been revealed, and that he must move on.
He believes that no one can know him – that to know him is to put yourself in danger.
But before he vanishes, he must ensure the safety of those that he loves, and he does that the only way he knows how. Violently.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, I did not see the same layer upon layer of smartly communicated story as I did with the film. Each layer, including the acting, the costumes, the score, and the cinematography, allows for effective plot communication without sacrificing the mysterious quality of The Driver. He is a character who is more interesting when we, for the most part, cannot see into his head, cannot read his inner-monologue, and do not know what he thinks about every situation that he is in.
He is absolutely a character best suited to the qualities of cinema.
So, no, the book is not always better than the film.
Cinema can go to places that words alone cannot.
Words have their own unique properties. They spark the imagination, they can burrow deep into subjects, characters, psyches, probably far better than other mediums, but there are stories where some things are better left unsaid and for that, I think it is cinema which reigns supreme.