Back to IndieWire

From Book To Film: A Look At Seith Mann/Spike Lee Adaptation Of “MISS: Better Living Through Crime”

From Book To Film: A Look At Seith Mann/Spike Lee Adaptation Of "MISS: Better Living Through Crime"

As promised… In light of today’s earlier news that the project is still very much alive and kicking, on its way to Cannes to complete financing, I thought I’d repost my old Book-To-Film Report on it, for those who weren’t S&A readers 1 1/2 years ago. 

My last “Book To Film” post focused on James Patterson’s crime thriller, Cross, which will be adapted as a starring vehicle for Idris… uhh, I mean Tyler Perry. You can read that HERE if you missed it.

Today, with recent news that Seith Mann has signed on to write and direct an adaptation of the graphic novel, MISS: Better Living Through Crime (with Spike Lee producing), I thought I’d take a look at the novel before it makes its way to a theater near you.

The project is still in its early stages of development, so I have no idea how Mann and Lee plan on adapting this; if it’ll be a panel to panel transfer, a la, Sin City, and its other-worldliness, or if it’ll be more true to life. I hope and suspect that they’ll go with the latter.

In reading the novel, immediate comparisons to other violent male/female crime spree tales were inevitable; From Bonnie & Clyde to Natural Born Killers, and even Lee Daniels’ Shadowboxer! Although MISS is much closer in content to Daniels’ work, which starred Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr as assassins for hire, sometimes mother and son, and sometimes lovers; closer in the sense that MISS also features an interracial pairing – a white woman and a black man – who become killers-for-hire, in depression-era New York, USA.

Although MISS is much less campy, but is every bit as violent; An unrelenting kind of violence that’s graphic, though very much in keeping with the milieu in which the story takes place – a world of abused, discarded children who grow up emotionally bankrupt, and react to life the only way they know how; a world of pimps, pushers, prostitutes, and mobsters; a jungle where only the fittest (or the most vile and cunning) survive. A

nd to add to the devastation, the country is in an economic slump, which only serves as an additional motivation for crime.

Despite all that ugliness and brutality, there’s a briskness (and a lot of humor) to MISS that ensures the reader never quite becomes so weighed down by the emotional unpleasantness of it all, so much that you are repulsed by it.

Both characters are young – late 20s. One had an extremely difficult, poverty-ridden childhood; the other comes from a well-educated family of wealth, and easy-living. Given those descriptions, it would be tempting to assign the former to the black man, and the latter to the white woman, if you haven’t read the novel. But you’d be wrong.

In MISS, the beautiful, yet crass and dangerous Enola Baker is our poor abused child, while the habitually casually/cheerfully-indifferent, and just as dangerous Slim Wilhite is the rich kid. Although Slim doesn’t want the world to know that he comes from money (I’m not sure I ever really found out why… maybe I just missed it). Instead, as a pimp, he alienates himself from his family, including his older brother, a successful Harlem doctor, whom he visits only when in need of medical assistance, which happens a few times during the course of the story; usually to heal a gunshot wound here and there, or remove a bullet. Older brother doesn’t seem to mind however, and helps whenever he can. After all, they’re brothers, even though one initially denies the existence of the other.

The pair (Enola and Slim) meet by accident; finding themselves in the same place at the same time on more than one occasion, she witnesses Slim (who has his share of enemies) escape assassination attempts that should have led to certain death, and is impressed enough with him, his charm, wit, happy-go-luck attitude and smarts, to remember him when she involuntarily finds herself being offered hit jobs, after her boss is killed, and she swiftly and surgically dispatches of the 2 thugs responsible.

She needs a partner in crime; she remembers him; and she makes him an offer he can’t refuse.

For a good portion of the rest of the novel, they take on one job after a another, from wives wanting to off their husbands (and vice-versa), to business partners wanting to find quick solutions to dissolving relationships, to corporate execs; the danger and complexity of each varying from one to the next, and the stakes continually raised, up until the final job, which involves a double-cross; although it’s not as obvious as you might think.

Scattered about between kills, are daring escapes, snappy one-liners, emotional and physical healing/recovery, flashbacks to past lives, family reunions (some deadlier than others), sex, sexual tension, and moments of existential reflection.

The relationship between the pair is at first business, strictly, but in reading the novel, you’d instantly see that a romance is inevitable. The fact that she’s white and he’s black certainly isn’t ignored. While she easily maneuvers between worlds without much fanfare, his skin color turns out to be both a problem and an advantage, depending on the specific situation.

It’s 1920s USA, and even though the story takes place in the more liberal New York City, Jim Crow Laws were still very much in effect.

However, when it comes to their victims, there is no discrimination nor segregation there. They come in all skin colors and shades, shapes and sizes. Each kill just as a coldly handled as the last. No mercy, no after-tears. A bullet through the skull, if the job calls for it, followed by a quick exit.

Ultimately, it’s mostly Enola’s story. She narrates throughout. But Slim’s life is definitely heavily featured, and is as resonant. And despite how despicable both characters are, they are rendered in a way that makes them sympathetic, and even kind of pathetic.

They get paid to kill of a lot of people, and often callously, yet, you still root for them, hoping they survive, and anxious to know what happens next.

Like I said above, the world is painted as a violent one, a jungle, and you come to accept the idea that the two of them are simply doing what they have to do to survive, just like everybody else. “Kill or be killed,” as the saying goes.

Obviously for the film adaptation to be successful, the casting will be crucial! Hollywood is bursting with young white female talent, both known and unknown, so I don’t think they’ll have any problems filling the Enola Baker role. However, I had a really hard time trying to come up with a name of a mid-to-late-20s black actor I thought would work for the part of Slim Wilhite.

Ideally, going based on the graphic novel’s rendition of the character, the actor should be tall, slim (hence the character’s name), good-looking, with a calm and coolness about him that could be mistaken for apathy, even though he certainly isn’t without a soul, but capable of demonstrating a vicious, violent streak and be completely believable.

They may have to widen their search a bit, and consider unknowns, and even look outside of the USA.

But given that it’s a starring role, I doubt that’ll happen. Although they could go down that path and fill the supporting characters with known actors to compensate.

I’d have to return with a separate post on how I’d cast this. But in the meantime, who’d be your selections for both characters?

This will be Seith Mann’s feature film debut, (assuming his other project, Come Sunday, doesn’t materialize first) with Spike Lee on as executive producer.

Having seen some of Mann’s short film work, and read the graphic novel, I think this is a very good fit for him! It’s gritty noir in a desolate, unabashedly violent world, filled with morally ambiguous characters; definitely not hollow. There’s enough action to keep fanboys interested; but there’s also some human drama and romance that supports the tale of its 2 main characters, in this interracial pairing of killers in racist 1920s America.

As I noted already, the project is being taken to Cannes this month to complete financing; assuming all goes well, this is a film we should see in 2013.

If you haven’t read the graphic novel, but would like to, you can pick up a copy HERE.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox