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Book To Screen: What Changed And What Stayed In ‘A Walk Among The Tombstones’

Book To Screen: What Changed And What Stayed In 'A Walk Among The Tombstones'

“The challenge is to translate the feel of those novels into something visual, and then from a story standpoint, the moves in these stories are very small,” writer/director Scott Frank told us about bringing Lawrence Block‘s 1992 book “A Walk Among The Tombstones” to the big screen. “…And the challenge is to make those little moves feel big enough that they warrant a movie. Once upon a time you could. In the sixties and seventies and even going back to film noir, the private eye story was very common. But now movies are about spectacle…”

And in watching the film this past weekend, you can clearly see Frank’s moves to make ‘Tombstones’ an action movie, while keeping the thematic texture and pulp grit of Block’s source material. The film’s opening flashback sequence (borrowed from Block’s first book in the Scudder series, 1976’s “The Sins Of The Fathers“) with Liam Neeson‘s alcoholic cop Matt Scudder taking down some very bad dudes, complete with slow motion sequences, very much feels like an audience concession (though it provides backstory as well). But after that, the movie settles into a more adult drama groove. And the film as a whole winds up as a tricky balance between the two modes, one that doesn’t always work (read our review) but is nonetheless admirable, particularly in an era when thoughtfulness usually plays second fiddle to explosions.

And so, with the official movie tie-in book landing on our doorstep, we figured it was a good opportunity to investigate how the source material and movie were aligned and where changes were made, and how these choices affected the movie. It’s an interesting look at the process and adaptation, but warning: spoilers ahead

Matthew Scudder
As presented in the film, Scudder is an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic. Both of these things are true to the source material, but in the books by Lawrence Block, he has a much more interesting intersection of people in his life. And this makes him a much more complicated character than the loner private investigator of Frank’s film. One of the key relationships Scudder has is with Elaine Mardell, a professional working girl for over two decades, who he met on the job. In the book, this particular investigation leads him to seriously think about what Elaine means to him and whether not he’s still comfortable with her seeing clients, something he didn’t mind before. There is also a four letter word hanging between them (starting with the letter “l”) that is beginning to gain some importance. It’s a nice undercurrent to a very grim story, and one sorely missed in the film.

Also crucial to Scudder’s life is Alcoholics Anonymous. Throughout the book series, including ‘Tombstone,’ Scudder is hitting meetings almost on a daily basis. It’s not quite a guiding force, but it keeps him grounded, particularly in a vocation that exposes him to some abhorrent crimes and people, the kind that would make returning the bottle a very attractive proposition. He also has a weekly dinner with his AA sponsor Jim Faber, who lends an ear and offers advice from time to time. And then there’s criminal Mick Ballou, who ticks off the box of every Irish cliché there is, and counts Scudder as a close friend. In our interview with Frank, he noted that Ruth Wilson — who had her scenes cut — played a key figure in Scudder’s life, one that was changed from the books from a man to a woman. Mick would be a pretty good bet on the basis for her role. But it’s also easy to see why those scenes were removed, as for most of ‘Tombstones,’ Mick is out of the country in (where else?) Ireland.

While the streetwise TJ (Astro) does appear in the film, the character is presented as someone Scudder happens to come across while doing research at the library. It’s a bit of a clunky change from the book, and that seems to be Frank’s way of explaining the otherwise unlikely relationship between a much older white man and a black teenager. But it’s probably something expository dialogue could’ve handled a bit more smoothly, without so obviously handholding the audience. At any rate, in Block’s book, TJ is someone Scudder has known for a while already, a homeless kid who can get the kind of information that sometimes the PI can’t or doesn’t know how to obtain. Both in the book and film, TJ is “urban” in the most gauche way possible, complete with “street speak,” though arguably in Frank’s film, it’s a bit more scaled back.

The Story And Setting
Running over 400 pages long, Block’s book obvoiusly has a lot more plot, and for the most part, Frank does a pretty good job of streamlining the story. The elements are the same, with the case revolving around Scudder’s investigation into the kidnapping and dismemberment of a drug trafficker’s wife. The pair of villains are mostly the same too, but given a more pronounced presence in the film, to probably set up a better dynamic between them and anti-hero Scudder. And in both the book and movie, their crimes are stomach churning, possibly even moreso in Block’s novel which describes in detail some things you don’t see on the screen, particularly when it comes to their previous victims. (Though Frank adds the detail of the duo also selling videotapes of their deeds to the snuff film circuit, with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson‘s cemetery worker acting as a narrative clue shortcut).

And Block’s story is pre-internet/pre-cellphone too, which lends it a grittier feeling. However, one of Frank’s most inspired choices was to move the tale up a few years, and play on the pre-millenium tension buzzing in the background. It’s a decision that nicely underscores one of the film’s key lines of dialogue from one of the villains: “People are afraid of the wrong thing.” Frank wants to make viewers squirm about the unknown evil around us every day, and he succeeds in establishing that vibe.

There is also a large portion of Scudder’s detective work in the book that involves utilizing a pair of hackers to get into NYNEX (with laptops, external modems, and acoustic couplers if you want to get an idea of how technologically ancient Block’s book is) to uncover phone logs for him, which Frank rightly jettisons, as it’s a lot of tech talk and not that cinematic.

Meanwhile, when it comes to drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) and his brother Pete (Boyd Holbrook), the wedge between them — that one’s successful, while the other is a junkie — is the same, but changed for the film in a key way. In Frank’s film, Pete is saddled with guilt because he feels somewhat responsible for Francey’s death, made even worse because he was in love with her. However, in Block’s book, Pete’s pain comes simply from his heroin and alcohol addiction, one that finds him routinely on and off the wagon. There is also an underlying thread of race in the book, as Block’s dealers are Lebanese — Kenan and Pete Khoury. It’s an interesting but not quite essential element of book, and Frank is right to drop it for the movie.

Lastly, New York City is also very present texture in Block’s book, and Frank replicates that in the film. ‘Tombstones’ really feels like a New York City story, and with some beautiful work from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., that palpably evokes the neighbourhoods that Scudder haunts in the novel as well.

“Then I thought, if this here’s a movie, what I do is slip in the back an’ hunker down ‘tween the front an’ back seats. They be putting’ the money in the trunk an’ sittin’ up front, so they ain’t even gone look in the back. Figured they go back to their house, or wherever they gone go, an’ when we got there, I just slip out an’ call you up an’ tell you where I’m at. But then I thought, TJ, this ain’t no movie, an’ you too young to die.” – TJ

Said by the character himself toward’s the end of Block’s novel, it’s a bit of wink (if not the greatest decision) that Frank essentially does that in the film, putting the teenager in the back of the bad guy’s van after the handoff for the girl and money in the graveyard. And what happens next changes dramatically from Block’s book. Firstly, there is no shootout in the graveyard, a sequence which seems invented purely for the sake of putting action on the screen. And while TJ does tip off Scudder and co. to the location of the killers’ home, in the book this is accomplished much earlier and without the hokeyness of him jumping in the back of the van. As for the killers turning on each other, that shift doesn’t need the excuse of the gunshot wound. In Block’s version, Ray (David Harbour) calmly garrottes his partner before Scudder and his pals get there. And while Kenny/Kenan is left there to dispose of Ray, he doesn’t wind up getting killed, which seems to be a major studio way of ensuring a drug dealer doesn’t become the hero of the movie (while giving Neeson a badass line of dialogue as a result in the ensuing final battle with the villain).

Instead, in Block’s book, the finale is much more gruesome. Kenny/Kenan stays behind, and later tells Scudder exactly what he did to Ray: he cut out his eyes, chopped off his hands and feet, and cut out his tongue. And he left him barely alive in the basement along with his dead partner in crime. A day later, an anonymous tip was called in and the cops brought Ray to the hospital where he lived for two more days, before dying. It’s brutal stuff. And as the book closes, Kenan/Kenny leaves the country to start a new life abroad, in another segment of the family’s illegal businesses around the world. Meanwhile, a despondent Pete is unable to stay sober, and commits suicide.

It’s easy to see why a major studio wouldn’t necessarily get behind a movie about a former alcoholic ex-cop turned private investigator, whose girlfriend is a prostitute, who helps a drug dealer find the men who killed his wife, and then has the dealer gruesomely kill the criminal. And all this without any action sequences other than mutilations. Even with Liam Neeson in the lead, it’s not the most likely project to get a greenlight (and indeed Frank said that without Neeson, this movie would never have happened). So the changes made by Frank are understandable in that context, but they also make Scudder a less complex, more singularly driven man. The moral ambiguities of the novel are transmitted to the big screen version and that’s nice to see, but the concessions to the demands of a studio movie ultimately undercut what is a more potent procedural about moral decay, and what it means to take a life. If there are further cinematic stories to come from Scudder (though the box office suggests there might not be) we hope more of his personal life enters the picture, as it makes him a more interesting character, with more to lose too. 

As for which is “better,” it’s a bit of an unfair question to ask. Block has all the freedom in the world on the page that Frank doesn’t have on the screen, and so we’d say the writer/director did the best he could with what were likely some stringent parameters and expectations he had to hit. For our money, we’d say for the full Scudder experience you’ll want the book, but as an abridged version, the film does an adequate if not wholly satisfying job.

“A Walk Among The Tombstones” is in theaters now. The Hard Case Crime tie-in novel is also in stores.

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