David Hering is writing his PhD thesis at the University of Liverpool, where he is currently researching the works of David Foster Wallace and Mark Z. Danielewski. His literary reviews have appeared in the Journal of American Studies and Movable Type. He is the editor of the essay collection Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays, released August 2010.
‘Just keep on using the first person. It’s easier that way’: Billy Boy Walker’s advice to psychopathic protagonist Lou Ford towards the end of Jim Thompson’s blistering novel The Killer Inside Me (1952). Walker’s suggestions slyly nods toward the evasive form Thompson adopts for his novel, whereby the reader is inescapably immersed in Lou’s sick, tormented psyche as his murderous urges boil over into several horrendous acts of violence. However, rather than a straight set of ‘seeing eye’ descriptions from Lou’s perspective Thompson employs a rhetorical device which incorporates Lou’s awareness of an audience– the reader– and his potential unreliability as a narrator. Much of the narrative suspense within the novel relies on the reader’s understanding of Lou’s duplictious nature and the discrepancy between what is said, who is being addressed and what is actually happening. Several sequences appear to be either fantasy or wilful misdirection. How does a reader square Lou’s polymath boasts about erudition and intelligence (‘I fiddle around Dad’s desk working out a couple of problems in calculous just for the hell of it’) with his lover Amy’s assertion that ‘you’re twenty-nine years old […] don’t even speak good English’? Even Lou’s confessions of his ‘sickness’ to the reader– something he witholds from others– may be only a partial admission of events, and apparently traumatic sexual events from his childhood are obscured and surpressed, even to Lou himself. Moreover, this duplicity of language is endemic to many of the general conversations held between Lou and others, notably in the dizzying double-talk with Joseph Rothman over the death of Mike (where the truth is always held at one remove or referred to indirectly), and later during Lou’s evasiveness with the police over his alibis despite both parties knowledge that he is the killer. This rich interplay between address and intention is what makes Thompson’s novel so involving. Far from a hackneyed account ‘ from inside the mind of a killer’, Thompson continually draws the reader’s awareness to the value, or lack of it, in a singular account.
Imagine now having to film this novel. How do you make this process visual without utterly compromising the ambiguity of the accounts given by Lou. Moreover, how do you represent the first-person account visually without burying your viewers under great swathes of voiceover? It’s a difficult–very difficult– task, and it has to do with what for argument’s sake we’ll call a problem of ’embodiment’. Immediately you visually embody a first-person narrator you have reduced the ambiguity with which the person refers to him or herself. A written narrative can incorporate sustained ambiguity about the person’s appearance- and not just whether the person is handsome or not, though as soon as anyone is cast then your at the subjective mercy of your audience on that point– whereas the concrete acuality of a person’s appearance on the screen is an immediate reduction of that narrative ambiguity. Any further embodied action in turn reduces the possibility of an ambiguous account of behaviour. It might be possible to retain some of the original narrative voice verbatim by including it within the film as voiceover, but as film is an inherently mimetic medium– it should, as much as possible, show rather than tell– you risk redundancy by simply importing one form into another without adaptation. Films that incorporate too much direct narration risk drowning in words, becoming a glorified audio book with accompanying moving pictures. Try to be faithful to the ‘seeing eye’ approach and you end up with a bizarre curio like Robert Montgomery’s 1947 Chandler adaptation The Lady in the Lake, which is entirely shot from the first-person perspective of Philip Marlowe, a feature-length experiment that proved unsurprisingly uninfluential.
Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 screen adaptation of The Killer Inside Me is therefore faced with this daunting challenge, plus the additional quandry of how to represent the novel’s violence, which is both gruesome and deliberatly ‘blank’, in that Lou’s narration calls attention away from his own responsibility for the acts he commits. How to adapt into a visual medium this evasive narrative voice, to give it body, a face? How to retain the protean nature of Lou’s single ‘confession’ and keep it vital for a film’s audience? The answer is necessarily to do with form, and while Winterbottom attempts some interesting formal strategies (including one absolutely masterful technique that I will discuss shortly) the resulting film simply cannot replicate the vivid ambiguity conjured by Thompson on the page, and the whole project finally collapses in a welter of narrative confusion and ugly, misjudged violence. However, the ultimate failure of the film still results in something that is often innovative and on occasion very good indeed.
I’ll elaborate. In cinema, of course, environment can become formally and visually conflated with the psyche– think, for example, of the tiny characters in vast industrial landscapes in Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) or the elaborately mannered compositions of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Winterbottom sucessfully visually recreates the sparse nature of Central City, Texas, a place where the very scope of the landscape encourages the internalising of deviant behaviour, where a man is ‘always out where people could see him’. In one of the film’s most successful moments– notably not from the source material– Ford dreams, while asleep on a flight to Fort Worth, that he is freefalling, in a point-of-view shot, from the sky towards the vast unforgiving spread of Texas below, the enormity of the land rushing up to destroy his freefall. This tantilisingly brief and fantastical conflation of the viewer’s eye with Lou’s– the combination of perspective, psychology and environment– is frustratingly not complemented stylistically anywhere else in the film. More problematically on this point, Winterbottom later uses another POV shot to depict another character spying on Lou. This shot embodies much of what is problematic about the adaptation. If you’re going to honour the original source material’s perspective (which Winterbottom is evidently trying to do) to then include an explicitly framed perspective outside of Lou– to conflate someone else’s eye with the camera in a film that has made it clear that we are receiving mediated information from one source– is surely a massive formal mistake.
Winterbottom’s presentation of Joyce Lakeland’s beating is, unfortunately, far more than a brief mistake– it’s a complete misjudgment of the source material that has the unfortunate consequence of being so unnecessarily graphic that it sends the rest of the film’s narrative spinning, obliterating pretty much everything else about the film from the viewer’s mind. In the novel, Lou’s brutal battering of Joyce – mediated, of course, through Lou’s narration – is brief, barely half a page. However, it is the very indirect and evasive nature of Lou’s relation of the horrendous attack that makes the event so disturbing: ‘It was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once.’ Winterbottom is faced with the question of how to visually relate this terrible assault and, unfortunately, he reaches for the gore and prosthetics. The scene – which must last a good two minutes – involves a series of cuts between a shot of Lou administering the attack and Joyce’s face in increasing, ever more brutalised condition. The scene is horrendous, a horror-movie-style ordeal for the audience , and entirely unnecessary for the adaptation. Winterbottom’s rather conflicted comments about the controversy generated by the scene – variously that he wanted to make a point about screen violence and also that he wanted to bring the horror of Lou’s psychopathic behaviour to the audience’s attention – seem to suggest a lack of confidence with how the scene eventually turned out. What needs addressing in a visualisation of that scene and indeed any of Lou’s attacks is the manner in which, in the original narrative, Lou’s narrative voice evades personal responsibilityfor what he is doing, even as he is doing it. One of the truly disturbing aspects of Thompson’s novel is the reader’s increasing realisation that despite extensive reasoning about the necessity of the killings Lou doesn’t really need to kill anybody, and that his murderous acts are actually serving a far more deeply embedded psychology that Lou will not admit to the reader or perhaps, most disturbingly, even to himself. Graphically representing Joyce’s beating simply reminds the audience – as if it needed reminding – that beating someone’s face to a pulp is a horrendous act to perpetrate and witness. The scene therefore reveals nothing about the psychology of the characters involved, and due to the misjudged lingering close-ups of gory make-up has come in for erroneous criticism that the act is somehow being relished, that the violence was amped up for publicity and even worse, that the film has misogynist intent. Such ill-informed calls – as is traditional – come from those who are unfamiliar with both novel and film, but Winterbottom has been the architect of these problems through his deviating from Thompson’s narrative structure.
It is worth mentioning here in contrast the generally positive critical reaction to the depiction of first-person violence in Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in order to further outline the difficulties in adapting Thompson’s novel. The similarities between the first-person murderous apologias of American Psycho and The Killer Inside Me are manifold. Harron made the well-judged decision when adapting Ellis’ novel to concentrate on the comic elements while scaling back the depictions of violence that would have most likely rendered the film unreleasable, and the final result is essentially a broadly played gruesome farce, deriving bonus laughs from the anachronistic depictions of 1980s fashion and technology. Unfortunately for Winterbottom, Thompson’s novel is not exactly a wellspring of humour – there is simply nothing else to adapt but the relentless torment and violence which, ironically, Winterbottom makes far more graphic than anything in Harron’s adaptation of Ellis’ much more graphic book. (Ironically, Winterbottom has previous form in successfully adapting difficult novels for the screen, with his 2005 film A Cock and Bull Story an inventive and comedically well-pitched translation of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). The opening titles to Winterbottom’s film seem to suggest a play for the camp or the pastiche – fifties-style fonts and design – but this aesthetic is not qualified sufficiently in the film that follows for the viewer to become aware of the intentionally wry tone.
The scale of the aforementioned problems might lead one to wonder if the film manages to successfully adapt any aspect of Thompson’s narrative to the screen. In fact, Winterbottom deserves credit for employing a particular device that comes close to providing a cinematic – rather than literary – answer to the problem of how to represent the different layers of Lou’s narrative on the screen, and this most successful element is based around the film’s soundtrack. The soundtrack (as opposed to the original orchestral score, which appears very intermittently) comprises, alongside occasional snatches of Mahler, a series of honky-tonk numbers contemporaneous with the film’s early 1950s setting. One track in particular appears more than once – Spade Cooley’s hit ‘Shame on You’, crooned by Tex Williams to an unfaithful lover. Cooley notoriously murdered his wife by savagely beating her to death, and once the connection between music and murder becomes clear, Winterbottom’s strategy begins to reveal itself. The honky-tonk songs of the 1940s and 1950s, epitomised by the work of Hank Williams (who is absent here, though the point remains valid) play on a peculiar paradox – the cheerful, major chords, sweet strings and smooth vocals alongside lyrics detailing almost unimaginable pain and suffering, as well as suggestions of violence and promises of retribution. An example – Williams’ song ‘Never Again Will I Knock On Your Door’ plays out a brisk waltz rhythm as Williams details the many nights he has wept over his lost love, before the song takes on a sinister cast as the sentiment turns bitter. ‘Someday you’ll be so lonely and blue’, sings Hank, his sadness curdling into something far more unpalatable. Even a deliberately comic song like ‘Howling at the Moon’ begins with the line ‘I know there’s never been a man in the awful shape I’m in’ and ends with Williams getting beaten about the head with a monkey wrench. To include this manner of music is a genuine masterstroke on Winterbottom’s part – it enables a soundtrack to function both as a scene-setter and also a representation of the layers of cheerfulness and good manners that mask a terrible torment – an analogue to not only Lou Ford’s character, but also the manner in which Ford conducts himself and speaks to the reader. In Thompson’s novel Ford needles other characters by repeating endless cheery cliches and homilies, a habit contrived to keep other, more murderous urges beneath the surface.
In these moments, Winterbottom gets closest to articulating Thompson’s first-person narrative in a genuinely cinematic manner – to have Lou’s narrative functioning at the level of dialogue and soundtrack, something not possible on the page. This dual-track approach also effectively mirrors Thompson’s employment of two different levels to Lou’s narrative in the novel – the more murderous and uncensored thoughts appear in italics, a kind of sub-level narrative. In effect, this is a satisfying riposte to the problem of ’embodiment’ – you can represent your character physically, but also extend that character to encompass the soundtrack too, so that effectively the whole of the film is the character. The movie is Lou Ford’s character represented through sound and moving pictures. In this manner, when you’re seeing Lou physically represented onscreen you are actually only seeing a component of him. The whole cinematic experience – visuals and sound – completes the man.
It is when experiencing Winterbottom’s employment of the soundtrack in this manner that one longs for this narrative consistency throughout the rest of the film. Imagine, for example, a film that visually adopts the misdirection of Lou’s narration, so that the viewer is as confused as the reader as to whether what Lou is telling them is true and, as we hurtle towards the apocalyptic climax – which Winterbottom plays apparently straight – whether things are actually taking place at all. ‘Shame on you’ sings Tex Williams as the explosive denouement burns up the screens, and we are presented with a chintzy, 1950s-style card reading ‘The End’, further clouding our understanding of the extent to which Winterbottom considers this a pastiche. It is indeed a shame – both that the film falters so fundamentally in places but also that it comes so close to synthesising the essence of Thompson’s narrative into something cinematic, and finding a solution for the problem of the embodiment of a first-person perspective.
By David Hering