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The Elusive Film Adaptation of White Jazz

January 24, 2016

All I have is the will to remember. Time revoked/fever dreams – I wake up reaching, afraid I’ll forget. Pictures keep the woman young.

White Jazz is the concluding novel of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. Structured as the first-person reminiscences of the feverous ex-detective and Mob enforcer Dave Klein looking back on his violent career in the LAPD, White Jazz is a difficult and controversial novel. While the material may be alienating to some readers, if you can tap into the rhythm of Klein’s thinking and the apocalyptic noir tone, then you will find White Jazz to be an extraordinary, visceral experience. David Peace once said ‘White Jazz was the Sex Pistols for me. It reinvented crime writing and I realised that, if you want to write the best crime book, then you have to write better than Ellroy.’
It should come as no surprise that there has been talk of a film adaptation of White Jazz for years, and it should be equally unsurprising that no adaptation has ever come to fruition. While this is a stunningly visual novel, the plotting is complex and the characters brutal. Perhaps not standard material for your average Hollywood studio. Then again, note Ellroy’s own words about L.A. Confidential:
I knew my book was movie-adaptation-proof. The motherfucker was uncompressible, uncontainable, and unequivocally bereft of sympathetic characters. it was unsavoury, unapologetically dark, untameable, and altogether untranslateable to the screen.
Now if Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland could go ahead and make a critically and commercially successful adaptation of L.A. Confidential, gloriously proving Ellroy wrong in the process, and only missing out on the Best Picture Oscar because the gutless Academy shamefully gave that bauble to Titanic instead, then perhaps there was hope we could see White Jazz on the silver screen. In fact, the idea of a film adaptation of White Jazz had been gestating prior to the triumphant 1997 release of L.A. Confidential, and its genesis lay in the production of a now forgotten film.
Mulholland FallsMulholland Falls is a tough and competent noir thriller. Set in early 1950s LA, Nick Nolte plays the leader of the ‘Hat Squad’, a four man LAPD detective team who use rough justice to deter organised crime figures from gaining a foothold in the City of Angels. If this seems vaguely familiar to Ellroy readers, then be aware there are many more similarities between the film and his writing (which I won’t go into here). But if anyone wants a thorough breakdown of how Ellroy’s work has been shamelessly plundered for the screen, do follow this Reddit thread on the similarities between the second season of True Detective and The Big Nowhere (1998). Nolte’s assistant on Mulholland Falls was the future film producer Greg Shapiro. In this interview for the LA Times, Nolte cheerfully discusses how he and Shapiro ‘stole’ Ellroy material for Mulholland Falls:
“We got into Ellroy’s books,” he says. “But after a while we had stolen so much that I said, ‘Greg, call Ellroy.’ Ellroy answers the phone and says, ‘Dog, here.’ ‘Cause he calls himself Dog. Greg explained who he was and what we were doing. Ellroy said, ‘Well, what are you taking?’ Greg had the quotes down. This line and this line.
 “And I said, ‘Give me the phone. James, it’s Nick Nolte. Here’s what we’ve taken so far. I think we’re right at the edge of taking too much.’ Ellroy said, ‘Look, I’ll meet you at the Pacific Dining Car in three days at eight o’clock.'”
White JazzEllroy never received a writing credit for Mulholland Falls and the film never garnered much critical attention, although Roger Ebert was one of a minority of critics who admired it. Even in its title it was unlucky, as it would be eclipsed a few years later by David Lynch’s critically lauded Mulholland Drive (try typing Mulholland into your search engine and see what the predictive text gives you). Nevertheless, the meeting of Ellroy, Shapiro and Nolte would prove productive. Shortly thereafter, the three men were in discussions to do a film adaptation of White Jazz, with Nolte in the role of Dave Klein. Nolte briefly appears with Ellroy in the documentary Feast of Death (2001). He can be seen walking into the Pacific Dining Car, while Ellroy is holding court with his contacts in the LAPD. We can assume it was during this period that Nolte and Ellroy were working on White Jazz, and reports from back then suggest the project was developing strongly. Acclaimed cinematographer Robert Richardson was due to make his directorial debut with the film. John Cusack and Uma Thurman joined the cast. In the production notes of The Rules of Attraction (2002), Shapiro’s bio confidently states that the film was finished! However, in reality, the project soon ran into difficulty. In the brief glimpse I saw of various drafts of the screenplay and correspondence about the film at the Ellroy archive in South Carolina, I could tell there was tension between Shapiro and Ellroy. Shapiro raised issues about the financing and stated that everyone would have to work for less money. Ellroy responded irritably by scribbling obscenities next to Shapiro’s name in the letters he received. In any event the film was not well-conceived; several drafts had a contemporary setting which was confusing and robbed the story of much of its texture. Although he had been keen to adapt his novel at first, Ellroy eventually left the project. But the film did not die with his departure. The screenwriting/directing siblings Joe and Matthew Carnahan began developing the script for Warner Independent Pictures with George Clooney set to star (Clooney as Dave Klein really?). Joe Carnahan said of the adapted screenplay, ‘It’s, to me, what that book always was – the point of departure from the Eisenhower ’50s to the psychedelic freakshow, Manson ’60s. It’s a total combination of the two with a heavy, heavy voice-over narration, this kind of classic noir.’ The Carnahan script was available on SimplyScripts for a while. After downloading and reading a copy, I have to hand it to the Carnahan’s, they really did capture the essence of the novel. Although neither Dudley Smith or Ed Exley appear in the script to avoid confusion with a separate film project (L.A. Confidential 2 which thankfully never saw the light of day), the Carnahan’s seemed to take inspiration from a scene in the novel where Klein is heavily drugged and awakes to find himself watching a snuff film in which he is the star. To his horror, Klein sees his intoxicated onscreen self commit a grisly murder. In this film within a novel, Klein uses technical screenwriting terms, ‘Cut to’ and ‘Zooming in’, to describe what his character is doing onscreen. In the Carnahan screenplay, all of the action is described by the first-person narration of Klein. Take the scene below where Klein murders the witness Sanderline Johnson by throwing him out the window of a hotel room:
Drop the phone on the cradle…step to the
window…open it…then I chuckle genuine:
Sanderline, you gotta see this…
Trusting puppy Sanderline steps to the window:
What’m I-
-smash his head against the frame using his forward motion.
He loses muscle control for the split-second it takes me to
pitch his legs up and out. My face a quick-change evil mask.
Feature Sanderline’s nine-story fall. That Ambassador Hotel
robe billows behind him like a cape. He detonates an overhead
streetlight with a bomb sound, then hits the driveway.
Unzip my fly, hustle into the bathroom, screams from outside
now. Flush the toilet as Junior and Ruiz pile through the
door. Step out, play it baffled: look at the bed where
Sanderline sat, then the open window, screams floating up…
Lunge to the window: Sanderline post-mortem. Head shattered.
Valets sprinting.
Through present tense and unusual ‘ME’ cuing of dialogue, the Carnahans brilliantly convey Klein’s nightmarish, surreal viewpoint in their metafictional writing which in its innovative style pays tribute to another classic film noir. However, as much as I admire the Carnahan’s script, it seems unlikely that this experimental work made the film adaptation more likely to happen (quite the opposite I suspect). The project floundered and all that remains is White Jazz’s threadbare ‘in development’ entry on IMDB, waiting to come alive again one day.
Still, if there’s a happy ending to be gleaned from this catalogue of missed opportunities and unfinished projects, it is that Carnahan’s overlooked but wonderfully bizarre, dazzling script is, in its unique way, a fine tribute to Ellroy’s novel.
15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2016 5:32 pm

    Well why not?

    • January 24, 2016 6:35 pm

      Perhaps Clooney as Dave Klein could have roughed up some gangsters, murder a witness then sipped on a coffee and said ‘Nespresso, what else?’

  2. January 24, 2016 8:59 pm

    Crime fans everywhere are hungry for a new Ellrovian experince at the flicks. Question is will the increasingly political correct Hollyweird establishment and their big money financial backers be able to stomach anything that even closely resembles the White Jazz Story? How about Will Smith as Klein?

    • January 24, 2016 9:28 pm

      Will Smith as Klein is an inspired idea, but why stop there? Change his love interest Glenda Bledsoe into a transgender character played by Caitlyn Jenner.

    • 0zpomfromhell permalink
      December 8, 2021 6:59 am

      It might just be me, but I HATE the use of “politically correct” to mean the bureaucratic conservatism that pervades the modern world.

  3. January 25, 2016 11:44 am

    Great post. Glad you pointed out the similarities between The Big Nowhere (my favourite Ellroy novel) and True Detective because that EXACTLY what I said to my husband throughout the whole series! I can’t imagine White Jazz working as a film. Most Ellroy screen adaptations are disappointing – part of the ‘joy of Ellroy’ is the intense, visceral internal dialogue. Just doesn’t work in script. And Will Smith….NO!

  4. January 25, 2016 11:48 am

    Great post. Glad you pointed out the similarities between The Big Nowhere (my favourite Ellroy novel) and True Detective because that EXACTLY what I said to my husband throughout the whole series! I can’t imagine White Jazz working as a film. Most Ellroy screen adaptations are disappointing – part of the ‘joy of Ellroy’ is the intense, visceral internal dialogue. Just doesn’t work in script. And Will Smith….NO!

    • January 25, 2016 11:52 am

      Thanks Rachel, great to hear from you again. Glad you’ve started blogging. Once you start you can’t stop! All the best with starting your family.


  5. Pete B permalink
    February 3, 2016 10:39 pm

    Reading the book is like watching a movie, a good movie. Really don’t need a bad try by the hollywood machinery. They’d have to change the charcters to fit their sad formula and thereby destroy everything.
    I do understand dog’s willingness to have it filmed. Hollywood and it’s surroundings are a major inspiration after all.
    I love white jazz. It’s allright to read it for the fourth time, isn’t it? I’ll start now

    • February 4, 2016 11:10 am

      Pete B,

      Thanks for commenting. It’s a cinematic novel which, as you say, is ironically fiendishly difficult to adapt. But I wouldn’t rule out the novel coming to the screen one day. Ellroy was convinced LA Confidential would never be made into a film and, whisper it, the Hanson/Helgeland adaptation is better than the novel.


  6. David C permalink
    August 10, 2018 11:42 am

    The big difference is that White Jazz does not feature one character worth a viewers empathy. A large portion of it’s power stems from the fact it’s the explosive end to the quartet, and we finally see Dudley Smith go down.
    I’d be fascinated to see an opinion from someone who has only read WJ from the quartet; without The Big Nowhere and LA Confidential to buttress it I believe it’s a weak overly violent book with little characterisation and little insight into the protagonists motivations. This is the book that gives us Pete Bondurant, but he makes almost no impression on our minds. The incest angle is shock value shit that unfortunately Ellroy tried again in the Cold Six Thousand with the same result.
    If you’ve read The Big Nowhere and/or LA Confidential then you’ve quite possibly not picked up on the weaknesses in the book. Because you’ve read the prequels, you already know Smith, Exley, Breuning, Gallaudet Howard Hughes and others. If you haven’t read them, does WJ do enough to bring these characters to life? I don’t think it does.

    In The Big Nowhere you end up empathising with all three protagonists despite their numerous faults. By the end of LA Confidential you’re left with Bud White. By the end of White Jazz you empathise with nobody.

    Thankfully American Tabloid was a massive return to form, especially in the characterisation department. I feel like I’ve met Ward Littell, Kemper Boyd and Pete B by the end of AT. They leap off the page.
    I don’t think you can say that about the characters in WJ.


    • August 10, 2018 1:37 pm

      David, it’s one of my favourite novels and I think it solves some of the structural problems we were discussing in LAC. I don’t think it matters the novel would be incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the series. This is a common issue with genre writers who are used to writing series. Pete Bondurant is only in it briefly but he left an impression, and it seems Ellroy as he was moved to a lead role in the next series. I don’t think at the time Ellroy was planning on making Pete a major character in Underworld USA as there is some overlap/structural contradiction in WJ’s and American Tabloid’s timeframe and broadly speaking this was dramatically justified with what Ellroy was attempting to do with the novels. I find Pete sympathetic in his reluctance to beat Klein, and I find Klein sympathetic too. Brutal but sympathetic. In terms of structure, voice and tone WJ is a fever dream. I know some people hate this, just as James Joyce and Salman Rushdie, leave some readers cold but I appreciate the novels unrelenting, rigorous depiction of madness. It’s much shorter and, in some ways, less ambitious than LAC and all the better for it.

      • David C permalink
        August 10, 2018 2:02 pm

        But Steve, the other three books DO stand alone as a great read. They don’t need the context of the other books to shine as really good work. WJ fails this test.
        Klein is a terrible character; perhaps after Wayne Tedrow Jr the worst Ellroy protagonist in all his work.

        For me it’s the language structure that somewhat redeems WJ. But I’ve always found non-traditional prose to be brilliant when done right; I remember reading Kelmans “How Late It Was How Late” and just being spellbound by the language. Similar feelings when I got into Irvine Welsh and others too. The language is challenging but for me, the real triumph of WJ.


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