This week, allonymbooks author Cadell Blackstock discusses the film adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel A Walk among the Tombstones, currently being filmed in New York.
This blog doesn’t often cover issues of writing technique, not least because there are plenty of other authors, editors and bloggers out there covering the topic in great detail. Among them is a fond favourite of allonymbooks, the acclaimed New York crime writer Lawrence Block, whose many excellent books on writing technique are as brilliantly readable as they are thoroughly useful. Many years ago, I had the benefit of listening to Block wax lyrical on the power of the imagination for the reader. I was at a workshop in which another budding writer asked Block whether the many bars and churches visited by his dark and brilliant creation, the PI Matthew Scudder, were actual places in New York. The budding writer was concerned that if the places weren’t real, how would they be believable in the novel. Block very patiently defended his position that it didn’t matter if they were real or not, what mattered was that one wrote about them convincingly, for if they were real in the mind of the writer then they would be real in the mind of the reader. If one believed in a fictional character, then surely…?
That layer of trust between author and reader is always stretched when a book reaches adaptation stage and becomes a film or television programme. There are so many detectives, policemen and PIs who have been reinterpreted in the flesh that the path currently being trodden by Liam Neeson as he takes on the mantle of Matthew Scudder is not a new one. From Camilleri’s Montalbano and Mankel’s Wallander, to Sayers’ Wimsey, the burden of a strongly imagined serial character passes from author to reader to filmmaker. And while the author must accept the loss of control over what the reader envisages from the book, the reader is often none too happy to do the same.
I have grown up with Matthew Scudder, both as a reader and a writer. I first started reading Lawrence Block’s novels almost twenty years ago, when I had no thought of ever writing myself, and after the perfection of the detectives of my childhood (Poirot, Wimsey, The Hardy Boys in no particular order), not to mention the neat endings of much other genre fiction and cinema, it was a delight to meet a character who was, for want of a better word, so untidy. One of my favourite Scudder novels is A Long Line of Dead Men whose conclusion is, without spoiling it, deeply unsettling in some respects and extraordinarily conventional in others. I don’t think I have ever given Matthew Scudder a face, nor perhaps even a body, but I should know him if he walked into the room behind me, like a shadow on a hot day. On the contrary, one of Block’s other well-known creations, the burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, will for me be eternally associated with the thin-faced and implicitly balding guy on the cover of the original No Exit Press edition of Burglar in the Closet. I always look out for him when I’m in New York.
And so what of Liam Neeson, who becomes Scudder? What burden does he carry for those among Block’s fans who have long been looking forward to an adaptation? How difficult will it be for readers to cross the gap between their imaginations and the reality of a single face which may or may not fit? Will the film’s success for Block’s fans rise or fall on that single piece of casting? What part does the literal substantiation of a single character play in the quality of the overall film? There are other equally crucial characters in the book – Elaine, Danny Boy, TJ – not all of whose existence in the adaptation are yet confirmed. How hollow will readers feel if they are absent or ‘wrong’ somehow?
Many questions of course will be answered by the film itself, and Block’s own confirmation that he has no concerns about the adaptation remind us that although the conduit from writer to reader to film is essential in securing the film’s commercial success, there is always a risk too for the writer when it comes to adaptation. Some authors are better than others at relinquishing their characters, and one might argue that a film is simply just another reader interpretation, albeit in the three dimensional imagination of a group of readers rather than just one.
Will I go to see the film when it is released? Probably, although I risk giving up my Scudder forever to Liam Neeson. But as I break off from preparing to publish my new novel to pen this blog, I am reminded that there is a lesson too for us as writers. I can see the characters in my new book as clearly as if they were sitting next to me, but it took quite a long time to bring them to that condition, and the joy and the pain of writing is watching them stretch and push at their boundaries, testing me as they test themselves. At some point very soon I will give them up altogether to you, dear reader, and with them I give up control of who they become in your minds. But if I have written about them convincingly, then at least I can be assured that they will hold onto their identities, whatever faces you give them. And I hope, that like Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, they will not need a face on film to make them real.
Cadell Blackstock’s new novel Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’ will be published later in April direct to Kindle. Next week, Cadell will be interviewing Crash Cole…