'Killing Them Softly' goes by the book

James Gandolfini as Mickey in "Killing Them Softly."

James Gandolfini as Mickey in "Killing Them Softly." (Credit: Handout)

Andrew Dominik was watching "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," a 1973 crime film starring Robert Mitchum, and was struck by the authenticity of its lowlife Boston hoods and their colorful dialogue. He then discovered the film had been based on a novel by George V. Higgins, who had been a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney for years. Intrigued, Dominik ordered all of Higgins' two dozen novels, many of which were out of print. And once he read "Cogan's Trade," a 1974 work about a hit man hired to whack some robbers who ripped off a Mob-protected card game, Dominik knew he had the subject for his next film.

"The book had great characters, the dialogue was extraordinary, and the plot was very simple," says Dominik, director of "Killing Them Softly," starring Brad Pitt and based on the Higgins novel. "I liked Higgins' use of language, and the way the plot is incidentally tucked inside long monologues." The movie, which co-stars Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini, opens Nov. 30.

Dominik is obviously not the first director to film a crime novel. In fact, almost as long as there have been crime films, there have been movies based on crime fiction. The 1932 classic "Scarface" was originally a novel. Immortal hard-boiled writers like Dashiell Hammett ("The Maltese Falcon"), James M. Cain ("Double Indemnity") and Raymond Chandler ("The Big Sleep") have long been Hollywood favorites. And more contemporary authors such as James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"), Jim Thompson ("The Getaway") and Walter Mosley ("Devil in a Blue Dress") have captured filmmakers' fancies.

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The reason for this, says Geoff Mayer, author of "The Historical Dictionary of Crime Films," is that "filmmakers adapting well-known crime novels have a ready audience and bypass some of the complexities of film marketing." And, he adds, "Crime stories have an added advantage of verisimilitude -- a strong sense of plausibility and relevance to audiences who experience life in the big city."

It's also about the Benjamins, says Dominik, who feels "the unconscious appeal of the crime novel is that they're stories about capitalism, the American dream. It's one genre where your characters can be concerned about money above all things."

Plus, there's this: Crime stories allow us to live vicariously through characters who live life on their own terms, legalities be damned.

Not that every good crime novel has been turned into a good movie. And not that every good adaptation has been utterly faithful to the source material. What many filmmakers like about these novels isn't necessarily plot but "atmosphere, character and dialogue," says Geoffrey O'Brien, editor in chief of the Library of America, which recently published "American Noir," a two-volume set of classic crime fiction. These characteristics "offer a certain freedom to filmmakers, and sometimes the key is to be very free," O'Brien says. "It's not necessarily about being literally faithful."

It's obviously up to the director and screenwriter to decide what direction to take when adapting crime fiction. And when they go wrong, it's because, "the emotional life goes out of them," O'Brien says. "There has to be some sense of edge to or else it just becomes a TV show."

Mayer says he feels bad adaptations involve "an inability to capture the moral nuances of a powerful crime novel." He's particularly disdainful of the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr., which "abandon all semblance of [author Arthur] Conan Doyle's world and his characterizations. They are overproduced, smarmy and bear no resemblance to the source."

As far as Dominik is concerned, "it's always about the characters. Am I interested in these people [in the book], that's the main thing. I'm not a big one for plot; a good story is fine, but a movie for me is what illustrates human behavior."

So in "Killing Them Softly," based on a novel that is told almost entirely in long swatches of dialogue, Dominik has retained the chatter and kept the essence of Higgins' characters while weaving in the plot as seamlessly as possible. "I'm sure every adaptation is different," he says. "It depends what they're aiming for. Trying to make people likable, or spending a lot of time on back story, I find that tiresome in a film."

The bottom line, says Mayer, who counts such recent films as "Drive" (from a James Sallis novel) and the Norwegian movie "Headhunters" (based on the book by Jo Nesbo) as solid book-to-film adaptations, is that a good conversion basically involves "an ability to extract the essence of the novel while adapting it to a different medium -- and to transform the world of the novel without slavishly following every detail."

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