Historical crime writer Lyndsay Faye delves into the difficulty (and award-winning success) of converting Dennis Lehane’s modern classic Mystic River from page to screen.
Dennis Lehane is internationally known as a master of modern noir, a title inherited from stylists such as Raymond Chandler (Lehane writes with far simpler albeit graceful rhythms) and Dashiell Hammett (I challenge anyone not to fight back tears during a Hammett novel, all due respect to his genius, while Lehane cuts to the bone), and deservedly so.
Many authors can claim deft handling of dialogue, and scarcely any of us can get away with being published in the first place without the ability to hold a few plot tricks up our voluminous sleeves. Lehane, however, is positively brilliant at weaving three highly difficult elements of the dramatic novel together: sense of character, sense of setting, and sense of a larger fate.
Writing merely one of these aspects effectively is admirable, and Lehane succeeds at intertwining the trifecta so well in his 2001 novel Mystic River that it almost seems gilding on the black truffle that the 2003 film adaptation of the same name, directed by Clint Eastwood, should capture its nuances so well.
‘When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids,’ the book begins, ‘their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy Plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their cars seats.’
We know so many things about character, setting and place from these two sentences, I hardly know where to begin. From the first phrase, we know Sean and Jimmy were closely thrust together – were enemies or friends. From the second phrase, we can smell the blue-collar working Boston environment in which they grew up.
And from the ‘permanent character’ the chocolate factory stamps on their families, we learn that this novel will be about dire and inevitable consequences. We know from the start that destiny will grip these people by their necks and leave them to bleed.
What better director to helm such an ambitious project than Clint Eastwood? A veteran of the disillusioned anti-hero and vigilante justice narrative (including but certainly not limited to Unforgiven and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), Eastwood draws a thin, malleable line in the sand between showing us the devastations of tragedy and allowing us to infer them for ourselves.
The casting of the film is impeccable, and Eastwood draws unforgettable performances from greats including Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins.
Best of all, however, the film unfolds as the book does – weaving character, setting and inevitability into a viciously claustrophobic noose, leaving its characters ravaged and its audience unsettled.
Lyndsay Faye is the author of the Timothy Wilde series, The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret, crime novels set against the backdrop of the birth of the NYPD in the nineteenth century, are out now.