Friday, January 25, 2013

Adapting "Parker" for the big screen and changing the rules

"Civilized people need to follow rules.  These are mine:
I don't steal from people who can't afford it and I don't hurt people who don't deserve it.  Most importantly, you say you'll do something and you don't, I'll make sure you regret it."

I'm not an expert on Richard Stark's character Parker, but I have read several of the books in the Parker crime-novel series.  They're short, easy to read, good airplane stuff.  I'm not even sure there's an arc to Parker's character development until around the seventh book.  That's, as we say, a feature, not a bug.

I really like Parker novels in part not because I relate to Parker as a master-thief, but because I think in some ways I relate to Parker as someone who spends a lot of time planning things out, enough so to improvise if things go poorly, but I also become fairly irritated when people's quirks and personalities get in the way of the plan when - darn it - we all knew the plan.

However, I am just slightly less inclined than Parker to actually straight up blow up my co-workers if I feel they messed up a project.

There's a movie coming out based on one of the later books in the Parker series. Hollywood being the clever folks they are have named the movie Parker, and are not starting at the beginning of the series. You've likely seen ads with Jason Statham and (yes, people are still hiring her) Jennifer Lopez.

I find it fascinating that J-Lo actually has fans in 2013

The quote above is from the Parker trailer.  If the trailer looks like a standard, inexpensive Jason Statham action movie, I am guessing you are not far off.  The critics at Rottentomatoes certainly seem to feel that way.

The quote of Parker's rules - the thing that gets you to know the character and makes you interested in the character - is not from the books and, really, if casting Jason Statham wasn't a weird enough choice, this little good-guy-thief code has nothing to do with Parker's rules or the purpose of those rules in the series of books.

The rules stated above seem to have a pretty standard Hollywood purpose to them: your main character is a criminal who has to be able to shoot people and steal from people, but in mainstream releases, characters have to be more or less likable to anyone who stumbles into the theater or finds the movie at the Red Box out front the McDonald's.  People want an "anti-hero".  They don't want an actual amoral sociopath as their lead.

Movie Parker doesn't steal from people who it might actually affect, and he doesn't hurt people who - in the black and white world of movies - "deserve it".  It's a warm, fuzzy murdering criminal with values sort of like the made-up bad boy values that permeate a lot of media aimed at males between 15 and 25.  The guy on the other side of the pistol "deserves it".  Stealing from people who "can afford it" in no way trickles down to the people who can't afford the price hike to cover insurance premiums or higher rates.

Because Parker is "the good guy", we know he'll spend 75% of the movie revenge-killing "bad guys" who might steal from a baby and then punch that very same baby.

I don't know, I haven't seen the movie.

The novel series, as I've read it so far, uses Parker as a sort of focal point, but it's a series of books in which anyone who isn't living in a moral dead zone is a sucker, patsy, or about to get taken advantage of.   Mobsters, thieves, politicians, police all operate in a zone outside of the standard law-abiding playbook, and so a different bunch of rules are required.

Parker doesn't hurt people unless he has to because it's not efficient and causes more problems than it solves.  He doesn't steal from people who can't afford it because it isn't worth the time or risk, not because he's secretly got a heart of gold.

That said, the Parker of the novels does have an extensive set of rules.  I invite you to check them out on the Parker website at the University of Chicago Press website (which is really great), but I've duplicated them below.

Parker’s Rules
  1. Don’t ever show a gun to a man you don’t want to kill.
  2. Don’t talk to the law.
  3. Always split the money fair.
  4. Each man for himself.
  5. Don’t kill somebody unless you have to. It puts the law on you like nothing else.
  6. Never leave a guy alive who’d like to see you dead.
  7. Don’t let yourself be framed in a lit doorway.
  8. Don’t meet in a town where you’re going to make a hit.
  9. Don’t stay in the hotel where you’re going to make a hit.
  10. Don’t take a job on consignment.
  11. Don’t work with anyone you can’t trust or don’t respect.
  12. When there’s no place to hide, stay where you are.
  13. Any job that requires more than five guys to be pulled can’t be pulled.
  14. For a big enough score, any rule can be broken.

The rules aren't complex.  In the books, they act as more of a construct than "be a thief, but be a good guy" which, I think Stark knew, only barely works even in a fictional world and that's why we have the Grofeld novels.

The rules of the Parker novels are pragmatic and signs of both professional ethics and professional standards.  After The Hunter (the first book, which you may know as Mel Gibson's Payback or Lee Marvin's Point Blank), the books I've read have all been heist books in which Parker teams up with multiple other players.  When any of the rules are violated (and they aren't rolled out in a list that Parker keeps in his pocket or anything, we get a few rules per book - mostly as they're broken), it usually just means that the plan got more complicated because people are unpredictable and make bad choices.

Again, I haven't seen the film, at least not as of this writing.  One day I'll rent it, I guess.

The movie is directed by Taylor Hackford, who is married to Helen Mirren, so...  hey, well done, man.

I did look at a few reviews so I could get an idea of how the movie plays out, and there seems to be:
(a) the reviewer who knew the Stark material and wasn't impressed
(b) the reviewer who is aware of the Stark material and did some googling and felt compelled to mention the Parker cult fandom and does some handwaving and seems to think the movie must be emulating the books
(c) the reviewer from sites for young people who is sort of like "what?  book?  Statham is the voice of our generation.  J-Lo is hot.  Also, violence.  Must see!".

Honestly, the reviews are all over the place.

I just find the transformation of anything from source material to what will work for the masses, especially when, on first blush, it seems to nullify the point of the original character to the point where you're kind of left asking "why did they buy the rights to this in the first place?"

Just FYI:  Westlake (Stark's real name) never let anyone adapt his Parker books and let them use Parker's name.  It was changed to "Walker" or other things.  I kind of respect that.

I kind of just want to re-watch Point Blank now.

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