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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

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My name:  Brian Martin

Deliverance by James Dickey

Deliverance (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) - James Dickey

Deliverance is set up the same way as horror movies like Friday the 13th are set up: a group of people go off in the woods, meet some bad guys, find life suddenly reduced to its essentials, until one of them rises up and takes a stand. But there's a difference. As all those horror movie sequels tell us, the survivor ends up plagued by nightmares, unable to integrate what happened into their lives. Dickey's novel, though, is all about that integration, and what it means to civilized man.

So much so that isn't a genre novel at all. If it had been, it would have been a thriller, but instead Dickey underplays the conventionally exciting scenes because his (and our hero's) interest is the thrill of self-discovery. This is effective enough to make the novel a success, but not so much that it makes it great. It's hard to imagine sitting down with Ed at the end of it all and learning very much. Everything there is to learn is right there in the book, and it's pretty basic stuff for the most part, about losing touch with nature and our more primitive selves in the enervating sprawl of urbanization with its inherent danger of atrophy, weakness, and impotence. The novel could have done with a little less reflection and a little more raw excitement. Just as Ed cares more about himself than his less capable companions, Dickey's self-indulgence is, here and there, simply a time-waste.

This last is one of the least attractive aspects of the story. Getting back to the essentials can do a lot of things, we conclude, but it doesn't do crap for our sense of compassion or empathy. Not even when we ourselves are saved from ignominy not through our own actions but through blind luck. I kept waiting for Ed to demonstrate these qualities in regard to his friends, but, no, all his eloquence is reserved for himself. I detected no irony here, either.

But it's the elementals that save the book, the simple power of the situation, told by and about believable characters. It would have been a hell of a thriller.

*****Spoilers follow for the film*****

The movie is a fascinating bit of adaptation. When it was over, my wife asked, "How did the book end?" "The same," I said, "but different."

Indeed, book and film are, on the surface, very much the same. On this level it's the sort of adaptation so many people--people who complain about what's been done to their favorite books in their translation to the screen--would wish was the norm rather than the exception. But underneath, it's a very different story.

Where the book was all about how Ed integrates his experiences into his life, somehow becoming better for them, the movie takes the opposite approach. I was amused that the movie ends with a dream, a nightmare of exactly the kind that I mentioned above in regard to horror movies. Here, Ed is forever scarred by his experiences along the Cahulawassee River.

It's a change that makes sense. That is, if you accept that, as a movie, it could only succeed as a thriller. In the first place, Ed's interior monologues are largely untranslatable minus a lot of expository and unbelievable dialogue, and in the second, it would have meant underplaying the exciting scenes, just as Dickey did in the novel, which, in a movie, would have robbed them of their elemental power. Such a film would have been talky and boring, two things this movie is not.

Interestingly, Bobby, he of the squeal-like-a-pig scene (there was no squealing in the book), is the one here who, in a way, integrates what was done to him. Or, if he doesn't exactly embrace it, at least succeeds in forgetting it. In the novel, he's subtly ostracized; here, *he* makes the choice: he pleasantly tells Ed that he thinks he won't be seeing him again for awhile. Read, never. He's already relegated his experiences to a little locked room in his mind and he'll have nothing further to do with anyone who has a key to that room. This change is also necessary, however, because in the more superficial world of genre fiction, we need it to preserve our sympathy for Ed.

In many ways, this is textbook adaptation--on the theory that movies and novels are different, each with its own inherent strengths and possibilities, and trying to turn one into a carbon copy of the other is to reduce both to a Michael Crichton narrative screenplay. Which is fine for some stories, but thankfully not for many.