This week as I was reading and deciding what to write about, I was surprised how conflicted my feelings became in reading an original text and the adaptation of that text (yes, I am STILL on adaptation). While I enjoyed a great deal of the Darwyn Cooke adaptation of Richard Stark’s (penname for the author Donald Westlake), The Outfit, I was left with a puzzling feeling after doing some further research on the series as I am currently continuing to investigate adaptation in comics, a subject I wrote about in a previous AW column on A Wrinkle in Time and as guest host on the Infinite Crossover podcast episode 50. I am fine with that Cooke takes the core materials and makes it his own through following his own design aesthetic, which is a stylistic calling card he is tailor-made for with this genre (crime) and time period (late 1950s-early-1960s), rather than overly relying on the book when it comes to geography and many of the physical descriptions of the characters by Stark. Cooke described for the website **The Violent World of Parker his metaphor for Parker’s physical and emotional transformation:
When I changed Parker, the idea was always to use plastic surgery as a metaphor for his emotional regression. He’s meant to look like a rawer, more stripped down version of himself. There was no one specific in mind here — it was more an exercise in imagining what could be done to alter the face I’d already designed. I thought about the surgical procedure back in 1962. Chemical peeling and less nuanced procedures just took my imagination to a more cut up, severe looking version of the man from “The Hunter.” His jaw, and most importantly, his eyes, are the same. The rest is meant to reflect a man drained of things like remorse and compassion. A loveless, unadorned man.
What caused me to pause and think a bit more about this adaptation in a way I had not before, however, is the following statement made by the curators of the website, **The Violent World of Parker: “Cooke considerably ups the violence level of the novel, appropriate for a visual adaptation.”
This type of thinking troubles me. My instant response question is, So the book would not have been good if the violence level had not been upped? Whatever happened to innuendo, even in the visual medium? Didn’t filmmakers such as Hitchcock eschew as much as possible the showing of the violence, instead making way to reproduce the effect of having seen a horrific image through sound for example? While film is a different medium combining sight and sound in movement, the still image in panel sequence can hold just as much power, and Cooke has in the course of his career proved his ability.
I have in the past thought about the power of the underworld narrative and the continuing allure of the mystique of thieves, robbers, gangsters, and killers (see my review of Torpedo Volume One). America loves the gangster/thief narrative, getting a vicarious thrill out of the predominantly male exploits of those that live fast, play by their own rules, and often die horribly. Explorations of the underworld narrative, however, is not necessarily an exploitative exercise by creators. Stark (Westlake) states about his motivation for creating Parker: “The idea had come about in a very mundane way; I walked across the George Washington Bridge […] So I walked across the bridge, surprised at how windy it was (when barely windy at all anywhere else) and at how much the apparently solid bridge shivered and swung from the wind and the pummeling of the traffic. There was speed in the cars going by, vibration in the bridge under my feet, tension in the whole atmosphere.
Westlake continues: “Riding downtown in the subway I slowly began to evolve in my mind the character who was right for that setting, whose own speed and solidity and tension matched that of the bridge […] Why is he walking across the bridge? Not because he took the wrong bus, Because he’s angry. Not hot angry; cold angry. Because there are times when tools won’t serve, not hammers or cars or guns or telephones, when only the use of your own body will satisfy, the hard touch of your own hands. So I wrote the book, about this sonofabitch called Parker, and in the course of the story I couldn’t help starting to like him, because he was so defined” (from Cooke’s adaptation of The Outfit).
So if Cooke is going for “emotional regression,” which I take Westlake’s comments reflect as well, why would emotional regression necessarily equate more violence? Part of the charm, if you can find criminals “charming,” of Parker is that he and his cohorts in the Outfit are thieves, not necessarily murderers or killers. Fear of them being killers, the alluding to of violence, is just as powerful a choice as the violent act, and in the original text Stark has his characters play out that innuendo for people to “get the drift” they mean business.
Now, not to let Stark /Westlake off the hook; the original novel does contain violence towards animals, allusions to sex, and a homophobic slur, all of which Cooke, minus some of the sexual allusions, decides to omit. In fact, I have found in reading those “hard-boiled” or “noir” novels by authors like Hammett and Stark, that homophobia is open and plainly stated, something I will need to investigate further in the future. Sorry for that digression, let me get back to this question of violence.
Even in the instance that it comes down to two bad guys matching heads in the end, the “anti-hero” or lesser evil of the two is who the reader wants to see come out on top. Justification comes with the revenge kill for sure as it happens in the climactic moment of the original text when Parker kills Bronson; it is the release for the tension of the story, which is also played out directly by Cooke. The change in character for Parker in the following moments and scenes though—that left me a bit stymied. Cooke has Parker execute Mr. Quill and then decide, having wrapped everything up, that it is time to go get tight and find a lady for the night. Originally, the novel ends with Parker heading back to Florida a bit reluctantly with one of his associates. What does this decidedly fundamental change mean for us culturally now? Is it right then to visually represent much more aggressive measures, because society had perhaps decided that if the book was written now such character motivations are less scandalized and more legitimized because we are more desensitized?
This book has me a bit crossed up, as I hope the preceding comments have shown, but it does have my brain thinking about the presentation of violence in pop culture. While I applaud Cooke for not doing a direct adaptation of the material, I am still wondering what the more violent changes mean culturally. Also if Cooke wanted to, as the website writers believe, “up the violence” he could have kept a lot of scenes from the book in, sticking to a direct adaptation. Mature material doesn’t have to mean sex and violence; it can be the content discussed or alluded towards.
Please feel free to continue the conversation on representations of violence in modern pop culture in the comments section, over on our facebook page, or tweet us your coment @capelesscrusade with the hashtag #Afterwednesday .