A HISTORY OF ‘A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE’ (for ‘Schokkend Nieuws’)

the transition from graphic novel to graphic cinema

"They always screw up comic movies, don't they?" : the initial reaction of John Wagner when he heard that his 1997 graphic novel A History of Violence was going to be adapted for cinema. Wagner's first instinct was to "take the money and run" – and it was only when he heard that David Cronenberg was attached to the project that his attitude changed. "I began to think they might for once come up with something good," he told Comics Nexus in May 2005 – a week before the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Pennsylvania-born, Scottish-raised Wagner – a living legend in the world of comics and graphic novels – was understandably wary after seeing what Hollywood did with his most famous creation, Judge Dredd. But events have shown that he was, to say the least, correct in revising his opinion. For this writer, A History of Violence is one of a tiny handful of the current decade's films to warrant the description 'masterpiece' (the others: Punch-Drunk Love, Elephant, United 93.)

Though by no means a box-office smash (it pretty much broke even, just about recouping its $32m budget at North America cinemas), the film will be very familiar to most of Shocking News' readers. This article presupposes such familiarity: anyone who hasn't yet seen the film should do so before reading any further (the DVD features many outstanding extras.) A basic synopsis: Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a family man, father-of-two, married to lawyer Edie (Maria Bello), runs a diner in a small Indiana town. When he performs an act of self-defence heroism which is reported in the national media, Philadelphia gangsters suspect Tom is a former colleague of theirs who disappeared years ago. They travel to Indiana to confront Tom – or, as they insist on calling him, "Joey." Violent complications rapidly ensue, and the truth about Tom/Joey emerges…

It's now almost exacly a decade since Wagner's original graphic novel first his the newsstands – or rather, the bookshelves – as it was part of a DC Comics imprint specifically aimed at the bookbuying market. Only a very small number of single-volume graphic novels ended up appearing this 'Paradox' imprint – among them A History of Violence (May 1997: written by Wagner, art by Vince Locke) and Road to Perdition (June 1998: story by Max Allan Collins, drawn by Richard Piers Rainer.) Both were "lettered" by Bob Lappan (described as "the letterer of choice for writers who write too darn much") – but this is only one of many parallels between the two.

Indeed, there is surely a doctoral thesis to be written on the subject, a basic outline of which I provided in my original Violence review (written for Jigsaw Lounge in September 2005) in which I compared the film versions of the two novels (Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition was released in 2002): "both are adaptations of graphic novels featuring Irish-American gangsters, tracing the way violence impacts upon the male psyche and informs father-son relationships. But whereas Mendes became bogged down in picturesque sentimentality as his movie sprawled beyond the two-hour mark, Cronenberg's approach [running time: 96 minutes] is one of cool, crystalline efficiency."

As soon as it was announced as Mendes' followup to the award-laden American Beauty buzz rapidly mounted behind both its commercial prospects and Oscar chances. Amid such excitement, production-company Benderspink purchased the rights to A History of Violence in September 2002, and – Wagner having turned down the chance of adapting it himself ("I'd written the book, and I felt that this might cloud my judgement when it came to turning it into a film") in May 2003 hired screenwriter Josh Olson to adapt the novel for the screen. By this stage, mini-major New Line – with whom Benderspink have long had a successful production "pact" – had come aboard.

Though a complete unknown to the multiplex-going public, Olson had established what contemporary news reports described as "his mark in Tinseltown" with his scriptwriting prowess (though, typically in such cases, none of his high-profile screenplays had actually become a feature-film.)  His sole directorial gig was the eminently Cronenbergian-sounding Infested (2002), approvingly summarised by Texan reviewer/redneck Joe Bob Briggs: "What if the Big Chill people were attacked by thick swarms of genetically-engineered killer flies that turned them into zombies intent on devouring one another?"

In Olson's own words, he "wrote the [History of Violence] script pretty quickly… and New Line went with the first draft…. Structurally, conceptually, it's the book. I wanted to use it as a launching-off pad. The further it goes along, the farther it gets away from the book, story-wise. So probably the first 15 minutes are very straight, faithful to the book. And by the time you're done, we're at a completely different place."

Olson's script – like the resulting film – is a straight chronological narrative, in which we learn very little about Tom/Joey's life before he arrived in Indiana. Wagner, however, had taken a very different approach. After the first act ('Chapter 1: A Small Town Killing') he flashes back twenty-plus years with 'Chapter 2 : The Brooklyn Murders,' in which Tom/Joey's youthful escapades and motivations are explored in great detail. Rather than being a vicious hoodlum, Wagner's Joey is a fundamentally decent kid who commits a robbery for a relatively 'noble' purpose (to fund his beloved grandmother's heart surgery), only to become fatally entangled with the vengeful Mob.

In 'Chapter 3 : With Evil Intent,' Wagner return to the present day as Joey – now Tom – returns 'home' (to New York, not Wagner's Philadelphia) to deal with the unfinished business of his past. The major plot-related difference here is the identity of his chief opponent. In Wagner's novel, the character 'Richie' is Tom/Joey's oldest friend: long believed dead, but in fact being kept alive (and hideously tortured) by bestial capo Lou Manzi – Wagner's gangsters are Italian, as opposed to the Irish clans of the movie (the change effected partly because of Mortensen's ethnicity, partly to avoid what Cronenberg calls the 'Sopranos syndrome') In his adaptation, Olson wisely eliminated the two-dimensional psychopath Manzi (quite literally, a cartoon villain) and made Richie the head of Joey/Tom's hometown 'mob'; Cronenberg, in what was reportedly his only major contribution to the finished screenplay, at a stroke provided extra levels of drama and family-values irony by making Richie and Tom brothers.

This also had the benefit of subtly echoing the instances of what we might label the 'murderous/demonic fraternalism' to be found previously in his work, most obviously Cameron Vale and Darryl Revok from Scanners, and the Mantle twins from Dead Ringers. On a psychological and thematic level, the focus in Olson's script is much more upon the Edie/Tom relationship. Wagner's Edie doesn't seem overly concerned when she discovers the truth about her husband: her reaction takes up just a single frame at the bottom of page 187 ("Do you forgive me, Edie?" / "Of course I do, Tom. It's all been a … a bit of a shock, that's all. You're still the man I married – the man I love.") As indelibly incarnated by Bello, Olson's Edie isn't such a pushover: indeed, the way she reacts to Tom/Joey's admission of the truth is, in many ways, the crux of the film. Her process of adaptation to Tom/Joey's deception is so unforgettably expressed in that astonishing, bruising 'sex on the stairs' sequence, which appears nowhere in Wagner's (conspicuously intercourse-free) novel. Olson takes a breezily mature attitude to such 'license': "I feel like Alan Moore seems to have the right idea about this stuff. It's like his book is his book, and whatever the hell they do with it is something else entirely."

Of course, it's impossible to say whether this sequence – or anything else in Olson's script – would have had quite such an impact with anyone other than Cronenberg at the helm. Any budding directors keen to learn about camera-placement, editing, the use of actors, and the deployment of music could do worse than watch that particular scene until their DVD wears out. In need of cash after deferring his salary on Spider (2002) – which effectively meant he was income-less for two years – Cronenberg actively sought a "commercial" project. The result was his first film made directly within the "studio system," though typically the project was undertaken on Cronenberg's own terms. Filming, for example, was done in his native Ontario, convincingly 'doubling up' for small-town America just as it did for Cronenberg's Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1983): another (relatively) big-budget, seemingly 'impersonal' (but, ultimately, unexpectedly satisfying) enterprise which A History of Violence (semi-consciously?) resembles and indirectly references, to extent that the two films can be seen as non-identical twins… perhaps even estranged 'brothers', separated by more than two decades.

Cronenberg thus takes 'genre' material and instinctively adapts it to his own sensibility – his own 'history of violence,' if you like – though it's crucial to note that, for the director, the film is very much a version of Olson's script rather than Wagner's novel. Cronenberg (according to his 2005 interview with Rebecca Murray, for About.com) didn't even realise Wagner's novel existed until relatively late in the day – making this project a very different one to, say, Naked Lunch (1991) – "which was," in the director's words, "an homage to William Burroughs and his work… I didn't know there was a graphic novel [of A History of Violence] so I had no attachment to it. No investment in it. And really, my investment was in Josh's script. We had developed it to a certain point that it was going in a very interesting direction and we were both very comfortable with it, and that's when I heard there was a graphic novel. And I said, 'Well, what graphic novel?' And they said, 'Oh, you didn't know?'"

The results proved startling even by his own stratospheric standards (perhaps confirming John Carpenter's famous comment that "he's better than the rest of us combined") – recalling both Alfred Hitchcock's famous fondness for adapting seemingly unpromising source material, and also Harry Lime's legendary cuckoo clock" speech in The Third Man about how creativity needs some measure of resistance and limitation (in this case, the "studio system" and all its attendant evils) in order to properly flourish. What we have in A History of Violence is, in the end, a serendipitous example of a story which passes through three sets of hands and is improved with each passing: a rare instance of old-school 'Hollywood alchemy' which happens so increasingly infrequently that each instance must be cherished, celebrated and chronicled – just in case in turns out to be the last.

Neil Young
February 2007

written for the April edition of Dutch magazine Schokkend Nieuws ('Shocking News')