Sunday, July 03, 2011

On A Kiss Before Dying, complexities of book-to-film adaptation, and the world of noir

I’ve been thinking about books, especially in the crime and suspense genres, which are highly resistant to being filmed – or at least resistant to being filmed faithfully. In other words, it may be possible to turn the basic plot into an excellent movie, but the nature and method of its suspense would be unlike that of the book, because of fundamental differences between literature and cinema.

Consider one of the best crime novels I know of: Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying, which was filmed twice in America (in 1956 and 1991) and loosely adapted by Bollywood for Shahrukh Khan’s star-making Baazigar. In each case, the film had to make significant departures from the source material; to understand why, here’s a plot outline of Levin’s novel.

(Note: no major spoilers – most of what I’m about to reveal is contained in the first dozen or so pages, and I’m not giving away the central twist.)

A young man, a gold-digger, has been romancing a girl named Dorothy, the daughter of a rich entrepreneur. For reasons I won’t get into here, he decides to kill her, and the first third of the book (approx. 90 pages) is about the carrying out of his scheme. Throughout this segment, we are privy to the furious ticking of his mind – his anxiety when things don’t go as planned, his careful anticipation of glitches, even his self-congratulatory smugness. The narrative is in the third person, but we are as close to his inner state as it’s possible to get; the writing is so taut and intense that even as the reader condemns him morally, it’s hard not to feel personally invested – even implicated – in his actions.

But here’s the rub: we only get a bare-bones description of this man (he’s blond, blue-eyed, very handsome), and most crucially we never learn his name. He is referred to simply as “he”, and though that might sound forced or gimmicky, it works here because Levin so masterfully ties us to his protagonist’s consciousness. (After the first few pages, “he” becomes as precise a pronoun as “I” would be in a first-person narrative; the word can only possibly refer to one person. Some readers might not even realise that they don’t know “his” name until quite late in the story.)

Levin’s reasons for doing this become apparent in the next part of the book, as Dorothy’s sister Ellen starts making private enquiries about the men her sister may have been involved with at the time of her death. She encounters a few of them, and of course she learns their names. But the reader is flummoxed: we are now seeing things through Ellen’s eyes and it’s possible that the killer is one of the men she meets, but we have no way of knowing who it is. Because of the shift in perspective, the person we knew so intimately in the first section of the book is now a stranger to us.

This, then, is the set-up for the novel’s major twist. Like all of Levin’s books, A Kiss Before Dying is made up of several ingeniously constructed moments of suspense – but the revelation of the killer’s identity is the pièce de résistance.

Given this summary, I’m sure you can see why A Kiss Before Dying is so difficult to film exactly as it was written. A movie (at least a movie that uses a conventional narrative structure**) would have to show us the murderer’s face right at the beginning – which means that when Ellen begins sleuthing, the viewer wouldn’t be in the dark about his identity. The film would have to generate suspense using other methods, perhaps by changing the story’s focus or chronology, or by keeping us initially uncertain about the man’s intentions. (The book dives straight into his psyche by opening on this classic pulp-fiction note: “His plans had been running so beautifully, so goddamned beautifully, and now she was going to smash them all. Hate erupted and flooded through him...”)

I wrote in this post about another Levin book I love, The Boys From Brazil. His best work creates an almost tangible sense of paranoia, which transcends conventional ideas about “suspense” writing. I can read The Boys From Brazil and A Kiss Before Dying over and over and discover something new each time, long after their major plot secrets have been revealed; these books are lessons in how to construct a story by putting together little details, and I think any budding writer – even one with “literary” rather than “genre” aspirations – can learn from them.

But there’s something else to be said about A Kiss Before Dying: in addition to being an excellent suspense novel, this is also a fine entry in the tradition of American noir literature of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

One of the essential themes of noir is the discontent that can lead people into a life of crime – the gnawing sense that the world is an inherently unjust place and that there’s a better life to be had, if only you can reach out and seize the moment. (Eventually, of course, even minor transgressions lead into mazes and cul de sacs, and the best-laid plans unravel.) The killer in A Kiss Before Dying is first and foremost a social menace and an opportunist, but he is also a small-town lad obsessed with a giant copper-manufacturing corporation that is making much more money than it knows what to do with – and there is a sense in which his story can be read as subtle social commentary.

This makes an interesting contrast with the Shah Rukh Khan character Ajay in Baazigar. Such were the imperatives of mainstream Hindi cinema in the early 1990s that this psychotic “hero” had to be given an elaborate back-story to partly justify his murderous acts. (As a boy, he watched his family being driven to ruin by the businessman whose daughters he now targets. As an adult, he earns a quasi-heroic death scene in his adoring mother’s arms; any Hindi-movie leading man who passes thus can automatically be considered redeemed on some level.) The protagonist of A Kiss Before Dying doesn’t have a dramatic revenge motive of this sort, and there is no attempt to turn him into a sympathetic character – but Levin does permit the reader to think about the personal circumstances and ambitions of an intelligent young boy from a family that’s struggling to make ends meet; a boy who has little interest in the mundane jobs he has to hold down, and who comes to believe that he deserves better. Where might his sense of the unfairness of things lead him? It's a classic noir question.

Where the dragon bears down on the lambs

Martin Amis once wrote with admiration about another fine practitioner of popular fiction, Thomas Harris – specifically about Harris’s first two Hannibal Lecter novels, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs: “Lecters I and II are thrillers, procedurals of pain and panic, and they involve the reader in various simplifications and unrealities. But Harris maintains human decorum too. His prose is hard and sober and decently sad as he takes us to the place where the dragon bears down on the lambs.”

That last sentence applies to parts of A Kiss Before Dying too. There are moments of unexpected poignancy here: in a casual description of the things packed by a giddily romantic, gullible young woman for a honeymoon she will never go on; or in the betrayal felt by another lady, a loner, who discovers that her emotions have been toyed with. Even some of the throwaway passages are revealing: when a girl, a side-character, ends a mostly subdued letter to a murder victim’s father with a frivolous reference to the current fashion trends in her college, we get a glimpse into the inner world of a student who wants desperately to fit in.

Levin was just 23 years old when he wrote A Kiss Before Dying. This is credible if you look at the confidence and audacity of the book’s structure, and the many risks he takes; only a (very precocious) young writer with nothing to lose would try some of the things he does here. But when you consider the real feeling expressed here for the lonely-hearts and misfits who make up the victims (and occasionally the wrongdoers) of the noir world, it’s staggering to think that this book could come from such a young person. At 23, even as he wrote a bloody good page-turner where our point of identification is largely with the killer, he also found a way to evoke sympathy for the lambs that get preyed on by dragons.


** One avant-garde approach to filming the first section of A Kiss Before Dying would be to let the killer’s eyes be the camera – so that we see everything from his viewpoint and never get to see his face at all. Something like this was done in the 1940s Hollywood film Lady in the Lake, but needless to say it’s a gimmicky technique, and if it isn’t well-executed it can easily become laughable or just monotonous.


Important note: if you plan to read A Kiss Before Dying, do avoid reading about it on Wikipedia or even the plot summaries on – some of these rather foolishly give the killer’s name away. And if you do buy it, I'd recommend this lovely-looking Pegasus edition, available on Flipkart.

[Some related posts: Noir's arc - an anthology of American noir writing; Levin’s The Boys From Brazil; Thomas Harris, monster-maker]


  1. "Loosely adapted" isn't quite what Bollywood did for Baazigar: They ripped off the movie version. And given that it released two years earlier, I'd guess it was the 1991 version with Matt Dillon that they ripped off. It would have been amazing if they had ripped it off in its entirety, with an amoral protagonist, rather than give us that back story about the dead Dad and baby brother and so on.

  2. Interesting. I'll read this book!

  3. As an aside, you might love this youtube clip.

    An affectionate tribute to the film noirs of the 40s/50s. Pretty well done!

  4. Damn you Jai! You've just made me break some saving resolutions and go place the order on flipkart ( also, damn you flipkart, you make it too easy)

  5. Damn you Jai! You've just made me break some saving resolutions and go place the order on flipkart ( also, damn you flipkart, you make it too easy)

  6. That made for interesting reading. I have seen Baazigar (too long back to remember much of it, except Kajol's horrendous eyebrows), but I've seen the 1956 Hollywood version, just last year. Good, but I can imagine that the crucial plot element of the novel - the man's identity - would be very difficult to maintain (not that I've read the novel; must buy it sometime). Another idea that occurred to me would be to use only back shots, or to show only the man's legs, or something like that - but again, as you say for the camera being his eyes, more gimmicky than anything. And not sustainable for any length of time.

  7. Another idea that occurred to me would be to use only back shots, or to show only the man's legs

    dustedoff: one way this could work would be if they compressed the book's first 90 pages into just 5-10 minutes of film - little vignettes and flashes of dialogue that lead to the murder - and then allow the main narrative to begin with Ellen's investigations. It would be much easier then to not show his face. But of course, that wouldn't count as a faithful adaptation. (The other thing is that there's a lot of stomach-knotting suspense in those first 90 pages, in terms of what plan he'll eventually settle on, what might go wrong, whether he's succeed and so on.)

  8. I'd guess it was the 1991 version with Matt Dillon that they ripped off.

    Akasuna no Sasori: Yes, I'd think so too, though I haven't seen it.

    Ramya: what can I say, I hope it'll be worth it. (I bought this edition from Flipkart too - love the cover and the feel of the book. Very much like those Vintage paperbacks.)

    shrikanth: thanks! I've watched or rewatched many of those films recently (including Touch of Evil, Out of the Past and Double Indemnity), so this was fun.

  9. very good!! Really very nice... Ill be sharing it with ppl i knw. Loved it.

  10. So kind of you to link to Flipkart directly. Two clicks, and it's in the wishlist.

  11. I read another story which used a similar device - The dead Zone by Stephen King. In the story, there was the usual serial killer with a disturbed childhood. However, the story alernates with chapters of first person narrative by the killer without mentioning his name and third person narrative of the murder investigation where you dont know the killer.

    P.S - Stephen King is one of my guilty peasures of reading and am at no point advocating him of being considered a great in thriller writing :-)

  12. Sid: don't know why you're being so defensive? King is a wonderful writer (and not just a wonderful thriller writer) - that's quite a commendable "guilty pleasure"!

  13. Beautifully written. Once in a while you do shed your "blogger" image and do some seriously commendable journalistic work. Keep writing. :)