I enjoyed this movie a lot, but after reading Jim Thompson’s novel from which it is adapted, I can only say, “Whaa..?” Well, movies and books, two different mediums, and no reason to expect one to be faithful to a story taken from the other.
Peckinpah’s film from 1972 keeps elements of the story and the characters, but transforms Doc McCoy and his wife Carol into 1960’s anti-heroes. Doc’s borderline psycho nature is subsumed into McQueen’s super-cool persona, and his brutal string of murders, of criminals and innocents alike, are morphed into gutsy bravado and revenge against really bad characters. The movie is a crime-action flick; the book is a descent into hell, not material for a blockbuster.
A common theme in Thompson’s books is male abuse of women. And I mean abuse! Rudy, the psychopath accomplice to Doc, hides out at a veterinarian’s house and forces the doctor to treat his gunshot wound. Noticing the vet’s wife, he instantly, as do all these characters, recognizes a fellow traveller in corruption and degradation. He initiates his sexual affair with her by knocking the wind out of her with a furious kick to the stomach. Strangely, that element of the book is represented only by Doc McCoy viciously slapping his wife in a roadside encounter, although in the book, he never raises a hand against her.
Unlike the happy ending of the film, in which the loving couple get away with the money to Mexico after eluding the police with clever ruses, including a brief, compacted stay in a garbage truck, the book simply dives further and further down. First, with a two-day claustrophobic stint of hiding in a partially submerged cave, then a few days inside a massive pile of steaming farm manure, and finally a dreamlike finale in hell itself.
Thompson doesn’t write ‘crime’ or ‘suspense’ novels. He is a philosopher-poet of social and mental hell. He’s also a great writer. As Carol and Doc speed away at night, he tell us:
Silence closed over the car again. They raced through the headlight-tunneled night, and the black walls snapped shut behind them. Time and space were the immediate moment. Behind and beyond it there was only darkness.