James Ellroy/Photo © Helga Esteb/Shutterstock
The best true crime fiction offers a paradoxical source of comfort in the form of a cathartic confirmation of our worst suspicions about mankind’s capacity for evil. And a well-executed down-and-dirty film noir ranks among the most deeply satisfying (and most elusive) of moviegoing experiences. It’s been a long time since Hollywood delivered a piece of transcendent true crime filmmaking. But the outlook for gritty cinematic malfeasance has improved significantly as a new crime spree has recently gained momentum with news of two high-profile adaptations of the celebrated James Ellroy novels Blood’s a Rover and The Big Nowhere.
All we can say is: It’s about time. More than most any other contemporary crime writer, Ellroy’s hard-boiled poetry of depravity has yet to find a filmmaker up to the task of translating it to the big screen. Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of L.A. Confidential remains the only Ellroy novel to make it through the journey to the big screen intact, without having its nihilistic nuance neutralized, its sharp edges buffed, or its social commentary sanded down. Over the past few years, several of Ellroy’s short stories laid the foundation for such toothless glorified cop procedurals as “Dark Blue” and “Street Kings” — two cases in which one might be advised to judge a film by its corny title. Worst of all was “The Black Dahlia” — a novel gloriously butchered into a bloody mess gruesome enough to make even the most calloused cop’s stomach churn.
Though it’s still too early to tell whether one or both of the recent spate of Ellroy-based projects (which should include writer-director Joe Carnahan’s upcoming take on White Jazz) will deliver a film worthy of its source material. But there is something encouraging about bold ambitions inherent in this surge in interest in Ellroy’s unblinkingly bleak worldview. It’ll be particularly interesting to see how Blood’s a Rover comes together. Ellroy, who has signed on as executive producer, insists that Blood, his most recent novel, is also his best. It’s also his most blatantly political, with its sprawling three-stranded narrative tightly coiled around a radical Leftist warrior woman, targeted by a trifecta of the twentieth century’s fear-mongers, including one of J. Edgar Hoover’s Commie-hunting henchmen, an ex-cop heroin runner straddling his ties to the mob and the revolutionary movement, and a young voyeuristic private eye dispatched to the front lines of the war between the radical future and the old guard past. Ellroy humbly calls this sprawling historical snapshot of the Civil Rights era “no less than a psychic inventory of America from 1968 to 1972.”
While there’s little questioning producers Vincent Sieber and Clark Peterson’s decision to lay claim to novel bursting with rich, culturally resonant material, there is some dispute about the wisdom in choosing to adapt the third installment in a series. Blood’s a Rover culminates Ellroy’s Underworld USA Trilogy, which also includes American Tabloid and Cold Six Thousand, respectively. Though each novel offers a different take on America’s loss of innocence, the three share a similar structure deploying multiple narrators, several of whom pop up throughout the trilogy. Because Blood’s a Rover wraps up the series, several of its pivotal characters were established in one of the earlier books. This project will require a skilled screenwriter to concisely pepper the script with context drawn from the entire series without bogging the story down in unnecessary details and backstory.
Let’s not kid ourselves: The fate of this project begins and ends with the filmmakers entrusted with this adaptation. There are very few screenwriters capable of delivering this kind of carbon-black politically inflected noir. Oliver Stone‘s botched big-screen version of Don Winslow‘s Savages could serve as an instruction manual for what not to do when entrusted with a stylized piece of genre fiction whose plot encompasses larger social issues. Rule number one: The lead actors should not look like they were plucked from a casting call for a reality TV dating show. Rule number two: Steer clear of wooden one liners. Rule number three: Once a male movie star has cross-dressed to play a housewife in the movie version of “Hairspray,” he has sacrificed his street credibility and his ability to believably play a corrupt cop.
We can’t think of a director better suited to bring this adaptation to the screen than Roman Polanski, with his proven ability to plumb the darkest depths of human depravity while delivering thrilling suspense and finely nuanced storytelling. Our first choice for screenwriter: Hossein Amini, who showed remarkable restraint in his adaptation of James Sallis’ Drive.
What are your thoughts on how Hollywood might best deliver on the promise of these two Ellroy adaptations? Which filmmakers and screenwriters do you think stand the best chance of delivering a film that best captures Ellroy’s unsparing grit and insight?