If you follow this blog, you know that Donald Westlake's best known creation, professional thief Parker, has been on my mind of late. In the last two weeks I've read the first three Parker novels' The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit, and I've also watched the director's cut of Payback, director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland's adaptation of The Hunter featuring Mel Gibson.
Helgeland's film is much different than the film that made it to the screen. It has a third act that follows Westlake's book much more closely and the overall tone of the film is much more in keeping with Westlake's vision of Parker. The theatrical version of Payback made Porter (the Parker character) accessible via a wisecracking voiceover (voiceovers are almost always a bad sign in a movie) and provided a happy ending. I liked the theatrical version well enough, but the director's cut was much better. With the voiceover gone, Gibson's character was much more self-contained and mysterious. The DVD had a documentary about the making of the film, and how the suits and Gibson (who was a producer) had second thoughts about the level of violence, ambiguous ending and the very nature of the character. The director's cut Porter hits his ex-wife and shoots people in cold blood. He's not a psycho, but he's not exactly a thief with a heart of gold either.
Now, it's not surprising that the movie version of Westlake's hard ass character would be watered down. That's what Hollywood does. They need to reach as many people as possible to make as much money as possible. The result of trying to please everybody is usually an inferior product, and I think you can make that argument with Payback, but, on the other hand, there is a validity to the concerns of the suits in this case. Parker is unlike most fictional characters in that he has no redeeming qualities. He is not nice to dogs and children. He does not have any interesting hobbies. He does not give the money he steals to the poor. He has no friends, just associates, and he'll kill them the minute he thinks they might trip him up, and he's not tortured or tormented either. The people he kills and the violent acts he commits never cause him to lose a moment of sleep.
Westlake intended for Parker to get caught at the end of The Hunter, figuring the guy was just too mean for more than one novel, but the editor at Crest, the outfit that bought the book, wanted a series based on the character, so Westlake obliged. So, what is it about Parker, who has now traipsed through around twenty novels, that appeals to people? Is it Parker's complete amorality? Is it his professionalism? Is it his lack of emotion? For me, I think it's his tenacity. In the opening page of The Hunter Parker is walking across the George Washington Bridge. He is broke. A guy offers him a ride and Parker's response is to tell him to go to hell. He then proceeds to go into the city and steal enough money to begin his campaign of revenge. I think that's why I root for him. He's always coming from nothing and pulling himself up out of the gutter. Every time he thinks he's got a problem solved another one comes up and he's got to start all over again. It never gets him down and he never gives up, and that's a good quality to have even if you are a thief.