Reading the Screen: Donald E. Westlake in Pictures

Because he’s my favorite writer, and I miss him like crazy, I thought I’d take a moment of your time to tell you about some of the movies based on the books of the great Donald E. Westlake.

the-hunter 1967’s Point Blank, a tough-guy thriller, is based on one of Westlake’s Parker novels, 1962’s The Hunter, written under the name Richard Stark. Lee Marvin plays Walker — I’m not sure why they changed the name — and the story, in which Walker sets out to get some money owed to him by some nasties, is lean and mean.

The Hunter was also the inspiration for 1999’s Payback, with Mel Gibson turning in an excellent performance as Porter (again, why the name-change?). Both movies are good — it’s interesting to compare Marvin and Gibson’s takes on the character — but the novel is better: hard-edged and efficient, not a word wasted.

1972’s The Hot Rock, with a snappy screenplay by William Goldmanhot-rock, is an adaptation of the first Dortmunder novel. Robert Redford plays Dortmunder; he’s way too good-looking for the character (the real Dortmunder, a professional thief, wouldn’t stand out in a crowd), but he pulls it off anyway. George Segal plays annoyingly chipper sidekick Andy Kelp, and he does it so brilliantly that no one will ever top him, in my opinion.

Several other Dortmunder novels have been made into movies: Bank Shot, Why Me?, Jimmy the Kid, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? They’re a mixed bag.

Bank Shot (1974) stars George C. Scott in a story about a plot to steal a bank — not rob it, but steal it outright. He’s all wrong for John Archibald Dortmunder character (he’s got too much dramatic weight), which is maybe why they renamed the character “Walter Upjohn Ballentine.” The book is light and fast-moving; the movie isn’t.

Jimmy the Kid (1982), in which Dortmunder and his gang stage a kidnapping that doesn’t go quite according to plan, stars Gary Coleman as the kid, and Paul Le Mat as Dortmunder (hey, at least they kept his name). Why somebody thought it was a good idea to turn Westlake’s clever novel into a Gary Coleman movie is beyond me, but there you are.

Danny Devito and Martin Lawrence starred in What’s the Worst That Could Happen? (2001), and that was pretty much the worst that could happen — a godawful movie. It’s criminal what they did to Westlake here.

Westlake gets primary screenplay credit on 1990’s Why Me? But the movie, while not as wretched as the Devito/Lawrence abomination, is dull, a pale translation of its source material. Dortmunder is replaced, again, by another character, but I don’t mind that in this case: I doubt anybody wants to see Christopher Lambert try to play a New Yorker.

mpathestepfatherposterbBy the way, he says parenthetically, Westlake turned out a couple of top-notch screenplays. He got an Oscar nomination for The Grifters (1990), based on the classic Jim Thompson novel, and The Stepfather (1987), with Lost’s Terry O’Quinn as a guy who just wants to find the perfect family, is a powerful and memorable thriller. (Not the 2009 remake — stay away from that.)

There are other movies I could tell you about, like the 1995 Antonio Banderas/Melanie Griffith mangling of the nifty 1975 novel Two Much (it’s about a greeting-card writer who pretends he’s twins so he can, um, get close to a pair of beautiful twin sisters), but I think I’ll stop. I’m getting a little depressed.

Westlake was a genius, the best writer of comic mysteries who ever put pen to paper, and he deserved better from the people who turned his wonderful books into mediocre movies. I think The Hot Rock is a very nice little movie, and Point Blank and Payback are well done. But you can keep the rest of them (and others I haven’t even mentioned here).

But, please, do me a favour and read the books. Read all Westlake’s books. You can also, if you want, check out my article about Westlake here.

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