I've written before about this subject: a book comes along, it's really good, someone makes a movie out of it, the movie's really good, and so everyone forgets it was ever a book.

It's a sad thing, because what was considered the work of, say, a man named James Leo Herlihy, becomes thought of as the work of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt -- who did a great job, no doubt, but it wasn't their story.

And as a writer, I'm interested in the inventors of tales. I'm interested in the way a person weaves a plot and makes it mean.

So it's become a sort of perverse hobby of mine to seek out these books and read them, to see if anything got lost in the translation into film, if there is something about the book that makes it as valuable if not more valuable than the movie.

Which is why I just read a little paperback, title of Cool Hand Luke: like Midnight Cowboy, the movie made from this book pretty closely follows the basic story as the author wrote it. And like Midnight Cowboy, what got left behind was a big chunk of the meaning, and the darkness, and the depth.

First, some background: Cool Hand Luke was written by a guy named Donn Pearce, who was not exactly a professional writer when he wrote this book. He was, well, a criminal, who had just spent a couple of years working on a chain gang in Florida. He's published a few more things over the years, other novels, stories for magazines, but the latest edition of Cool Hand Luke remarks at the back that Donn Pearce is "currently a private investigator in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida."

I found a picture of him online. Just for the record, you probably do NOT want to fuck with this guy.


As the title implies, the beauty of this book lies in large part with the title character: Lloyd Jackson, whose nickname on the chain gang is "Cool Hand Luke." This character has been "replaced" (by my reckoning) with Paul Newman. Newman played the role as a young, handsome, charming guy--Southern, but almost a bit urbane--a rebel sans cause who just can't seem to get along in the prison of life. He's got a beef with God, and he is the Hope of the other prisoners, and the story ends in a church, with Luke being shot dead.

The novel version is better than that. But before I say more:

That isn't the only beauty to this book. The setting in this book is alive. As a Floridian I especially approve of how he portrayed the landscape. As a Free Person, I feel like I've gotten a good look at what's it's like to be on one of these chain-gangs (and I hope I never get closer to the experience), including the pride a man takes, even a convict in chains being put to forced labor, at being good at something. At having a bit of finesse and skill, even at something like ditch-digging. What comes through more vividly than anything but Luke himself is the feeling of the accumulated degradations of life, and the transcendence of those few and rare moments of pride, or joy, or real freedom.

It's a good story. So what did the movie leave out? Well, most of the darkness, some of the depth. A lot of the reality, I would dare to say: in the book, there is a lot more cussing and farting, a lot more nasty conversations, a lot more attention paid to the movement of bowels. The beatings the guards inflict on Luke feel more real to me in the book, and those confrontations feel more dangerous -- in large part because in the movie, Paul Newman is a clever, charming guy who can't get right with the world, but in the book, Cool Hand is a man who's killed and raped, who's seen human depravity played out on a horrific scale, who's seen it in himself, and had it rewarded with a silver star.

Far from the urbane-seeming Paul Newman, the book's Luke is a banjo-playing hill farmer whose father was a preacher back in Appalachia, before he ran off and did the family wrong -- and then Luke went to war. Here's something you didn't get in the movie: Luke playing the banjo and telling about his experiences in the second world war...

But the banjo picked and plucked and reverberated through the monotony, the waiting, the hunger, the heat and the cold and the wet and the filth, the drunken revels and the jokes, the agonies and the horrors. Men were bombed and burned and butchered. Germans and Americans. Frenchmen, Englishmen and Italians. Civilians shot as hostages, as spies, as accidents. Children disemboweled. Women decapitated.

Luke began to join those who sought out the liquor in every captured village and farmhouse. When the sergeant led his squad into the overrun German dressing-station and pounced on the two nurses who had been left behind with the wounded, Luke took his turn in line. And when again a few weeks later they shot their way into a farmhouse and found three hysterical French girls amidst the wrecked furniture, the corpses, the empty shell cases and littered weapons, again Luke took his turn in line.
This tale goes on for some time, and that is by no means the worst of it. The Cool Hand Luke in the novel is a person that Paul Newman would never have allowed himself to be. Newman's "Luke" is practically spotless, and just has this strange beef with God. But Pearce's Luke is a man who has seen Hell, who has been a part of it--who, for fuck's sake, was good at it, was good at killing and fucking and bringing Hell down on other people, who felt the pride of being good at it--and life no longer has any joy or purpose for him, except if he can tell the world "fuck you."

Far more so than the Luke of the movie, the Luke of the novel wants to die--needs to die--because there is no place for him in this (God Forsaken) world. His endless escape attempts are really suicide attempts, and even though it's sad and shocking when he is finally killed, it is inevitable.

The saddest thing of all about the movie version, if you ask me, is that it came out during the Vietnam War, and while the WWII satire of Catch 22 was embraced and applied by the public's consciousness to Vietnam, this was not:
Luke and his men rolled on, moving too fast to wash or shave, too fast to think or feel, demented by their conquest, their immortality. They carried bottles [of liquor] in their packs. They confiscated civilian cars and charged over pastures and fields like a squadron of mad calvary pursuing an enemy in any direction, they cared not which. Prisoners were fed. Prisoners were shot. Girls were given chocolate bars. Girls were raped. Orphans were given shelter. Homes were broken into and ransacked.

In a castle on a hill over a village by a river that none of them could name, having lost a fourth of their number in a ferocious fight that lasted for three days, Luke's company was quartered for a temporary rest. But they didn't want to rest. With the tacit permission of the lieutenant who had taken command the day before when the Captain's jeep ran over an anti-tank mine that blew off both an arm and a leg, the company of soldiers began to loot the place in an orgy of vandalism. Silver was taken, the contents of closets strewn open and trampled on. They shot down a painting of a high ranking officer, laughing hilariously when one of them urinated on it. They shot down chandeliers. Cabinets were smashed open and liqueurs guzzled. They slit open sofas with bayonets, broke windows, built up a fire in the fireplace and fed it with smashed furniture. An old man came tottering in, yelling his protests until he was smashed in the mouth with a rifle butt. Hysterical children were rounded up and locked in a room with an old nurse. Then the women were rounded up, the servants as well as the Countess and her family, all of them carried off kicking and screaming into various rooms to be stripped and mauled and ravaged over and over again.

Luke followed one of them up the curving stairway as she tried to escape the mob carousing in the hall below, screaming, giving the Nazi salute, cheering, bellowing their drunken laughter as Luke followed behind her, playing a hoe-down melody on his banjo. Trying to cover herself with the torn remains of her clothing she fled from floor to floor, screeching as the haunting strings pursued her with relentless purpose. Reaching the top of the tower she locked herself in a room. But Luke followed, never missing a note, kicking the door open and entering the small dark cell fitted out with medieval furnishings.

The girl lay curled up in a heap on the floor, burying her face in her arms, refusing to look at the bewhiskered, muddy enemy soldier who stood in the doorway playing his fiendish instrument.

Then Luke stopped. High on the wall was a huge crucifix, the figure of Christ carved in the crude, macabre style of the Middle Ages, the wood dark and stained and splintered by the years, the face gaunt and tormented.

Luke stood there and looked at it. He looked down at the girl. He waited for a long time, hanging his head and thinking and quietly slung his banjo over his shoulders and left the room.
I like Paul Newman fine, but that's the work of a man named Donn Pearce. His book goes places the movie derived from it did not--could not. Read the book.

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