Acknowledgement: A series of DMs with Rachel of pace, amore, libri after my first viewing of the film in November, formed the basis of this post, and her claim that I’m a “fake fan” of Colin Barrett gave me the extra push I needed to sit down and write it.
“The book is always better than the movie” is right up there with “life’s too short to read books you don’t like” when it comes to embarrassing bookish sayings. The latter is subjective, but the former is asserted as a universally-acknowledged truth. The main gripe with film adaptations of beloved books is that they aren’t scene-for-scene re-creations, but why should they be? Different media, different techniques, and often, different audiences.
And in fact, several movies ARE better than the books, particularly when the plot is the point. A plot-heavy, thrilling story is often better told in a visual, fast-moving format. Like, say, Jurassic Park or The Bourne Identity? This isn’t a hill for me to die on, as I don’t read many thrillers (I’ve read neither of the above, I’ve just heard that Jurassic Park the novel is bad, and can’t imagine Bourne without Matt Damon), but it makes intuitive sense that some movies are better than the books upon which they’re based.
One of the most thrilling stories I’ve read in recent years was adapted into a movie last year, and while the movie is enjoyable, I urge you to read the book, whether before the movie, after, or even instead of.
“Calm with Horses” is a novella among short stories in Colin Barrett’s collection Young Skins. About 80 pages long, it reads like a novel, in that it’s a fully contained universe. It’s also a tightly-plotted story full of violence and reversals of fortune that seems ripe for a movie adaptation. The movie is, well, different. Upon first viewing, I told Rachel this felt like a different story with the same characters. After a second viewing, it feels like different characters in the same circumstances; the story takes a different turn because the characters react to those circumstances differently.
I didn’t read the book or film summary before starting this review, but they actually illuminate a lot of what went wrong in the adaptation. The book summary tell us about “Arm, a young and desperate criminal whose destiny is shaped when he and his partner, Dympna, fail to carry out a job” and, referring to the collection as a whole, the “local voice [that] delineates the grittiness of Irish society; unforgettable characters whose psychological complexities and unspoken yearnings are rendered through silence, humor, and violence.” In contrast, the movie tells us that “ex-boxer Douglas `Arm’ Armstrong has become the feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, whilst also trying to be a good father to his autistic five-year-old son, Jack.” It’s that “trying to be a good father” that already tells us there’s going to fewer “psychological complexities” and believe me, everyone’s yearnings are spoken.
The first bad sign I became aware of was the title change for the North American market. “Calm with Horses” has that “cellar door” quality, it just feels good to say. “The Shadow of Violence” on the other hand, sounds like a generic crime movie. Which this is not. Or shouldn’t be. Even the movie posters have a distinctly different feel:
Language is the first thing lost in an adaptation from book to another medium. Descriptions of things we can see, like landscapes, skies, rooms, clothing, faces etc. isn’t necessary. In a story where language is used mostly to convey plot, this may be no big loss. But in adapting “Calm with Horses”, you lose a lot, starting with the title, but also the many similarly startling sentences and phrases. Even the glancing descriptions of places and objects sound wonderful. It’s a story full of “cellar doors”:
“…a courtyard of cracked concrete led to the cattle shed.”
“…a blotch of saliva, a bracelet of bite marks worried into the wood.”
“…shit stubbled the trampled track to the main field.”
People are treated in a similar manner:
“…the blinky, nervous energy of a dreamer jilted suddenly awake.”
“…seatbeltless and slouched back in his seat.”
“…the clear head and cold-bloodedness required by the ring, the knack of detachment.”
And then there’s the sky, which, of all the recurring motifs in the book, the movie captures best. We get plenty of shots where the sky takes up most of the frame, some dreary and some dreamy, in a nice nod to the text, which gives us skies that are “slabbed with rifts of cloud the colour and texture of raw animal fat”, or that “look like something precious and crystalline had been smashed repeatedly against it.”
I’m not dismayed that the movie didn’t quite capture the feeling of the prose, because a film adaptation has other means to convey mood and tone, and they’re well used here. The score, by Blanck Mass, is appropriately dark and ominous, then tense and clattery during a (uncanonical) car chase. The actors too can make or break an adaptation; the best and worst thing I can say about the acting is that Barry Keoghan stole the show as a slimier version of the book’s Dympna when the focus should rightly be on Arm.
But then there’s character and plot. Bookish folk often get upset when storylines are dropped or minor characters left out of the movie. This being such a short story, not much gets dropped, but one early example left me disappointed: an incident at an equine centre where Arm’s autistic son is receiving animal therapy. Arm agrees to try riding a horse, maybe to amuse his son, or maybe to show off for the young riding instructor. The horse suddenly takes off, out of control and careening, much like Arm’s spiraling involvement in the Dever’s business. This scene isn’t important to the plot per se, but it’s heavy with meaning. I can’t imagine why it was left out, unless it was just too hard to film.
(There’s one other key scene missing in the film, that I won’t mention even in a glancing way for fear of spoilers. If you’ve read the story, you can probably guess without even seeing the movie. It’s the one that made you gasp out loud. Not in the movie! How!?)
Most of the other inconsistencies actually come from added scenes, often in service of explaining character’s motivations in a way that took the film farther and farther away from the moral ambiguity of “Calm with Horses”. People are flattened into very good (e.g. Ursula) or very bad (e.g. Dympna), or in the case of our hero Arm, a good person who does bad things for reasons we, the audience, can quickly understand and empathize with.
From an opening voiceover in the film, it’s hinted that Arm’s somewhere on the spectrum himself, and later, through heavy exposition, we learn that his boxing career tanked because he accidentally killed an opponent. He’s positioned as traumatized, lonely, and ripe for exploitation by his adopted family, the devious Devers. In the book, Arm’s background is touched on very lightly. You could come to similar conclusions about his boxing career or autism status, or, quite different ones. We’re also never in his head, the way we are with this voice over narration, which never reappears after the opening scene.
Arm’s character in the present day has changed quite a bit as well. He seems to be an absent parent, but in the book, he has a relationship with Jack, “…could read the colour and shape of his moods…as plain as day”, would never fuck up as spectacularly as he does in the film, misreading of the colour and shape of Jack’s mood at a noisy fair, leading to a meltdown.
Later, a major plot point and the gender of a minor character is changed to give Arm a romantic rival in the film, and it’s just so unnecessary. In the book, Arm seems to have some unresolved issues with his ex Urusla, but doesn’t seem to carry a flame for her. He sort of lazily flirts with her, and briefly, with a new love interest, but he never seems driven by jealousy or sexual desire. This change seems like just another drop in the “why Arm is the way he is” bucket, a way to show that what he has to lose.
So we are left with an Arm who’s passive, jealous and a shitty parent. Both the book and the movie are definitely touching on toxic masculinity, but the movie just takes it in such an obvious direction.
But most egregiously, a major, and I mean MAJOR plot point is changed in the film and I can’t figure out why. In the book, a violent act, a murder, which sets the rest of the story in motion, is so changed, so diffused, in every aspect, from a spontaneous act to a planned one, from a deliberate killing to an act of mercy, from a man asserting his own judgement and will to a desperate man following orders, like a dog,
In the book this scene is chilling and frightening and makes you wonder what kind of a man Arm is. If you empathize with him, you have to do it in spite of this. Though, you can read some mercy into it. Arm is taking care of a problem that, if left to the Devers, will be even more brutal in its execution. There’s a lot of it left to you, the reader, to decide. In the film, it’s all laid out: Arm is the way he is because of childhood trauma, a possible neurological condition, a stroke of bad luck. When he is violent, it’s because he is motivated by money, or he’s manipulated by Dympna, or he’s high and doesn’t understand what he’s doing. And even after all that justification, he doesn’t go through with this pivotal act of violence. I guess it’s just the shadow of violence that’s left?
At the end of the film, I cried, because Arm had tried so hard to do the right thing, and we’re reassured that, ultimately, he acted out of love for his son. We are offered hope, after so much violence and tragedy, that Jack and Ursula will be alright. At the end of the book, I cried too, but because there’s no hope or meaning to the tragedy of Arm’s life. We don’t know what will happen to Jack, or Ursula, or Dympna for that matter. It’s not one of those ambiguous endings that obscures what happens. It just doesn’t let you know whether it was all worth it. It may not have been.
The closest thing to a moral or meaning in the book comes when Arm tells Ursula that she deserves better, and she replies “Everyone deserves better, Douglas”. This line makes it into the film, but it doesn’t carry the same weight.
The film is good. Watch it for Barry Keoghan alone. Watch it for the spectacular rural settings, the score, the over-the-top evil performance of Ned Dennahy as Uncle Paudi, who I didn’t even mention, but is also worth the price of admission (or streaming). In the meantime, I’ll keep waiting for Barrett’s debut novel, and look elsewhere to disprove the “book is better than the movie” rule.