Hollywood lore is brimming with anguished accounts of botched literary adaptations: for-hire hacks with little understanding of the source material, megalomaniac directors banning screenwriters (let alone the lowly novelists who inspired them) from sets. And then there’s Mystic River (currently in theaters). To hear novelist Dennis Lehane and screenwriter Brian Helgeland tell it, few page-to-screen transitions have been as accommodating to the writers involved than Clint Eastwood’s critically gilded version of Lehane’s bestselling 2001 thriller. “I stayed away from the set a lot,” Lehane says of the film’s shoot last year in South Boston, “which was really strange, because they were wonderful about bringing me on. Someone took me aside at one point and said, ‘We were kind of hoping to have you on the set a little more.’ And I thought, ‘How many writers have heard that?’ ”
More ironic is that Lehane wasn’t looking to have his work adapted in the first place—nor was he in the market to do the adapting. “I turned in 400 manuscript pages [on Mystic River],” he says. “I couldn’t have written 402, I couldn’t have written 401. So one of the big things with Clint was that I wouldn’t write it. I wouldn’t sign the contract until we’d agreed on a screenwriter. We both came back to Brian.” Why Helgeland? “I’ll bet he’s tired of hearing this,” Lehane says, “but it’s L.A. Confidential. It’s one of the great unadaptables.” The screenwriter’s 1997 adaptation of that James Ellroy novel (coscripted with director Curtis Hanson) “raised a lot of eyebrows among authors,” Lehane says admiringly.
Helgeland, who tackled Michael Connelly’s Blood Work for Eastwood last year, is as modest about his accomplishments as he is pragmatic in his approach to adapting. “The trick is to get as much from the book in there as possible,” he says. “But if you’re counting on people to have read the book to understand the movie, you’re dead.” Indeed, his Mystic River hews so closely to Lehane’s story that it may be difficult for those familiar with the book to pinpoint what was left out. Is Helgeland anxious that the novel’s crucial verbal plot twist, fully intact in the film, is too obvious on celluloid? “I was a little worried that it was going to come out of left field, you know, ‘Here’s the deus ex machina you asked for.’ But with those things you just hope it works.”
If the critical hosannas are any indication, Mystic River works just fine. Like all savvy writers, Lehane is hedging his bets. “I really think of the book and movie as two different beasts,” he says. “If it captures the spirit of my book, then I’m very happy.” For now, the two scribes seem content to ride the Mystic crest. The ever wary Lehane has even decided to bask in the spotlight a little. “Rolling Stone did this big review, and one of my buddies came over and said, ‘How you feeling today?’ And they’re really used to me going, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ And I said, ‘I feel like, “Kiss my ass. I wrote Mystic-fuckin’-River.” ‘ He was like, ‘Finally!’ ”
J. Hoberman’s review of Mystic River