The Medium is the Message

Rob Gall
Rob Gall
Feb 19, 2020 · 13 min read
Bringing words to life on the set of The Friends of Eddie Coyle

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the 60s. In his day, he watched and studied the beginnings of a shifting American media landscape. Movies were coming out in color, there were televisions in every home, technological advancements had Americans dreaming of a future in the stars. McLuhan felt these emerging mediums of film and television must be studied, not their content, but the way humans engage with the medium itself. When he wrote “the medium is the message” he stresses that the content of a medium is irrelevant, that speech is just an extension of writing, writing an extension of thoughts, and so on. What matters is the character of the medium, how a medium delivers information to us as an audience.

This phrase ran through my head in the first few weeks of my Film as Literature class. Discussions of faithful adaptations were mind numbing at times, as the last thing I want to see is a faithful adaptation of a book. Books are a long, tedious, private medium. Certainly they can showcase great artistry and craftsmanship, but not with the spectacle of a film. That’s what makes films engaging, the prospect of seeing a facsimile of a great drama, presented with life-like fashion and an atmosphere that draws you in. Of course, a book offers all of these prospects, except for one crucial word, seeing. This is the difference between the mediums. A good film makes you believe what you’re seeing, with a good book your mind sees what you’re reading.

None of this is to say any one medium is better than another. Value judgements aren’t really what this blog is about. Any medium can present great stories, the key is presenting them artfully within the confines of the medium. And within the context of adaptation, specifically adapting literature to film, I’m interested in what choices a filmmaker makes to bring a story to the screen. What they leave out, what they add, what they change, these are the decisions that make it their film, even if the story was imagined by some long dead author, their adaptation will always be theirs.

Drab, unglamorous shots highlight the downtrodden state of the Boston mob

I’d like to first examine The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), which. was adapted from a book of the same name written in 1970 by George V. Higgins. The film largely follows the plot and setting of the book, detailing the lives of a group of blue collar Boston mobsters and their seedy interactions with the feds. The film is driven by its grounded, realistic dialogue and its equally grimy locations. In examining the first chapter of the book and its film adaptation, one realizes how remarkably faithful an adaptation the film is, you can watch the first scene of the clip below. Save for a few lines of superfluous dialogue, the screenplay lifts quotes directly from Higgins’s signature writing style. It’s as close to a 1:1 adaptation as one can get, really.

But there are small changes. The location of Chapter 1’s conversation is never revealed in the book. Director Peter Yates and screenwriter Paul Monash put us at a lunch counter. Does this ruin the adaptation, shattering fans’ preconceived settings they had imagined when reading the novel? I doubt it. The dialogue is the point of fixation for both readers and viewers, the scene could really take place anywhere. Yates and Monash knew this, and play to the strengths of the book that would be compelling on the screen. They also make a major change, not to the plot exactly, but the order in which information is revealed to the reader. The movie reveals Dillon, the bartender, to be feeding information to the feds at the very last scene, clearing up certain story elements for the viewer and tying a bow on the third act’s events. In the book, Dillon’s true nature is known from the beginning of the story. The novel chose not to make this the final grand reveal, while Yates and Monash saw it as a perfect closer to the story. Better? Worse? That’s down to personal opinion, but it shows the difference between how a novelist and a filmmaker approach a story. They still convey the same central themes, the duplicitous nature of the criminal underworld, the rat race struggle to carve out a living as a criminal. A story can be approached an endless number of ways, but some of these approaches translate better for film than the page.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle also shows some interesting contextual parallels with its inspiration. The novel was released a year after The Godfather book, and the two stories couldn’t have shown more disparate depictions of gangster life. Godfather was high-class, royal family-esque drama between the most lavish and wealthy families in society. Eddie Coyle on the other hand showed a much more realistic version of the criminal lifestyle, where jobs go wrong, and people rat. The gangsters of Eddie Coyle live in claustrophobic city houses, their jobs frequently land them in prison, and the consequences take a serious toll on their relationships. The film, likewise, debuted a year after The Godfather’s adaptation was released, and while the subject matter was similar, the two films couldn’t be more different in substance. These opposing looks at the life of crime point to another important aspect of adaptation, context. The Friends of Eddie Coyle shows a true, unsanitized view of the gangster life, in both the book and the movie. This endeavor to highlight a mob experience closer to real life, especially juxtaposed with The Godfather is what many will remember the story of Eddie Coyle for. And if the story gets the same message across, who could call it a poor adaptation?

Now let’s move on to another George V. Higgins adaptation, the 2012 film Killing Them Softly, written and directed by Andrew Dominik. In contrast to Yates’s Eddie Coyle, Dominik changes some major elements of the story, most obviously the time and place, transplanting a story of 1970's Boston to 2008 New Orleans. This is a radical shift, but the themes in great stories are rarely tied to a single time and place, in fact they’re often great because of their universal, timeless appeal. The bulk of the plot remains intact though, right down to the character names that would probably be pretty out of place in real life New Orleans. Even parts of the dialogue are kept the same, showing some faithfulness that one may not expect from a film that seems like a real departure from its source material. As Ian Crouch writes for the New Yorker, “Dominik moves the story up a few decades, to the fall of 2008, but films the novel’s plot virtually scene for scene”.

Though Dominik makes some major overhauls to Higgins’s story, even changing the title from Cogan’s Trade to Killing Them Softly, he importantly keeps a certain level of contextual similarity. In an interview about the film for IndieWire Dominik remarks “as I started adapting it, it was the story of an economic crisis, and it was an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling — and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation. It just seemed to have something that you couldn’t ignore”. Surely, Dominik sees a kind of parallel between the recession of the 70s and the economic catastrophe of the late 00’s, and thought this parallel could be extended forward into modern times, which it does very effectively. However, the director does more than just change the setting to suggest themes about the most recent recession. Dominik goes out of his way to include extended radio and television clips of modern politicians who presided over the financial crisis, really beating the viewer over the head, with an extended cynical monologue about American politics from Brad Pitt to end the movie.

This poses a question about adaptation, does such a drastic thematic change violate the “spirit of the story”? Does making Killing Them Softly so explicitly metaphorical to modern economic problems remove its so far from its source material that it’s unrecognizable to the original Cogan’s Trade? In your author’s opinion, the answer is most definitely not. In the directors own words, he sees the story of the book as “the story of an economic crisis”, one that he feels applies particularly well to the modern day. He set out to adapt that story to fit into a contemporary context, and while the temporal context has been changed, the themes remain the same regardless of which economic crisis the story reflects. Could one argue that Dominik was heavy handed in how he expressed his themes? Of course, and I would probably agree to an extent. But Dominik lets the plot play out as Higgins wrote it, and though he may have inserted his own quasi-political message, he was inserting his interpretation of the novel, which is what every adaptation does.

Now I’d like to look at a movie which isn’t an adaptation of anything at all. The 1953 B movie Cry of the Hunted, directed by Joseph H. Lewis and written by Jack Leonard, is an original concept, but can still be analyzed through the lens of adaptation, thanks to the Motion Picture Production Code of the mid 20th century. The restrictions of the Code severely limited film makers in their ability to portray more sensitive subjects like sex, drugs, and violence, pretty much anything that went against the puritanical interest groups that pressured Hollywood into introducing the Code. Though the Code has been derided time and time again since it was abandoned in the late 60s, in retrospect it allows us, the audience, to view Code-era films with an interesting perspective. We get to ponder what film makers and directors were trying to say within the strict confines of the time, we get to read between the lines and strive to decipher the subtext of the film. It is in many ways like deciphering the words of a criminal who speaks in code (no pun intended) so as not to be caught off guard by a tapped phone.

Speaking of criminals, Cry of the Hunted revolves around a runaway prisoner and the prison official who tries to bring him to justice. Jori and Tunner, respectively, are two sides of the same coin, and their dichotic relationship serves as the central drama of the movie. In many ways, Cry of the Hunted is a story about masculinity, about heroes and villains, and what it means to be a good man, emphasis on man. One can also read a certain homoerotic tension into many of the scenes, and while I don’t discredit this reading, I think it speaks to an aspect of masculinity that is rarely ever spoken of aloud — making it all the more perfect that it’s a central element in a Code era film.

The key scenes with the most homoerotic undertones are two of the most important in the film, and both are fight scenes between our central characters. The first serves as the opening scene of the movie, where Jori and Tunner engage in some bare knuckle fisticuffs in a claustrophobic jail cell, afterwards enjoying a smoke to relax their nerves after the scuffle. Never in my life have I heard of smoking after after a fight, unless it’s a raucous battle beneath the sheets. See the screenshot a few paragraphs up and gaze upon those beleaguered, out of breath faces basking in the afterglow. This probably sounds somewhat dramatized, but that’s more or less the impression this intimate scene gives. Jori gets described as a wild animal when characters refer to this scene later, and that characterization is crucial for the themes explored in the film. Jori is wild beast, a man who will not, and perhaps can not, live within the boundaries set by society, juxtaposed against Tunner, a man who runs the maximum security section of a prison and lives in suffocating and effeminate domestic relationship with his wife. Two sides of the same coin.

Tunner’s wife looms over him in frame

This is, for your author at least, the main theme of Cry of the Hunted, the interplay between a man’s internal desire for freedom, for debauchery, for violence, and the ever present demands of a society where women must exist, and they must be pleased. It reminded me of a film I’ve covered on the blog before, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which would debut some 20 years after Cry of the Hunted, but shares a rather similar subtext. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot takes every opportunity to make heterosexual relations, heterosexual couples, and heterosexual society out to be completely farcical, while still maintaining a surface level straightness for its main characters. One sees a similar scenario play out in Cry of the Hunted, most notably in the marital relations of both Jory and Tunner.

Tunner quips back and forth with his pleasant and charming wife, but at the end of the day is stuck in a monotonous routine, the same meal every night, the same wife he seems to like but not exactly love. She tells Tunner after a riveting psychological dream sequence, that he is “afraid of being afraid”, which may be true, but comes off as rather insulting. The ultimate symbolism comes in the form of the picnic basket Tunner is given by his wife, for which he endures some tedious mocking from his rival colleague. The basket is full of items that will be useful for the trip, but the cutesy presentation is an affront to the meaning of Tunner’s masculinity. Jory isn’t reunited with his wife until later in the movie, but once he is, she acts manipulative and demeaning, even violent towards Tunner, who Jory describes as “the only one who ever treated [him] right”. Even after seeing his wife for the first time in years, Jory is eager to return to prison with Tunner, until he meets his son. The heteronormative romantic love played no part in his decision, in fact his domineering wife effectively makes the decision for him.

While all of these plot elements may point to our protagonists as repressed homosexuals, I think the truth is a little grayer than the black and white, gay and straight dynamic. Heterosexuality is, at its core, farcical. Men and women share very little in common with each other, their thoughts and behaviors mutually unintelligible across the lines of sex. For men, there is a never ending desire to be free of nature’s obligations, to reject pair bonding, the nuclear family, the nagging wife. At the core of man is a desire to dominate his surroundings and competitors, irregardless of gender. Though with biological differences in mind, a man’s only true competition is other men. And so men fight. Violence is natural, violence is necessary, violence establishes order. But in the civilized world man has constructed, violence is taboo, violence can land you in a cage. We are left in a chaotic purgatory where no man truly knows his worth or place. Only once we leave the suffocation of society, indeed, of women, and journey into the primordial swamp can man come face to face with himself. All his shortcomings, all his potential is made transparent in the untouched wilderness, in the fight.

The final fight between Jory and Tunner is the resolution of the movie, the resolution of our characters’ inner conflict. This is a fight that frees both men, with Jory saving Tunner as the conclusion of his character arc. Man ventured into the wilderness to catch the beast, and the noble beast has saved the man. In the end, Tunner drags his beast to safety and reforms him into a civilized human being, who, after serving his sentence and learning his lesson in the eyes of law, is fit to return to society. This is the coalescence of masculinity’s inner conflict in society. His animal nature broken, ready to return to societally dictated normalcy. At first watch, the ending is a sweet subversion of Code expectations where bad guys get punished; Jory is given the rare opportunity of a second chance. But as I thought harder about it, this is a profoundly tragic end. As Code and society dictates, man must conform to his unnatural state. Jory is freed from his cage, but he remains in the confines of a world he will always want to escape, the same as Tunner.

This all may have been reading far too much into a B movie, but I really found it a thrilling film to examine philosophically. Still, this all shows how the medium of film can serve as a particular type of adaptation, how in a way, all stories are simply adaptations of themes. One can explain grand concepts in mostly incomprehensible prose like I did a couple paragraphs ago, or one can create a world with a narrative that adapts those concepts into a relatable and tangible experience. This is storytelling. This is art. At the end of the day, all art is treading over the same ground, the ideas that humanity has grappled with for time immemorial. What changes is mediums, how we tell these stories.

In Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, he writes “the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”. Indeed, you author has been distracted. With the advent of film, and specifically the adaptation of novel to film, the peculiarities of the medium are of much more significance than the content. What myself and the keen viewer should be watching for in a cinematic adaptation is not what the film is saying, what it’s trying to say, or what it doesn’t say. What matters is how it says it.

Talking Pictures

Film Analysis for Intro To Film Art

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