L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy (1990)
L.A. Confidential directed by Curtis Hanson (1997)
This book/movie won a poll I posted on Youtube, the theme of the poll being the Academy Awards, since we are in awards season and the Oscars are just around the corner.
L.A. Confidential won for best adapted screenplay, and Kim Basinger won for best supporting actress. It had been nominated for best picture, best director, cinematography, art direction, and best sound. Titanic was in the running that year, so the movie won quite a few of the awards. (Fun fact, I have never seen all of Titanic! Just bits and pieces throughout the years).
This is the first James Ellroy book I have read (Black Dahlia had been an option in a past poll but didn’t win) and boy, this was quite something! To start with the bad, this book had waaaay too many characters and names. The only way someone could possibly keep it all straight is to literally have a bulletin board with index cards and strings keeping everyone in line. Along with the many characters, the plot was very complex.
Next, the writing style made the book hard to follow. It took time to adjust to it, but even when I was getting used to it, I would still miss key moments because the way it was written was hard to make sense of all of the time. I will say, when I was preparing for the plot explanation video I went through the book again and found it easier to make sense of. So I think having a feel for the story and the writing made a big difference.
Another thing that made this reading experience not very enjoyable, is how graphic the book was. The violence was very disturbing at times, like if the movie stayed true to that, it would have been a horror movie because some deaths and mutilations that are described were very grisly. It was also gross in a pornographic way because a key part of the plot involves this smut magazine that they are trying to figure out who is behind it. Some things that are described were not necessary to the plot and were just disturbing and gross.
On to what I did like about this book, I did like the journey of the three main characters-Ed, Bud, and Jack. However, there are details to their story I totally missed due to the way it was written. But regardless, I liked their character arcs and even though other characters got muddled in my mind, these three were very distinct and clear.
I also like that the book spans almost a decade. I find I enjoy books that span a number of years.
I also admire Ellroy for making such a complex plot which includes a lot of real-life characters and events, mixed in with fiction. So even though it was so confusing, at the same time it is also an impressive feat.
Ellroy and his agent laughed when they were asked about adapting this book into the movie, Ellroy saying, “we thought this was movie adaptation-proof. It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters; it was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable!”
And if you are asking how such a complicated book could be adapted, and into a critically claimed movie no less, the answer is that they don’t adapt the book in full obviously.
The movie keeps some plot elements but has been trimmed down considerably and details have been changed.
If you love this movie, I think you would enjoy reading the book and getting the full breadth of this story. Despite the changes, this is a great adaptation because overall it stays true to the characters and the basic gist of the plot.
I actually wish I would have watched the movie before reading the book. It would have helped me not get as confused while reading the book, but the plot of the book is different enough that things still would have come as a surprise. I went back and forth between listening to the audiobook and reading it on my kindle, and the audiobook is narrated by David Strathairn who plays Patchett in the movie. He is a great “character actor” and I have covered him before in Nightmare Alley, Dolores Claiborne, and Where the Crawdads Sing.
Going forward, there will be spoilers for both book and movie!
Now I need to figure out where to even begin. Suffice it to say, there is so much of the book I won’t even be getting to because there is just too much. But I guess I will start with the beginning of both book and movie.
In the book Ed is a war hero because he killed a number of Japanese soldiers. The truth is though, he found them dead, and just made like he had killed them. This is left out of the movie.
His father is Preston Exley, a former cop who now is opening up Dream-a-dreamland which is basically Disneyland (the main character is Moochie Mouse, and when it is described, it sounds exactly like Disneyland). He is friends and business partners with Ray Dieterling who is in showbiz and is the creator of Dream-a-dream. This is also not in the book.
Ed is on duty when “bloody Christmas” happens (which is an event that really did take place). A lot of the cops, including Bud White, Jack Vincennes, Dick Stensland and others, beat up a bunch of Hispanic men that were in custody. Ed snitches on the cops involved and is promoted for it. Bud is suspended, but then a higher up officer, Dudley Smith, says Bud can come back if he works for him and is basically just Dudley’s strongarm when he wants to torcher people into getting information. Bud is thought of as all brawn no brain kind of guy who has a soft spot for damsels in distress and will search out abusive husbands and beat them up and arrest them.
Jack was also part of the Christmas ordeal, and he is punished by being moved from narcotics to vice. Jack also works on the cop tv show Badge of Honor which he loves doing. In the book Jack is also a bit of a drug addict and alcoholic but has periods of sobriety. We learn that in his past, he accidently shot two innocent people while under the influence and Sid, a guy who works for (or maybe he owns) Hush Hush, a gossip magazine, knows about it. Jack and Sid work together with informing each other on things and doing set up’s which will get a lot of press and Jack gives Jack a kind of fame.
Night Owl killings
Not long after Christmas, there are six people found dead in an all-night café called the Night Owl. In the movie, Bud’s former partner, Stensland who was kicked off the force for Bloody Christmas, is one of those that was killed. In the book, there was a former disgraced police officer but it was Stensland.
In book, one of the women there was a prostitute as well as a pimp named Duke. I’m just going to cut to the chase and reveal that the dead man IDed as Duke, was actually a guy impersonating Duke in order to take over Duke’s business. The impersonator and the prostitute had killed the real Duke and his body is found later in the book. The people who did the Night Owl killings though thought it was the real Duke.
All this with Duke is left out of the movie, but the call girl who is killed is the same and in both it leads the characters to Patchett, who is a pimp who has his girls look like famous movie stars.
Meanwhile, in book and movie, three black men are arrested for the Night Owl killings but while Ed is interrogating them, they don’t talk about the Night Owl, but they do confess that they had kidnapped a Hispanic woman and has raped her. Bud and White go to where they said the woman is and save her, Bud killing the man who was home in the process.
The three black men end up escaping and when they are caught, they are killed by Ed and others. The police lie to the public and say the men had confessed to the Night Owl and the case is now closed and Ed is a success.
The woman who had been raped is Inez Soto and, in the movie, she tells the police the three men had left at midnight, showing that they very well could have been the Night Owl killers. When Ed gets her from the hospital, she confesses she lied, because she wanted the men dead for what they did to her and knew the only way she would get justice is if they police thought they had also done the Night Owl.
In the book, Inez refuses to say anything about that night. Ed tries to soften her up, but she knows he has alterier motives and doesn’t like him. She likes Bud though because she finds him more genuine and loves him for having killed the man that had her when they saved her.
Ed keeps trying to win Inez over and takes her to the opening of Dream-a-dreamland where she meets Preston Exley and Ray Dieterling. Dieterling offers her a job at Dream-a-dream and she eventually works there and is close with Preston and Ray. Ed also buys her a home close to where he is and through the years, they see each other romantically. All through the years she never says anything about the three men and when or if they left during the night.
Jack and Fleur-de-Lis
While the Night Owl case is happening, Jack and others in vice are told to track down the makers of this smut magazine that was found. He comes across Fleur-de-Lis which makes the porn and also provides call girls who get plastic surgery to look like stars.
He calls Sid asking if he knows anything and Sid is very fishy, at the end of one call Sid tells him, “We all have secrets, jack. Even you.” Jack finds out Sid is connected to Fleur-de-Lis, and when he goes to see Sid, he finds he has been brutally murdered. I forget to mention, that some of the dirty pictures had the people with fake blood and the way the blood and bodies were made to look in the photos was the way Sid has been cut in real life.
Jack acts like he didn’t know about Sid’s death and doesn’t want the police to dig around because he is worried, they will find Sid’s files on him regarding those people he killed.
In the movie, Jack is given the mystery porn and he too finds out about Fleur-de-Lis. In the movie Sid sets him up to bust the DA with a guy who works for the call company. Jack feels gross about setting people up and doesn’t show up in time to bust them and doesn’t keep the money from Sid.
When he shows up to where the DA and the guy would be, he finds the younger guy’s dead body.
Patchett and Lynn
In book and movie Bud questions Patchett and also ends up questioning Lynn who is a Veronica Lake lookalike. In both he ends up dating her.
In the movie, as they date, she is still a call girl but as Bud says, the other guys just see Veronica Lake, but he gets Lynn Bracken. She also has this elegant bedroom she takes her men to, but when she dates Bud, she shows him her real bedroom which I thought was a great scene.
In the book, Patchett makes his girls retire at age 30 and when Bud interviews her she turns 30 in a month. She and Bud date, and once she turns 30 she and Patchett invest in a dress shop which Lynn runs.
Reopening the Night Owl
In the book, years have passed and it is now like 1957. Ed finds out that Inez had been having sex with Bud through the years, and she also tells him that those three men had been there all night which means he never caught the Night Owl killers. There is also some drama when Bud finds out Lynn slept with Ed.
In the movie, this all happens over the course of like a year or less.
But in the book and movie, Bud, Jack and Ed team up in way and combine their information to figure things out with Fleur-de-Lis and the Nightowl.
In the book, Bud had also been tracking these prostitute murders that is connected to the Night Owl. Ed also realizes that the way Sid was killed and the way the fake blood is in the photos, resembles the murders of children that had happened during his father’s day. The killing was called the Frankenstein murders because of the graphic nature of it. Ed finds out that his father didn’t catch the killer after all, or at least not both of them.
They also realize that Dudley, the cop who uses Bud as a strongarm also must have been involved but no one they talk to will confess to his part in it.
In the book, Bud realizes who killed the women and he and Jack go get the guys and, in the process, Bud is badly injured and Jack is killed.
Ed meanwhile talks to Dieterling and we find out that Dieterling’s son was one of the killers. The reveal is that Patchett and Dieterling had known each other and Patchett had these sick ideas that I guess Dieterling drew into cartoons which Dieterling’s illegitimate son would watch. The son ends up being one of the Frankenstein killers and while Preston Exley does get one of the men, Dieterling’s son isn’t found out. The son looked a lot like Deiterling’s other son, and the illegitimate one gets surgery to chage his look. Then a new witness says they saw Dieterling’s son with the killer, and Preston approaches Dieterling. Dieterling doesn’t say it was actually his illegitimate son who now looks different, but rather lies and says it was his well known son and agree with Preston that he will kill his son so that justice can ve done without a public trial. So Dieterling kills his own son, but claims he died in an avalanche.
Ed goes to his father and tells him he will be arrested for the death of the Deiterling son but gives him a few days to get his affairs in order. A few days later, Deiterling, Preston Exley, and Inez are found dead and assumed they committed suicide rather than deal with the public spectacle.
In the movie, Jack makes some connections and goes to Dudley to talk about it. Dudley then kills him, and Jack’s final words are the name Rollo Tomassi.
After announcing Jack’s dead body being found, Dudley goes to Ed and asks if Jack ever mentioned a Rollo Tomassi to him and Ed says no. But Rollo Tomassi is the fake name Ed gave to his dad’s killer because in the movie his dad was killed while on duty and the killer got away and was never caught. Dudley mentioning this name clues Ed in that something is off and the Dudley is involved.
Long story short, Ed and Bud are set up at this abandoned motel where Dudley’s men come in and there is a shootout which ends with Ed shooting Dudley in the back.
When he is taken in for questioning, he tells the truth, but the police can’t tell the public the truth so they make up a story to give ot the public that makes Dudley and Ed out to be heroes.
We then see Lynn waiting for Ed after his ceremony and it seems like the two of them are together. But then it is revealed that she is leaving to Arizona with Bud who is recovering from his injuries. This is in the book as well where they say good-bye to Ed before leaving LA. In the book, Ed promises Bud that he will nail Dudley, because in the book they were never able to get him.
General thoughts on both
Whew! Glad the plot is over. And there was so much I didn’t even get to but that’s the basic premise. I liked how the movie used Sid’s articles to fill us in without using a narrator. The book does this too where there will be chapters of magazine and newspaper articles to fill us in on the details. I thought the performances were fantastic. Three guys have great arcs in both book and movie where they all change for the better. In the book Jack changes for the better as well, and in the book, he is married but the marriage is rocky. By the end, he invertedly confessed everything to his wife while he was in the hospital but she loves him, nonetheless. He is then killed soon after. He is also called Trashcan Jack in the book because they give him dirty jobs.
Bud is thought to be dumb and only good to give people the once over. In the book Stensland is sentenced to death because after he leaves the force, he pretty much derails. But he left money to Bud and Bud uses it to go to school.
Ed, who was willing to screw people over to get ahead and who was intimidated by his father, in the end confronts his father and doesn’t let him get away with his past misdoings. In the movie, he respected his dead father, but he finally learns to trust his fellow partners, while also using the force for what he needs as they also use him in the end of the movie.
Jack has a self-loathing due to his guilty conscious and his addictions. We don’t have the backstory of him killing two innocent people in the movie, but we still clearly see the inner struggle he starts to go through in the movie as he questions his actions. The scene when Ed asks him why he became a cop and he says he doesn’t remember was a great scene. Speaking of Ed and jack, I also liked the scene in the movie when they come across Johnny and Lana Turner and Ed thinks she is a hooker cut to look like Turner.
Another thing I liked about the movie was when the press is there wanting to photograph the police, we have Sid of course, but there is also a great moment when Ed and I think Dudley are being photographed by some random person and they both pose in such an obvious way. This is Hollywood after all.
I also wanted to shoutout the book Bullet Train because in that, Lemon and Tangerine have a conversation about how if one of them is murdered, to say something to the killer before you die that way the one living will be able to use that key word to find out who the killer was. And that happens in this movie with “Rollo Tomassi”!
Women in the book and movie
The book and movie obviously center around men (despite having a woman be the most prominent person on the covers). In the book we have Lynn and Inez who play key roles. There is also Karen, Jack’s wife, but she isn’t in very much and she is used to show Jack’s self-loathing.
Inez was a great character in the book and I really liked the scenes we had with her. Considering this takes place in the ’50’s I also thought it was cool of Ellroy to have a woman of color be in such a big role. We also see the racism of the time with people saying Ed could never marry Inez because it would be career suicide due to her race. There are also so many racial slurs in this book, which again, these are a bunch of white men in the ‘50’s so I’m not saying it isn’t accurate. But it did feel like a bit much at times.
Anyway, I found Inez to be a compelling character, even though her story does revolve around sex. She is introduced into the story because she is violently raped, then she goes on to have sexual relations with both Ed and Bud.
I don’t think I like that she commits suicide along with Preston and Ray. I get she was close to both of them and respected them, but I wish she would have lived.
Then we have Lynn, and obviously sex is a big part of her role as well considering she is a prostitute. I found her to be interesting enough, and I do like that in the book soon after we meet her, she retires anyway.
It would have been nice to have a well-rounded female character who had a storyline that wasn’t about sex, but even so I did like the two main females we had in the book.
In the movie we only have Lynn because the character of Inez is severely shortened in the film.
Book vs movie
So much of the movie dialogue comes straight from the page, which shows the strength of the book’s writing. I also love when movies take so much from the book verbatim because it shows they knew not to fix what wasn’t broken.
Even though I have my gripes with the book, this is one that has continued to intrigue me days after finishing it. The movie is a great adaptation and a great example of how to make an “unadaptable” book, adaptable.
When it comes to which one wins, this is tough because I am inclined to say the movie and claim they improved upon an already good book. However, I do like the depth of the book. I am surprising myself but saying the book wins here. Even while watching the movie, I thought I would say the movie wins, but like I said, the more I think about the book the more I respect it.