Tony and Susan by Austin Wright (1993)
Nocturnal Animals directed by Tom Ford (2016)
Yes, this movie is directed by fashion designer Tom Ford! I actually talked about him as a designer when I did my House of Gucci book vs movie!
The brief, spoiler free synopsis for the book and movie is Edward sends his ex-wife his manuscript for a novel he has written. She reads his book and is sucked into the story and reading it causes her to reflect on her past marriage to him, her current marriage, and her life in general. The book she is reading is called Nocturnal Animals, and we read that story intermixed with Susan’s thoughts.
For the most part I really liked the book and would recommend it. It was slower and more thoughtful than I expected and less obvious. I thought the story within the story would be very clearly a threat of some kind to Susan, but it was hard to see how the story related to her relationship with him. The ending leaves you with some unanswered questions (at least it did for me), so in that sense it was kind of frustrating. I like books that are more ambiguous and abstract for the most part; but sometimes I wish they wouldn’t make the meaning so hard to understand!
I was never bored and was always anxious to return to the story. I liked the book within the book as well and found it intriguing. It is pretty dark at times and the book on the whole is heavy so be aware of that going into it.
First and foremost, I want to warn anyone who watches this movie that the opening scene is kind of jarring-we have plus size women dancing naked. The rest of the movie is very foreboding and like the book, is quite dark at times.
The acting is superb, we have some of my favorite actors here-Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johns. And just to do some shamelss self promotion, if you want more Amy Adams content check out my Woman in the Window book vs movie. If you want another confusing Jake Gyllenhaal book and movie, check out The Double/Enemy book vs movie. And if you want more Aaron Taylor-Johnson, check out Bullet Train book vs movie! I thought there were some really cool shots as well. It follows the book closely in some ways, but it makes some changes to help the story make more sense. I don’t know if the changes that were made would have fallen in line with what Wright intended, because he had died by the time this was made. We are just left to our own devices to make of the book what we will. I almost wish I spent more time with just the book to try and figure it out before watching the movie and allowing my thoughts on the book to be tainted by how Ford interpreted it with the changes he made.
Going forward there will be spoilers for both the book and movie!
I am going to tell the story in chronological order, starting with Susan and Edwards dating, marriage and divorce, then move onto the story within the story and end with what I think it all means.
BOOK-Susan and Edwards relationship
Susan and Edward were neighbors growing up in Hastings and when Edwards dad died, he is taken in by Susan’s family. Years later they run into each other while at college. They had both been in relationships that were a bit rocky and the two of them end up dating. She finds out he is a virgin and she says how he shouldn’t be so uptight about sex. She has sex with him just because, but they inevitably end up being engaged and married. Susan’s mom likes this arrangement and calls them childhood sweethearts.
Susan is a teacher and Edward was studying law but drops out to become a writer and it is on Susan to earn an income for them both. They meet another couple in their building named Arnold and Selena. There is a month when Edward leaves for a month to write in a cabin and while he is gone Arnold comes to Susan’s door asking for his help because his wife is having “an episode” and has taken the carving knife into the bathroom. Selena is taken to a hospital and while his wife and her husband are gone, they start having an affair. Once Edward and Selena return, the affair ends because Arnold stops contacting her.
Arnold at one point lets Susan know that Selena knows about the affair and Susan tries to decide what the best way is to tell Edward. She ends up telling him while they are having an argument about his writing (which is all they ever talk about). Edward doesn’t ask if she still loves him, so she makes a point to tell him she does and she says she didn’t love Arnold. He asks repeatedly if she wants a divorce but she says no.
Eventually, she and Arnold start up the affair yet again. In the end, Edward tells Susan she should get a divorce, not because of her infidelity but because she doesn’t respect him as an author and he says it isn’t fair of him to ask of her what he needs. They divorce, as does Arnold and Selena. Selena lives permanently in a mental institution, Arnold and Susan marry, and Edward eventually remarries as well.
BOOK-Susan and Arnold
When Susan and Arnold were having their affair Arnold tells Susan how ridiculous jealousy is and that sex with someone other than your spouse isn’t something people should make a big deal about. No surprise, that during their marriage Arnold sleeps with other woman. Only one woman in particular is mentioned that Susan knows about but it has caused her to be wary of him. She also gave up a lot of her life in order to support Arnold in his career. She teaches part time at a community college and raises their three kids and is very much the housewife. In the end there is a line where she says how her feminist friends would have been shocked to see what she is like in her marriage, “fighting for every woman’s rights but her own.”
Edward was more uptight, whereas Arnold may be “looser”, but he also seems to take Susan for granted and thinks she will just go along with him with whatever his career needs but near the end of the book she starts to resent him for these reasons even more. She wants to leave him but thinks about what that would mean for her life and she isn’t sure she is up for that.
She begins to read Edward’s novel while Arnold is away for three days at the end of December. We read about Tony and his wife and daughter who are taking a road trip to their Maine summer home. They are driving through the night when two cars are taking up both lanes and they seem to be talking to each other. Tony gives the honk a short push and one car speeds ahead, allowing him to pass. But then the cars harass him and cause his car to hit one of the cars. Tony knows you should stop when you have a car accident, but Laura and Tony both don’t feel safe stopping and continue on. The other car catches up to them and pushes their car into them forcing Tony to pull over. There are three men in the car-Ray, who is the leader, and Turk and Lou. They tell Tony he has a flat and they fix it for him but they are very threatening, rude, and scary. The wife and daughter are obviously very scared and the teenage daughter talks back to the men.
They agree to all drive to the closest police station and give their statements on the “accident”. But rather than going in their own cars, the women are forced into Tony’s car with Ray and Lou, while Turk makes Tony drive their car. He has him drive into the woods, pushes him out and later comes back calling to him but Tony is too scared to come out of hiding. The next day he makes it to a police station and a cop named Bobby Andes heads the case of his missing wife and daughter. Later in the day they see the bodies of the wife and daughter.
Tony goes back home and we see him struggle to resume his daily life. People feel awkward around him, and he is lonely but struggles to connect.
There is a graduate student interested in him, but he doesn’t do anything about it.
Nearly a year later, Bobby Andes calls him to come back to identify someone they think was one of the men involved. It’s Ray and they question him but Ray denies it. Tony punches him and Ray is arrested. Tony returns home feeling good about having punched Ray and feels good that there will be an upcoming trial. He starts dating the graduate student (she had been dating another student, but she leaves him for Tony).
Not long after, Andes calls again and says Ray was released and the court has thrown out the case because they didn’t have enough evidence but he tells Tony he needs to drive up again. Tony gets there and Andes tells him he is dying of cancer and has six months left to live. He says this as though Tony already knows, but Tony doesn’t remember being told this. Andes is wanting to go rogue since he doesn’t have anything to lose.
He gets Ray and Turk (Lou died in a grocery store robbery) and he brings them to his cabin home. There is a woman there who Bobby knows but hadn’t expected to be there but is like whatever. Bobby then leaves, and while he is gone his niece named Susan shows up because she was kicked out for the night at her place so came to stay with Bobby. The two women are just kind of there while Tony talks to Ray.
Bobby returns and hands Tony a gun while he steps out of the room. Ray and Turk try to make a run for it and Tony freezes and doesn’t do anything. Bobby comes out and grabs the gun and shoots Turk and he dies.
He tells the women and Tony that they will tell the cops a different story, and tells Tony to find Ray with the help of this other cop. Tony doesn’t get the cops help though and finds Ray in the trailer where his wife and daughter had been raped and killed.
He and Ray have a showdown and Ray finally confesses, saying that killing is fun once you get the taste of it and that his wife and daughter had been “asking for it”.
Tony ends up shooting and killing Ray but is hit and blinded in the process. When he comes to, he blindly stumbles out and when he hears cops looking for him, he stays quiet, not sure what Bobby has told them about the death of Turk and everything (since what they did obviously wasn’t legal). He has the gun and cocks it and he ends up accidently shooting himself and dies. Once dead, in a dreamlike sequence he gets back in his car to drive to his Maine cabin. Once there, he goes to the lake out back and his wife and daughter are swimming in it, saying that it took him a long time to get there but that he should jump in and join them.
BOOK-After reading the manuscript
After Susan finishes the book, she is excited to talk to Edward about it. She doesn’t get a call from Edward when she expected, so she calls the hotel he wrote he would be staying at. She leaves a message, but still doesn’t hear back and calls yet again.
She calls again the next day only to discover he has checked out. Susan contemplates why Edward sent her the manuscript in the first place. She had also thought about how Edward was asked her what was missing from his story and that she knows what is missing.
After being snubbed by Edward, she writes a lengthy letter giving him her thoughts on the book. But she then throws that away and instead writes a quick note without much though which says, “I finished your manuscript, sorry it took so long. Call me if you want to know my thoughts.”
She thinks how she should make Arnold read the book, but then she thinks that Arnold wouldn’t see what was there and so it’s not worth it.
Earlier she had also thought about how Arnold would probably react to the book, how he would think Tony was a wimp and that Tony should have shot the gun. Susan says she can understand why Tony didn’t shoot and that she is looking forward to talking to Edward about it because Edward would understand what it means to not be able to shoot the gun.
At the start of the book she is wondering why kind of book the novel will be and thinks if he is still the same Tony it won’t be about baseball, it won’t be a western and it won’t be a tale of blood and revenge. But obviously the latter is exactly what it is about. She had also taken three months to read the manuscript. Edward sent her a note asking if she would like to read it, she replied saying yes, he then sent the manuscript but there was not contact between them for months. Then Edward’s wife sends Susan a Christmas card per usual and in it Edward includes a note that he will be in town after Christmas and they should meet up. It is after the Christmas card that she decides to read it.
If we see Tony as Edward, we could see the death of his wife and daughter being an example of the pain Susan caused when she didn’t believe in his writing and they divorced.
Bobby Andes, who is more rough and tough and willing to do what it takes to get the bad guys, could symbolize the other side of Tony or Edward. The side that isn’t a wimp but gets things done. Andes is also kind of a loose canon and can’t totally be trusted.
The character in the book named Susan, Susan calls a ninny and is somewhat offended Edward gave her the same name. At the end of the actual book, when she has been snubbed, she calls herself a ninny.
As far as what or who Ray and his guys represent, you could say he is Susan. Ray blinds Tony, and in the book, Edward had told Susan that to write was to see, and to not write would be like going blind. When she asks him why he doesn’t stop trying to write, she says it was as though she had asked him to stop living. He also tells her he writes to keep things alive, otherwise everything will die.
The fact that Tony then goes blind, and then shoots himself and dies could be that representation of Tony not writing and not being himself because of her doubts and lack of respect of him. The book ends with a more touching scene though as he is reunited with his wife and daughter. Is Tony’s death a symbol of the end of their relationship and his writing, but then it is brought back to life when he remarries and starts over?
She says there is something missing, and she also says it would serve Arnold right to read the book. But then says it’s no use because Arnold wouldn’t see it. What would he not see? What is missing? I need to know! But for the life of me I can’t figure it out.
MOVIE-Susan and Edward relationship
In the movie Susan and Edward had also known each other as kids and his dad had died, but he wasn’t her foster type of brother the way he was in the book. He was close friends with Susan’s brother, who we later find out is gay and he had had a crush on Edward while Edward had a crush on Susan.
They meet up coincidently in New York when they’re in college and go out on a date. They hit it off, and Susan asks him back to her place and he is surprised at how forward she is.
They get engaged, and Susan’s mom is very upset about this. She is very hoity-toity and doesn’t think Edward is good enough and predicts Susan won’t be happy with him in the long run.
They marry, and he tries to write and we see her critiquing his writing. She tells him not to write about himself, but he says every writer only ever writes about themselves.
As her mom predicted, she becomes unhappy with their marriage and desires more. She also sees Edward as being weak-something her mother had said of him but she had countered it saying he was sensitive, not weak.
She meets this other guy named Hutton and has an affair. When she tells Edward she wants to leave him and tries to convince her they should stay together. He asks if she still loves him and she is hesitant to answer but says yes, she does, she just can’t be with him.
In the end of the movie, it is revealed that she had been pregnant with Edwards baby, but had it aborted unbeknownst to Edward. However, as she and Hutton leave the clinic, Edward is there and he knows what she has done.
MOVIE-Susan present day
When we see Susan in present day, she is very rich and elegant and wears dark make-up and works in an art gallery. She lives an elegant life, but an empty one. She is still married to Hutton, but early on we see that he is having an affair which she knows about, and his business is also not doing well.
At one point she calls up her daughter who is old enough to have moved out, and at the start of the movie when she gets the manuscript from Edward she tells Hutton. He says hasn’t it been 20 years since you’ve seen him? And she says it’s been 19 years. That daughter has to be at least 18, and if she is 18 that means she and Hutton got pregnant right away. But it seems it could also be interpreted as showing that she actually didn’t get the abortion and the girl is 19 years old and Susan knows the exact amount of time it has been since seeing Edward, because it is the same as how old her daughter is. Whether or not the daughter is Edwards or Hutton’s is never revealed.
The novel in both book and movie is called Nocturnal Animals, but in the movie, Susan says that she has always struggled to sleep and when she and Edward were married, he called her a nocturnal animal.
The story plays out the same as it had in the book for the most part. One difference being we don’t see Tony living at home and dating the graduate student. We also do not get the seemingly happy ending with him being reunited with his wife and daughter.
While at Bobby’s place where they threaten Ray and Turk, the movie leaves out the two women who were there (one of whom was named Susan).
MOVIE- After reading the manuscript
Susan emails Edward about meeting him to discuss the book and he replies asking her to name the time and place. As she is getting ready, she puts on an elegant dress, heavy eye make-up and lipstick. She then wipes away the lipstick and she also is not wearing her ring.
We see her arrive at the place she picked, which is very classy and high end. She waits there all night, and we see her realize what Edward has done and then the movie ends.
The fact that the movie has Susan (presumably) aborting Edward’s baby and leaving him, makes it seem more obvious that the death of Tony’s wife and daughter is symbolic of Edward losing his wife and future baby. In the movie we learn that Edward had never remarried, so maybe he never recovered from her leaving him in such a traumatic way.
Susan also calls him weak, and in the manuscript, Tony is seen as a weak character and Ray tells him he is weak. It is after Ray says this to him that Tony finally shoots him.
In the movie, Susan wears a lot of make-up as a way to hide herself. When she is preparing for the dinner, she wipes the lipstick, but keeps the eye make-up. Perhaps symbolizing that she wants to change and let down her guard but hasn’t really changed because she still kept the eye make-up and she choose an uppity restaurant rather than the less fancy ones she and Edward would eat at. It could be seen that Edward let her choose where to meet, and because she chose something so fancy, it showed him she really hadn’t changed.
The movie is clearly about revenge, and we even get an on the nose scene of her standing in front of a painting which reads “REVENGE” which she hadn’t remembered getting.
Book and movie comparisons
In the movie Susan has more regret about her life choices and is very unhappy with her personal life and her career. In the book she doesn’t have the same regret maybe, because there was no abortion for one. But she is somewhat unhappy with her life and feeling like she lives in her husband’s shadow. We see her kids in the book, but they are mentioned purely as background voices and people while she is reading the book.
In the book Susan teaches English and at one point wanted to write. However, she didn’t have what it takes to write something which others then read and will make their own based on their reading experience.
In the movie, Susan went to school to be an artist but stops trying because she says she is too skeptical to be an artist and doesn’t have what it takes down deep to create real art. She also tells Edward multiple times that she is a “realist”, as far as his writing and ending the relationship. He wants her to believe there is hope and she says she is a realist.
In the movie her parents are cold, but in the book her mother wanted her and Edward to be together and when they split her mother even came out to try and convince Susan to get back with him.
Also, in the movie the fact that Edward used to call Susan a nocturnal animal, and then titles the book that way, makes it clear the book is about her. When I read the book, I thought of Ray and his gang as the nocturnal animals, and if that is the case with the movie then we see that Ray does indeed represent Susan.
In the movie Susan never thinks of herself as Tony, yet in the book she does. She can relate to Tony’s fear and him not acting. Susan herself felt that way with her affair and divorce. She didn’t choose to start things up again with Arnold, she just went along with it when he wanted to see her again. And she wasn’t proactive in wanting to divorce Edward. She kind of hemmed and hawed and it was Edward who made the decision. In the movie it seems pretty clear Tony represents Edward, but in the book I think Tony can represent more than just Edward.
Book vs movie
Both are very heady and abstract to some extent, but as said, the movie makes more sense. The book still has me wondering what certain things mean! If you have some insight into the questions I raised about the book, I would love your input. If you have differing thoughts on the movie meaning I would love to hear that as well!
In the end, I would re-read the book sooner than I would re-watch the movie, so that makes me want to say the book wins. But I would want to re-read the book partly because I just still don’t understand it, so I kind of like that the movie made changes to make it easier to understand while also being interpretive.
I did like all the passages about writing and reading, and what it means to be both thew writer and the reader. I also found Susan’s internal musings and fears really interesting.
The movie is very well done though and I would say it is a great adaptation! If you have read or watched one and liked it well enough, definitely check out the other! I’m honestly not sure which one wins, but I guess I will the book becsuse that one is what has stuck in my mind as I try to figure out what Susan knew was missing from Edward’s manuscript.