Zodiac True Story vs Movie Review

written by Laura J.

Zodiac by Robert Graysmith (1986)

Zodiac directed by David Fincher (2007)

This book and movie is about the Zodiac killer in the bay area starting in 1969. There is not “end date” perce, because even though he did eventually stop writing letters, he was never caught and his identity is still unknown.

The Zodiac became infamous in part because he would write letters different papers in the area and demand his letters be printed on the front page or else. The whole case became so well known that it was the inspiration behind Dirty Harry which was released in 1971 when the case was still very much on going.

The Zodiac was incredibly narcissistic, as well as psychopathic among other things, and so in some ways it is frustrating that he got the fame he craved. I even feel conflicted in doing this episode because here I am, another person who is talking about this terrible person and giving him attention.

In the book there is a woman near the end who says she was babysitting for one of the victims the night the woman was killed and the babysitter said anytime she see’s anything about the Zodiac it takes her back to that night and years later she is still very much affected by it. And she was just the babysitter so imagine how the families of the victims feel when they see the killer of their loved one getting so much attention. As well as those who survived the attempted murders!

This is one of the reasons I love the book Notes on an Execution so much, because it goes into our fascination with killers and how damaging that is to the victims’ families.

Book review

Graysmith was working as a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the first Zodiac letter came in. He quickly became obsessed and through the decades he continued his research into trying to discover the identity of the killer.

He even wrote another book that was released in 2002 called Zodiac Unmasked, but since the movie is just based on his first book, I didn’t read that one.

Overall, I found the book interesting and I had been in a reading slump when I started it but it got me into reading again so that’s saying something. I was also in San Francisco when I read the book and that is why I chose to read it.

The Zodiac’s letters were so frustrating in so many ways. His pride and narcissism and his twisted way of thinking was just so annoying and upsetting. The fact that he was never caught just makes it all the worse because it makes it seem like he really must have been as smart as he thought himself to be.

Graysmith making money off of these murders is also annoying. Does he donate any percentage to the victims’ families?? Or does he just profit off of the death of their loved ones and not bother to think about what him writing this book could make them feel. I’m sure he feels justified, because he is trying to figure out who the Zodiac is and he thinks he is being helpful. And maybe he was helpful to some extent, but at the end of the day, the killer was never found so how much help did he really do…? Maybe I am being too harsh on him though.

Some people speculate that Graysmith himself was the Zodiac and honestly, it would fit the Zodiac’s MO to be so prideful as to write a book about himself, pretending to figure out the identity. Plus, he was someone with inside information since he worked at the paper and was able to stay informed on what the police knew.

Having said that, I don’t actually think it was Graysmith.

Movie review

When this movie came out on DVD, my dad and I watched it three nights in a row! Through the years I have seen it at least once more, so it is a movie I still remembered pretty clearly. David Fincher is a great director and is known for being very meticulous. The cast is also amazing with Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr! And this was all before any of them were in a superhero movie.

Fincher made sure to never show the face of the Zodiac, because in one of the Zodiac letters he wrote that he is excited for there to be a movie about him someday and he wonders who will play him. Fincher chose not to have any specific actor in the role and to have the face never even seen so that the Zodiac wouldn’t get that satisfaction. He also didn’t show any events with the Zodiac where there was no first-hand account. Two of the killings, there was a survivor who told what happened and so we see those, but none where there is no one alive to say exactly what happened.

I still really like this movie and even though it is kind of long, the time really does fly by. I wish we would have learned a bit more about those that were killed but they instead focus on those trying to solve the case.

From here on out I will be getting into the details of book and movie which means there will be spoilers!

Robert Graysmith

Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith in the movie and since he is the focus, I will start with him. For the majority of the book, Graysmith doesn’t talk about himself but focuses on the victims and the events themselves. Whereas with the movie, Graysmith is the main character and we see his personal life. It isn’t until the last quarter of the book that Graysmith starts writing about himself and the people he spoke to as he tried to piece things together in the following years.

In the movie he starts out divorced, then starts dating a woman whom he later marries. However, he gets so caught up in the Zodiac and is even going on TV and is being talked about in newspaper articles about his desire to learn about the Zodiac and sharing that he cracked one of the coded messages. His wife is upset about this because it puts their family in danger. That, plus just his overall obsession it what leads her to leave him.

In real life Graysmith was married from ’63-’73, then again from ’75-’80. Since in real life, both wives experienced being married to him during his Zodiac obsession, I wonder if both of them left him because of it. He never gets into his personal life in the book though. After he saw the movie for the first time he said, “No wonder my wife left me!” I guess he was so in his own head, all these years later even he hadn’t understood the toll his obsession took on his personal life.

Since writing Zodiac in the 80’s, he has stopped being a cartoonist and has written other nonfiction books about other high profile murder cases, including another book of his that was the basis for the movie Auto Focus.

Paul Avery

Paul Avery was a writer at the SF Chronicle, one of the newspapers that received Zodiac letters and the same paper where Graysmith worked. In the movie he and Graysmith as seen as friends of sorts, but in the book, they didn’t really know each other.

In both, Avery finds connections proving the Zodiac was also responsible for murders that happened in 1966 down in Riverside, California. The Zodiac eventually sends him a card with a threatening note, and people who work at the paper all start wearing pins that say, “I am not Paul Avery”. This is shown in book and movie and is pretty funny in both.

In the movie, Avery succumbs to his alcoholism and leaves the Chronicle and basically seems to become kind of a bum who lives on a houseboat. Whereas in real life, Avery did leave the Chronicle, but he went on to work at the Sacramento Bee where he wrote award winning work.

In the movie there is a great scene where Graysmith goes to visit Avery years later, and Avery gets upset with him saying how all Graysmith ever did was linger around Avery’s desk trying to get information, and going through Avery’s trash to find out what Avery knew. But again, this isn’t in the book because he and Avery didn’t talk in the book.

Dave Toschi

Toschi was the detective on the Zodiac case along with another guy named Armstrong. Toschi was a big deal at the time and had even been the set advisor on the movie Bullit. He is also kind of who the Dirty Harry character is based on to some extent.

Through the years he received a lot of flack for not solving the case, but because the killings happened in different counties, he had to share information with other officers and it seems like it was a bit chaotic trying to share evidence at the time. The Zodiac also took a break writing letters for about four years, and when he wrote again, he mentioned Toschi by name. However, this leads some to think that Toschi wrote the letter himself because it was “similar in tone” to a note he had written to a different newspaper cartoonist pretending to be a fan. He was eventually cleared of this accusation.

In the movie he gets to the point where he is fed up with Graysmith and tries to avoid him, until near the end with Graysmith has put things together. In the book he never talks about a time with Toschi avoided talking to him.

The evidence

As far as the details of the killings, I will not be getting into that because it is not something I am interested in talking about, but there were two circumstances where he killed the women, but the men survived. With the attack on the lake, we see in the movie that the guy talks with the killer but in the book they had talked even more.

There are also more letters in real life than are shown in the movie. In both we read that he believes when he dies the people he has killed will be his slaves and in the book there are other letters were he says terrible things about the people he has already killed. Like, you already killed them, and now you as if that isn’t enough, you are talking about how you will hurt them in the next life as well??

But finding handwriting matches is a huge part of book and movie, but in the book Graysmith realizes that the Zodiac must have traced individual letters that others had written, so while they still studied handwriting, it was tricky because the Zodiac wasn’t writing normal anyway, just tracing letters. There is the part in book and movie when he is looking into a suspect and goes to see a guy who had worked with him at a movie house and we find out that the writing on the poster that was match, belonged to the guy Graysmith is talking to. It is a very ominous scene, and when he tries to frantically leave, the door is locked and the guy has to open it for him. While this does happen in the book to some extent, and there is the part when he goes in the basement and thinks he hears someone above them-the matching handwriting wasn’t as big of a deal since they decided the Zodiac was copying other people’s handwriting anyway. He also doesn’t run to leave and find the door locked. So the movie made some changes to make that encounter more suspenseful.

Zodiac suspects

There are multiple suspects talked about, but there were two main ones that different people involved favored. Toschi and Graysmith both liked this guy named Arthur Lee Allen (he is given a different name in the book), but then other cops liked another guy for it and didn’t think it was Allen at all.

The evidence against Allen in the movie is similar to what we learn in the book. He was in Riverside in ’66, he lived near the place Darlene, one of the next victims lived and had known her, he had a bloody knife in his car the day of the lake murders, he lived in a house with a basement with his mother, he had the right kind of shoes, and he had been fired from a school job for touching children. He also wrote Toschi a type-written letter after they interview him, saying he is sorry he couldn’t have been more help. He also had been in prison during the four year silence when no letters were received. The movie has a scene near the end where Graysmith goes to the place Allen works to look him in the eye, because he says he can’t rest until he sees the Zodiac face to face. In the book, he brought his kids with him the first time he goes to see Allen! And then he ends up returning pretty frequently and even tails him. He also goes to see the other main suspect and brings a female friend with him and she thinks that guy was it, but Graysmith still holds firm to thinking it was Allen.

The movie ends with a scene in the ‘90’s and we see the survivor from one of the attacks ID Allen as the killer but then we learn that Allen had a fatal heart attack and was never found guilty. The book was published in ’86 so this event isn’t written about.

Final comments

In the book the Zodiac also claims that he will stop admitting to his murdered and he will start making them look like accidents, or unrelated. So even though they didn’t hear from him for a while, Graysmith says how he still could have been killing people, but police just didn’t make the connection because they were made to look like accidents.

In both we also have the TV personality that has a show and they keep the lines clear and await a call from the Zodiac. Someone does call in claiming to be him, but it is thought that the caller was someone just pretending to be the killer. In real life there was also a psychic on the east coast who came out to California and shared his psychic thoughts on who the killer was and tried to get the killer to come forward but it didn’t work and the psychic flew back home.

The Zodiac got the name because that is what he called himself. His coded letters had some Zodiac symbols I think, and it is also suspected that the murdered aligned with different moon patterns and things like that. The movie also shows a Zodiac watch brand that has the same symbol, but this isn’t in the book at all.

Book vs movie

The book goes a bit more in detail on this case, but the movie is pretty thorough and is just so well done with such a great cast! So I am going to say the movie wins. I had been worried the book would be a bit dry, but I was pulled in and interested. If this case is something you want to learn more about, then I think it could be worth it to read the book, but otherwise, I say it’s fine to just stick to the movie. The book was definlety more upsetting hearing all of the letters the Zodiac wrote as well as going into more detail on some of the killings.