Something surprising happened when my new bookshelves inpired me to re-organize my hopelessly scattered library. As I picked out novels here and there, consolidating each author’s work on a shelf of its own, I started doing a quantitative ranking of favorites. If I had five of one writer’s books and only one of a second guy’s, it stood to reason I liked the first author five times better.
Okay, so maybe that’s not the best way to judge. Some authors crank the books out and others don’t. I only have two of Homer’s books, but that’s all he wrote. Briefly I toyed with the idea of calculating percentages — i.e., if I had 100% of an author’s books, even if there were only two of them, then clearly I preferred him to somebody I’d only gotten 50% of the way through (even if that 50% amounted to a dozen books). There were two problems here: (1) mathematics and taste don’t go well together, and (2) I learned math in the Louisiana public school system, so I’m all right at counting but not so good at calculating percentages.
The point is, I had a lot more Jim Thompson than I realized — fourteen books, not counting five or six duplicates — and of them I’ve read (and in some cases re-read) The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, After Dark, My Sweet, The Getaway, A Swell-Looking Babe, The Grifters, and Pop. 1280. And I’m about halfway through Wild Town.
While I know his work, I knew relatively little about his Hollywood career, an omission rectified by a two-part piece by Richard Santos published at Criminal Element: “The Nothing Man: Jim Thompson in Hollywood.” Part One is the history lesson, including the troubled relationship between Thompson and Stanley Kubrick, while Part Two looks at the various film adaptations of Thompson’s novels, including my favorite, Coup de Torchon, based on Pop. 1280 with Philippe Noiret in the lead. The survey leads Santos to conclude that perhaps Thompson’s books (like the man himself) are unadaptable for Hollywood:
Jim Thompson wrote some of the most bizarre, disturbing and just plain good literature of the twentieth century. He not only wrote characters who committed unimaginable crimes, he also wrote novels that stretched the boundaries of the crime genre and the form of the novel itself. But maybe on some level Thompson’s creations are un-adaptable. Maybe his vision of America is just too damn scary to put on the big screen without some sort of filter over the material.
It’s strange to think, considering the reverence modern crime readers have for Jim Thompson, that he was booted off the film adaptation of The Getaway, replaced by another writer. The boot was on the foot of Steve McQueen, but even so, if that had happened in one of the books, say Savage Night, McQueen would have ended up with a stump at the ankle.