12.29.2014

From Novel to Film pt. 8: Fletch

Novel (1974) written by Gregory Mcdonald.
Film (1985) directed by Michael Ritchie and written by Andrew Bergman.
THE NOVEL

"Society changes, Fletcher, but not much. It does not die. It moves. It oozes. It changes its shape, its structure, its leaders and its entertainments. There is always a Society.  As long as the instinct for power beats in the breasts of men and women, there will be a restricted clawing called Society."

I owned a copy of this book (and maybe even one of its sequels) in the 80s but never read it. Not sure whatever happened to it/ them, but re-acquiring it in this golden age of used books online was no problem. 

If you're familiar with the film - and considering it's been on cable at least three times a week since the late 80s, you probably are - the plot of the novel is not very different: Fletch is an undercover reporter posing (from the back cover) "as a down-and-out beach bum among the drug-ridden human wreckage of a sunny California beach." Millionaire industrialist Alan Stanwyck, unaware that Fletch is merely posing as a derelict, approaches him with a bizarre offer: Stanwyck will pay him one million dollars to commit a murder. "The catch: the victim is Stanwyck himself."

"And Fletch has just seven days to find out why a guy who has everything wants to throw it all away."

From the Gregory Mcdonald website:

"One measure of an artist's genius is the degree to which he advances the technique of his craft. Gregory Mcdonald's way of telling a story, frequently depend(s) almost entirely upon dialogue for characterization, drama, wit, and even action."

I have only ever read Fletch - the first of nine novels featuring the newspaperman/detective Irwin Maurice Fletcher - and so cannot comment on whether this description is applicable to all of the author's works. But it's certainly true of Fletch. The novel is told almost entirely in dialogue, which is a real pleasure to read when done as well as it is here.

As such, it makes it kind of hard to quote, as the dialogue flows on and on, sometimes comprising whole chapters. So you'll have to take my word for it. In a couple of spots, perhaps there's a little too much info-dumping. (Fletch's conversations with Stanwyck's father, for example, might stretch believability) but they move along so smoothly and put so many pieces in place that it's difficult to take issue with them.

The novel takes a hard stance on the not-yet-even-waged (1974) War on Drugs:

"There would be no "drug problem" in America if not for the collusion of some police."


It's definitely a much more cynical, anti-hero sort of tale than the film. But that's also because it's coming from a pulp detective tradition, whereas the film is not. Here are the main differences:

1) There is a running subplot about Fletch's receiving the Bronze Star for his service with the Marines in Vietnam. This is not in the movie. 

2) As is standard practice when adapting a book to the screen, many characters / scenes are compartmentalized. Alan's mistress and sweetheart are merged into one, some of the action moves from Pennsylvania to Utah, etc. Other characters are changed more overtly, though not very severely:

a) Mr. Underwood/ Mr. Underhill.
See that text underneath my name and picture up there in the "About Me" section? That's a reference to Fletch. In both novel and film, Fletch charges everything he orders at the Stanwyck's country club to the Underhill tab. I'm not sure why Underwood (novel) was changed to Underhill (film) - but it doesn't change the substance of anything. I only mention it because I've been saying "Put it on the Underhill's tab for years," (#FletchConfessions) so the change stuck out to me.

b) Fat Sam. aka Vatsyayana in the book. He's just Fat Sam - and decidedly Anglo, i.e. Norm - in the movie.
Also missing from the film is the character of Bobbi, a teenage runaway turning tricks for heroin that Fletch shacks up with while undercover. Their relationship is not explicitly sexual, but it's implied in a few places, particularly when Fletch tells Larry, his editor, that he'll do anything for his story. Mcdonald referred to Bobbi as the "only reason I even wrote the novel." (Presumably his concern over teenage runaways being ruined by drug addiction.) It's understandable why this character/ relationship was removed from the film.

All in all, Fletch is cleaned up considerably for his bigscreen debut. In the book he's more of a douche bag to his ex-wives (one of whom left him when he threw her cat through a window) and to Larry, his editor.

c) Larry (Geena Davis) is more of Fletch's confidante/ buddy in the movie; in the book, she's sleeping with Frank (Richard Libertini) the newspaper boss) and not portrayed very sympathetically.
3) There are a couple of differences in how the stories end, as well. I'll not spoil the novel's ending as chances are you know the film but not the book and who knows, maybe you'd enjoy reading it for yourself. 

Before we get to the film, one last quote:

"I must follow the journalistic instinct of being skeptical of everything until I prove it true." 

Ah, the 20th century. How I miss you.

THE FILM

Chevy Chase was at the height of his fame and influence in the mid-80s.


Is Fletch Chevy's greatest role/ his best movie? It's definitely my favorite of his performances. He's given wide latitude to ad-lib, and he does so to great effect. Your mileage may vary. When it comes around on cable and I leave it on for a few minutes, my wife doesn't enjoy it at all. Is this a comedy? and Was that supposed to be funny? are common remarks.

For me, though, I can watch this movie endlessly. (White people, amirite?) I sometimes wonder how much of my smart-ass personality came together as a result of my love for this movie during my formative years. (Maybe Midnight Run and Real Genius, as well. And Shatner.)

One of several dozen ad-libs that always crack me up:

"Do you own rubber gloves, Mr. Fletch?"
"I rent 'em. I have a lease with an option to buy."

That will forever strike me for better or worse as the epitome of thinking on your feet.

Also this, when he sees Alan Stanwyck's photos and degrees on the mantle:

"That's a good idea. I ought to frame mine."
The best example of Chevy-Fletch's attitude comes when he catches a kid stealing a car and pretends to be part of a joint Emissions Control/ LAPD investigation. On one hand, it's the part of the 80s movie where it switches to a pop song from the soundtrack over a high speed chase; on the other, it captures the anti-authority spirit of both novel and film perfectly.

"PULL OVER!"
"I did pull over, before. I'll pull over later." 

  
"PULL OVER!"
"All right that's it! Turn your bike in - you're a disgrace to the force."


Not to mention his perfect delivery of these lines when busted for snooping around Sally Ann Cavanaugh's apartment.


"I'm afraid I'm going to have to pull rank on you. I didn't want to have to do this... You see, I'm with the Mattress Police. There are no tags on these mattresses. Now give me the weapon."


Perhaps these jokes don't transcribe too well to the page. Or perhaps they're only funny to me, who knows. But I will forever be trying to be as cool as Chevy Chase is in these scenes. (Thankfully, I guess, given my wife's reaction to them, I am unsuccessful.)

Most of the ad campaign around the film centered on the variety of disguises and alter egos Fletch invents for himself as he goes about solving the mystery. These are all fun - my favorite is probably when he poses as a bumbling aviation engineer.

"You should see my shoes."
The Fletch of the novel does pose as different people, but liberties are taken to maximize Chevy's strengths in the film.
The often-cited dream sequence with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is great. According to the Special Features, they filmed several such sequences:


but it was a good idea to just keep it to the one with Kareem. The Lakers-fandom of Fletch's character is consistent and not overshadowing, and too many dream sequences would have upset the delicate balance of snark and plot.

Fletch may seem like just another zany 80s comedy or just another vehicle for an ex-SNL cast member, but it holds up pretty well for my money, both as a cohesive mystery and as comedy. Above all, it's even toned from start to finish.

The Special Features on my DVD have an entertaining (if somewhat amateurish) retrospective where several ex-cast members speak warmly of the film and their time making it. 

Among them, Tim Matheson.
aka Alan Stanwyck.
The interviewer brings up one sequence of the film, where Fletch crashes a dinner honoring Fred "the Dorf" Dorfman and eludes the police by hijacking the event with an impromptu (and hilarious) speech.
"He wasn't ashamed to admit to me he had syphilis..."
The interviewer asks Matheson (who played Otter in Animal House, a role originally conceived for Chevy) whether or not the filmmakers were making a jokey reference to Fred Dorfman, the older brother to the character Stephen Durst played in AH. He laughs very genuinely and denies this was the case, but he gives a fun aside for fans of Animal House when asked if he remembers who Fred Dorfman even is. "Of course, he's a legacy."

Also in the Special Features, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson 

aka Gail Stanwyck.
describes Chevy as a friendly, kind, hilarious, and generous co-star. I mention this because it may be the only time I've ever seen Chevy Chase (notoriously difficult on set, at least according to most of his former co-stars and directors) praised so lavishly.
 

Three last things:

- Richard Libertini (the actor who plays Frank, Fletch's boss at the paper) says Michael Ritchie described his character to him as an "Adlai Stevenson Democrat" and that as soon as he heard that, he instantly got the character. "I knew what books were on his bookshelf, the whole nine yards." 

That made me feel old.
- Fletch was successful enough to spawn a sequel, 1988's Fletch Lives. Rather than basing it on any of the other books in the Fletch series, though, the filmmakers created a story from scratch. (Unsuccessfully, in my opinion.) Interestingly, though, in the 1980s, Mcdonald bought an antebellum farm in Tennessee and, in addition to his novel-writing, got involved in local politics. (If you never saw Fletch Lives, the plot involves Fletch inheriting an antebellum mansion and involving himself in local politics.) 

- In the same way the dialogue seamlessly propels the novel, Harold Faltermeyer's soundtrack performs the same service for the film. Not only are the instrumental tracks dynamite - the theme is classic, of course, but so are the lesser-known ones: here's one example - the songs surrounding them on the soundtrack are such perfect examples of 80s pop. Dan Harmon's "Get Out of Town," Kim Wilde's "Is It Over (Or Has It Just Begun?)" and The Fixx's "Letter to Both Sides."

Final Verdict: I'm far from an expert on the genre, but the novel seems a perfectly respectable mystery. (And once more: high praise for the dialogue.) The movie is a classic and a personal fave. And it earns an "A" in adapting its source material while allowing plenty of room for Chevy to ad-lib.

5 comments:

  1. I just watched a (lousy) "X-Files" episode that had Dana Wheeler-Nicholson in it, and I found myself thinking, "Hey, where have I seen her before?" Probably many places, but certainly this is one of them.

    From what I remember, this is a very funny movie, and one that absolutely takes perfect advantage of Chase's strengths. It's a pity that guy torpedoed his own career so thoroughly; he should have had several decades of being a massive star. (And, more importantly, we should have the great movies to result from it.)

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    1. It is interesting to speculate what might have been with Chevy. My friend and I were trying to pinpoint what the last unambiguously good Chevy vehicle was. Christmas Vacation? (I never saw Vegas Vacation?) I can watch Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and kinda like it, but I don't think it's all that cohesive a movie. (I just checked where you ranked it in your JC write-up - exactly right. A misfire that seemed to be pulling in two different directions, but much more watchable than its (lack of) reputation may suggest.)

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    2. I suspect a lot of people would balk at "Christmas Vacation" being referred to as "unambiguously good."

      Not me, though. I laugh my ass off every time I watch that movie. (I missed out on it this year -- maybe 2015!) And he's note-perfect in it, as far as I'm concerned.

      Looking at his IMDb page, yeah, it looks like that might be the last one. I'm unfamiliar with "Community," so maybe that's the small-screen equivalent.

      I have not seen -- "Christmas Vacation" excepted -- any of his classics in a long time, but looking through that filmography, boy . . . there are a LOT of movies on there that I used to love when I was a wee lad (or a teenager in some cases).

      I was a big "Funny Farm" fan, not to mention "Spies Like Us," "Three Amigos," "Fletch," the first two "Vacation"s, "Foul Play," "Seems Like Old Times," "Under the Rainbow," "Caddyshack," and even "Oh Heavenly Dog." I'm sure at least some of those would 100% fail to amuse me today, but based on sheer volume, I would guess that old Chevy had a MAJOR role on the development of my sense of humor. Which tends to be dry and abrasive and vaguely unlikeable . . . so, yeah, that all checks out.

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    3. Yeah, me too. Particularly Fletch, that kind of no-combination-of-circumstances-will-make-me-take-this-or-you-seriously smart-assed-ness. (All in the dogged pursuit of truth, of course!)

      Every last one you mention was a big part of my formative years. Many don't hold up, it's true. I can still hang with the Vacations. And Fletch and Caddyshack, of course.

      A lot of people revere Animal House and The Blues Brothers. Maybe it's just a result of seeing those films much later in my life (when I was in my late teens vs. early adolescence) But Fletch and Caddyshack are more my style than either of those.

      Which is to say, had more of an impact on "my style" than either of those. Not that I dislike either; I like Animal House and Blues Brothers both quite a bit.

      Funny Farm - man, I used to love the crap out of that one. That's one that didn't age too well for me. I'm kinda afraid to watch it again. Ditto for Spies Like Us. I saw both in the 90s and realized they were falling in my estimation and want to preserve as much of my adolescent affection for them as possible.

      And whether it's growing up as a Yank in Cold War Germany and visiting all of the places in the film or not, I don't know, but I can watch European Vacation any day of the week. I suspect it's not JUST that, but it's a big part of it for me.

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    4. A couple of years ago, I had occasion to be in Oxford, Mississippi looking for a parking spot downtown around noon. This apparently is an impossibility, and I ended up circling the same spots probably a dozen times before giving up. At some point, I began saying, "Look, kids: Big Ben . . . Parliament . . . " as I passed.

      Nobody in the car but me. But the audience was very appreciative.

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