05 February 2012

Book 2 of 2012

I finished this book after waking up this morning. By the way, book one of 2012 was Shakespeare's Othello, which I read and annotated because I'm teaching it for the first time this year. In order to avoid getting sick of it before my students even start reading the play, I'm holding off on a proper review of it. It is pretty great, though.

2) Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce
For the longest time, I had no idea this book existed because the movie starring Paul Newman has always stood on its own as such a timeless piece of cinema that I never thought to question its origins. A few minor events are switched around from novel to film, but the things that happen are familiar. Lucas Jackson, a war "hero," gets sentenced to two years in a Florida chain gang and is too bullheaded for the guards' liking, so they proceed to try and get his mind right by breaking him down.

While the movie is a character piece, and the book does focus on Luke as the central figure, Pearce spends the majority of the novel detailing the harsh life of the chain gang. It's written in first person from the perspective of another prisoner who admires Luke for the savior-type leader that he is but also recognizes that no good outcome can result from Luke's behavior. Pearce provides insight into Luke's past, explaining how and why Luke's time in World War II led to his disillusionment with religion and disdain for authority.

This is a good book, and I really enjoyed it, but that enjoyment is also somewhat tainted by the film. Paul Newman and George Kennedy so encapsulate those characters and the movie itself is such a classic that it's difficult not to compare the two. Much like Fight Club, this is an occasion where the film trumps the original work. In both cases, the filmmaker decided to focus on the characters and landed actors that could do a great job fleshing them out and making them whole. That streamlined approach helps achieve the status it still holds today. Meanwhile, the book, by discussing the cruelty and despair of the chain gang life, touching on the depravity that men sink to during war, and merely hinting at the savior figure that Luke becomes in the eyes of the camp has a more scattered view. By tackling so many themes, it fails to accomplish getting a point across about a single one of them.

As a companion piece, to the film, this is an interesting read. On its own, it's merely just good but not really great.

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