The hardboiled mystery novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley was first published in 1990 and was acknowledged by former U. S. President, Bill Clinton, as one of his many favorite novelists (Easy Writer). Taking place in post-war Los Angeles, the story is narrated by an African American laborer, Easy Rawlins, who is transformed into an L. A. detective after being pulled in to the affairs of local townspeople. The successful novel continued onto screen adaptation in 1995 and was directed by Carl Franklin and starred Denzel Washington, who also financed and produced the film (Easy Writer).
From a well-liked hardboiled detective novel to a contemporary film, viewers and readers are restricted from several rhetorical devices and techniques displayed in either mediums such as point of view, tone and imagery. In both works we see how this transition of mediums affects viewer’s appreciation and understanding of the plot, characters, and historical context. When comparing the film adaptation and hardboiled novel, we see how Easy conveys the story with his point of view through first person narration.
Since the film had a time limitation of 102 minutes (imbd) it held back the benefits of incorporating all of Easy’s narrations from the book. According to his article, Devil in a Blue Dress, Jeff Stafford states, “Universal first acquired the rights to Devil in a Blue Dress and hired Walter Mosley to adapt his own novel for the screen but the author soon realized it was not his forte…”. His statement shows how difficult it was to transform the novel into a 102-minute film without excluding its great literary aspects.
In the novel, Easy conveys the story through his perspective and, consequently, we have access to his opinions, insights and visuals. For example, in the book, readers have access to Easy’s intentions and motives when looking for Frank Green. He admits, “I never brought up Frank’s name though. Frank was skitterish, like all gangsters, and if he felt that people were talking about him he got nervous; if Frank was nervous he might have killed me before I had time to make my pitch” (Devil in a Blue Dress page 61). In the movie viewers don’t get to see the fear that Easy hides.
He describes Frank in the book as a fearing man that has the capability to kill him; but we don’t see this in the movie. Instead, the movie shows multiple scenes where Easy bombards stores and threatens people to find Frank Green. He angrily yells Frank’s name out loud and makes a scene wherever he goes (Devil in a Blue Dress Movie 1995). This portrays him as a courageous and unemotional detective, which is different from how readers perceived him in the book. Unlike the movie, the book characterizes Easy as a selfless man who initially engages in the case for money to pay his rent.
He finds himself falling deeper and deeper into the investigation and faces many dangerous confrontations where he is violently beaten and threatened. When being interrogated by the two police officers, Easy says, “…before I could turn toward him I felt the hard knot of his fist explode against the side of my head” (Devil in a Blue Dress page 33). Easy’s character has flaws and often experiences difficult situations that requires him to plan out his actions in order to survive. In the movie; however, Easy has a heroic representation and appears unharmed throughout much of the plot.
Lead actor Denzel Washington is known in most of his movies for playing the “good guy” role that fends off the bad (25 Best Denzel Washington Films of All Time). Throughout the movie, directors appeal to viewers liking by shooting Denzel Washington with unharmed physical features. The movie utilizes Easy’s voiceover narration to tell the story from his point of view and the book written in the form of a diary where Easy can express all of his emotions and thoughts. The movie also fails to include Easy’s third conscience, which was so useful in the book.
Although both mediums do consider the case from Easy’s perspective, it is clear that the movie lacks essential details that Easy mentions in the book. In addition to the differences seen through Easy’s point of view, there are also several differences in how the author and director utilize certain effects to obtain a dark tone. The screen adaptation paid homage to the dark tone perceived in the novel through lighting and a voiceover narration from Easy. Several scenes in the movie appear to have darker lighting than others.
This effect allows viewers to feel the mysterious and secretive mood that is intended. In the scene where Easy visits John’s nightclub the lighting in the movie portrays the room as very dark and musty. The room itself is very enclosed and secretive since the owner, John, was into the speakeasy business before Prohibition was repealed. The nightclub itself is for the black community and has a very low-key reputation. To show the secretive, mysterious reputation of the nightclub, Franklin shoots the scene with little to no lighting (Devil in a Blue Dress Movie 1995).
Throughout the film the audience is led through Easy’s point of view, which is heard through his voiceover narration. According to a movie review by Edwin Jahiel, “Washington’s voice is rather too sweet, lacks the tough staccato…”. Again, we see actors blocking take effect as Washington attempts to live up to his typical role as the “good guy”. The movie takes a much different approach towards Easy’s character, which results in a smooth, legato narration. His short, flowing sentences give off a professional feel and results in an overall darker tone.
In the book readers get a feel for the same dark tone through Mosley’s structured syntax, imagery and facts that are included and omitted. Most of the dialogue contains slang words and short forceful sentences that make the characters intimidating. When Easy refuses Mouse’s offer he responds, “Nigger cain’t pull his way out the swamp wit’out no help…You wanna hole on t’this house and git some money and have you some white girls callin’ on the phone” (Devil in a Blue Dress page 73). Mouse’s response is daring and bold when he gives Easy these alternatives to live a leisure life.
Mosley’s word choices in the dialogue and Easy’s narration causes a dark tone that allows readers to grasp the mystery and danger being incorporated in the investigation. Most of Easy’s narration is straightforward because he gets straight to the point. For example, after visiting the bar he states, “I never got bored or frustrated. I wasn’t even afraid of DeWitt Albright during those days. I felt, foolishly, safe from even his crazy violence” (Devil in a Blue Dress page 61). Easy gets straight to the point and does not beat around the bush when it comes to admitting any information or thoughts.
This allows the book to be dense in information and causes a fast pace suspenseful experience. Imagery is also utilized differently in both mediums since the film takes advantage of visuals through acting and scene production while the book takes advantage of description through texts. While sitting in Joppy’s bar, Easy thinks to himself, “Joppy’s windows were so dingy… if you sat at a small cherry table next to them, at least you had the benefit of the dull glow of daylight” (Devil in a Blue Dress page 2). His description of Joppy’s bar and use of comparison, illustrates the bar vividly.
Later on in the book, Easy notices Daphne Monet’s accent, ‘“Allo? Thees is Mr. Rawlins? Yes? ”’ and afterwards Easy thinks to himself, “The accent was mild, like French, but it wasn’t French exactly” (Devil in a Blue Dress page 102). His specific description of her accent raises reader’s superstition and reminds us of each character’s mysterious secrets. The director’s decision to cut this from the movie is unknown, but surely it did cause more of a surprise when she revealed her mulatto origins. The directors also changed Albright’s physical appearance in his first scene.
The book describes him wearing, “…an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks… I felt a thrill of fear” (Devil in a Blue Dress page 1). This first impression of Albright symbolizes white supremacy during the late 1940s. His decision to appear in a black community dressed in all white seems daring and ruthless. Again, this adds to Mosley’s intention to illustrate a dark tone by incorporating racial aspects that differentiate blacks and whites. Also, the book clearly exposes Daphne and Easy’s relationship outside of the case.
This sexual relationship that isn’t seen in the movie gives the book an advantage on grasps the dirty depths of the investigation. These additions or deductions, nonetheless, also affect viewer’s understanding of the story. In the film, Daphne Monet plans to blackmail Matthew Teran with photos that evidenced his pedophilia, “… I paid seven thousand dollars for those pictures they belong to me”(Devil in a Blue Dress film). Although this isn’t seen in the novel, viewers who watch the movie can understand the conflict between Daphne and Teran much easier than in the book.
While standing in Carter’s office, Easy reveals to us, “Talking with Mr. Todd Carter was a strange experience. I mean, there I was, a Negro in a rich white man’s office, talking to him like we were best friends—even closer”(Devil in a Blue Dress page 57). His conversed narration allows readers to connect with his character and also understand racial ideologies during that time period. The novel was published in 1990 and the movie in 1995, however, both convey an investigation set in 1948 when black and white association was uncommon (Peter Travers).
The investigation takes place during the Second Great Migration where large-scale shift of African American from the South migrated upwards into Northern cities such as Los Angeles. The aftereffects of WWII also caused many minorities to search for skilled jobs to make more money (The Great Migration: Creating a New Black Identity in Los Angeles). This is seen in both mediums as Easy is haunted by his past in the war and explains his reasons for moving to L. A. , “I ran away from Mouse and Texas to go to the army and then later to L. A…. igned up to fight in the war to prove to myself that I was a man…But I had dreams that didn’t have me running in the streets anymore; I was a man of property and I wanted to leave my wild days behind” (Devil in a Blue Dress page 22-23). His ambitions to leave behind his past life in the South and move onto the war and later into the city represent many young African American in the late 1940s. The aftereffects of the war led many minorities to travel and work towards their dreams and life goals (The Civil Rights Movement:? 1919-1960s).
The text exemplifies African American struggles in the late 1940s during times of racism and segregation. In the movie, however, viewers did not fully recognize the racial ideologies at the time since many prejudice statements and actions were cut from the film. The movie showed Easy’s neighborhood to be a close-knit black community. In the movie we see children playing in the yards and riding bicycles along the sidewalks, homeowners tending their gardens and watering plants, and even a local lunatic who tries to steal everyone’s trees (Devil in a Blue Dress Movie 1995).
Having been produced in 1995, the movie lacked most racial ideologies set in the 1940s. Due to Denzel Washington’s lead role as Easy Rawlins, there wasn’t a significantly amount of racism portrayed in the film since directors wanted to keep the screenplay in viewer’s favor. Transitioning from the well-liked hardboiled novel in 1990 to the a big screen adaptation five years later, the two mediums compare and contrast in several rhetorical devices such as point of view, tone and imagery. We see how the film’s adaptation from the book’s point of view through Easy’s perspective can leave out information that readers get from the book.
The sense of tone that is darkly portrayed in both mediums allows the audience to focus on certain issues while sensing the mysterious dangerous mood. The imagery illustrated in the novel seems to be more informative and descriptive for readers, unlike the movie. Although both mediums work their best to portray the hardboiled L. A. detective theme, they do distinguish their own techniques, which affects the audience’s appreciation and understanding of the plot, characters and historical context.
Courtney from Study Moose
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