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Script Review: TO THE WHITE SEA, by the Coen Brothers.
Reviewed by Darwin Mayflower
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How you feel about the Coen brothers adaptation of James Dickeys wonderful novel TO THE WHITE SEA is based on one thing: whether youve read it or not.
Dickeys book is about an airman shot down over Tokyo during World War II. Once hes in the land of the enemy, he has to travel north in a hostile atmosphere -- one false move and hes dead. To go undetected and to persevere (to eat and find shelter) he must kill. And he does. With proficient brutality. The main character, Muldrow, is a hunter. He grew up in Alaska with his father. Hunting, roughing it out, away from anything that could soften him. Becoming one with the land and the wildlife.
The book is written as an unbroken monologue. It is a meditation on war, death, survival, childhood, stalking prey. It is one of those novels that uses a persons voice and simple language to show us beautiful images and present astounding conditions and situations. You could look at it as a behind-the-enemy-lines survival guide. But it is more than that: it is a journey into a mans mind. Reading the book is literally like putting on a pair of magical glasses that lets you see through another set of eyes.
The Coens essentially keep the book word for word. Muldrow never speaks to anyone (he cannot speak their language and if he sees anyone he kills them) and there is no dialogue after page ten. This is an impressive if artsy move -- it is like a silent film -- but by being unable to hear Muldrows thoughts -- to never hear what he thinks of the insane violence hes partaking in -- he becomes nothing more than a nonentity. An action-movie god a la Rambo. The Coens TO THE WHITE SEA becomes a stunningly violent travelogue through war-torn Tokyo. Its one scene after another of brutality. And be warned, folks: this is horrific savagery. People have their heads blown off; their throats slashed; men are decapitated with swords. (This is all in Dickeys novel, but reading about it through a mans eyes and seeing it in a wide shot is quite different.) Even though we know Muldrow must kill to survive, the Muldrow in this script is just a violent animal: a bear running into a human and mauling him. There is nothing behind his eyes. If we are to know him through his actions, because there are no words, we have no choice but to think of him as either a madman or a man toughened by life and indifferent to death.
The bottom line is this: without any knowledge of who our hero is -- the brief glimpses of his past do nothing to help -- the script has nothing to say but that Muldrow is one adept, tough bastard. Without his inner monologue, TO THE WHITE SEA is very much an action film with "set pieces" and our hero showing his skill by getting away from armed guards.
Now, if I hadnt read the book I might have a totally different view. While taking Dickeys prose right out of the book, what the Coens do add is their vision of the film. The Coens write their scripts like storyboards and we are given a glance here of what they intend to do.
On that score the script works fabulously. The script presents us with one beautiful, hypnotic image after another. The Coens plan to trip out and meditate with their camera instead of Muldrows words.
The Coens add little to the story and for the most part skip around the obstacles Dickey set up for Muldrow, editing down the book. The Coens one great annexation is a scene where a young Muldrow, in Alaska, has to murder one of his dogs to keep from getting frostbite. This scene is nowhere in the novel, but it nicely sets up who Muldrow is and how he understands self-preservation. But Im saying this as a man who knows Muldrows past from the book and giving my approbation because I already know how this fits into Muldrows character.
The script is only 89 pages. Which makes me wonder why the Coens left out so many of Dickeys hurdles. They dismissed a plethora of instances that rival what they included (I hate to say it about them, but they seem only interested in the gory details).
David Peoples wrote a draft of this script in 1996. His name does not appear on the cover page, but Ethan Coen clearly read his version of this story. The Coens script owes its spectacular opening, its structure and its end to Peoples. Even though the dialogue in the Coens script is taken word for word from Dickeys novel, the scene of Muldrows plane getting shot up is not detailed in the book and the Coens have basically copied Peoples text straight into their screenplay. (And its attractive, enviable text: my favorite piece being when Peoples says a series of bombs explode like "flowers blooming.")
I always love to see what the Coens are going to do with their camera. In this case they can go absolutely nuts: they never have to worry about their intricate dialogue here: every scene presents another opportunity to top the last. From a sewer to the arresting nighttime image from Dickeys novel of people fleeing under heavy fire attack to a lake late at night -- the Coens have a gaggle of images to work with and startle us with.
I read Dickeys novel years ago and its always stuck with me. So I cant erase it from my mind and say how such a person would react to the Coens take.
Having said that, I still think, despite its exciting scenes of war and horror, TO THE WHITE SEA doesnt work in movie form. Dickeys point wasnt just to show you that Muldrow could kill -- and kill well.
Dickey wanted to take you inside his head and show you what formed Muldrow and how he became the coldly efficient hunter he is today.
A quick flashback cant compete with Muldrows detailed description of how he would hunker down in the snow and wait for the snowshoe hare. He gained a great respect for animals in his hunting and he understands being on both sides: stalked and stalking. A brightly-lit scene of a kid in an endless field of snow just wont take you into his desires.
I think you lose too much for TO THE WHITE SEA to work. Unless the Coens wanted to make an artsy action film that showcased their directing style and was bloodier than a cheap B-movie.
If thats what they wanted: they got it. And TO THE WHITE SEA, though being used, was their perfect vessel.
As for the rest of the people in the world who read WHITE SEA, amazed, and lived in the agitated, skewed mind of Muldrow for a few days -- well always have the book.
-- Darwin Mayflower.
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