THE DISASTROUS AND FASCINATING ‘BOOT TRACKS’ ADAPTATION

boottracks1In this week’s episode of the podcast, I talked about Matthew F. Jones’ novel ‘Boot Tracks’, an incredibly moving and complicated crime-noir. I mentioned that I’d heard of a forthcoming movie adaptation, but as it often turns out, I was mistaken – the film had already been released last year. I immediately tracked down a copy, only to find a confused film, one that didn’t seem to fully understand the source material, one that didn’t work despite some rather strong performances. But the weird thing was, Jones wrote the screenplay, and I couldn’t figure out how such a wonderful writer could adapt his own material so unsuccessfully. I soon found myself in a bit of a mystery of my own.

BOOT TRACKS begins with Charles Rankin being released from prison, equipped with a job to take care of from the Buddha, a man who offered his protection and love to Rankin on the inside. Given a name, an address, and a duffel bag filled with cash, Charles has the chance to achieve ultimate freedom. After slightly botching the job, leaving the wife of his victim alive (albiet tied up and beaten) Charles has a chance encounter with Florence on a city bus, and the two set off on an otherworldly road trip, dissecting the nature of self, language, reality and identity.

At least, that’s how things go in the novel. To be honest, I’m actually not a man who demands strict adaptation – being a comic book junkie, I feel that I have an understanding that making a successful movie is different than making a successful book. As long as you have a grasp of the deeper themes and spirit of the source material, you’re golden. It’s the changes BOOT TRACKS make that don’t work, and serve to confuse the message hidden in Jones’ ugly and brutal world.

Florence is an ex-porn star, and her world-weary wisdom of her past life is central to her character. As she explains to Charles, the woman on the screen isn’t the woman on the couch watching, and a lot of men get mixed up about that part. False identities are all over BOOT TRACKS – Charles goes by Samson while he’s around Florence, and in his mind, he sees himself as Little Charlie, an angry young kid with a difficult past. Florence finds strength in religion, which Charles can’t comprehend, but this gives her the faith to see that ‘Samson’ has a good soul underneath his gruff exterior.

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It’s the relationship between Florence and Charles, really the heart of the story, that fumbles the most in the film. In the early half, the director and actors seem to have an understanding of who these two are. But there’s a key scene in the novel when Charles and Florence visit a church, and the two have very rough and loveless sex on the hood of their car. The film takes a more Hollywood approach, instead having the two engage in a kind of endless ‘will they/won’t they’ tease, but the message gets muddled that way.

If Charles and Florence are just teasing us as they do in the film, kissing and beginning to embrace then running off, it becomes more about regression and impotence, which I don’t think BOOT TRACKS is. In the novel, after the public display outside of the church, Florence says it perfectly – “I’m still waitin’ for you to make love to me a lot more gentler than you did outside on the roof of that car for the whole world to see.” Throughout the novel, Florence has no reservations about putting on her guise as the ‘woman on the screen’ – the porn star who has seen it and done it all. She’s so comfortable in her own skin that she has no problem slipping on another persons. The symbolism is hardly hidden from us – Florence is an angel, a saviour for Charles, someone to teach him how permeable reality and identity are.

But BOOT TRACKS the film wants to bad to give us a happy ending. It’s telling that, in the novel, the night when Charles goes to correct the mistake he made, he collapses on to her, still unable to make tender and real love to Florence the way he dreams, whereas in the film, we get the traditional and moving love scene. It’s actually less satisfying this way. Charles hasn’t really learned anything yet, so we can’t have him achieving nirvana just for the sake of it. Reaching the conclusion, this is when the film completely derails.

I talked about this a lot on the podcast, so I won’t ramble too much more, but nevertheless, an empty baby crib is a recurring and essential symbol in the novel. The woman Charles leaves tied up was the victim of a miscarriage, further cementing Charles’ confused beliefs towards God and life. The idea that some people get picked to live and some don’t is what haunts Rankin – the entire reason Florence is introduced is to teach him what life is, and how unreal it can feel for everybody. Charles doesn’t feel that his life is real, but he knows it is more real than this child who never even got one. Again, it’s not that the movie left this small moment out that makes it a bad movie, but it’s a telling example of how much it misses the point.

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Charles shows up at the house of the murdered man, only to discover the wife still there. She mistakes him for a police officer or doctor of some kind. As Charlie unties her, he goes downstairs, only to come face to face with the Buddha, who proceeds to murder him. Rankin stumbles off to Florence, who he’s left in the car, and dies, staring up at the vast expanse of the sky. This is how the movie ends, and it makes no sense.

In the novel, Jones again employs his brilliant mixture of bare knuckle brutality and literary musings to reach a completely stunning climax – the wife, who Charles had blinded the night before (mistaking her for his mother, another completely essential factor of the novel, abandoned here) have a long and unforgettable discussion on destiny and identity. Florence may have been Charlie’s angel, but the wife of a man he murdered represents something more real than salvation. No amount of Florence’s love or belief in him will change the fact that Charles has a raging beast inside of him. Nothing will change the fact that he killed a man, a man he never knew. The two discuss the absent baby, and Charles starts to feel that maybe he should be a void bigger than that empty crib. He places a gun in the blind victim’s hand and tells her if someone comes in making no noise, that’s the murderer, so kill him. Charles essentially kills himself, shot multiple times by his own victim, in a darkly ironic ‘eye for an eye’ scenario.

Having the Buddha kill Charlie doesn’t really mean anything. The Buddha represents a lot of things in the story – not only is he what gets the plot started, he’s also a strange sort of surrogate father for Charles. But he can’t just be some malicious crime boss, weirdly released from prison early only to kill his beloved Charlie. There’s a love between the two, more strongly hinted at in the book, but still mentioned in the film. It’s weird. As the film ended, I just didn’t understand why Jones would change the story this way – I mean, I get that somethings can’t get adapted word for word, and some things need to be changed for a variety of reasons – I immediately assumed distribution could have been a worry, and that maybe Jones wanted to avoid the scenes about miscarriage and rough sex.

As it turns out, Jones did write the screenplay, David Jacobson simply didn’t direct what he wrote. I have no idea where one begins and ends, but I think it’s safe to say that the strange ending and unnecessary changes didn’t come from Jones’ mind. In fact, the novelist even sued the producers of the film, after signing a contract ensuring that he would have creative control over the story was ignored. Even worse, apparently the film started production before the rights to the novel were even secured!

According to the complaint, after the novel came out, Jones was “courted” by defendants David Jacobson and Larry Rattner with assurances that the film would be consistent with the authenticity of the novel. In November 2010, Jacobson, who directed the film, and Rattner, who produced it, allegedly gave the writer authority over any script changes in the “Option Agreement.”

Jones alleges that the defendants fraudulently made such promises “so they could misappropriate (his work) and use it in the way they wanted.”

The film is said to be materially different from the screenplay in order to secure a financing and a distribution deal. Allegedly, principal photography was completed without the producers ever actually exercising the option to purchase Jones’ work. 

After Jones learned of this, he says he confronted the defendants, who were allegedly unresponsive to his concerns until they learned that Jones planned to file a lawsuit. At which point, they purportedly exercised the purchase option.

Now, Jones is suing for copyright infringement, breach of contract and fraud. He’s demanding $500,000 in compensatory damages, $1 million in punitive damages, further statutory damages, an injunction against the film’s release, and dissolution of the defendants’ film company, Dirt Blossom.

You can read more about the case here. However, obviously the film was still released. Even stranger, on IMDB the movie has a completely different title – TOMORROW YOU’RE GONE. The Blu-ray I watched is called BOOT TRACKS. In fact, on Matthew F. Jones website, he doesn’t list either title on his ‘Film’ page, which provides links to the other two films adapted from his work. I’m not sure what exactly happened, but the troubled production and Jones’ story concerns being ignored certainly illuminate the problems with the movie.

BOOT TRACKS the film doesn’t work. Willem DaFoe as The Buddha is inspired casting, and Michelle Monaghan actually does a pretty fantastic job of Florence, surely one of the most complicated characters in all of crime fiction. But it needed to pay closer attention to the story it was adapting – BOOT TRACKS shouldn’t be the story of a crime gone wrong, a man cleaning up his mistakes and paying for it by being killed by his nasty crime boss. It’s so much more complicated and original than that. It’s a perfect example of attepting to make a story more satisfying by smoothing out the rough edges, and taking out all of the hard and uncomfortable truths that made it moving in the first place. BOOT TRACKS is not a good movie, adapted from an amazing novel, but watching the film, and learning of the troubled story behind it, is disastrous and fascinating.

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