My love for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (which some ungenerous souls might call an obsession) has been well documented on this blog.
But my interest in the story transcends the book. The 1967 film adaptation is one of my favorite movies and is one of the examples I always point to when people claim that a movie can never be as good as the book.
A few months ago, I watched the 1996 miniseries adaptation of the story with my coworker Jen. If the 1967 version is one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen, the 1996 version is easily one of the absolute worst.
Usually the “From Page to Screen” series is a venue for me to compare and contrast books with their adaptations. But this is my series and my rules, and I’ve decided to bend the rules for this one. So, this month we’re comparing and contrasting two adaptations and exploring why one is considered a masterpiece and the other, well, isn’t. Let’s just call it Screen vs. Screen for this month.
If you have never read the book or watched the movie–you really should remedy that soon–In Cold Blood is essentially the story of two warped drifters who murder the Clutters, an all-American Kansas farm family, in 1959, the hunt for the killers, and their subsequent arrest and punishment and the chronicle of the lives of all parties involved.
But it manages to transcend the true crime genre, partially because of Capote’s lyrical writing style and flair for storytelling and also because the story and characters are a lot more complex than that initial description sounds like.
A 1967 feature film adapted the story within a couple of years of publication, and 29 years later it was turned into a 2-part miniseries for television. About ten years after that, dueling biopics (Capote and Infamous) presented the story but with more of a focus on Truman Capote’s role in the story and his relationships with the killers, especially Smith. We’re focusing on the first two, though, because they are direct adaptations of the text, with Capote’s role largely ignored. Minor spoilers do follow . . . beware!
The verisimilitude that director Richard Brooks demanded for this film is, on the surface, kind of creepy. He filmed on location as much possible, including in the town and home where the murder took place, as well as the prison the two murderers were subsequently incarcerated and executed in.
Beyond that, the casting of Scott Wilson and Robert Blake as the two killers, fast-talking conman Dick Hickock and volatile, psychologically troubled Perry Smith, respectively, is downright eerie in how much the two actors look like the guys they are depicted.
In fact, there are stories of people from the local town where the murders took place being absolutely horrified when the movie was filming there because, with only a quick glance, it truly looked as if the two perpetrators of the most savage crime in the region’s history had come back from the grave.
But what makes the casting work so well is not that the two actors physically favor the characters. Rather, it is how much they embody their personalities fully. Wilson captures all of Hickock’s slimy charisma, conniving intelligence, and manipulative tendencies while Blake is both pathetically vulnerable and severely unhinged. Whether Hickock is trying to pass off bad checks on a hapless store owner or Smith is indulging in fantastical pipe dreams or the two are aimlessly road tripping or slaughtering an innocent family, they’re believable.
Even more so, the filmmakers managed to do something that, I think, befuddles many who make adaptations. Obviously, not everything from a book can make it into a movie. Many adaptations suffer because the filmmakers try to throw too much in, not realizing or acknowledging that they are working with two entirely different mediums of storytelling, or they leave too much out and strip the story of whatever it was that made it compelling to begin with.
The 1967 movie, by and large, gets everything right precisely because it gets what is so compelling about the book. It takes the story’s essential essence and translates that onto screen brilliantly, everything from the rich black-and-white cinematography (a stylistic decision that just works so well with the story) to the performances to the script, which manages to take a 343-page book and whittle it down to a 135-minute movie without feeling like it is bloated or left out anything important.
One such moment is the claustrophobic scene that finally depicts what happened that night in the house. For me, one of the things that makes the book is how Capote delays presenting the details of the murder until a good 3/4 of the way through the book. He gives you the entire day leading up to the moment that Hickock and Smith pull up to the house, then he jumps ahead to the next morning and refuses to tell you exactly what happened until near the end of the book. The placement of the scene makes an already horrific moment have an even greater impact than it already would.
The movie preserves this, and the depiction of the entire scene is unnerving, though the murders themselves are not explicitly depicted. The corresponding scene in 2005’s biopic Capote is disturbing and definitely more graphic, but I find the scene in the 1967 version more effective and almost unbearable to watch because there is something suffocating about the way it is filmed. Even just the sound of the killers’ footsteps on the stairs as they ascend them one final time is ominous.
The only real knock I have on this movie is that the ending does get a little preachy, with the insertion of a reporter who, presumably, is a stand-in for Truman Capote. But that’s a pretty minor complaint about an otherwise excellent film.
Go to the next page for my take on the 1996 miniseries.