From Page to Screen: In Cold Blood (1967) and In Cold Blood (1996)

1996 Miniseries

I’m not even sure where to begin with this movie. It is probably one of the most inept adaptations I have ever watched, to the point that it is weirdly entertaining because it is so incompetent.

There are a couple of slightly bright moments–like Australian Sam Neill being his reliably solid self and also being one of the only people in the cast who actually sounds Midwestern in his role as the Kansas lawman who investigates the case and L.Q. Jones being his reliably entertaining self in a small role as Smith’s dad. But that’s about all this movie has going for it.

The biggest issues are pretty much the same things that make the 1967 movie such a classic, just in reverse.

I can’t think of many movies that I consider woefully miscast in multiple roles, but this one is, specifically in regard to Hickock, Smith, and Mr. Clutter. I think my telling you that Goose from Top Gun is one of the killers might indicate some of the problem.

Anthony Edwards plays Hickock and Eric Roberts plays Smith, and they both put in hammy performances that seem to miss the point of both characters. Edwards’ Hickock is too goofy and creepy to be convincing as a masterful conman, so in scenes where he is supposed to be working his magic and manipulating people, it just seems puzzling that anyone would fall for his spiel. He also affects a very pronounced Deep South accent at times, which is just bizarre considering Hickock was from Kansas. (He’s not alone, though. Most of the rest of the cast seem to rotate between the Deep South thing or trying to sound like Texans. By the end, I was wondering if any of them had ever visited Kansas.)

Roberts, meanwhile, spends a lot of time singing off-key–a nod, I suppose, to Smith’s love for music–but he really can’t sing and those scenes stretch on pointlessly for minutes at a time. The singing was so prominent that at one point Jen and I looked at each other and said something along the line of, “I don’t think I can take another scene of him singing.” Right about then, he launched into another long, ear-punishing solo. I think the audience is supposed to get a lot of Smith’s miserable life and conflicted personality in these scenes, but you don’t. You just get lots of terrible singing.

We won’t even delve into how distracting it is for the movie to keep making such a big deal out of Smith’s Native American heritage (his mother was a full-blooded Cherokee) when Roberts is clearly not Native American.

Some of these things might have been forgivable if they had still conjured up some dual sense of menace and vulnerability, but neither one of them manage to be very compelling or scary.

It also doesn’t help that Kevin Tighe’s Mr. Clutter is way more intimidating than either one of the killers. That makes all the scenes of them breaking into his house and terrorizing him seem odd because he comes off as the type of person who could probably kill both of them with his pinkie.

One thing that this adaptation tries to do, in contrast to many other filmed depictions, is spend more time on the Clutter family. I think that is a noble endeavor because they usually get lost in any discussion about the story. The only problem is the way the miniseries goes about this is about as inept as its depiction of their killers.

Beyond Mr. Clutter coming off as creepy, the story spends a lot of time doing what I call “Look! I did my research!” There are painfully long scenes that are pulled straight from the book that work well in a book but just seem bafflingly out-of-place in a movie and don’t seem to serve any purpose other than proving that someone read the book.

For instance, there’s a scene of Mr. Clutter and an insurance salesman that really did happen that day. It’s an interesting little moment in the book that takes up very little time but adds to the fatalistic aura of the text. In the movie, it just seems to go on and on for no sole reason other than to list out in detail the remaining children of the family who were not in the home that day. That sort of thing happens a lot in this movie.

And it happens so much that it pretty much eliminates time for one of the most interesting parts of the story for me–the bizarre driving odyssey that Hickock and Smith took after committing the murders. It’s a big part of the book and the original movie that shows how the killers’ relationship falls apart in much the same way that a dysfunctional marriage self-detonates. But it rates comparatively little screen time in this version because it spends so much marking time with other scenes whose importance are either minimal to begin with or not adequately developed enough to work.

Another misstep for me is, unlike the book and the original movie, this story doesn’t just stop when the killers arrive at the house and then force you to wait for the details. Well, it kind of tries to, but it shows quite a bit of the two killers terrorizing the family before cutting to the next day, so there’s no real sense of mystery about what happened that propels you through the rest of it.

Really, by the time the movie works its way back to present the details of that night when the other stories do, it just seems redundant.  Roberts’ intermittent and very fake limp also lends some unintentional comedy to those scenes, which should be horrifying, nor humorous. (I’m cracking up just thinking about it now, and that makes me feel like a terrible person because the context of the scene is in no way funny. Thanks, 1996 miniseries.)

The verdict: The 1967 movie wins this hands down. I mean, there is not even a contest here. The 1967 movie is a classic for a reason and is well worth watching. What’s even better is I know from chatting with numerous family and friends that the movie works just as well for people who have read the book and already know the story as for those who have not.

Would I encourage you to watch the 1996 miniseries? Well, that kind of depends on your tolerance for bad movies. It’s an interesting study in contrasts with the original and is entertaining precisely because of how bad it is, but that’s where its merits end.

As always, if you’re interested in either of these movies or the original book, just follow this link to our online library catalog.

What’s your opinion on the best movie inspired by In Cold Blood? What’s your favorite movie about a true crime? Are you obsessed about a book/story, true crime or not?  Tell us in the comments!

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Author: berryvillelibrary

"Growing a bigger, better library"

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