Thoughts on the movie:
I believe this is the first adaptation I have looked at in which the original author also got to work on the adaptation. That makes for an interesting situation.
Also pertinent, I think, is the fact that the original book is an adaptation, if you will, of real-life events. As a result, adapting it also presents some challenges that we haven’t really examined in-depth in a From Page to Screen post.
For this movie, Scorsese assembled a lot of familiar faces from his other work to play characters who are very clearly inspired by the real people discussed in the book but with slightly altered names.
In the role of Rosenthal, the resident gambling expert sent to oversee the casinos, is Robert De Niro. The character has been renamed “Ace” Rothstein while Joe Pesci is Nicky Santoro, a thinly veiled depiction of Spilotro. (The last bit is some pretty good casting. It’s kind of unsettling how much Pesci favors the real Spilotro.) Rounding out the cast of main characters is Sharon Stone as Rothstein’s troubled wife Ginger (clearly inspired by the real-life Rosenthal’s wife Geri).
I find the name alterations interesting from an adaption standpoint. Scorsese did something a bit similar in Goodfellas in that he kept the main character, Henry Hill, with his real name but altered everyone else’s last name. Here, though, he even tweaks the first names. I can’t help but wonder if fear of lawsuits from surviving relatives drove this decision.
That decision also certainly provides more leeway for elasticity with the facts. I’ve recently been rewatching for the sixth time Boardwalk Empire, a TV show Scorsese executive produced about organized crime in the 1920s. It has an assortment of fictional and real-life gangsters for characters, and several interviews with the actors and showrunners note that even though they were striving to be accurate, there will always be a difference between the real-life and fictional Al Capones, Lucky Lucianos, Arnold Rothsteins, and Meyer Lanksys of the world.
I think there’s some truth to that, and it actually works for me as long as there is a justifiable reason for the change, the people making the adaptation are open about whatever was changed and why, and the difference is still rooted in the realm of the possible. (I used to not feel this way and would go completely crazy over any and all historical inaccuracies or differences, but the more I study adaptation, the more I can see the practical reasons for why these changes happen. Now my problem is less with movies that make reasonable changes than it is with people who assume they know something about a historical period because they watched a movie. That’s just asking for misinformation.)
But I think tweaking names, as Casino does, helps disassociate the character from the real person and makes it more clear that you are ultimately watching a work of fiction and not a documentary. So, even by using a name that clearly hints at who the real person is, it helps remind the reader that this is an interpretation of a real person and that creative license may have been taken.
The biggest difference for Casino in this regard is trying to find a likable character for the audience to identify with for 3 hours. Personally, I am really okay with unlikable characters, but I can see how, when making this movie, people might have realized that all of these people are kind of awful and maybe not someone you would want to waste too many hours of your time getting to know.
For that reason, the Rothstein/Rosenthal character comes out looking a lot better than he does in the book. In the movie, it is very easy to root for him as his marriage to a lunatic falls apart, and all of his subordinates turn out to be uncontrollable and/or incompetent. That’s not to say that the movie does not address some of his issues, namely his arrogance and his controlling nature, but it really does give him a pass compared to the other characters. I’m thinking, though, that preserving the real guy’s personality might have made the movie virtually unwatchable simply because everyone in the story is so horrible most of the time.
One sort of unusual aspect of the movie that I also enjoy is the plot trajectory. Usually, a movie devoted to the rise and fall of a person or organization has a lot of fun showing you the rise, but in Casino that is muted because the mob is already on top when Rothstein and Santoro arrive in town. Thus, the story is less of a rise and fall and more just a protracted downfall, all self-inflicted.
It’s a premise that is, frankly, sometimes depressing and hard to watch, but still it’s something I actually really like about the movie. I think another filmmaker would have invested more time in making Vegas seem glamorous and fun. Scorsese does that in the beginning, but even in the beginning before everything falls apart, it’s pretty clear that there’s an artifice and a dark side lurking underneath. It’s just inevitable that everything was going to collapse at some point, and documenting that is the real focus of the film.
One thing that does help prevent the movie from being completely depressing is its sense of humor. I have always enjoyed the black comedy elements of Scorsese’s movies, and Casino has some truly wonderful moments of that because, honestly, there is something darkly comic about this world falling apart. The dialogue is also hilarious, though also mostly unprintable.
One of my favorite parts of the movie is actually the narration. I know a lot of people do not like narration, and I hate when it is used lazily, but for me, Scorsese knows how to turn narration into an art form. In the case of Casino, the narration seems to just fit perfectly and works very well. It’s a great way to learn more about the characters, it features some of the best lines in the script, and it also lets the characters tell the story their own way. In that sense, just like the book, it preserves the voices of these people–or somewhat altered fictional versions of them–and also provides a way for the audience to understand multiple, often conflicting, views of the situation.
The verdict: I like both the book and the movie equally. I think they both do a wonderful job of telling a great story.
NICHOLAS PILEGGI – that’s one of my votes for an author I want to see at Books in Bloom!
And that’s that.
As always, if you’re interested in learning more about either the book or the movie or putting them on hold, just follow this link to our online library catalog.
Do you love Pileggi’s books? Are you a Scorsese fan? Do you like your organized crime stories as much as I do? What author would make you move a mountain to get to Books in Bloom next year? Please tell us in the comments!