So, this one should be called ‘TV Versus Book Versus Film’! I’d assumed the book had come first, then the TV show, but apparently not.
Lynda La Plante is a bit of a heroine of mine. I was absolutely thrilled to meet Lynda briefly a few years’ back at London Screenwriters Festival. It was literally for about thirty seconds in the Final Draft tent, but it still counts! My mum was a big fan too, so I remember Widows back in the 80s, though I don’t think I watched it back then. I see it’s on Amazon Prime currently though, so I’ll be correcting this oversight ASAP.
‘WIDOWS is a fast-paced heist thriller with an all female cast you won’t forget. Facing life alone, they turned to crime together. A security van heist goes disastrously wrong and three women are left widowed. When Dolly Rawlins discovers her gang boss husband’s plans for the failed hijack, an idea starts to form . . . Could she and the other wives finish the job their husbands started?
As the women rehearse the raid, it becomes clear that someone else must have been involved. But only three bodies were found in the wreckage. Who was the fourth man? And where is he now?’
So, a very British, gritty 1980s novel by Crime Mistress of Mayhem Lynda La Plante gets the Hollywood treatment … Courtesy of not only the Oscar-winning Steve McQueen, but Gillian Flynn!
Flynn is a particularly interesting one for me, as I am a big fan of her, too. After all, Flynn’s own legacy arguably already rivals La Plante’s. Flynn has managed to make such a dent in modern crime fiction, she has popularised the so-called domestic noir subgenre in under a decade with just three full-length books to her name. Just like La Plante made the female lead in a man’s world a viable possibility with the likes of DI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, Flynn put female antagonists on the map with Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Now Flynn is turning her hand to screenwriting, because why not? In the course of this post, I’ll be contrasting her version with the original source material.
On surface level then, you would be dead right … There DO appear to be some epic departures from the source material in the film version. The action is transplanted from London, to Chicago. Though the cast was diverse by 1980s standards, it is even more so now, featuring three women of colour to just one white female lead. Even the names have changed. Dolly Rawlins is now Veronica; Shirley is now Alice; Bella is renamed Belle. Even Dolly’s dog, called Wolf in the source material, is renamed Olivia in the movie. (Which is such an odd name for a dog, that HAS to have a story of its own attached).
Only Linda’s name remains the same, but all four characters’ back stories differ to the source material; they have been swapped, or built on for other reasons. This means it is Alice who is the sex worker, not Belle, who in turn is Linda’s babysitter, because she has kids (she didn’t in the original).
What’s more, the security van raid of the book is OUT. Instead, the women in the film storm the home of a well-connected politician to steal five million from his safe. No one dies in the raid in the book (though someone does in the film, though not saying who!).
Police Versus Politics
The entire police thread detailing the epic grudge match between Resnick and Fuller in the book is also missing from the film. The thread involving London gang warfare between Rawlins and The Fisher Brothers is also missing, replaced instead by politics (the less-than-subtle subtext for readers of the novel being this is the ‘new’ kind of gang warfare). The Manning Family, fronted by Jamal, the ‘respectable’ one and his psycho brother Jatemme are campaigning against The Mulligans, a white family who have historically been in charge of the area.
Even the raid itself is different. In the book, the women take on a security van, even cutting through the van with a chainsaw. They then attempt to scarper abroad to start new lives. In the movie, they steal the money from the Mulligans to pay the Mannings, a great twist on ‘robbing Peter, to pay Paul’. All four men are absolute scumbags for various reasons, with the women potentially being collateral damage for their plans for domination, so it all ties together very nicely on that front.
There’s also a strong racial commentary throughout the movie, as you would expect from McQueen. This not only means Tony Fisher/Jatemme is no longer a would-be rapist (thank God), but a genuinely terrifying antagonist who thinks nothing of intimidating people like they are his personal playthings, like a cat. This is why I found it a shame he is despatched so easily in the subsequent crash, though it was quite satisfying to see him get his comeuppance too.
What’s The Same
Despite the differences, at its heart the main catalyst and plot points are basically the same. Harry stole the Mannings’ $2M they need for the election, which burned up in the van when it went up in flames. Later Jamal visits Veronica, telling her she has a month to liquidate her assets to pay him and Jatemme back. Veronica discovers Harry’s ledgers and tries to sell them to raise the capital, but is unable to. This is when she decides to pull off Harry’s next heist herself, recruiting the other women.
There are also lots of little flourishes that pay homage to the original. One Harry’s accomplices in the van is called Carlos, the same as Linda’s lover in the book; Shirley’s new name comes from Resnick’s assistant in the original. Harry’s associate Boxer in the book becomes Bash, Veronica’s driver in the film. Even Linda’s shop sells beauty pageant dresses, tiaras and other equipment … In the book, Shirley had to enter beauty pageants for money after the death of her husband.
Also in the book and film is the fact Wolf/Olivia the dog gives away Harry. Dolly identifies Harry at Jimmy Nunn’s girlfriend’s place by his lighter. Nearly forty years have passed and smoking is no longer en vogue, so in the film Veronica realises he is there by his whiskey flask. Figures.
In the book, Dolly is very much the ‘brains’ of the operation. She takes most of the risk and must lose the police on her tail a lot of the time. She is also in extreme personal danger from the Fisher Brothers, plus she has the most to lose. She is a mentor figure to the other women, as well as an antagonistic force in their lives. In short, for me La Plante nails it in terms of plotting and characterisation: Dolly is a force to be reckoned with, plus it’s a strongly constructed story, from beginning to end.
Also in the book, a key part is the fact Dolly has to track down the ‘white van man’ she knows was present at the original robbery (as mentioned in the book’s Amazon listing). Veronica doesn’t have to do this in the movie and for me, it’s where the adaptation comes unstuck.
In comparison to Dolly (or perhaps because of Dolly?) Veronica just doesn’t feel as active somehow. This is in no way a criticism of Viola Davis’ performance, who is magnificent in the movie. Rather it’s a characterisation thing: Veronica does a great job of ensuring the other three women do stuff in the plot, but I was left feeling like she wasn’t doing ‘enough’ in the plot herself, especially when she wasn’t having to lose police tails, etc. The film also misses out the resentment between Dolly and Linda, so there’s no question mark in the other women’s heads over whether Veronica could be double-crossing them or not.
What’s more, the whole ledger thing seems to go down a blind alley. In the book, Dolly keeps the ledgers as a bargaining chip, understanding their importance because she is from that criminal background herself. She even puts it about via Boxer that Harry is still alive to further protect herself. This freaks both the Fisher Brothers and the police out, creating a circle of confusion around Dolly. It also creates a fantastic bit of dramatic irony when it turns out Harry really IS still alive.
In contrast, Veronica tries to sell the ledgers to her contact Bobby at the bar, who turns her down. Then Veronica makes the leap to doing the heist herself to pay the Manning Brothers back, which doesn’t seem very credible when she apparently previously worked for the school board. This means that when Harry turns up after the robbery at the lock-up and says ‘All you had to do was sell the ledgers’ to Veronica, I was left thinking ‘Eh?’ Bobby full on turned her down!
Also, I didn’t get the thread when Jatemme finds out about the ledgers and goes after Bobby himself for information. Why is everyone so interested in Bobby anyway, if he couldn’t/wouldn’t have sold the ledgers on? Also, given all Jatemme has to do is wait for Veronica et al to do the robbery – and then steal the rest of the loot under their noses, which he does – why bother? So he can be a complete psychopath and stab Bobby in the legs seems to be the answer, but plot-wise it didn’t feel as compelling as it could have been, because it seemed a bit muddy. Or maybe I blinked and missed something.
In comparison, La Plante’s plotting was effortless, with every character pushing the story forwards in a pacy and economical way. Even when various characters WERE trying to out-do one another!
But despite the plot’s shortcomings in the film, the characters are genuinely breathtaking in their own right. The Mannings are great, but for The Mulligans stole the show as antagonistic forces to be reckoned with. Robert Duvall’s F-Bomb-ridden rant at Colin Farrell is a particularly brilliant moment. Mulligan Snr is one of those guys who believes in himself no matter what. He has literally no reason to; he is nothing but an old white man with no culture, no empathy, no interest in his fellow man. It is all about winning, a pissing contest for him. (Geee, I wonder who he could be based on!).
In comparison, we almost feel sorry for Mulligan Junior, especially as he IS more progressive in his attitudes. He actually delivers his weary riposte to his father with a quivering lip and tears in his eyes … But we can’t forget Mulligan Junior is also a complete racist as well, as evidenced in the car when he’s yelling at his (white) aide about ‘these people’ and then asking her in the same breath if she’s ever slept with a black man. But hey, he remembers to thank his (black) driver, who he then dispatches to collect money from young black business owners who’ve bought into his protection racket.
The commentary on parenthood is really strong too. Belle has to leave her own child in the middle of the night to go and look after Linda’s, simply because she can’t afford to turn down twelve dollars an hour. This joins up neatly with the racial commentary, too. In the source material Dolly and Harry had a stillborn son, but here in the movie their teen son Marcus was shot by the police. Harry says in flashback, ‘Don’t make me regret having this child with you’ and Veronica retorts, ‘If you’d had him with someone else, he would still be alive!’ This then feeds into Harry’s motivation brilliantly when he (inevitably) returns, needing the money for his new ‘white family’, paying off the update on the race theme so fantastically. I was genuinely in awe how well it was done.
This is a genuinely tough one, because I adore the original Widows book. It’s true what made it fresh – especially the Maverick cop Resnick, the London gangland stuff – is what dates it now. With this in mind, Widows the movie brings it bang up to date with a diverse cast and a new backdrop (both literal and thematic). That said, I am a structure fan and I feel La Plante’s plotting beats Flynn’s. So, for me, the book wins by a nose.