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Banjos At The Ready, Folks

It goes without saying that preferring the book to the movie is the classy thing to do. Even when it’s practically compulsory to believe that the movie is a tour de force whose significance only you and your best friends truly understand (I’m looking at you, Mr York University FilmSoc Treasurer Blade Runner fan) – the hardcore compulsives will still be making the case that if you really think about it, “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” was just much better in a lot of ways.

And all those list articles proclaiming that Sometimes, The Movie Is Actually Better Than The Book? They only really work because that’s not the way round it’s supposed to be. In the cultural lexicon of life, Books beat Movies, and that’s just how it is.

So. I’ve seen the movie of “Deliverance” a few times, and, in common with a lot of people, I liked it quite a lot. I was fully prepared to like the book even more. A trip to AbeBooks and a couple of clicks later, and it landed on my doormat a few days ago.

It’s certainly different from the film. Better? Hmmm.

Before writing the twentieth century’s definitive account of Hillbilly sodomy, James Dickey was mostly known as a poet. And a successful poet, too; he won a Guggenheim fellowship and was the US Congress Poet Laureate for a while. I think it’s fair to say that – even though “Deliverance” is an action-adventure story – Dickey’s poetic roots are showing throughout the book. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The book is narrated by Ed (Jon Voight in the film), and the main difference between the book and the film is the amount of time we get to spend with Ed’s rather dreamy and lyrical thoughts about life, the universe and everything. Where the movie dives straight into the action of the trip, the novel has a fifty-page build-up, describing precisely what a weekend off being a man with other men in the face of Nature’s mighty power means to Ed. How much you’re going to like this depends on how much you like spending time inside the head of a bored middle-aged graphic designer who clearly fancies himself as a poet, and even more clearly feels he’s a little bit too good for his job, his friends, his wife and his life generally.

Sometimes, Ed’s inner monologue is sharp and punchy, like his economical description of Bobby Trippe; “smooth thin hair and a high pink complexion”. Other times, it’s really sort of hilarious. Ed shares his thoughts on his business partner (“He had a face like a hawk, but it was a special kind of hawk”), a model for a knickers advert whose left eye he gets obsessed with (“There was a peculiar spot, a kind of tan slice, in her left eye, and it hit me with, I knew right away, strong powers”), having sex with his wife before leaving for the trip (“in the centre of Martha’s heaving and expertly working back, the gold eye shone, not with the practicality of sex, so necessary to its survival, but the promise of it that promised other things…”) and his post-coital trip to the bathroom (“I went to the bathroom and stood with my eyes closed and flowed”).

“The promise of it that promised other things”? You know those poems we all write when we’re about fifteen or so, and then we go back to them about ten years later and think “Jesus Christ” and either burn them or hide them somewhere very, very secret, like the bottom of the compost heap or something? Yeah? Yeah.

So, anyway. After really quite a lot of this – plus the kind of detail about their camping equipment I’d personally only expect from a Camping Supplies Catalogue – we get to the first iconic scene of the film; Lonnie and Drew’s inpromptu duet. Unsurprisingly, the movie does this scene much better, because music doesn’t really lend itself well to verbal description. However much I like the observation that “I could not see Drew’s face, but the back of his neck was sheer joy”, it doesn’t compare to seeing that fabulous, spontaneous musical duel unfold right in front of you. There was never any way the book was going to top the film on this one; the natural advantage is all in one direction.

Similarly, the central rape scene has orders-of-magnitude more power on the screen than it does in the book:

A scream hit me, and I would have thought it was mine but for the lack of breath. It was a sound of pain and outrage, and it was followed by one of simple and wordless pain. Again it came out of him, higher and more carrying…

It doesn’t help that we’re watching Ed watch the rape, and what we get is how it feels to watch (rather than how it feels to do or to be done to). No matter how hard it is to read about Ed listening to Bobby scream, it can’t compete with the shock of seeing the savage pleasure in his rapist’s face as he slaps him on the buttock, or the horror of Bobby’s utter helplessness. Interestingly, the most memorable line of the film, “Squeal!” was an ad-lib. Score two to the movie.

One thing the book delivers that the movie doesn’t is the sensual connection Ed feels with every aspect of his experience. Ed’s journey is a sort of descent into the visceral, a documentation of how wrong / right it feels to get away from all that soap and civilisation and roll around in the mud and get cold and dirty and hungry, and then kill stuff. And as with the descriptions of Suburban Hell, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s Ed looking at Lewis having a wash:

Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines…

I can totally see why this didn’t make it into the movie. In a film where sex between men is so central anyway, it’s hard to imagine how you could show this without giving it a massive erotic charge. But in a written context, where Ed is dreamily admiring everything around him in almost exactly the same way, he can stare at Lewis’s perfect male form without it feeling like he wants to jump Lewis’s bones. His wistful admiration becomes just an extension of his overall romance with the landscape.

Thing is, human beings aren’t actually meant to fall in love with landscapes:

Time after time I lay there sweating, having no handhold or foothold, the rubber of my toes bending back against the soft rock, my hands open. Then I would begin to try to inch upwards again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimetre by millimetre.

And I thought those guys who fall in love with Volkswagens were strange.

Okay, so I’ve laughed at Dickey’s writing style quite enough now. It’s time to hold my hands up and declare that, despite the people who look like special kinds of hawk and Ed’s moon-blazing sexuality, I like this piece of wilderness-writing much more than, for example, “She”, or “Moby Dick”, or Jack London’s entire canon. It’s just that, you know, I like the movie much better. It’s tighter and neater and more economical, and it packs a far, far greater emotional punch.

But the book did make me laugh more than the movie. So I’m not writing it off as a total loss.

“Deliverance” is out of print, but Abe Books have many copies available starting from just 62p.

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