Shutter Island was the hottest new thing from Martin Scorsese for quite a while, not just because it featured a massive topnotch cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio, but because the film was delayed. We got all pumped for October 2nd, 2009 just to find out we'd have to wait until February 19th, 2010, only a month and half before the big day. Why did the news sting so badly? Because I took the time to read the Dennis Lehane novel it was adapted from and absolutely loved it.
I'm not a big reader to being with. I was one of those kids in high school who immediately ran to Blockbuster or sifted through the CliffNotes library in search of an easy way out as soon as a book was assigned. Textbook reading kept me busy through college, but upon entering the real world, in my very first job post-graduation particularly, I realized there was a lot of down time to be filled. I worked as a local news "news assistant," which is basically a camera person and producer combined. I'd sit outside a courthouse for hours waiting to catch a ten second quote from a defendant or in the parking lot of a police precinct until I could get a shot of a perp stepping into a cop car. Combine all that downtime with my movie obsession and you get my favorite hobby, reading books being adapted to film.
Shutter Island was one of the first recommendations that came my way and it was a fantastic one. It tells the story of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner Chuck who are assigned to a case on Shutter Island, the home of Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The assignment involves a patient named Rachel Solando, who's mysteriously disappeared. Teddy and Chuck go through the usual procedures, questioning anyone who came into contact with Rachel and exploring the grounds, but the more information they amass, the more confused they become. Something just doesn't seem right.
I'll leave the synopsis at that because that was the killer for any fan of the book checking out the film version; knowing the ending demolishes all of the suspense. Writer Laeta Kalogridis sticks closely to Lehane's insanely twisted story, which I normally appreciate when it comes to book-to-film adaptations, but in this case, knowing what lurks around the corner is plain old unexciting. After talking with friends and family who caught Shutter Island and never read the source material, it seems as though they also suffered from being one step ahead of the action. Some were tipped off by hints in the trailer and others caught on in the midst of the film way before the grand finale. The latter issue stems from a problem that typically plagues books on the big screen, replacing the reader's imagination with a director's vision.
Ever since Shutter Island hit theaters, I've tried to keep ahead of the game and read books immediately after the rights are acquired. That way, I don't go through a book with a particular actor or director's styling in mind. I read Shutter Island well aware of DiCaprio and Scorsese's involvement, but it was still quite evident that the mind's eye plays a major role in the thrill of the story. A handful of images actually proved to be more powerful on screen. You likely recall the creepy balding patient lifting a shriveled finger to her lips from the trailer or even just hearing Jackie Earle Haley as George Noyce utter the phrase, "You'll never leave this island." Sadly, this wasn't the case with the majority of the film, especially the more profound moments.
There's one instance that's taken way too far. Whether you've read the book or not, the scenes which show Teddy's poor slain children are downright horrifying, so much so that they remove you from the film, particularly a dream sequence during which Teddy assists Rachel in the murdering of three children. "Before Teddy could reach her, she'd tackled the three children, and the clever went up and down and up and down, and Teddy froze, oddly fascinated, knowing there was nothing he could do at this point, those kids were dead." While that description will have an intense effect on anyone, everyone is given the ability to dial back the gore as much as they'd like. In Scorsese's version, on the other hand, it's hurled at you full force in the form of a blood drenched mother and children.
Even beyond simply turning your stomach, these moments simply lose their eloquence when thrown in your face on screen. Like Teddy, as a reader goes through Dehane's book, he or she remains skeptical, second guessing everything that's happening, never fully convinced until the end. Well, not exactly in Teddy's case.
END SPOILER ALERT
The saddest thing about the film Shutter Island is that it's such a fantastic piece of work. The performances blew me away. This is ultimately DiCaprio's movie, but even some of the smaller supporting roles pack a serious punch, namely the ones from Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer and Haley. Unfortunately, it was a lose-lose situation for Scorsese. By nailing the book's dark and eerie tone and recreating scenes so accurately, he spoils the source material's primary asset, the suspense. Those having read the book will find zero tension, save for a cheap scare, and for the rest, a keen eye and ear will reveal the plot's path far too early. This is a story that is far better off in writing.
If you'd like to compare and contrast for yourself, you're in luck because Shutter Island arrives on DVD and Blu-ray this week. However I would recommend picking up Lehane's book first.