Page-to-Screen: The Many Lives of “Parker”
“When the fresh faced guy in the Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him, “Go to Hell.”
- first line of The Hunter by Don Westlake
Donald Westlake’s master thief Parker is one of the most clearly defined characters in all of genre fiction. A ruthless sociopath, Parker has a perfect clean line simplicity to him, complemented by Westlake’s (writing under the name Richard Stark) dark sense of humor, gift for narrative sleight of hand, and clinical procedural plots.
Unfortunately, filmmakers have been screwing him up for thirty-five years.
Yes, over the course of seven films, Parker has proved to be one of those characters who Hollywood can’t quiet resist and can’t quite get right. Parker is one of the most bleakly unsentimental characters in crime fiction. Hollywood can’t help but soften him up some for mass consumption. They seem afraid to have a lead who is truly amoral. In an interesting twist, until the latest Jason Statham film, none of the adaptations of Westlake’s books were actually allowed to call the character Parker, unless they stayed close enough to the character and the story of Westlake’s books. Predictably, none passed muster. Westlake died in 2010, sadly unable to keep the clause around long enough to prevent the biggest bastardization of the character.
Lest we judge too harshly, here’s a brief history of the many lives of “Parker” below. I list the title of the movie, then the name given to Parker in the movie, then the actor portraying the character, and discuss each:
Made In U.S.A., Parker = Paula (Anna Karina): Things were perhaps jinxed right from the start. The first time that Parker graced the screen, he was played by Anna Karina.
I’ll be honest here, I have pretty much no idea how this movie relates to The Jugger, the Parker novel upon which it was based. And considering that it was made right around the time that Godard stopped giving half a crap whether you got anything from his movies or not, the film itself doesn’t offer much in the way of clues.
Whatever it was, it was enough to have Westlake successfully sue to keep the film from being released in the United States. Thus paving the way for a much more famous attempt…
Point Blank, Parker = Walker (Lee Marvin): An adaptation of Westlake’s first Parker book The Hunter, Point Blank is easily the most popular of the Parker adaptations, and Lee Marvin probably the first actor who comes to mind when people think of “Parker” on screen. A film loved for its unique tone and approach, it plays like a crime film set in purgatory.
While Point Blank is an excellent film, anchored by Marvin’s performance and John Boorman’s elliptical French New Wave influenced direction, it’s not a very good adaptation. For one thing, it heavily suggests that “Walker” is actually a literal ghost (he never kills anybody, and appears and disappears in an ethereal fog). But even more problematic is its investment in Walker of a sadness, and a certain romanticism that Parker never trucks with. He doesn’t have time for that sort of thing.
The Split, Parker = McClain (Jim Brown): The next Parker film (technically there was a French adaptation of The Score called Pillaged, also released in 1967, but as far as I can tell nobody has actually ever seen it), The Split stars Jim Brown as McClain, who assembles a crew of thieves to rob a football game, and then watches his cleverly planned heist fall apart due to infighting, suspicion, and betrayal.
The film doesn’t follow Westlake’s novel all that closely, and Jim Brown as a hero is more proto-blaxploitation than Parker. But then again, Jim Brown in his prime is never unentertaining, so it’s tough to complain all that much.
The Outfit, Parker = Macklin (Robert Duvall): With his unassuming build, cool demeanor, casual violence, and dead eyes, Robert Duvall is actually my pick for the onscreen Parker closest to my imagining of the character.
Of course, its not a perfect portrayal. Though John Flynn (director the excellent 70s revenge film Rolling Thunder) keeps things nice and gritty with a touch of cinema verite, the film also gives Macklin unnecessary motivation to commit his crime, this time he’s getting vengeance on a criminal organization for the murder of his brother. In the book Parker’s wounded professional pride was reason enough. Still the film is underrated, and despite the prominent presence of Karen Black, very entertaining. If you seek out one film from this list, make it this one.
Slayground, Parker = Stone (Peter Coyote): As the only film on this list I haven’t seen, I’m not really qualified to comment on Slayground, suffice to say, its reputation precedes it. And it ain’t all that great.
Payback, Parker = Porter (Mel Gibson): Yeah, so Gibson has plenty of baggage at the moment, obviously. But he made a pretty damn good Parker. As the name suggests, his Porter actually hues pretty close to the character. Like Point Blank, Payback is an adaptation of The Hunter, and showcases a Parker willing to steal from a beggar, pick pockets, and then take a pack of cigarettes from a hard-working waitress. Just the way it oughta be.
That said, Payback was unfortunately the victim of studio-mandated reshoots that softened the character (man loves his dog) and tacked on a big action movie ending that is patently ridiculous. The film’s director’s cut was recently released, and it clears up a lot of the movie’s more egregious problems, but even with the improvements the film stays in the “not quite” category.
Parker, Parker = Parker (Jason Statham): Dear God, this movie is freaking terrible.
If you will indulge me, let us compare two interpretations of the character- ahem…
“Parker is as bad as he seems. If a baby carriage rolled in front of him during a heist, he’d kick it out of his way. If an innocent woman were caught helplessly in gangster crossfire, Parker would slip past her, happy she was drawing the bullets away from him. If you hit him, he’d hit you back twice as hard. If you stole from him, he’d burn your house- or corporation- to the ground to get his money back. [….] And if you were stupid enough to kidnap one of his guys and hold hostage in a safe house, he would kill every single one of you. He’d shoot you through a door, shoot you in the face, shoot you in the back and step over your body before you stopped twitching.” - Dennis Lehan
Now compare that to…
“I don’t steal from people who can’t afford it. And I don’t hurt people who don’t deserve it.” – Jason Statham
My jaw hit the ground the first time I heard that. No! No! That is literally the exact opposite of what Parker does. Parker really couldn’t care less if you can afford to have him take your money and your valuables. That kind of thinking never enters his mind. Parker takes a ruthlessly unsentimental character and sentimentalizes him. Maybe someday, someone will come along with the courage to make Parker the true unstoppable force he is. I’m not exactly holding my breath, but stranger things have happened.