Film Library

All the King’s Men³

Hey everybody, politics are weird right? We’re currently knee-deep in what’s surely the strangest and most insane Presidential of my life so far, and I really hope the rest of my life. Things are pretty bleak. Neither party has really put forth anyone that I can get too excited about, but when one of your choices is a hate-spewing monster, it’s pretty easy to figure out who I’ll be voting for this November. And you know what? Politics never change. We like to hope that each new politician is going to be the one to really change things, but they never will. I don’t know if it’s a downfall in the way our political system is structured, or just inherent human weakness, but as I get older I just get more and more cynical about the entire idea of politics. And it’s hard not to when both fiction and reality are full of nothing but examples of politicians submitting to the powers of corruption. And you know what, I decided to check out one of the most famous examples of that trope, the classic novel All the King’s Men. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel traces the rise and fall of a  politician in the 1940s, and was made into a film that ended up winning the Best Picture Oscar in 1950. So that’s a hell of a pedigree. And I decided to check out the novel and of course had to check out the film in order to compare the two. So let’s get going!

THE FILM

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It’s obviously not a real seal of quality if a film has received the Best Picture award from the Academy of Motion Pictures, honestly it can more often than not be a pretty big red flag that that may not be the case at all, but nevertheless it’s certainly going to be an important film. And along with the knowledge that this film received the Best Picture award is the fact that it was based off an enormously popular novel that received the Pulitzer Prize. Which the movie is psyched about. Seriously, the idea that the novel won the Pulitzer is featured more heavily on that poster than the title of the damn film. And the opening the movie itself even takes it’s time to let us know that we’re watching a story based on something that was so well written it got the Pulitzer. Well, pretty much based on. We’ll get to that later. First let’s talk about the plot of the film.

The film follows two men, Jack Burden and Willie Stark. Burden is a journalist sent to a little Podunk town in his state to begin covering a local politician who is rallying against the  corruption of the big city, as personified by the local political boss, Tiny Duffy. And that politician is good old Willie Stark, a simple man with a lot of plans. Stark is the son of a farmer, and is trying to do his best as the treasurer of this small town. But when his attempts to keep a shady construction company from building a new school is shot down, he’s fired, and returns to a life of farming while studying law in his spare time. But things change when several children die from a faulty fire-escape, and people begin putting their faith in Willie Stark. And one of those people is Jack Burden, who has been looking for something to believe in. He grew up rich, but is trying to find a new life for himself away from the little community he grew up in. He visits them, especially a family named the Stanton’s that he’s so entwined with. There’s Adam, his best friend, Anne, his long-suffering girlfriend, and Judge Stanton, a father figure to Jack.

So, hoping he’s found someone to believe in, Jack heads back to the little city Stark is from, and finds that two people working for the current governor are there too, Tiny Duffy and a campaign manager named Sadie Burke. But Jack realizes pretty quickly that they’re there to convince Stark to run for governor, with no hopes in him winning, and assuming that he’ll split the hick vote, letting their real boss win. And they’re probably right, because even though Willie is passionate, he’s a mess. He only talks about facts and figures, and is incredibly boring. But when Sadie accidentally lets it slip that Willie’s just a patsy, he gets really drunk and decides to do something different with his speech. He begins speaking from the heart, not just his mind, realizing that voters don’t care about logic, they’re more interesting in emotion. And wouldn’t you know, he starts to get popular. And even though he still loses the election, he keeps campaigning the whole next term, and gets swept into office during the next election in a landslide.

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And now that Willie is Governor, he starts making changes. He keeps Tiny and Sadie on in his staff, as reminders not to get screwed over again, and hires Jack as his “researcher” which really just means his own personal muckraker. And together, the two men start to change the state. Stark starts building just about everything he can, trying to earn the respect and adoration of the common man, while using Jack’s social connections to keep the rich on his side as well. He meets with the Stanton’s, promising to build a new medical center that Adam will run, and convincing the Judge to become his Attorney General.

And for a while everything’s going good. Until one of Stark’s cronies is caught committing fraud, and Stark decides to cover it up. This pushes the Judge away from him, and leads to some of his enemies talking about impeachment. And to make matter worse, we learn that Stark is secretly dating Anne, who has given up on Jack. And that really starts to sting when Stark tasks Jack with digging up some dirt on the Judge. So Jack gets to work, and eventually does find something incriminating about the Judge. But none of that seems to matter when Sadie lets it slip that Stark is dating the woman he loves, leading Jack to keep the dirt secret, and only tell Anne, since the Judge is her uncle.

But problems just keep getting heaped on Stark. Because his adopted son Tom ends up getting into a drunken car accident, where the woman he was with dies, and Willie decides to have her father killed for asking too many questions. And Tom gets some comeuppance when he’s paralyzed in a football accident, shattering Stark. But things aren’t bad enough yet, because the body of that father is found, and a whole new impeachment trial gets going, with Judge Stanton leading the charge. So Jack and Willie go to talk to the Judge, and Willie shocks Jack by telling the Judge all about the blackmail Jack had dug up, even though Jack never told him. It’s obvious that Anne was the one to tell Willie, solidifying Jack’s fears that they’re together. And when presented with his wrong-doings, the Judge decides to kill himself. And that, combined with Jack letting Adam know about his sister’s affair, drives Adam off the deep end. So while Willie is busy scamming people to ensure he doesn’t get impeached, Adam is driven insane, and ends up murdering Stark in cold blood on the steps of the capital, ending Willie’s tumultuous career and life.

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This was a very interesting little movie. I’m not really sure I would say it was really a Best Picture quality movie, but it was interesting. There are a lot of differences between this story and the novel, which I’ll get to later, but I would wager that the real strength of the film comes from the story. The acting was decent I suppose, but it was certainly the Willie Stark show. The character was the most important, and everything revolved around him. Everyone else were basically just side-characters, there to cause conflict with Stark, and to move his journey along. But despite some average performances and pretty workmanlike direction, the movie still remains very watchable, primarily because of that plot and the themes therein. Willie Stark’s humble beginnings, his meteoric rise based on exploiting the common man, and his tragic fall caused by juggling too much corruption is a pretty tragic, but familiar story. The same sort of thing happens to politicians all the time, and this has really become the same basic trajectory of a politician. Willie starts out idealistic, with real ideas on how to save his state. But a combination of him realizing that people don’t care about good ideas and his realization that he likes adoration really starts to wear on him, until he falls down the slippery slope of American politics into the morass of corruption. It’s a story for the ages, and one that will probably play out again and again for the rest of our lives.

THE BOOK

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All the King’s Men is one of those novels that I’ve heard about for a long time, and that’s been on my reading list for longer than I’d care to admit. I’m not really sure if it’s one of those novels that people read in highschool or not, but I at least didn’t. And yet, I feel like it was mentioned in the same breath as some of those classics, becoming and enduring piece of literature, and one of the great American novels. I mean, they don’t pass out Pulitzer’s for nothing you know? And I was really impressed with this novel. It was a tad long-winded at times, and had some passages that could easily be excised without loosing much to the plot or the themes, but for the most part it was a really interesting read. It’s also a very unique look at American history. The book is a sort of homage to the politician Huey Long, who was operating around the same time as Stark. Long was a boisterous politician who rose from simple beginnings, got all the power he could, and was killed in the midst of corruption. He wasn’t the first person to follow this trajectory, but he was a current example, and his life lead to this fascinating little tale.

Now, as far as the plot is considered, the movie did a pretty good job adapting it. At least for the most part. The film used a very chronological approach, showing things as they happened in time, where as the novel took things in a scattered manner, jumping all around the timeline. But the real differences were with the plot. The broad strokes are the same. Jack’s a journalist who meets the idealist Willie Stark, and follows him as he starts to gain influence after the school tragedy, and sees him getting taken advantage of by Sadie and Tiny. Willie turns things around, eventually becomes the governor, and takes over the state, hiring Jack as his researcher.But things start to fall apart when Jack’s told to track down dirt on the Judge, leading to everyone’s downfall. So thing’s are very similar.

But, as usual, the novel adds much more. And the way they add more is by having Jack be more of a central character. While watching the movie it kind of made me expect the novel to be structured similarly to the Great Gatsby. That novel has Nick, the boring narrator who experiences the life of a much more interesting man, Jay Gatsby, and gets his life involved with his while basically just serving as the reason we’re learning about Gatsby. And that’s kind of what the movie did to Jack. But in the novel, Jack has a lot more depth. We learn a whole lot more about him and his family, and the book is really about him more than Willie. But it wasn’t just a narrator thing, there were some fundamental differences between the film and the novel. Probably the biggest is the fact that the Judge wasn’t a Stanton in the novel, he was Judge Irwin, not related to Anne and Adam at all. Plus, as we learn later, Irwin is actually Jack’s father, which he never knew until after he was dead. There’s also a big difference with the ending, because the film really made it seem like it was all Adam’s choice. But in the novel, we find out that Adam was pushed to the murder by  Sadie and Tiny, who were sick of being second-fiddle to Stark. Sadie was in love with Willie, and furious that he chose Anne over her, and Tiny wanted to be the governor and was tired of being mocked all the time by Stark. They pulled the trigger just as much as Adam.

Yet, it’s really Jack and his story that are the most different in the novel. It’s more than just the Judge and his true parentage, really most everything about Jack is different. He’s much more cynical and lost in the novel, getting worse and worse as the book goes on, as he starts to realize that not even this paragon of virtue that he decided to hitch his wagon to was on the level. Because he’s never really felt passionate about anything in his life. The movie had Anne and Jack be a couple that just never got the timing right, but in the novel they were much different. Jack was kind of obsessed with Anne for a while when they were teenagers, but when she fully gave herself to him, he got bored and abandoned her. Jack’s a sleazy guy in the novel. He just doesn’t care about anything. And when he finally does care about something, it bites him in the ass and causes several of the closest people in the world to him to die. And it all added up to a very interesting novel with one of the most flawed and battered narrator/protagonists I’ve read in a while.

THE OTHER MOVIE

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What’s this? A second movie?! That’s right! Turns out this is the first time that one of the novels I’ve featured on this project has been made into a motion picture twice, so I figured it made sense to check out both of the adaptations. And let me tell you, that may have been a mistake! Because while the original film didn’t really blow me away, especially when compared to the novel, this movie really fell flat. And the strange thing is that this was a much more faithful adaptation of the novel than the first film. However, as I learned after sitting through this flick, just because you’re a more slavish adaptation doesn’t mean that you’re going to make a better film.

Now, the plot of this movie is virtually identical to the book. Even more so than the original film. It had the same loose structure, where events were jumbled around, and was missing a lot of the weird changes that the original film made. It had that same plot we’ve already talked about, Judge Irwin was Jack’s father, Anne wasn’t in a relationship with Jack, and even though they didn’t spell it out for us it was pretty obvious that Sadie and Tiny had a hand in pushing Adam over the edge. Really the only thing they took out was Tom, Willie’s son. He’s in there a bit, but they didn’t put in the car accident or the football accident like the other two, and basically just made the character a non-entity, not including his mistakes in Willie’s downfall. Nope, in this movie it was all Willie’s doing.

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So what was the problem with this movie if it was so accurate? Well, I would say one of the biggest issues was that it was too accurate. The novel is a long and dense, with a whole lot of detail. The original film streamlined things, took out some things that made the plot drag on, or at least used some montages to skip over some things. This more recent movie dragged everything out. And yet, still felt rushed. There was too much going on in this version, and I really felt like I was only following it because I had read the novel and seen the other movie. Characters would show up and scenes would play out with virtually no context. I really can’t tell if this movie would make any sense, since I had experienced the other versions of the story before checking it out, but I have to assume it would have been a confounding experience. Plus, while the original movie was a little bland in regards to acting and directing, this movie was trying way too hard. The acting was all over the place, going from sleep-walking performances to Sean Penn’s ridiculously over-the-top portrayal of Willie Stark. I never liked his Willie, he was always a scum, so it took some of the bit out his eventual corruption, because he kind of always seemed like a lousy guy. And while this movie made an attempt to make Jack a more central character, and Jude Law gave a better and more cynical performance, it was still wholly the Willy Stark show. The direction was really trying to be something special, with dramatic close-ups and random artistic shots that felt overly out of place. And the only thing that felt more melodramatic than Penn’s performance was the ridiculous score, which had me laugh out loud several times.

It all just came together to create a bloating film that handicapped itself by trying to be too accurate to the novel. If it had removed some things, or changed some plot detail around, it could have been an interesting movie. We don’t need carbon-copy adaptations of novels every time. Sometimes it’s best if things are a little different. But this movie was really trying to go for the gold, a desperate bit of Oscar-bait that was trying to sum up a story that probably works best as a novel.

THE VERDICT

So yeah, a triple helping of All the King’s Men. It’s a really interesting story, one based on true events and that really hammers in the idea that politics will never change. The rise and fall of Willie Stark is a true American story, regardless of the fact that it actually happened with Huey Long, and it’s an important one to experience. But how do the various versions hold up to each other? Well, as happens more often than not, the book is the best. Like I mentioned earlier, it was be a tad over-long, and could probably use some trimming, but it has enough space to really let itself breathe. And while the 49 film isn’t exactly accurate, it’s by far a better movie than the 06 remake. Like I said, just because your movie is more accurate, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a better film. It’s hard to make a film that remains truly accurate to a novel and doesn’t become a bloated mess. The mediums are too different, and you can’t stay that accurate. So let’s just scratch the 06 movie off right now. But as for the 49 film and the novel, I would say your preference really boils down to which character you find most interesting. Because while the film is the story of Willie Stark’s rise and fall, the book is more the story of Jack Burden and how his life was completely changed by Willie Stark. It’s a subtle difference, but I found Willie a more interesting character when he wasn’t the focus of the story.

All the King’s Men was written by Robert Penn Warren, 1946.

All the King’s Men was written and directed by Robert Rossen and distributed by Columbia Pictures, 1949.

All the King’s Men was written and directed by Steven Zaillian and distributed by Columbia Pictures, 2006.

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