Monday, September 25, 2017

Cool Hand Luke (novel), by Don Pearce

Cool Hand Luke (1965), by Don Pearce, was the basis of the film of the same name released in 1967. Pearce co-wrote the screenplay. The essential events of the film are also in the novel, with some minor reordering. Surprising to me, the novel held up well. The main difference between the novel and the film was a matter of tone. The novel seemed to me a kind of folk novel. An unnamed narrator tells the story of Cool Hand Luke, beginning at a table in front of the church where Luke was murdered by one of the prison wardens sometime before. Many of the same characters or character types are present in the novel: Dragline, the man with no eyes, and others. There is no unnamed narrator in the film, of course. The differences between the novel and the film are matters of nuance. This is especially true in the character of Cool Hand Luke himself, who has an actual name. He gains his prison moniker Cool Hand Luke as the result of the same card game that we see in the movie: he wins the game by pretending to have a better hand than he actually has. He plays the move with such coolness that his fellow prisoner Dragline gives him his name: Cool Hand Luke.

We learn more in the novel about Cool Hand Luke's background than we do in the film. He's the victim of battle fatigue, posttraumatic stress syndrome. Though he fought bravely in the war, he gradually suffers the effects of it. His battle with authority seems to have predated his military experience. The war merely exacerbated that tendency. We also learn that in Cool Hand Luke's background was a love affair with a woman that for whatever reason has ended. It's implied he and the woman had a child.

In the novel, when Luke’s mother comes to visit him at the prison camp, she has no evident illness. In the film, Luke knows that she is dying and that her visit will be his last chance to see her. She is not ill in the novel. The novel thus suggests that three events in Luke's past have contributed to his state of mind: his wartime experience, the failed love affair, and his mother's death.

Both the novel and the film make Cool Hand Luke out to a redemptive character who inspires and gives hope to his fellow prison mates. Images of crucifixion and other religious associations appear in both. But in the novel one of the main aspects of Luke's influence on the prisoners is his music. He's an excellent guitar player and a singer and throughout much of the novel he sings songs that linger in the minds of his fellow prison mates. When he learns of his mother's death, he goes to his bunk bed and sings a hymn to himself. In the film the song he sings is not a hymn but is instead the well-known sacrilegious tune "Plastic Jesus." The film therefore makes Cool Hand Luke out to be a more irreligious person than the novel does. In the novel, Luke is clearly struggling with his faith and may have even lost it. This causes Dragline much distress. But in the novel, Luke is not so glib about disbelief. Even though in the film we finally realize that Luke has been struggling with his belief or disbelief in God, in the novel this struggle is made clearer. In fact, Luke seems more angry with God for abandoning him than disbelieving.

Apart from the film, the novel stands on its own. It's well-written, it's interesting, and the characters are well drawn. Like the film, it's a story of the individual struggling against anonymous institutional authority. As with the film, the novel is an allegory of the individual versus society and authority.

The novel struck me as a folk novel. I don't even really know what the definition of a folk novel is. In certain ways, its tone is similar to that of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and of Tom Kromer’s wonderful and depressing depression novel Waiting for Nothing (1935). But even though the characters in the novel are well drawn and vivid, it's tempting to see them as generic types: each of them has a prison name, not her real name. They seem to stand for something greater than themselves. They have no lives outside the prison, they are required to follow prison rules to the letter, they must get permission for every move they make, they even must get permission to get out of bed and go to the bathroom. Any infraction of the rules, any questionable glance at one of the guards, results in their being locked into solitary confinement for one day or more. After his second escape, Luke is treated brutally. They are all victims of indifferent Power, of anonymous authority, of the unsympathetic State.

In the film, we quickly realize that Luke is a man with an attitude. There is no question after the opening scenes that he's going to have issues with the prison authorities, that he's going to rebel against the rules and regulations of the prison camp, and that this is going to be what the film is about. Luke is a rebel, a prankster. In this way, he occupies a tradition in southern culture and letters of the fool killer who rebels against and shows up those individuals who, among other things, take advantage of and brutalize the people over whom they have power. The novel builds Cool Hand Luke into this same kind of fool killer character, but the process is slower, more drawn out, and more interesting. It's interesting because we learn more about the pathology of Luke's background, something that the film only implied.  The film’s most famous line--"What we have here is a failure to communicate”--is not in the novel.

It always seemed odd to me that the members of cool hand Luke's prison camp are all white. The southern chain gang is so intensely associated with the race and racism in most depictions of it tend to show chain gangs composed entirely of black men. Of course, we can think of many exceptions, including the 1932 film I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, in the opening scenes from O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). I think there are two main reasons why the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke is entirely right: at the time in Florida when the events of the novel take place prison gangs were segregated. White and black prisoners would not work together in the same chain gang. The second, but related, reason is that in the novel, all the chain gang members are white. But from the perspective of 2017, the all-white chain gang still strikes one as odd.

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