Reading the Screen: Zodiac
Posted by: David Pitt
Zodiac, the excellent 2007 movie directed by David Fincher, was adapted from two books, Zodiac (1986) and Zodiac Unmasked (2002). Both were written by Robert Graysmith, who was a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle in the late 1960s, when an anonymous killer began taunting the newspaper with letters and coded messages, bragging about his crimes and promising more to come.
Although police looked at numerous suspects, the killer who called himself Zodiac was never apprehended. But here’s the really unsettling thing: for two decades, from the early 1970s until the early nineties, investigators were sure they knew who Zodiac was. They just couldn’t put together enough hard evidence to arrest him. And then, just when they were finally getting close, the man died.
Graysmith, who had the kind of access to the police investigation that most true-crime writers can only dream of, carefully lays out the evidence against the prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, but he does more than that: he shows us the people who devoted their careers, and in some cases (especially Graysmith’s) their lives, to bringing Zodiac to justice.
The movie is one of the most faithful adaptations of a work of nonfiction you’re likely to see. Fincher and his screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, don’t sensationalize the material — the movie, like the books, is a solidly constructed police procedural. Tonally. it is exactly the same as the books. If, when you hear the phrase “true crime,” you think of lurid prose, gratuitous violence, and murky shadows, check out Graysmith’s splendid books and be prepared to change your mind.
Spot quiz: another of Graysmith’s books was adapted into a movie. Name that book. (Bonus points if you do it without Googling, or Binging, or otherwise looking it up online. I’ll believe you if you say you didn’t.)