Reading the Screen: Unknown
Posted by: David Pitt
Have you seen Unknown, the new Liam Neeson movie? If you haven’t, you should. It’s fast paced and enigmatic, with a killer of a plot twist near the end — the kind of twist that makes you go back in your mind and re-watch the movie from the beginning, in the context of what you just found out.
The movie is based on Out of My Head, a 2003 novel by French author Didier van Cauwelaert. It’s very similar to the movie, thematically, although there are substantial differences in structure and character. Without ruining anything for those of you who haven’t seen the movie — and, again, you really should see it — I can tell you that the book begins later in the story, jumping right into it after Martin Harris has had his car accident, recovered from his coma, and been discharged from the hospital. (Because these are key events, the movie shows them to us.)
In the movie Diane Kruger plays the cab driver who befriends Martin and tries to help him figure out why another man has stolen his identity (and, not incidentally, why Martin’s wife is claiming the other man is her husband). The cabbie, Gina, is in her thirties, give or take, and she lives alone. In the book she’s Muriel, a divorcee with two children (one of whom is 17 years old). But she has the same function: she’s someone Martin can talk to. Otherwise a large chunk of the story would be internal monologue.
In the book, Martin, who runs a botany lab at Yale, desperately reaches out to his assistant, Rodney Cole, hoping that Rodney can provide the proof Martin needs that he is who he thinks he is. The movie ages Rodney by about a quarter of a century, turning him into an older colleague. It’s a fundamental change in the character’s appearance, but, again, the function is the same: Cole’s appearance near the end of the story is the catalyst for the final, mind-bending scenes.
In the book and in the movie, Martin hires a private investigator to help him prove his identity. In the book, the investigator and Rodney Cole never meet. In the movie, they do. And that’s all I’ll say about that. (Except for this: what happens in the movie is a radical change from the book, but it doesn’t materially affect the outcome of the story.)
If you’ve seen the movie, you remember its explosive ending. The book ends rather differently, more quietly, but both endings leave you with a head-spinning sense of alternate reality, as though everything you’ve just read or seen was an illusion. (Which it was, of course.)
This is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of a filmmaker taking a book, distilling it down to its essence, and translating it to the visual medium. Van Cauwelaert’s book, as written, would be an awkward movie — top-heavy with dialogue, slow-moving, and (I think) ultimately unsatisfying. The movie substitutes action for some of the dialogue — the guys who keep trying to kill Martin barely appear in the book — but it makes the same point: Martin Harris may think he’s an ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation, but, in truth, he has no idea who he is.
The book is excellent. So is the movie. They just happen not to look very much like each other.