"What's better? The book or the movie?" This a commonly used expression when we're looking for a recommendation and we know someone's both read the book and seen the movie. And this is exactly what I've done with Dennis Lehane's book and Martin Scorsese's film Shutter Island. This was actually the first I have read Lehane, but it won't be the last. I saw Mystic River but never read the book. What a shame. Up front I'll tell you the book is better than the movie, at least the first three quarters of the film right up until a very unexpected twist, and then in some respects the movie is better. Not matter how you slice it, a fine ending to both, even if the film follows the narrative's tale precisely.
This is a story about the psychology of the mind in the human experience. It comes complete with fear, violence, hope and aggression. I jumped out of my seat a couple of times at the theatre and I knew what was coming. DiCaprio, naturally the lead, is believable as Teddy. Again Leonardo, the film star I want to dislike but cannot, turns in a solid performance. But Ben Kingsley as Dr. John Cawley makes it. Not at first; it took him several scenes to grow into the role, which I was transferring from my imagination in reading the book, but Kingsley caught up to my own Dr. Cawley, and then surpassed him. Looking back on what I've just written makes it sound like I suffer from my own psychosis! At some level, don't we all? Who are the real insane?
I like how Lehane writes about insanity in the book. "She placed the scalpel on the ground by her knee and stoked the fire with a stick. 'If you are deemed insane, then all actions that would otherwise prove you are not do, in actuality, fall into the framework of an insane person's actions. Your sound protests constitute denial. Your valid fears are deemed paranoia. Your survival instincts are labeled defense mechanisms. It's a no-win situation. It's a death penalty really (270).'" On many levels, a sound analysis.
There arises here too in this book and film a compassion for the mental. We might think of compassion as God's great gift to the mentally and criminally insane. But Lehane suggests another view. "God's gift,' the warden said, 'His violence...God loves violence. You understand that, don't you?' 'No,' Teddy said, 'I don't.' The warden walked a few steps forward and turned to face Teddy. 'Why else would there be so much of it? It's in us. It comes out of us. It is what we do more naturally than we breathe. We wage war. We burn sacrifices. We pillage and tear at the flesh of our brothers. We fill great fields with our stinking dead. And why? To show Him that we've learned from His example.' Teddy watched...
'God gives us earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes. He gives us mountains that spew fire onto our heads. Oceans that swallow ships. He gives us nature, and nature is a smiling killer. He gives us disease so that in our death we believe He gave us our orifices so that we could feel our life bleed out of them. He gave us lust and fury and greed and our filthy hearts. So that we could wage violence in His honor...There is no moral order at all. There is only this - can my violence conquer yours (279)?'"
Huh. Now there is a narrative on God worth dissecting (another time). So compassion yet violence. Hope yet heartache. Freedom or imprisonment? Healing or held hostage in the hospital? Life or a lobotomy? Which is it? Lehane's wild ride and Scorsese's adaptation suggest all of the above and more. Read it. See it. I recommend it.