Novel vs. Movie — Deadlier Than the Male

November 2, 2015 | No Comments

Deadlier Than the Male (1942) by James Gunn.

James Gunn (no relation to the sci-fi writer) was a 21-year old senior at Stanford when he wrote Deadlier Than the Male as a creative writing assignment. It was his only novel. He spent the next twenty-some years in Hollywood as a writer for movies and television before dying in 1966.

Gunn’s hardboiled thriller caused quite a stir in 1942. But there is so much wrong with it – plotting by coincidence, impossible dialog, extraneous characters – you have to wonder why. Gunn is all tell and no show in DTTM. And yet, a little on-line research reveals that a first edition costs as much as $1,250.00. What’s going on here?

It seems to be a rare case of Hollywood-to-the-rescue. In 1947, RKO Pictures released Born to Kill, a streamlined piece of nasty noir based on Gunn’s thriller that redeemed the source material for all time. In a fortuitous configuration of good screenwriting, great direction and perfect casting, the basic premise of an ambitious psychopath (Sam Wilde) romancing a mercenary socialite (Helen Brent) received its ultimate expression at the hands of director Robert Wise and costars Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor.

In the film version, Gunn’s authorial flippancy has been transmuted into hard-edged cynicism, a stance that provides justification for Sam’s malevolence and Helen’s callousness. And mercifully, four impossible characters have been stripped away: a quack psychiatrist, his earth-mother masseuse, Sam’s low rent sister Rachel, and her fey boyfriend Jack. In their place, the screenwriters wisely inserted a sleazoid P. I. to pull various plot elements together and provide a final commentary.

We’ve all been disappointed by lousy movies devolving from novels we love. Once in a while, the opposite has to occur. In the case of Deadlier Than the Male, skip the book and see the movie (Born to Kill) instead.

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