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BRINGING OUT THE DEAD: Read the Book, Ignore the Movie
The metaphysics of Joe Connelly's novel elude Martin Scorsese's grasp.
By Denise Dumars
December 07, 1999
Martin Scorsese's treatment of this first novel by an ex-paramedic falls somewhat short. But it did succeed very well in one area: it made me really want to read the novel by Joe Connelly. And what a glorious novel it is.
In the film, Nicolas Cage gives one of his trademark man-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown performances as Frank, a paramedic haunted by the spectre of Rose, a young woman who died of an asthma attack as he tried to resuscitate her. Rose is there as a reminder that these paramedics really are acting as almost supernatural forces themselves--they routinely expect to bring people back from the dead. When it doesn't work, it doesn't bother someone like Frank's psycho partner Tom Walls (Tom Sizemore). But Frank it bothers. A lot. How he handles being haunted forms somewhat divergent paths for the novel and the movie.
Perhaps such heavy metaphysical concepts are just too difficult to show on film, as Scorcese's filmization (adapted by his TAXI DRIVER collaborator, Paul Schrader) never reaches the depth of character or thematic intensity that it aims for. The black humor falls flat at times. Are we really supposed to laugh, or would it be more appropriate to cry? How dark did Scorsese want this film to be interpreted? And the pacing of the film is off; several times there seemed to be enough closure to end the film, but then the medics would get back in their battered ambulance and charge off to mop up after another exhibition of man's cruelty to man.
Perhaps there was too much material in the novel to deal with in a movie; indeed, after reading the book, the film seems like a mere outline of it, even though nearly all of the dialogue is lifted directly from the text. Perhaps Scorsese and Schrader felt they had to shield viewers from some of the really ugly stuff in the book--although there's plenty that's ugly and shocking in the movie--in order for the gallows humor to work. But it takes real depth in filmmaking to do that, and that depth just isn't in the movie.
It is, however, in the novel. BRINGING OUT THE DEAD begins in a typical first-novel way: the first few pages are overwritten. Soon, however, the reader falls so completely under the spell of the story that the authorial voice no longer sounds like its trying too hard; we flow with the story, rather than against the verbiage.
The novel explains some of the things that the movie left unclear. Missing altogether from the film, but for one line or so, is Frank's ex-wife. In the novel, we are given a series of richly described flashbacks outlining Frank's romancing, marrying, and finally being dumped by his wife. The way his job erodes his personality, and the way he refuses to be helped by his wife when she tries so hard to do so, makes her decision to leave him inevitable. His attempted reconciliation with her only leads him to realize that she has moved on and is seeing someone else. Watching the relationship dissolve in stages in the novel made it all the more poignant and painful, unlike the throwaway experience left unexplicated in the film.
The metaphysical aspects of both the film and the movie are perplexing. It is purposely left up to the reader's interpretation to decide whether Frank is literally being haunted or is a victim of his own guilt and psychological trauma. Certainly the novel gives up more frequent episodes of the haunting, but then it also makes clear just how thin the boundary is between life and death. The very opening of the novel tells us that Frank believes he can tell when the soul leaves the body, quite literally. Therefore, to discount the metaphysical as merely imaginary would be to diminish the importance of this aspect of Frank's personality and career. It also reminds us of the juncture of religion and medicine, the forgotten role of priest/physician from ancient times brought forward and dumped out onto the meaner streets of Scorsese's, and Connelly's, New York.
Some aspects of the novel are confusing, as well. In the film, it was quite clear that the father of Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette, in an unconvincing role) didn't want to go on living after being resuscitated by Frank. Mary's father never regains consciousness, but his spirit communicats to Frank that he wants to let go of life, and in one of the best scenes of the film Frank allows him to do so. The novel states the case much more simply but, unlike the film, fails to convince us that Mr. Burke is really communicating with Frank.
A few other details were changed in the film. In the novel, Marcus (Ving Rhames) is a far more damaged person--both physically and emotionally--than in the film. Indeed, Marcus is seen as a pioneer of the paramedic-as-Superman character, long since burned out. His heroics in the novel become even more amazing once we see the broken man he has become. And in the book, Frank does not try nearly as hard to keep Tom from killing Noel, the crazed homeless man. There are other extremely nihilistic and gruesome scenes that were toned down in the film.
In novel form, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is a truly compelling story that earns my highest recommendation for bringing up issues of life and death that we are often uncomfortable contemplating. The film, while it has some fine performances, never quite descends into the depths that are necessary to, paradoxically, raise it up to the level of great cinema.