Most disappointing adaptation you'll see all week: Nightmare Alley

So, my local cinema only has the black and white version (ie of del Toro’s film, not the original). Should I still watch that or just wait for the Blu-Ray? I’m generally pretty skeptical of B&W versions of movies shot in colour - people raved about the Fury Road one but I’d have been very disappointed to have only seen that and not the colour version.

Hey, I get it. That’s why I mentioned that I understand. I felt a bit of the same on Jurassic Park but I did enjoy it because man that was fantastic the way they brought the dinosaurs to the screen. Conversely, I enjoyed Kubrik’s take on The Shining over the book. In fact, I think it even made more sense, if any horror with supernatural elements can. It was a -different- story, but a good one. Perhaps for those that read this book (Nightmare Alley), is this the same here? Or did you not like the movie’s story at all? Tom mentioned several highlights and performances he liked. How about others here that read the book?

It’s one of those issues where you have to give each media and each presentation of a story it’s own review. A book, a short film, a full featured film, a graphic novel or comic, a rock opera album, a Broadway musical … they all have a place to share the same story and they all have a place to tell it the way that storyteller wants to present it. We cannot fault the storyteller for not telling the story the exact same way every time.

I’ve been just as mad at book to film adaptations though. I understand. That’s why, to me, viewing this without having read it, I enjoyed it quite well. To me it was a well spun story with great characters and watching a flawed character get his due.

But Tom’s review states explicitly his goal of the review for those who HAVE read the book. And I have no issue with that. I think I even read similar prior to your example of Jurassic Park. And to be frank, I really enjoyed a lot of Crichton’s books, but man the movies just never seemed as bright or as well told.

I thought the use of color in the movie was well done, as del Toro can do and has done before. I’m not sure I’d want to see this in black and white but for all I know it might come off quite well. Maybe see both?

Well, I watched this over the weekend. It’s funny, my friend warned me that the first hour is a bit of a slog; and he’s much more forgiving of that kind of thing than I am.

But then, the first hour was really the only part I liked. Once we leave Willem Dafoe and Ron Perlman behind, and the wonderfully creepy carnival vibe, there’s just not much left. It plays as a straight con-man movie, with not a lot of surprises. The ending was good (like, the final scene), but maybe a little over-built-up?

I have to say I was kind of impressed that Bradley Cooper played a character other than Bradley Cooper. He even kind of did a voice, which I only knew he could do because of Rocket Racoon.

I read the book a few weeks ago and watched the movie yesterday. Tom is entirely correct; you cannot go from the book to the movie. The simplest explanation I think of is that it’s like going from a beloved anime (Avatar, Cowboy Bebop, take your pick) to the live action remake. The characters are bad caricatures of what they should be, the neatest bits are removed, the prickliest parts are clipped off, and any ideology or larger points are washed out. Example 1: The book is 100% ACAB, while in the movie the protagonist never even strangles a cop to death. Example 2: In the book, the psychologist Ritter is just a better class of predator. Think the xenomorph from Alien, if it also enjoyed bubble baths. There’s none of this faffing about with hurt feelings or a traumatic past or whatever. Example 3: Molly should be beautiful, upbeat, and outgoing. She’s not dumb, but she’s the furthest thing in the world from introspective or brooding. That’s one thing that the mostly terrible 1947 version gets right:


vs

All that being said, enjoy the movie! I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it, it’s just a very different creation from the book.

And sometimes that’s what we get. Good summary, along with the comments from Tom as well. To what @JoshL said, I thought for sure I’d HATE it with Bradley Cooper in it but amazingly I enjoyed it more than my wife did. Maybe I was just in a noir watching kind of mood the other night. Next time I’ll dim the lights even more.

The comments from both of you make me want to read the book. Unfortunately my reading list has been doing nothing but growing of late. I’ll see if I can’t make some time though.

I haven read the book or Tom’s review (yet) and just finished the film wondering why it even got made. This isn’t a noir; it’s a morality play. And a decidedly old school one at that. There’s barely even a speck of grit. It wasn’t bad but it was pretty pointless. My least favorite moment was Jenkins confessing to being a rapist just so the audience could feel good about his death. So fucking stupid. The main problem with the film is that all of the characters are just sketches and Del Toro just relies on the audience’s familiarity with tropes and never for a moment tries to subvert them. How do you know Cooper is a flim flam man? He’s got a thin mustache. Blanchette is practically the dictionary definition of a femme fatale.

The movie feels a bit empty, right? Even though, I liked watching it in a theater…

Yeah, now I’ve read Tom’s review and why not, in 2022, try to capture the nihilism of the novel? Why sanitize the film when a sanitized film version of the novel already exists. Trying to make these contemporary thespians deliver lines as if they were in a 1940’s John Huston adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel also just doesn’t work. The actors don’t believe it enough to pull it off and the audience both doesn’t connect and can tell the actors are struggling. I feel like I’ve been expecting to really like Del Toro films for years, and I just don’t. Crimson Peak is my favorite of his, but even that was kind of meh. I actively hated Shape of Water. It’s time to toss him on the heap of visually talented directors who just don’t connect with me and I don’t need to watch–he can shoot the shit with M. Night Shyamalan up there.

All this talk of the book versus the two movies is interesting, but as someone that’s neither read the book nor seen the old version, I had a couple of questions about this movie.

  1. Did Stanton purposefully poison Pete, or did he grab the wood alcohol due to his subconscious daddy issues?

  2. Ritter was raped/cut by Grindle, right? So beyond the money she stole, part of her plot was revenge against Grindle?

  3. Was Enoch in the jar Dorrie’s baby?

Regardless, I guess I have to get the book now.

The book is great, especially in today’s political climate. I heartily recommend it.

In answer to your questions:

One: In the book, he grabs any alcohol he can find so that Pete will get drunk and pass out. He wants Pete passed out so he can have sex with Zeena, who’s been rebuffing him because Pete’s around. But he only realizes after the fact that he’s grabbed the wood alcohol and killed Pete. It’s an accident, but it’s the direct result of his own deception and sexual appetite.

Also, the “daddy issues” in the book are more cuckolding issues from him realizing as a child that his mother was cheating on his father with her music teacher. Which is, of course, mirrored in his relationship with Pete and Zeena. Lilith uses this against him to devastating effect. But I don’t think any of that stuff is in the movie.

Two: I don’t think any of that is in the book, but I might have missed it. The Lilith from the book is a straight-up predator. I seem to recall she was an analog to Stanton as a con-man using modern science instead of carnival tricks and not any sort of avenging angel.

Three: Ha, that hadn’t occurred to me! I do think the jar baby is in the book, and it might even be part of the “geek” bookends, but I don’t recall. It certainly wasn’t as prominent in the book as it was in the movie. My friend – who also didn’t like the movie – has a theory that the whole Nightmare Alley adaptation is just an excuse for del Toro to feature the jar baby, which she says is probably part of his own personal collection. :)

-Tom

This may be entirely possible. I know Del Toro has been booting around a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remake for years after he acquired the original car prop.

I saw this yesterday, and to triggercut’s questions

  1. He probably doesn’t want to admit it to himself, but since Pete’s become a father figure to him that he’s cuckolding like his dad was cuckolded (that stuff comes out in the first therapy session), and is holding him back, he did make the choice to kill him on some level.
  2. I think that’s what you can infer from her wounds, and the nature of Dorrie’s death, speaking of which…
  3. I don’t think it was Dorrie’s baby - that death read more as a botched back alley abortion to me.

We just watched this this past weekend, and I have to say, I’m glad I didn’t read Tom’s review first! (I’m not sure how it ended up on my list, to be honest.) I found this to be true for me:

and I will certainly confess to not being much of a movie buff at all, let alone a noir expert.

To be honest, I thought it was great. I don’t think I was going in expecting deep insights or a reflection on evil or greed or anything, so the fairly simple morality play didn’t bother me. Mostly what I loved about it was, yeah, I guess that it was a beautiful period piece with an intricate enough plot to keep me hooked. (I think if I’d known what was going to happen I wouldn’t have liked it as much.)

Now, I absolutely love art deco as a style (as does my wife), so when they got to the city–and especially the therapist’s office–I was just staring at the scenery. (And then when he said “dame” in the conversation, I thought, “oh yeah, this is supposed to be a noir.”) I really loved the coloration of the movie; brown was so dominant, and I thought the way the shading shifted from wood-and-mud brown during the carnival scenes to lighter-orangey brown of art deco Buffalo was great. (I’m so happy I didn’t see it in black and white, as someone mentioned upthread.)

So while I 100% understand Tom’s review and the distaste of people who read the book or saw the early version, I’m really happy to have watched it and thought it was great.

Can I ask for some recommendations, though? What should we have watched instead? How about–what’s the most classic noir we should check out to educate ourselves on the genre? Bonus points if it’s on netflix, hbo max, or the library (kanopy, I guess).

I’m very glad you pointed that out. I think part of why I didn’t respond as much to the visuals is because they were so muted. But it’s still a good-looking movie. I tried to bait @Soren_Hoglund to post some images in another thread where he defended Nightmare Alley’s visuals, but he wasn’t having any of it. :)

I like the idea of “what should I have watched instead?” input from detractors like me! That’s also a great response when someone is poo-poo’ing something and you’d like to shift the conversation to a positive tone. :)

But I guess it would depend on why you watched Nightmare Alley. Based on my disappointment that Nightmare Alley’s story of scammers squandered the option to be relevant to modern politics, I would say you should have watched Red Rocket instead. I probably hinted as much in the review, but I also doubt that’s the kind of counter-recommendation you were looking for. :)

However, if you’re looking for recommendations of classic noir, there are probably better threads in terms of the quality of responses you’ll get. This ol’ dinosaur has been sporadically active lately, but I doubt anyone would mind if you dropped in to ask for a recommendation:

-Tom

Fair point! I think I watched it because I saw somewhere (honestly maybe it was even in my Google feed, I’m embarrassed to admit) that it was a good neo-noir by Del Toro, and I thought that (1) I should be more familiar with noir as a genre, (2) I don’t know that I had the patience for “old movies”, so the “neo” part appealed to me, and (3) I remember liking Pan’s Labyrinth, stylistically, so a Del Toro movie had potential.

Come to think of it, Pan’s Labyrinth was set in Civil War Spain (right?), and this is set in Great Depression USA, so there’s another thematic similarity I just cottoned on to. The feeling of depression in Nightmare Alley was just so strong, from the poverty of the carnies to the rich businessman still trying to contact his son who died in the trenches a generation ago (which I figured out when they announced that the Chaplin-looking guy had invaded Poland).

I tried to look up Red Rocket without spoiling myself (thinking about how glad I am I didn’t know anything going into Nightmare Alley) and it sounds good! Unfortunately it appears I’d have to pay to watch it (it’s on Amazon Prime?) so I probably won’t be able to get to it for a while.

I’m no expert on classic noir but check out LA Confidential, Gone Baby Gone, No Country For Old Men, or Memento for more modern noirs. Mulholland Drive has the same kind of juxtaposition of the macabre and mundane that Nightmare Alley does, but is far more effective at creating an ominous atmosphere and plumbing the heart of darkness.

For those allergic to older (i.e. black & white) movies, a good piece of modern noir to start with would be the Coens’ first - Blood Simple

In my defense, I was drunk as a skunk, but going back to those posts, I’ll still stand by them.

This is from the opening 15 minutes: