A Simple Plan ★★★½

#11 of 12 films in my Adapted Screenplay Challenge

Something bothered me as I started to read Scott B. Smith's first novel, the 1993 thriller entitled "A Simple Plan." By the time I finished the first chapter, I knew what it was: the writing style.

To begin, the opening 12 pages have no "hook" to capture and keep the reader's attention. The telling is flat, historical, emotionless. Also, because it is a first-person account of events already long past, there needs to be a reason to like, or at least believe, the narrator. In this case, rural Ohio accountant Hank Mitchell tells us outright that he often acts "without really thinking" and he "had no feel for the weight of (his) decision."

In fact, Hank comes across as clueless, reactionary and unmindful, and so do his brother Jacob and Jacob's buddy Lou, who are with Hank when they come across $4.4 million in a dufflebag at the site of a snow-hidden plane crash. They decide to keep the cash for themselves.

Hank has his accomplices agree to a "simple plan": sit on the money for six months, and if nobody finds the plane or misses the loot, they'll split it up and leave town to establish new lives separately. Alternatively, if there appears to be a chance of getting caught, Hank will burn the evidence without a trace.

Because the story is told through the filter of Hank's memories, we have only his knowledge to go on. This makes it hard to trust the many lengthy dialogues he reports as he tells his eight-month pregnant wife Sarah about the money/plan and he charges Jacob with making sure Lou and his girlfriend Nancy keep quiet.

Unfortunately, what starts out as larceny quickly snowballs into even more abberant behavior, from deceit and lies to murder and cover-ups. Hank attempts to explain his reasoning and feelings as the story unfolds, but it all seems so apologetic. Again I was nagged by the sense of something being very wrong with the way it was written.

From Chapter Five onward, I decided to read this like the synopsis for a screenplay rather than an attempt at creating good literature. That helped a bit as there are lots of bad decisions leading to a second murder, then a third and a fourth and a fifth. Things seemed pretty out of control by Chapter 7, just past the halfway point of the 335-page book.

By now, Sarah has had her baby, a daughter named Amanda, and Hank should be more focused on being a father, but he kind of treats the infant like an alien presence. Again, the lack of emotionality hurts the telling of the story. And who the heck is Hank supposedly telling this story to anyway? Is it supposed to be a confession? Only later would I read a review in the Los Angeles Times that explained the problem I was having with Smith's writing:

"What's most irksome about 'A Simple Plan' ... is the unavoidable sense that Smith wrote it with a sale to Hollywood in mind.... Hank, consequently, often acts like a marionette, instructed by the author to do foolish things at various points solely to set up scenes farther down the road.... The book reads like a back-formation, the novelization of an already existing movie in which the plot and characters have been massaged and homogenized to appeal as broadly as possible, constructed according to visual impact rather than internal credibility." ~ Chris Goodrich

That certainly explains some of it, but by the time I finished reading the book in its entirety, I knew there was a much bigger problem: I did not enjoy the story. This is the first material I've picked up as part of this challenge that actually turned me off. So now I'm thinking, how can the movie version be an improvement? This is a very different challenge from trying to be true to great piece of literature.

"You work for the American Dream. You don't steal it." ~ Hank Mitchell

Happily, the film really is a big improvement over the book. Smith was hired to write the screenplay and veteran director Sam Raimi to make the film. Somehow they managed to tighten up the story, streamlining a lot of the logistics that would have included too much unnecessary movement.

They also eliminated several murders and strengthened the characters by avoiding continuous narration. In fact, Billy Bob Thorton's role as Jacob Mitchell is so strong, it almost feels like he becomes the main character, not Bill Paxton as his brother Hank. Rightfully, Thornton was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

Apart from moving the location from Ohio to Minnesota and making a married couple of Lou Chambers and Nancy (Brent Briscoe and Becky Ann Baker), the film sticks rather closely to the novel through the first two acts. Bridget Fonda plays Hank's pregnant wife Sarah, and Chelcie Ross is Sheriff Carl Jenkins.

It's only in the third act that the plot takes a very different twist regarding Hank, Jacob and the fake FBI agent Neil Baxter (Gary Cole). There is considerably less violence. Hank is a much less evil, more rational character. Jacob is not fat and quick-tempered, just oddball and anti-social. And Sarah's role is reduced, as is the focus on the baby Amanda.

I later read how Mike Nichols and Ben Stiller had helped Smith in getting his first script into shape. The author obviously paid attention because the resulting screenplay got an Academy Award nomination and, for a change. the film was decidedly better than the book.

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