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Page to Screen: Shutter Island

Updated on September 22, 2015
The film poster for Shutter Island
The film poster for Shutter Island | Source

The Film

One of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Dicaprio's numerous collaborations, Shutter Island was released in 2010. It very faithfully follows its source material with some stunning performances from an all star cast. Like its original material, the ending is largely ambiguous although it offers just a little more evidence to one side, although different opinions still exist. It is, at the time of this writing, the second highest grossing film of Scorsese's career and was number 1 until The Wolf on Wall Street.

This film features a formidable cast from the lead role of Leonardo Dicaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, and Max von Sydow among others.

The Novel

Published in 2003, Shutter Island was written by Dennis Lehane. Considered a best selling psychological horror novel, it follows one detective, nicknamed Teddy, investigating the disappearance of one patient at an island penitentiary called Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island. However, things are definitely not as they seem as everyone appears to be keeping secrets from Teddy and his partner, all while a terrifying storm pounds the island and keeps them isolated from the outside world.

Other Lehane stories adapted are Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, and The Drop.

The book cover for Shutter Island
The book cover for Shutter Island | Source

The Adaptation

Copy Paste

Seriously, this might be one of the most direct adaptations I've been witness to. Maybe the book itself was the actual script? Locations, individuals, lines, much of the book is present in the film and vice versa. To be frank, it's hard to point out the differences

There are little things that Scorsese does in the film that don't exist in the book, but they are small, almost insignificant things. in fact, I didn't notice the majority of these or wrote them off as patient quirks. For instance, the axe-murdering woman who they interview (the same who eventually wrote the word RUN on his napkin), asked for water. They gave her a glass but there was no water in it. There are little things like this that happen through the movie that's supposed to symbolize Laeddis's corrupt perspective, one that can't be trusted since he's operating in a fantasy to escape from his torment. This is, as mentioned before, only in the film version due to the ending message this cinematic piece retains (more on that later).

Military Past
I feel in the book there was a bit more exposition on Laeddis's history as a military man whereas in the film there were shots of visions or memories revealed, but these were eerie and not dissimilar to the scenes of 'Teddy' being with his wife Dolores as she turns to ash in his arms. It's not so much a change or difference as it is a shift in emphasis.

A patient putting her fingers to her lips.
A patient putting her fingers to her lips. | Source

The book ending is super ambiguous in regard to what is the real scenario and what is the projected reality. Is Teddy actually Laeddis, guilty of killing his wife and suffering at this penitentiary in order to play out this scenario to break out of his delusions? Has Laeddis succumbed to his mental illness for the last time?

Or is the penitentiary trying to hide something, creating an elaborate scenario and putting on a show of deception? Is Teddy still fighting against the manipulation and refuses to be conned by those at the penitentiary. The book only tells you that Teddy is in control and believes that he needs to leave.

The film adds a single line of dialogue that changes a lot. Dicaprio's character turns to Ruffalo's character and says, "Which would be worse? To live as a monster, or die as a good man?" While not giving us an absolute truth to the island nature (actual penitentiary or secret project), it gives us more to what Laeddis/Teddy believes. Dicaprio's character admittedly believes that he did kill his wife and that he might even remember some of the past scenarios they put him through. Regardless, he's willing to die as he relapses again, thinking he's a good man, than clinging to the truth and knowing he was his wife's murderer.

Closing Thoughts

As it all turns out, i really liked this adaptation relationship. I saw the film first before reading the book but both stories were extremely similar to one another. To my surprise, this might be one of the truest adaptations I might have ever experienced. So much was copy-pasted into the film that the intention to adapt the book into a movie was already present before the pen hit the page.

Truthfully, the story largely remained the same but it was the cast and director that properly brought this visual story to life. Perhaps reading the book first and experiencing the film second might have had a different impact on me but everything felt like it fell in line for me as I experienced both tellings of the same story. I wish I could say more except it's simply very well done.

Book vs Movie

For those of you who read the book and watched the movie, what did you prefer?

See results

Further Reading

You can read more Page to Screen adaptation commentaries if you click here.


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