A Shock to the System: A Book and Movie Review
I'm going to use this space to talk a little about a novel by Simon Brett, a British writer, called A Shock to the System, upon which the movie of the same title, starring Michael Caine, is based.
The first thing to say about the novel is that it is what I called a near-literary crime novel. What is a near-literary crime novel?
A. This is a crime novel, not a mystery.
1. A mystery is a whodunit. The task of the plot is to solve a puzzle. Someone has been murdered and either official law enforcement or private detectives have to figure out the whole means, motive, and opportunity thing. The final answer to the whodunit question is usually a revelation to we readers, as well.
2. A Shock to the System is NOT A mystery; it is a crime novel. A crime novel is not a whodunit puzzle. The perpetrator is perfectly plain to us readers from the start. The question these kinds of stories ask is: Why did the perpetrator do what he did? How does he feel about what he did or is doing? Will he get away with what he has done or is doing?
B. What is a literary crime novel?
1. When I use the term literary crime novel, I am not making a value judgment. I am not adopting some kind some kind of snooty attitude of discriminating among crime story literature.
2. What I mean by the term is straightforward.
a. Non-literary crime novel (or story): this is one in which the crime is intricately intertwined with all other aspects of the story. The story is not built to stand up without the crime element.
b. A literary crime novel (or story): this is a story from which your could remove the crime element and still be left with an interesting, complete story that holds together. I consider the novel by Iain Pears, called The Portrait, a literary crime novel (1).
c. A near-literary crime novel is, for me, a story in which you could almost remove the crime element from the story and have an interesting story left over---almost but not quite, which is not a criticism, just a structural observation.
C. This is neither a suspense novel nor a thriller.
1. It is the fact A Shock to the System is neither a thriller nor a suspense story that puts the 'near' in near-literary crime novel.
a. This is not a suspense novel. In a 'suspense' story the protagonist has to do something within a specific time window. That is not the situation in A Shock to the System.
b. This is not a thriller novel. In a 'thriller' story, as I understand the term, each event has what I would call a momentous immediacy, as they all lead inexorably to the big climax, the big showdown, for all the marbles, as it were.
c. The protagonist in this novel does commit several murders. But he does so for the purpose of facilitating his own ascension up the corporate ladder. The narrative tries to push him away from the stressful excitement of committing the murders, back to the peaceful, smug self satisfaction of being a successful corporate executive living in the suburbs. He is an upper middle class fellow who hopes that his station in life will shield him from any suspicion. He is not building toward some kind of dramatic showdown; he is trying to build away from the dramatic showdown, from the murders he has committed. Does that make sense? Your not building toward the excitement from a place of relative calm; you are trying to make your way back to a situation of relative calm from an adventurous beginning.
The second thing to say is that A Shock to the System is a character-driven novel, as opposed to a situation-driven one. This is another factor that puts the 'near' in near-literary novel.
Question: What is the difference between character-driven and situation-driven storytelling?
1. A situation-driven story is one which sees characters exposed to situations, dropped into a series of events. How these characters react provides the story. Hopefully there is some depth and we get some idea about how the characters feel about what's happening to them.
2. A character-driven story is one in which the personality, the psychology of the protagonist gives birth to the story, the series of events the protagonist finds himself in. We are looking at an inside-out flow with character-driven stories; and an outside-in flow with situation-driven stories.
So, A Shock to the System is neither suspense nor thriller. It is what I call a character-driven, near-literary crime novel.
What is the story?
The story is about a London man, who, through education and the application of sharp elbows. has clawed his way near to the top of the big business mountain. But he is passed over for a much yearned after promotion, one which he feels his many years of faithful service, superior ability, and relationships within the company he'd strategically forged over decades, entitled him to. Making matters worse is the fact that he is passed over for a much younger, less experienced man, hired from outside the company.
The protagonist accidentally kills a homeless man. But he gets away with it, never even comes under suspicion; and this gives him a sense of invulnerability. Newly empowered, he decides to kill off his problems, including the young hotshot who'd usurped his position at the company; and including his wife, a once beautiful and glamorous woman, who'd mutated into quite the shrew over the years.
That is basically the story. And the review is simply this: If you have literary tastes similar to mine, which means you like the kind of novels I have outlined above---and which A Shock to the System is---then you should give A Shock to the System a try. You might like it, as I do.
The film, A Shock to the System (1990), stars Michael Caine. Michael Caine is one of the big screen's most magnetic presences; and his voice is one of a kind.
The review of the movie is simply this: If your cinematic tastes are similar to mine, and you like Michael Caine as a performer, as I do, you might like this movie. There is just one thing I should tell you.
The movie adaptation lightens the tone of the novel. The novel is a tense psychological crime story set in an upper middle class, London milieu. The movie sets a tone I would describe as dark comedy.
What is dark comedy?
First of all, what is comedy?
To me, a comedic movie is one that is simply premised upon a wacky what-if question.
What if (or wouldn't it be funny if) a zoo keeper, having relationship troubles, gets advice from the animals under his care, who, as it turns out, have been secretly able to speak English all along? Zoo Keeper.
What if (or wouldn't it be funny if) a security guard for a shopping mall, got his big chance to show his mettle to be on the police force, by thwarting a major crime unleashed in said mall? Paul Blart, Mall Cop (Kevin James).
What if (or wouldn't it be funny if) a security guard for a shopping mall, got his big chance to show his mettle to be on the police force, by thwarting a major crime unleashed in said mall? Observe and Report (Seth Rogan).
What if (or wouldn't it be funny) a hardcore street cop (Ice Cube) wanted to test the worthiness of his little sister's boyfriend to marry her, by taking said boyfriend (Kevin Hart) on a ride along? Ride Along.
To me, what makes a comedy dark is the element of violence.
What if (or wouldn't it be funny if) a duo of small-time stick up artists decided to rob a coffee shop, full of shop, in the middle of the day? What if (or wouldn't it be funny) two hit men, driving along on the freeway, accidentally blew off the head of one of their associates, sitting in the back seat? What if (or wouldn't it be funny if) an over-the-hill boxer gets paid by a gangster to throw a fight, but then deliberately knocked out his opponent, so that he can collect a big pot of cash on a long odds bet going the other way? Pulp Fiction.
Quentin Tarantino did an interview with longtime friend and directorial colleague, Robert Rodriguez, for the latter's El Rey network show called The Director's Chair. In that interview, Tarantino characterized his movies as comedies; and he made the point, correctly, I think, that the fact that the movies are violent does not make them any less funny. You could say, I think, that he specializes in dark comedy as a filmmaker.
By the way, what if (or wouldn't it be funny if) a gay man decided to rob and bank in order to raise the money for his boyfriend's sex change operation? Dog Day Afternoon (1975)--based on a true story.
One thing that makes the movie, A Shock to the System more 'comedic' than 'dramatic,' is the fact that the movie does not include the scene from Simon Brett's novel in which the protagonist accidentally kills a homeless man. Without that context, the movie allows us to believe that Michael Caine's character turned to murder out of a kind of late middle age frustration. What makes the film 'funny,' so to speak, like other dark comedies, is the shrugging 'what-the-hell' impetus that seems to generate the plot.
Again, the novel, because it includes the scene in which the main character accidentally kills a man prior to his adventures in homicidal corporate climbing, the story appears to be more seriously dramatic. Because the movie omits this scene, it evokes what I have called---for lack of better phraseology---the shrugging 'what-the-hell' impetus, which makes the film 'darkly comedic,' in my view.
Well, I do believe that's everything you need to know before making the plunge into the novel and/or the movie, A Shock to the System.
With that I take my leave.
Thank you so much for reading.
Good Night and Good Luck!