Welcome to By The Book, in which we take a look at cinematic adaptations of literary works. This feature is less a review of the merits and shortcomings of the films themselves, rather a study of the films as adaptations – is it faithful to the source material? Where it differs, what choices were made, and are they successful? Do the book and film work together to tell the story, or are the authors turning in their proverbial graves at what has been done to their novel? Here we look at the Tom Hardy-starring adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 thriller Child 44.
Spoiler Warning: This feature contains several plot spoilers for both Child 44 the novel and Child 44 the film. Read with caution!
Child 44, Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel, is a real rarity – and perhaps even unique – in that in 2008 it was a pure thriller (albeit with period elements) that got longlisted for the Man Booker prize. For such genre fare to even come that close to the literary world’s most prestigious prize is quite an achievement, as their lists of nominees are usually reserved for the Hilary Mantels and Margaret Atwoods of this world, with more commercial prospects being shunned.
A gripping and tightly-plotted period thriller, Child 44 follows the investigation of exiled MGB agent Leo Demidov into a nationwide series of gruesome child murders that are being wilfully ignored by The State, who proclaim that murder is “strictly a capitalist disease”. Believed and abetted only by his wife Raisa and new boss General Nesterov, Leo must uncover enough evidence to find and kill the murderer whilst also evading detection himself by the all-knowing State. The fact that Child 44 reads very much like a film – it’s all punchily-written action and twisting plotlines – makes it something of a surprise that a film adaptation has been this long in coming. The book’s apparent ready suitability for a screen adaptation, however, makes a lot of the changes that were made all the more baffling. Here we’ll look at the major departures from the source material and whether they help or hinder translating the story, themes, and tone on to the screen (hint: it’s mostly hindrance).
As primarily a serial-killer thriller, characterisation is plainly not going to be the novel’s strongest point – however, within the confines of the genre, Smith does very well. Leo is given depth and sensitivity, whilst also allowing us a glimpse as to how much his privileged life as a high-ranking official means to him, and whether he’ll allow his morals and conscience to jeopardize that in the name of “doing the right thing”. An important early theme of the novel is his internal struggle between staying blissfully ignorant (with some suspicions) of what The State is up to and fully acknowledging their draconian rule at the cost of his own position, family, and even life. His wife Raisa begins as something of an enigma – in reading about her mostly from Leo’s perspective we know little about her, even suspecting her as a spy at one point – however once she opens up to Leo after their exile we see her for the hard-as-nails survivalist she really is, and her motivations for sticking with Leo become horribly clear.
Whilst the film’s script doesn’t really give either character the depth they have on the page, the characterisation of both is carried by a terrific pair of performances from Hardy and Rapace who, despite the accents (more on that here), come out looking good.
What is missing from the film, however, is any sense of what is driving these characters – we often have no clue as to what motivates them to make the choices they do. For example, Raisa’s decision to stay with Leo (despite her utter lack of feelings for him) turns what was in the novel a brave act of grim self-preservation and a determination to stop a child-murderer, to a non-committal shrug of “alright then” in the film – in doing so she loses much of her character’s agency.
The most unforgivable change of a character and their motivations lies in that of the murderer Sergei (in the film Vlad, a vastly underused Paddy Considine). As readers of the book will know, his story childhood is revealed in a fascinating prologue chapter which prophesises the method with which he likes to kill – he also happens to be Leo’s long-lost brother, and Sergei’s obsession with the brother who “abandons” him provides his entire motivation for killing so many children. In the film, however, this crucial element is entirely and inexplicably dropped (it would have taken no extra screentime) in favour of changing Sergei to just a random man who has vaguely heard of Leo, and offers little to no explanation for why he’s killed over 40 children. To top it all off, the engrossing and revealing denouement of the book is swapped out for an underwhelming and by-the-numbers fight scene between Leo and his former protégé Vasili.
Ultimately, the film adaptation gives us little of the Orwellian paranoia and intriguing character-driven action that made the novel so distinctive and compelling. Some of the most interesting elements of the novel are minimised or even dropped entirely in favour of several uninvolving subplots which, despite the cast’s best efforts (and it is superbly cast by the incomparable Nina Gold), do not excite, as they are centred on underwritten characters that are not as absorbing as they should be due to their maddeningly vague aims and motivations. Even the hunt for the killer comes across as an incidental subplot in such an aimless, murky and very, very brown film. Off to the gulag with this one.