With the way Hollywood churns through material these days, we thought it was worth taking a look at the various sources they’re pulling from and discussing what they might make from these books, games, TV shows, or whatever else they use. For today’s column, we look at Don Winslow’s “Savages,” a crime novel that is the inspiration for Oliver Stone’s new film.
Chon and Ben are friends. They grow marijuana. No, scratch that. They grow the very best marijuana. They have a successful distribution network that has made them both very comfortable. Ben travels the world doing philanthropic work that makes him feel good about how he earns his money. Chon stays at home and tends to the nastier details of their trade. It’s a pretty great arrangement.
And then there’s O. She’s the girl who loves them both. They share her in every way. Sometimes in explicit detail.
When the Baja Cartel decides to expand its reach into Southern California, they put pressure on Chon and Ben to join them and allow them to take over operations. All they want is for the guys to keep growing. Ben and Chon try to quit the business, at which point the Baja Cartel kidnaps O.
They make it real simple: do what we say how we say when we say for three years, or we cut her head off.
Chon and Ben aren’t willing to live with those terms. And what happens as a result reveals that everyone involved may be, to some degree or by some definition, savages.
Don Winslow is all about voice.
That’s something I find more and more critically important as I get older… how someone asserts a voice in their work. Sure, I like a good yarn, but I also like for it to be told well. Or for it to be told interestingly, in some way I haven’t heard before. Most stories, at their core, are stories we already know. But what changes and what makes something special is the way we are told these things, or what thoughts this version inspires.
Winslow’s books are being bought for the bigscreen left and right, and for good reason. He writes in a very immediate, visual style. He’s painting a picture through quick sharp strokes, details that are delivered in these polished little punctuations of description. There’s something supercharged about his prose, but he also seems to adapt it somewhat from book to book. “Savages” is running at full-tilt from the beginning of the story to the end, and the few times it takes a breath, it is simply so things feel even more out of control when he starts back into the crazy.
He uses screenplay form at times, and even when it’s not written like a screenplay, it still feels like a movie in the way he cuts through time and space to weave a story from several different perspectives. Some of the strongest, smartest choices Winslow makes in the telling of his story is when he chooses to cut to Lado, a particularly nasty enforcer for the Baja Cartel, or Elena, the deadly Mexican matron who took over an entire crime family because there were no men left to do it, or O as she struggles not to crack under the pressure of being a hostage, or Ben and Chon, whose friendship is probably the most striking thing about the book.
There’s no friction between friends here. Instead of using the events to drive a wedge between the two of them, instead Winslow tells the story of two guys who come at their mutual business from very different points of view, only to gradually meet somewhere in the middle of their extreme polar positions. Ben is the idealistic one, the guy who thinks it’s possible to do no harm with his weed business. He’s also the scientist. I have friends who work in California’s booming grey market of medical marijuana, and they are the most precise botanical scientists possible, unbelievably dedicated to the fine tuning of the science involved for very precise end product results. They are remarkable people, and Winslow gets Ben right. He’s the guy who does it because it’s a problem to be solved, a hypothesis to be tested. Ben wants great marijuana, so he gets very very good at growing it, and then he gets so good at growing it that he start sharing it with other people. Then more. Then a lot more.
Chon, on the other hand, is the hammer. He’s Ben’s friend. No one else’s. He has one person on his list of VIPs, and that’s Ben. He is the one who does the terrible things that sometimes have to be done if you’re involved in something as precarious as the drug trade. In “Savages,” Ben and Chon are not involved in the legal market at all. Their clients are all under the radar, recreational users, buying and selling outside the system completely. That’s what makes them so ripe for takeover by the Baja Cartel. And when Chon is threatened, or when Ben is threatened, Chon is almost a shark about doing what has to be done. No remorse. No hesitations. He’s a bad sonofabitch.
O is either going to make Blake Lively a serious film star, or it’s going to stop her cold, because it’s the sort of part that is a great opportunity to either fly or flame out. It’s a big role. She’s a girl whose mother has dragged her through a series of shitty marriages, a bunch of moving around, and she’s grown up wild and too mature in some ways and insanely immature in other ways. She’s spoiled, but she’s decent about it. She’s not prepared to do anything in life, but she’s the sort of raw potential that could easily be pointed in the right direction. She is bright and alive and hungry for experience as written, and when she’s kidnapped, she struggles to hold herself together, but she also quickly figures out how to navigate a better version of captivity for herself. She’s basically off in her own movie for a good chunk of the text, and it’s big stuff to play.
The bad guys in the film are a pretty rich list. The main force of opposition to Chon and Ben in the film is the Baja Cartel, a major drug organization that has decided they want to corner the market that Chon and Ben service. First, there’s Lado, who is one of the main enforcers for the Cartel, a stone-cold killer who seems to relish those moments when he gets to do terrible, terrible things. You don’t send Lado to negotiate. You send Lado when negotiation has failed. If you’re negotiating, you send Jaime and Alex, and they present the civilized face of the Cartel. They’re all answering to the big boss, of course, and in one of Winslow’s greatest touches, he’s made the head of the Cartel a woman, knowing full well how that flies in the face of convention. Elena never set out to be a crime lord, but as the men in her family were killed, she found herself having to assume the position to keep her children safe, and she turned out to have a real knack for ruling with an iron fist.
And right in the middle, wedged between the Cartel and Ben and Chon, there’s Dennis, a DEA agent who takes money from all interested parties. He’s spent a lot of years playing the bad guys against his own agency, but he’s reaching a moment where he’s going to have to pick who he wants to help and who he’s happy to hurt, and no one’s prepared to make the decision easy on him.
POTENTIAL AND PITFALLS
“Savages” is the 13th novel that Don Winslow has published, and it’s interesting that the biggest Winslow fan I know tried to warn me off the book at first. He felt like it was the overall weakest thing in Winslow’s library. I’m not sure I’d agree, but when you have a library as dense with smart and well-written books as his, “worst” is still pretty damn good.
The thing that makes this seem like such a natural candidate for becoming a movie is the streamlined plot and the very direct, even blunt language of the piece. It’s true that it covers somewhat familiar narrative ground, but it works because of the force of feeling behind it. The relationship between Ben, Chon, and O works on an iconic level. They are bound by such intensity that I find myself feeling for them, no matter what their choices are.
Then there’s the Oliver Stone factor. Stone’s work has felt somewhat disconnected for the last decade or so, and in general, it’s felt to me for a while now that he just didn’t feel any great attraction to anything he’s been making. Looking at a film like ‘W.” or a film like “World Trade Center,” it’s hard to see the passion and the lunacy that makes films like “JFK” and “Born On The Fourth Of July” so great. In “Savages,” it feels like he’s been given a gift, and I sincerely hope he rises to the occasion.
Having Don Winslow be directly involved in the adaptation is a strong move, and it sounds like he’s formed a rock-solid creative relationship with Shane Salerno, who helped write the script. Salerno’s career seems to be heading in a new direction these days, and it all comes down to how well he fits with the material, something we’ll know once we see the film.
If the film works, it’ll be because Stone and the screenwriters find a way to preserve the voice of the book and because they manage to make it an emotional journey. If it doesn’t work, it’s because Stone plays to the surface of things without really engaging the material on a deeper level. It’s one of those books where I can imagine both versions of the movie, and I hope for the best.
One last note… if this works, then I hope Hollywood decides to get off its collective ass and starts greenlighting the other movies based on Winslow’s work. The guy is a monster on the page, and good filmmakers are going to find a wealth of material to work with as they start to dig deeper into that bibliography. Fingers crossed, this will be the start of a great run of movies brought to life from Winslow’s books. If it happens, I’ll be eager to see each of them, and I’ll certainly cover the progress here as the films move forward.
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