Before my stint as a bookseller, I ignored the mystery section at book stores and libraries. Perhaps I was being a bit of a literary snob. However, when I had an opportunity to become familiar with the section, I started to notice things like, “Hey, the guy who wrote Mystic River is shelved under mystery.” In fact, Dennis Lehane is the guy who wrote Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island as well. What really tipped my interest was Gillian Flynn mentioning Mystic River as an inspiration while she was writing her first novel. This fangirl will take a second look at anything if Gillian recommends it.
Mystic River centers on three childhood friends in a fictional Boston neighborhood: Jimmy Marcus, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle. After Dave is abducted for four days and returns home, the three boys are never able to rebuild their friendship. Sean, the boy from the right side of the neighborhood, becomes a state police detective. Their lives converge twenty-five years later when Jimmy’s nineteen-year-old daughter is murdered and Sean is assigned the case. Solving the murder forces the men to face how this shared childhood trauma has shaped their lives—Sean and Jimmy because they didn’t get into the abductors’ car, and Dave because he did.
Given my predilection for Boston films and actors, I was already biased in favor of Dennis Lehane. As it turns out, he’s a sharp writer with an eye for detail. It’s clear why filmmakers are attracted to his books as source material. The setting is crucial to Mystic River, and Lehane makes his readers feel right at home in a working-class Boston neighborhood. The intertwining lives, the lack of anonymity, an inability to escape the past—it’s all immediately accessible to the reader. Lehane gives an insightful portrayal of all three main characters, as well as musings on how gentrification is slowly erasing the neighborhood that is central to their identities.
Clint Eastwood’s 2003 film adaptation earned many award nominations and Oscar wins for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. You have to feel a little bad for Kevin Bacon as the only one of the Big Three who wasn’t showered with awards. As Sean Devine, Bacon has the least showy role, whereas Sean Penn is emoting all over the place about his daughter’s murder. I read the book before watching the movie, but I knew its actors were well-received. I was surprised to find that Eastwood didn’t bother much with fidelity to the source material in his casting. It’s a classic dilemma in adaptation. Should you cast someone who looks the part or just find the best possible actor for the role? Common sense would say the latter, yet there are times when these changes affect the story.
The most glaring change is the ages of the main characters. Jimmy Marcus should be about 36. He had his oldest daughter and lost his first wife at a very young age, and these events helped conform him into a pillar of the neighborhood. Sean Penn was 42 when he played Jimmy. The other two men should be the same age, but Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon were 44 or 45 when they played their roles. Six to ten years is probably not that drastic by Hollywood standards, but it made a difference to me. These men have young families, and they’re still trying to sort out their lives. It’s similar to how The Great Gatsby adaptations always cast someone older than Gatsby in the novel. A Gatsby who is almost 40 is a somewhat different character, in my humble opinion.
Despite my issues with the casting, I can’t deny the talent of the performances. Sean Penn is a powerhouse, and I enjoyed the way he worked off of Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins. The film was shot on location in Boston, which is crucial for authenticity when a story is this connected to its setting. A few minor characters and red herrings were understandably cut out, but the meat of the story is there and mostly unchanged. In general I liked Clint Eastwood’s moody direction, although the way he shot Kevin Bacon’s estranged wife was on the cheese-tastic side and out of sync with the rest of the movie. Mystic River as a film is a different beast, but both versions have their merits.