Drive – The Book by James Sallis (2006) and The Movie by Nicolas Winding Refn (2011)

James Sallis’ taut neo-noir novel Drive is nothing if not surprising. All the more so should you have seen the movie first and now want to read the novel. I had barely finished the book when I watched the movie and it was extremely interesting to see what and how they changed it. I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who have read the book first and have not seen the movie yet. I will just mention a few differences.

Sallis’ book is extremely well-crafted and has an interesting structure. I know I will read it again, just because of that. The story can be summarized in a few sentences. At the beginning of the book we see Driver in a pool of blood, three dead bodies next to him. How he got there and why will be revealed in bits and pieces during the novel. The story jumps backwards and forwards in time, only revealing a little in each chapter. The chapters can be read like short stories. They work on their own. This structure and the way information is given, only in the smallest of slices, exemplifies one of the main themes of the book.

Life sends us messages all the time – then sits around laughing over how we’re not gonna be able to figure them out.

Driver is a stunt driver for the movies. He is the best. Driving is what he knows best. His reputation is such that he is contacted by some criminals and hired as the driver for getaway cars in robberies. Driver is non-colloquial to the extent that even his delinquent bosses are stunned. Try to be more mono-syllabic and you’d be reduced to complete silence. Driver doesn’t want to know details. He drives. Period. And tells you that. In very short sentences.

Driver and many other people stay nameless all through the book which symbolizes a lot and mirrors an element of his childhood.

Mostly, when she spoke to him at all, she just called him boy. Need any help with the schoolwork, boy? Got enough clothes, boy? You like those little cans of tuna for lunch, right, boy? and crackers?

With a mother like that no wonder Driver never really attaches any meaning to his name or is much interested in elaborate conversation. This doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in people or relationships. He tries to be with people, he does contact people and hang out with them. He even takes care of some. Despite this lack in open communication, Driver’s interior life is far from empty. Passages like the one below are frequent in the novel.

Driver marvelled at the power of our collective dreams. Everything gone to hell, the two oft them become running dogs, and what do they do? They sit there watching a movie.

It’s rare that I’m this fascinated by a crime novel, this amazed by the writing. After having finished it, I could hardly wait to see the movie.

Maybe it’s lucky book and movie do not have a lot in common. Some story lines that are not very important in the book, have a major importance in the movie. The movie has nothing of the staccato rhythm of storytelling of the novel but delivers the story chronologically, leaving out everything about Drivers’ childhood and developing a major love story.

I didn’t mind those liberties at all because you can see book and movie as two separate things, one serving as a draft to the other. This is one of those movies I see myself re-watching many times. I absolutely loved it and one of the major reasons for that is the soundtrack. This is one of those glossy movies in which picture, story, actors and score form a tight whole and each part is perfect. Remove or change one thing and it would crumble. What I liked best was the extremely soulful, almost dreamlike atmosphere the soundtrack created, those beautiful pictures of the illuminated L.A. skyline at night and the surprisingly tender love story. I have often issues with the cast but it’s perfect in this movie. I couldn’t imagine a better Driver than Ryan Gosling or a better person for Irina than Carey Mulligan.

With a director like Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) it was to be expected that the movie would be visually compelling but not shy away from graphic scenes and strong violence.

You can watch this movie, see the differences with the book and still like it, and you can still admire the book as well.

Probably still under the influence of the movie, I haven’t done the book enough justice. If you want to read more focussed reviews, Guy reviewed it here (that’s the one that made me discover the book) and Max reviewed it here.

Thanks to the major success of this film the books by Sallis are now reissued. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Ghost of a Flea. The re-release is due in May 2012.

36 thoughts on “Drive – The Book by James Sallis (2006) and The Movie by Nicolas Winding Refn (2011)

  1. The sequel to the book Drive, DRIVEN is due to be released 3/12. I also highly recommend The Killer is Dying also by Sallis.

    Like you, I don’t think the film has to be exactly the same as the book. It’s just another vision or interpretation, if you like of the source material.

    • I’ve seen movies where it really annoyed me when theychaged too much but in this case, I think, it is different but works well.
      I’ll certainly read the sequel and another one as well. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. Great movie. Haven’t read the book but you make me want to. You should do more Book/Movie reviews. Nice to know there are some movies that are as good as the book they are based on.

    • Yes, in this case, because it is completely different. It’s like cover versions of songs, usually the more liberties someone takes with the source material, the better.

      • I love that song analogy. I have always found it ridiculous when the remake sounds like the original – what was the point of that? However, I would say it is harder to improve on a great song than to improve on a great book.

        • If to improve is the aim, then, yes, that’s not easy but if you want to create something different and unique, that works well.
          I’m thinking Johnny Cash making cover verions of Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode or U2…
          Btw … Will you read the book?

  3. Ah, excellent to hear that the book and movie are worth checking out. I didn’t know that it was the Valhalla Rising director – that’s fun. It took me a long time to accept that movies based on books could be different but still good. Now I understand how different the mediums are and I often like to see how the movie translates or expands upon the book. I still have “creative differences” sometimes, but that goes without saying. 🙂 I’ll be checking both this book and movie out.

    • They are really so different and I loved the 90s retro-electro vibe of the music.
      Due to the World Cinema Series I discovered Ronan’s blog Filmplicity and his reviews are really worth reading. He had a guest post on Drive and it seems the director had thought of Drive as some sort of fairy tale with Driver as the knigth in shining armor which makes a lot of sense. Plus other mythological references. At first I didn’t realize it was the same director but once I saw that I noticed some similarities.

  4. I didn’t even know that the movie was based on a book. I haven’t seen the movie, and obviously I haven’t read the book. I am intrigued by the structure of the novel, since it jumps around quite a bit. Sometimes when an author does this, I feel that there are too many loose ends. However, it sounds like this was not the case.

    • He knows what he is doing but I see why some people used to mainstream crime would have a problem with him.
      In this case it’s really great to read the novel and watch the movie. They are both special but very different.

  5. I don’t mind when book and movie are very different – in many ways I think that a really different approach can be more true to the spirit of a novel than a straight adaptation. Cinema and narrative are such different mediums. The structure of the novel sounds very interesting – I like that kind of time play, when it’s done well.

    • I think so too. In this case the movie managed to say something more, to add to the story. The mediums are different and that’s the importnat thing, to make the most of what possibilities you have.
      It is very well written, I even saw the author compared to Proust in hs treatment of memory (not for this book but for the Ghost of a Flea).

  6. I will try to get a copy of it from the library. I can’t see myself buying it. I already have to buy some fiction books for this Readalong I committed to with this Swiss chick who doesn’t like combat novels.

    • Ja, ja…
      It’s a very short novel, shouldn’t be an ordeal. It’s a bit like The Things They Carried in its approach. It should be easy to get it from the library.

  7. The book and movie are both totally new to me! The last few crime novels I’ve read have been so-so, so I’ll have to look for this one–I like it when a story is slowly revealed. I’ll have to look for the movie, too–I like Carey Mulligan–thanks for the heads up!

    • Sallis is really unique in crime fiction I would say and woth trying just to see the range of the genre. The movie is very graphic, just so you know. I had few looking away from the screen moments. But it still worked extremely well as a love story too.

  8. I’ll keep the movie in mind, but I think I’d be better off starting with the book, which sounds more interesting storytelling-wise anyway. Ryan Gosling annoys me to the point I didn’t want to see it when I found out he was the star!

    • Try the book or one of his others as soon as they are available. The writing is fascinating.
      I don’t think I’ve seen much of Ryan Gosling before Drive but he is perfect in this role. When I have an issue with an actor for one reason or the other, I tend to avoid the movies as well.

  9. I’ve not yet seen the film, though I plan to. The book though I think as you say is extremely well written. Much more so than you’d expect. It’s a very accomplished book.

    I have his The Killer is Dying, which Guy also put me on to. That also sounds well worth checking out.

    • It’s decidely not how I was expecting it to be written.
      I’m not sure I like the idea of a sequel though.
      I’m not sure which one I will read next but it will not be the last.

  10. I am intrigued to see this movie as many of my movie blogger friends gave high praise on the movie, they even put it in their number 1 list. The movie hasnt arrived here yet.

    Now, reading your review, I want to read the book as well. It will b easy to find because the movie is just out.

    There are some movies that still great tho they changed the story from the book, Ringu and Sherlock-BBC are few of them. I am curious with how much change in Drive and how good it is.

    • It was as if he took the novel and developped some story lines that were just sketches and left out anything prior to the main story. The movie lives from the music, of course. The book is fascinating because it’s quite challenging, and each chpater can be read and many work like short fiction.
      If I had seen it last year it would have made my Top 10, taht’s for sure.
      Sherlock is a good example as they also made something completely because they modernized it and it works well.

  11. I’ve seen the movie and then read the book, the movie was better (1 of the best in our young Century)

    but at least it gave important insights into Driver’s childhood and his beginnings in LA,

    I’m very excited about the book soon It will appear: Driven.



    • Hi Chris, the movie worked better for me as well but the book is good. In any case it seems OK to start with the movie. They work together very well, both giving additional information.
      I wonder if there will also be a second movie. I’m not sure I would like this. Most sequels spoil the appeal of part I. But there are exceptions.

  12. @Caroline,

    I’m sure give it another Movie, the driver is still alive, although injured, but I guess he goes to his home,

    then something will happen where, in order to give him a reason to go back to LA

    I also hope in the film, he and Irene meet again, they fit together perfectly,

    Now we will see and be amazed.

    Caroline, can you remind you of the last words in the book, which surprised me,

    I quote: Bernie Rose was the only one to whom he ever mourned.

    I had my thoughts on this, but they would not admit, but personally, through a request via e-mail to James Sallis, I got this answer,

    which has confirmed my thoughts to

    Quote James Sallis: Because of the kinship, the connection or identification, drivers felt with Bernie.



    • Yes, I agree they are a perfect couple. The movies and the book make a sequel very possible.
      I remember that sentence and thought it was admiration that made him thinkt that. I’m glad to hear he answered your mail. The answer makes perfect sense. Thanks for telling me.

  13. I’ve researched a bit and found an interesting interview, and I quote one passage from it:

    “Interviewer asks: What are you working on now?

    James Sallis answered:

    What I’m working on, I’m almost ashamed of it, is a sequel to Drive. I never meant to write sequels.

    Drive is so self-contained one would just assume that was it. But it’s a funny, funny thing. Drive’s production people asked my agent if I was planning to write a sequel. And I said, of course not. And an hour later I sat down and wrote the first page.”

    I think that says it all, there is definitely a 2nd Movie, in my opinion, max. 2-3 years,

    the upcoming book: Driven plays even 7 years after the events of Part 1, but I rather think that the story in part two of the movie max. 2-4 years later plays.

    can `t wait for the Book: Driven (pre-ordered)
    can `t wait for the movie: Driven
    can `t wait for my Drive Scorpion Jacket (ordered)
    can `t wait for my Driver Gloves (ordered)

    my toothpick and my car (BMW 323 Coupe) is ready and waiting for the rest of the outfit.

    all that keeps me under his spell.

    with friendly Greetings


    • And what about the CD? I’ve ordered that. There really is a Jacket available? You really are under his spell.
      I need tp pre-oder the book as well but I also want to read other novels by Sallis.
      Interesting interview bit. Thanks for sharing it.

  14. I only saw the movie, and I loved it! Very well acted, well written wit just the essential dialogue, well directed and shot. The choice of music was impeccable. It was tense and exciting. I wish there was a movie like this every year!

    • I really agree with you. I liked it a lot and will soon watch it again. The book is well worth trying too. It’s very literary for a crime novel. Completely different from the movie but still good.

  15. Pingback: James Sallis : Others of My Kind (2013) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  16. Pingback: Driver, the drifter | Book Around The Corner

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