Proper Adaptation: Hap and Leonard

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Taking a work of fiction from the page to the screen must have one of the worst strike rates going.  When you immerse yourself in a book, the only budget you have for the things running through your mind is the joint imagination of author and reader.  It is a sacred bond.  Adaptation is someone taking that same joy of discovery and wonderment and the distilling it through the lens of many, many people.  The dilution only continues when the moneymen ask why the hero has to die at the end or why the soaring city in the sky cannot be Vancouver in March. Throw in a first person narration, and more often than not, Richard Matheson's vision becomes Francis Lawrence's and Will Smith’s I am Legend, rather than a Vincent Price The Last Man On Earth.  Heavens, even The Omega Man hit more notes than poor old Will’s attempt.  However, when it is done right, adaptation is magical.  In the case of Hap and Leonard, I came at it ass about face.  I saw the TV show and then discovered the books.  Despite some rather large differences between the show and the source novels, that magical element that Joe R. Lansdale deftly weaves throughout his novels is transferred to the small screen perfectly.  You can distil it down to two things, character and heart (possibly three if you throw in East Texas).

Lansdale introduced us to Hap Collins and Leonard Pine in 1990's Savage Season.  He set his crime/swamp-noir stories in the dying days of the 80’s where our heroes are not so much down on their luck, as pawned it, stole it back and pawned it again.  Hap has hit 40, a former conscientious objector who did time in Leavenworth rather than go to Vietnam.  Hap is as redneck as you would expect, except for every liberal fibre of his soul that makes him him.  Leonard volunteered for that same war and could not be more different to Hap.  Back, gay, angry and more redneck, country loving than Hap will ever be, Leonard has more time for his dogs than people.  The two met after the war in the East Texas town of LaBorde, in the rose fields, and have been friends ever since.  Having lost their jobs in the fields, fate wanders into Hap’s life in the shape of his ex-wife Trudy and a plan to recover a whole pile of money from the bottom of a river.  Of course, Trudy, who left Hap for a string of men with a cause, is towing that cause right along with her.  Nothing is ever simple.

 A few of the novels that were handy. 

A few of the novels that were handy. 

In Lansdale’s books, Hap tells us the story in rather rueful reminisce.  He knows life has passed him by and while not totally happy with the situation, Hap has, perhaps, come to terms with it.  Leonard being a black man in East Texas would be hard enough, his sexuality adds to the trouble.  A character that could so easily crossed into caricature and stereotype, Lansdale has created a wonderfully formed person, someone Hap’s ideals were too stand up for, yet Leonard doesn’t need anyone standing up for him.  Standing up for each other is something they have to do a tad too often for their own liking.  Lansdale’s use of violence, while brutal, is accountable and affecting.  Hap and Leonard carry their wounds and their loses.  They enter each new “adventure” bearing the scars, both mentally and physically, of the previous.  Throughout it all, they stand shoulder to shoulder.  This is where the novels work so beautifully.  The genuine care felt between Hap and Leonard is of the sort of true bond that is elusive but life affirming when you have been lucky enough to experienced it.  The testing of the bond makes the tales so compelling.  The mysteries, while engaging, are just there to put our somewhat reluctant heroes through the ringer, and bloody hell, does Lansdale give it to them.  Lansdale’s prose and dialogue is of the class that you read and love and hate in equal measures because you will never be able to come close to coming up with something as wonderful yourself.  Then you pop the telly on and someone has.

Adaptation is attempting to capture lightning in a bottle and then to try to make it strike twice.  In crafting Hap and Leonard for the small screen, Jim Mickle and Nick Damici have Lansdale form.  They adapted Lansdale’s Cold in July, which starred the late, truly great, Sam Sheppard.  The Hap and Leonard novels do have a single drawback for translation to the screen, they are not terribly long.  You could make a movie out of them, but a television series would be tricky.  Before we get to that, though, we need to talk about the actual (fictional) Hap and Leonard.

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The bond between the two is key.  If you cast two actors and the chemistry between them is missing, it does not matter how compelling the plot is, you will end up watching something akin to a Reception class Nativity and your show won’t make it past the pilot.  The team running this show have nailed it.  In Michael Kenneth Williams and the most un-Texan of James Purefoy, they have captured that element so vital to these stories.  Williams’ role is the most expanded from the novels.  Leonard develops slightly more slowly over the novels, but on telly, you need him to be fully formed.  Mickle and Damici do this by fleshing him out with elements from later novels.  Leonard’s boyfriend, Raul, from Two Bear Mambo is brought forward.  To Leonard, Williams brings the heart, steel and wit that has makes Leonard such an wonderful character.  Purefoy, on the other hand, has a whole lot more to go on, but this can also narrow his choices.  Plus, the West Country boy has to channel East Texas.  Mind you, if you’ve been to Somerset, that may not be too much of a stretch.  Between them, they seem as if they have leapt off of Lansdale’s page.

 James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams as Hap Collins and Leonard Pine.

James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams as Hap Collins and Leonard Pine.

You’ve got the actors, you have the text, but you don’t have enough plot in each book to last six episodes.  This is where the “meddling” in most adaptations causes things to fall over.  Change things too much and you get Brad Pitt in a “World War Z”, which is not the World War Z that Max Brooks crafted and that kept me up at night.  Get it right, though, and you get Blade Runner (which is still amazing even though my favourite scene in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the replicant police station scene, is missing).  Frankly, this is the bit where I tip my hat to Mickle, Damici, showrunner John Wirth (formerly of the brilliant Hell on Wheels) and EP’s Jeremy Platt and Linda Moran.  They have seeded each episode with additional backstory to deepen the plot and the characters.  They make a couple of subtle changes to Hap and Leonard themselves, such as moving the boys meeting to their childhood under tragic circumstances.  Then using each episode’s opening tease to give colour to the tale we are watching is an inspired choice.

Episode teases can be a tricky thing.  Get them right and you have grabbed your viewer’s attention in seconds, get it wrong and you end up spending the first half of the episode trying to make up for it.  Giving the supporting characters fully formed backstories that is explored in the teases, adds the depth that is needed on TV.  For example, bringing Soldier and Angel in early throughout season 1, the additions of Sheriff and Beau Otis in season one to affect season 2, the childhood of MeMaw and the truly devastating open of season 2’s “Holy Mojo” episode (don’t think I’ll ever be able to play hide and seek again), all brings additional dimensions to the tale.  Couple this to the hints of future events and you are engaging with and treating your audience with respect.  The next season hints are so beautifully handled that the lady hanging out the questionable laundry at the end of season 2 had me applauding the final shot of the season.  Not for the laundry of course.

Once you’ve flesh out the support, you cast them with pure class.  The supporting cast on the show has been amazing.  In season 1, you have Christina Hendricks, Jimmi Simpson and Enrique Murciano to name but three.  In season 2, you have Brian Dennehy, Tiffany Mack, Cranston Johnson and the utterly wonderful Irma P. Hall.  This class of acting talent, the Lansdale dialogue and the chance to give everyone an opportunity to shine, means that the soul of the books is intact and given a fresh dimension on screen.

 Christina Hendricks as Hap's ex-wife, Trudy

Christina Hendricks as Hap's ex-wife, Trudy

At the very heart of it, all is Joe Lansdale’s tales.  When you have read the books and watched the show, you can only marvel at the way they have pulled off the transition.  This is proper adaptation.  What Hap and Leonard has that gives it an edge is it two titular characters.  These are two guys you would happily sit on the porch with and drink a couple six packs of Lone Star, should Leonard let you.  Character is key and when you see how well these two to play on screen, you have to ask why the hell hasn’t Peter Dinklage gotten funding for The Thicket?  Lansdale is a master at creating characters that are engaging and, at the same time, slightly difficult to get close to without a bit of work.  But once they are under your skin, they are there forever.

With Hap and Leonard, we don’t get superheroes.  We don’t have genius detectives.  We have a couple of guys with their hearts in the right place and their brains playing catch up.  Joe Lansdale creates characters with faults, foibles and demons that makes them relatable humans.  Taking these faults, these flaws and demons successfully to the small screen is no mean feat.  To complement in adaptation is the highest praise.  That we get to see our heroes on screen and want to return to the novels, not through disappointment or annoyance is utterly wonderful.  As I said at the start of this, I came to the novels through the show.  A show that blew me away.  As the final shots of Season 1 rolled, I fired up the tablet and bought Savage Season, as an eBook.  Me.  An eBook.  Really.  It was ace.  Joe Lansdale’s mind is wonderful and just a little scary.  I’ve yet to read one of his books that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed.  Season 3 is filming now, a Savage Season graphic novel is due and Lansdale is bringing Bubba back.  These are Golden Times.

Now Hollywood, about The Thicket...

Hap and Leonard Seasons 1 (Savage Season) and 2 (Mucho Mojo) are available on Amazon Prime now.  Season 3 (Two Bear Mambo) is due in 2018 on Sundance TV.