Published on: March 13, 2020
Longtime MNB readers know that I am not just an enormous fan of author Robert B. Parker and his Spenser novels, but also pretty conversant in the details of the books. I've been lucky enough to interview Ace Atkins - who took over the series after Parker's death a decade ago, and has done a terrific job sustaining the quality and adding new chapters to Spenser's legacy - and also got to know Joan Parker, his widow, in the years after his passing. (You can read my piece about her, written just after she passed away in 2013, here.)
While the mid-eighties television series "Spenser: For Hire" was a somewhat sanitized version of the books, it certainly honored the source material; Robert Urich, who played Spenser, was good, and even better when the scripts gave him more to work with, and he had the right physicality for the role. Avery Brooks was unforgettable as Hawk, who had known Spenser since their boxing days and who would often aid him in cases (while having fewer scruples about law and order). Barbara Stock was Susan Silverman, Spenser's longtime lover, and she was as good as she needed to be, since the stories didn't ask much of her.
After the series ended, Urich and Brooks did four Lifetime movies, with different actresses playing Susan. While the movies were more or less based on Parker novels, they were low budget affairs and were almost all shot in Toronto instead of on location in Boston (which is pretty much a character unto itself in the books).
Parker then got control of the books back, and was involved in the production of three more movies, this time for A&E, recasting Spenser with Joe Mantegna, who understood the character and the cadences even if he wasn't physically ideal for the role. Hawk was played once by Sheik Mahmud-Bey and once by Ernie Hudson, but neither eradicated the memory of Avery Brooks. Susan was played by Marcia Gay Harden, and this was actually an improvement. But these movies also suffered from being shot in Canada on low budgets, and made little impression. It seemed, since the last one appeared in 2001, that Spenser's onscreen time had come and gone.
Until last year, when it was announced that "Wonderland," the second Spenser novel written by Atkins after Parker's death, was being brought to the screen by Netflix and the A-list team of Mark Wahlberg, who would play Spenser, and director Peter Berg. Winston Duke, of Black Panther and Us, would play Hawk. There was, however, no mention of who would play Susan.
Then details started to leak out that were concerning. Spenser was being described as a former cop who would start the film getting out of prison. (I rationalized that in the books and TV series Spenser had done a ton of things that could've landed him in prison, so maybe this would be okay.) Hawk would be a young MMA fighter who Spenser takes under his wing. And no Susan.
Then it got renamed "Spenser Confidential." What the hell was that about?
I tried to be hopeful. After all, "Wonderland" was a very good book about Las Vegas types trying to horn in on legalized casino banking in Boston. Timely. Well-plotted. Witty. Sardonic. Everything one can expect from a Spenser novel.
Then the movie debuted last Friday on Netflix. And to be fair, since it has been available for streaming, Netflix has said it is one of of most-watched films on the service. (Timing may have helped. It was, after all, in the middle of the coronavirus epidemic, and so people were happy to stay home to watch a Mark Wahlberg movie instead of going to the theater.)
Here's my big question, having now watched "Spenser Confidential" twice:
Why the hell did they even bother buying the book?
"Spenser Confidential" could've had two main characters named Phil and Eagle, and the producers could've saved whatever money they spent to buy "Wonderland," for all the attention they paid to the plot or the tone of the book.
I've thought about this a lot since first watching the movie, which is why I watched it a second time. Could it be that my allegiance to Parker and Atkins and the novels was coloring my perspective, preventing me from seeing changes that made the project more accessible to audiences not familiar with the source material? Am I guilty of what I often criticize others for - wanting things to be done a certain way because they've always been done that way?
I don't think so. I'm not sure that "Spenser Confidential" is any more accessible for being, at best, a middling action-buddy comedy with paint-by-numbers character development and a plot that doesn't make a helluva lot of sense (following a modern Hollywood dictum - if it is loud and crass enough, nobody will notice).
I do think if one is going to buy a book and use characters with a long and even iconic pedigree, there is some responsibility to respect the source material - the characters should at least resemble the essence of what was on the page. In this movie, Spenser never drinks a beer, never cooks a meal, never reads a book (unless you count a trucking manual), and Wahlberg shows no depth or intelligence; his main motivation, after getting out of prison, is to get his trucker's license and move to Arizona to drive a semi. Really?
Duke is amusing as Hawk, but while he is big, there is no menace, no mystery. And the lack of Susan Silverman - in the books, she is the psychologist with whom Spenser shares a long and deep romantic relationship - means that an essential balance is missing from the story. In Parker's construct, Hawk and Susan are two sides of Spenser's personality - contained violence and probing intellect - and one of the pleasures of the books is watching him struggle with his id and super ego (usually while cooking a great meal and sipping on a cold and frosty). There's none of that here.
Plus, the plot is a shambles. The whole trucker thing seems only there to allow Spenser to use a truck at one point to smash stuff up. There's a scene with an attack dog that is stupid and pointless. And the whole thing seems to traffic in bad Boston stereotypes and lowest common denominator thinking. (Which is kind of weird, since Wahlberg actually is from Boston. You'd think he would be more attuned to the subtleties of place and people.)
It all came home to me when I was listening to Peter Berg, the director, being interviewed on Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast. Berg said he'd only read one of the books - "Wonderland" - and said that the series consisted of, like, 700 books that had been written by Ace Atkins, a Boston mystery writer who'd died in his seventies. This would come as a surprise to Atkins, I suspect, who is a native southerner in his late forties who is, last I checked, still alive and kicking and turning out two novels a year. Berg wasn't just misinformed. He was ignorant.
It is too bad. Audiences are intelligent, and you don't have to dumb down material to make it accessible. (I would maintain that this is true in business as well as literature.) A perfect example of this is what Amazon has done with Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels - changes have been made to bring them up to date and fit a serialized format, but they remain essentially true to the character and the source material while being thought provoking and entertaining. The same goes for what Amazon has done with Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels.
I wish I could say the same for "Spenser Confidential," but I can't. It is a shame.
The only good news is that when Thanksgiving rolls around, Ace Atkins' newest Spenser novel will be out. It is called "Someone To Watch Over Me," and Atkins took to Twitter the other day to reassure fans that in it, "Hawk is still Hawk. Susan is still Susan. And Spenser still quotes the Bard."
Which means, I'm guessing, that Atkins remembers something that Robert B. Parker wrote in "Potshot": "One of the secrets of happiness is that you know which battles you can win and which you can’t.”
My wine of the week - the 2016 Nicolas Idiart Chenin Blanc, which is bright and aromatic, perfect with a light pasta dish or maybe some crab cakes.
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend - stay safe and healthy - and I'll see you Monday.