Death Wish by Brian Garfield

Review published on April 13, 2018.

This is a novel that has been made famous, or should that be infamous, by the film adaptation. Directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson, the movie spawned a whole franchise – five films in all – and now a remake, directed by Eli Roth and starring Bruce Willis. Like the original 1974 adaptation, the 2018 remake has been criticised as a crude vigilante fantasy that fetishises guns and violence, panders to people’s worst instincts and stokes their prejudices. So what of the book behind it all? Do the movies reflect its tone or is it a victim of misrepresentation?

The novel’s plot is almost identical. An ordinary man (in the book he’s Paul Benjamin, an accountant, in both the original film and the 2018 remake he’s Paul Kersey, an architect) lives in New York. One day, his wife and daughter are attacked in their own home. His wife is killed, his daughter badly injured. Our protagonist is angry and embittered by what has happened and by the police’s inability to bring the perpetrators to justice. Over the weeks that follow his thoughts turn to revenge .

The major difference between the films and the book is that the book is a lot less violent. In fact, for the first half of the book there is little violence at all (the attack on Paul’s family happening off-page and only being reported). Instead, we have Paul deteriorating emotionally, challenging his hitherto liberal concepts, increasingly viewing people through the prism of his rage. He starts to carry around a sock filled with coins and stalk the streets, hoping to be attacked. When he finally is, he defends himself and the pleasure he feels persuades him to take the next step: buy a gun. Needless to say, when he next stalks the streets the outcome is much more deadly.

The author, Brian Garfield, apparently was unhappy with the 1974 film adaptation, believing the Michael Winner film to be a mere pro-vigilante screed. I haven’t seen the Eli Roth remake as yet , but if all I’ve read about it is accurate, I can’t see him being any more satisfied. Apparently, he meant his novel to be less a glorification and more a warning. The novel was a creature of its time: 1970’s New York had a violent crime rate that was off the charts; there was serious discussions in the op-ed pages of the metropolis being unsalvageable. In such circumstances, the author penned a tale foretelling the inevitable outcomes should the authorities not be able to get a grip.

That said, this is a short novel, at under 200 pages more a novella, and I feel the author gives himself too much credit. While the first 100 pages or so do show him grappling with and re-evaluating his values, the intention clearly to demonstrate a man having a breakdown of sorts, the fact is the story is just too short to breathe. The characters, including Paul, remain ciphers to fill a purpose. When he does begin his vigilante rampage, his mental and emotional crisis hasn’t been sufficiently explored. Perhaps more importantly, none of the criminals he encounters are explored in any depth whatsoever, are literal cardboard cutouts to be cut down by his rage. This means one is left with a simple and two-dimensional tale that despite the author’s protestations can’t be any more than a vigilante fantasy. It’s well-written enough and certainly wiles away the time, but Death Wish the novel is no better an exploration of the themes than the movie.

James Pierson 2/2

Death Wish by Brian Garfield
Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd 9780715653074 pbk Feb 2018

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