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Sunday, 20 April 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million WaysSo, all I gotta do is get Foy to let me shoot seventy-one times before he shoots, and I win. – Seth MacFarlane, A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to Die in the West reads like a novelisation of a Bob Hope film which is odd because it’s actually a novelisation of a Seth MacFarlane film. Seriously though if this film had been made in the 1950’s there would’ve been only one actor up for consideration for the lead: Bob Hope. No comedian has ever got as much mileage out of playing the coward. His signature heroic coward starred in film after film like The Princess and the Pirate, Casanova's Big Night and The Paleface wisecracking his way out of every tight situation until he’s eventually backed into a corner and forced to draw off the bravery that’s been buried within him all the time, at which point he gets the girl and the film’s pretty much over. It’s predictable. But there can be fun in predictability. It’s like on TV when the guest star walks on stage with a cream pie in his hand. You know it’s going to go in someone’s face. You just don’t know how exactly it’s going to play out. But you would be disappointed if someone didn’t get a pie in the face.

This is how A Million Ways to Die in the West opens:

Albert Stark was a coward. Not a quivering, jittery, weak-kneed sort of a coward, but the kind who viewed his cowardice as an act of sensibility: a coward in the name of pragmatism. To Albert, his cowardice functioned as a shield that existed to service the very sensible goal of self-preservation. In the West, brave men got killed. Cowards stayed alive.

It’s not true that only the brave die out West. Lots of people die in this book. It’s the running gag the book’s built on because no matter what situation someone finds themself in there’s always a chance it’ll prove fatal. You don’t have to get shot. As Albert puts it:

Everything that’s not you wants you dead. Outlaws, Indians, angry gamblers, disgruntled prostitutes, wild animals, the weather, disease—hell, even a trip to the dentist means taking your fucking life in your hands.

He forgot to mention giant blocks of ice. Watch out for the big block of ice. Oh, and flash photography. And wet socks. That’s what had it in for the blacksmith apparently.

AMillion6So when the book begins with our unlikely hero standing in the middle of the street about to engage in a gunfight you know he’s going to wangle his way out of it—which he does—and I pretty much knew at that point that the book would reach its climax with Albert having to man-up on exactly the same street only this time with the meanest son of a bitch out there. I didn’t realise he’d be called Clinch Leatherwood—now who could MacFarlane possibly be sending up there?—but since he doesn’t appear until halfway through the book how could I?

I’m a big fan of Seth MacFarlane. His humour’s always been a bit hit and miss—I still watch Family Guy faithfully and American Dad! but The Cleveland Show never really held my interest and I’ve given up on it—although I have to say I was very curious to see how he’d come across without the visuals to lean on. At least there’d be no vomiting to watch; even cartoon vomiting turns my stomach I’m afraid. I didn’t actually realise when the book was offered to me that there was a film coming. To be honest I was a bit disappointed by that; I’d expected it to be a standalone work. I have read novelisations before—Alan Dean Foster’s three Alien novels are actually pretty decent affairs—but never before seeing the film. So this was a first. I have read novels before seeing the film adaptations but they’re usually completely different beasts—look at the recent adaptation of Under the Skin, for example. Anyway I was good. I didn’t look up the film online. I didn’t watch the trailer. And do you know what? The book was actually all right. Dostoyevsky it is not—not too many laughs in Dostoyevsky—but it kept my attention and it kept me amused.

The humour is exactly what I’ve come to expect from MacFarlane. This is not a criticism. When I watch a Woody Allen film—another guy who specialises in timorous heroes—I know the kind of things to expect when the ‘Woody’ character is onscreen in the same way as I know what to expect from Stewie or Peter Griffin. The cultural references which are common in his other work are still here in the novel but MacFarlane wisely keeps these to either film references—the sheriff’s called Arness, for example (no doubt after the American actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon in the television series Gunsmoke)—or mainly contemporary cultural commentary—e.g. how insane would it be if someone smiled in a photograph?

Anna turned to him. “Y’know, supposedly there’s some guy in Texas who smiled one time while he was getting his picture taken.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Albert blurted with excitement. “I was just talking about that the other day.”

“I think. I mean, I heard it somewhere. I dunno if it’s true.”

Colourful innuendo was often incorporated into Bob Hope’s act but there’s little left to the imagination in a Seth MacFarlane script and if book’s had certificates this would definitely be an 18. I have to say all the swearing felt a bit forced and unnatural. Perhaps because MacFarlane’s so obviously lampooning Hollywood westerns and about the only cusswords you ever hear in films of that ilk that are old-cootisms like ‘shoot’, ‘dang’, ‘tarnation’ or ‘dagnabbit’ which was probably unrealistic too.

AMillion3The novel’s second running gag concerns Albert’s best friend Edward Phelps and his girlfriend, Ruth. Edward repairs shoes; Ruth services men for a living. When we first meet them Albert’s sitting downstairs in the Old Stump Saloon waiting on the love of his life finishing work:

In his hand he held a lovely late-spring bouquet of daisies, lilacs, and daffodils. From upstairs the raucous sounds of sexual intercourse could be heard as Edward’s girlfriend, Ruth, was fucked wildly by a dirty cowboy.

“Oh, yes. YES!!” she screamed, her voice reverberating throughout the saloon.

“Yeah, you like me fuckin’ you, don’t you?” bellowed the cowboy.

“Yes! Yes, it’s really terrific!” she shouted back between moans of ecstasy.

“I got dirt on my dick from workin’ outside all day!”

“I know! I love the scratchy feeling inside me!”

“Yeah, you like the dirt on my dick, don’t you?!”

“I do! I really do! It’s such a treat.”

Ruth’s sex talk had always been a bit clumsy, but her heart was in the right place, and as a prostitute she was exemplary: always on time for her shift, freshly bathed after every fifth customer, and willing to accommodate all types of fetishes. Edward admired her worth ethic. The seriousness with which a person took professional obligations said a lot about their character. He was lucky to be with such a woman.

“Stick your finger in my asshole!” shouted the dirty cowboy.

“I’m excited to!” Ruth answered.

Of course, because she’s a Christian, she won’t sleep with Edward until they’re married. It’s preposterous, but that’s the joke. She keeps talking about the crude things she’s been asked to do—I had no idea that such a thing as a blumpkin existed and I don’t mind admitting it—and Edward tries to empathise saying that his job sucks too. That’s about as close to innuendo as MacFarlane gets. But that’s fine.

If you’ve never heard of MacFarlane, never watched an episode of Family Guy but have read every Louis L'Amour out there and are looking for something else then you will be embarrassed, shocked and probably offended by this book which reminds me of the time my first wife and I went to watch Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. and happened to notice two old biddies who’d decided to give it a go because they saw Julie Andrews was in it. They didn’t know where to look when she ripped her top off.

AMillion2My main reservation is pretty much the same one I have about all novelisations: why? Having at this point of the review now watched the trailer (which was pretty much what I expected apart from the bull—do not recall a bull in the book—and the fact that Liam Neeson plays the bad guy—too handsome to be the same bad guy as described in the book)—I cannot see that the book adds anything to the experience; why not wait a few months and pick up the DVD for a fiver? If anything hearing visual gags described takes away from them and the moustache song is reduced to bad poetry. Had MacFarlane spent more time talking about what the characters were thinking—there is some but not an awful lot—I might feel better about the book but it feels like I’m reading a film script that’s been tidied up and turned into a novel and not a thing in itself. There were only a couple of other reviews available online when I was writing this but Chris Swanson on Amazon puts it well when he writes:

I'm docking a star because while MacFarlane is a great TV writer, he still needs to learn a bit about writing novels. It really seems like a screenplay where he basically cut and paste the lines into his word processor and the added "he said" when needed. Which I think is basically the case.

I agree. Alan Dean Foster’s three Alien novels have stayed with me. Even some twenty years after reading them I can remember especially the openings to each book where he talks about sleepers. That stuff was not in the films. The same goes for Thomas M. Disch’s novel The Prisoner (based on the sixties TV series). It was very much its own thing.

Probably the weakest section of the book is the ten pages devoted to a drug trip Albert goes on. While fleeing for his life he finds himself in the company of Cochise and a band of Apaches who encourage him to go on a vision quest:

Albert reluctantly submitted to the peer pressure. “Okay, fine!” He downed the rest of the liquid.

Almost instantly the Apaches’ taunting expressions shifted to shock and alarm. “He drank the whole bowl!”

Albert froze in panic. “What?”

“You drank the whole bowl!”

“Oh, shit! Oh, shit, is that bad?”

“That was for the entire tribe!” said Cochise. “You’re totally gonna freak out and probably die. Good luck.”

Albert’s jaw hung open in terror as the world around him dissolved into a distorted hellscape….

I’m pretty sure the film will do a much better job of what follows. There are things that books do well and things that films do well and hellscapes is one of them.

The bottom line then is that I’m not sure who this book is aimed at. I’ll watch the film when it comes out but then I was always going to watch the film. If anything, having read the book beforehand has spoiled the film for me because now I know how Albert manages to survive that final showdown. It’s a clever solution which I did not see coming. He doesn’t exactly talk his way out of it but he does use that particular talent to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Nuff said.

The film opens on 30th May in the States and 6th June in the UK. I’ll leave you with the trailer:


Ken Armstrong said...

I'd say I'd like this. I could use a good crude laugh. My favourite 'cowboys' of the last few years were The Sisters Brothers. I liked that one.

Jim Murdoch said...

Then watch the film, Ken. Having seen the trailer I know I’ll enjoy it. And maybe by the time I do—because I won’t go to the pictures to watch it—I’ll’ve forgotten the ending.

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