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BOOK VERSUS FILM: Cape Fear – which EXECUTES the story the best?

    Cape Fear Book Vs. Film

    So it’s Halloween week again! We love this holiday here, so below are some previous Book Versus Films on thrillers and horrors. From witches, vampires, ghosts and monsters through to serial killers and psychopaths, these kept us guessing, freaked us out, excited us and/or sent delicious shiiiiivers down our spines …

    This time, it’s the turn of the classic CAPE FEAR. Adapted not once, but twice, it’s based on the book The Executioners by John D. Macdonald (hence the cheesy pun title for this post! Whaaaaat … you love it).

    But which is better, the book or either of its 1991 movie version?? Let’s check it out, but be warned: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS …

    About The Book

    Originally published in 1957, the book’s plot concerns a lawyer being stalked and tormented by a criminal he helped put in prison after seeing him rape a woman.

    Just 160 pages long, it’s a novella by today’s standards though it was not unusual for 1950s hardboiled thrillers and psychological suspense to be so short. As the cover suggests, the book in its day was considered pulp fiction but the reality is, this is a lean, mean and scary story that absolutely nails its craft.

    The book rockets along in terms of pace, but it doesn’t skimp on character and back story. In fact, you will find a STACK more characters in the book than the film! Whilst Sam Bowden takes centre-stage as we’d expect, his family is much larger. Married to Carol, he has three children instead of just the one (as in both films, incidentally). His daughter teenage Nancy is joined by two brothers, Jamie (12) and Bucky (6).

    Cady is every bit as evil as we expect in the book. In contrast to the film version, Sam was a witness to Cady’s crime back in Australia when they were both serving in the navy in WW2. Sam does become a lawyer, but much later.

    In the book, the Bowdens are a well-to-do family, but in a different way. Their house is exceptionally remote and intriguingly, the showdown does not take place in the marina like the film. What’s more, Cady’s threat is a nightmare: in addition to poisoning the family dog, he loosens a wheel on the family car and even shoots at twelve year old Jamie when he is at camp.

    This leads Sam and Carol to leave the children in safety at a hotel, hatching an elaborate plan to tempt Cady out into the open. They decide to booby trap their home, using Carol as bait for would-be rapist Cady in order to try and execute him. The police obviously do not approve of this plan but allow one of their officers to look in on the Bowdens.

    Inevitably Cady is more slippery then they realise and manages to murder the police officer. Cady hits Carol and Bowden is too late, falling and stunning himself. He shoots wildly at Cady as he escapes and is sure he has missed. Even so, he searches the hillside behind his remote home and discovers his dead body. The nightmare over, the family have a low-key celebration on their boat The Sweet Sioux, thankful that their family is still whole.


    Known for his wit and wisdom, John D. Macdonald had a busy life. By the age of just thirty he’d gone to college, seen action in WW2, joined the OSS (the original CIA) and got discharged before starting his writing career. During that career he wrote a whopping 60 novels and over 500 short stories.

    Though The Executioners was not his best received or most popular during his lifetime, it’s probably had the most longevity thanks to Max Cady and the two Cape Fear movies. There’s some commentary on what ‘makes’ a psychopath in the book. Given psychiatry would have been in its infancy back then, I was particularly impressed with this element.

    There’s more diversity than we’d expect in such an old book, too. Bowden’s wife Carol has Indian (Native American today) heritage, signified in her ‘warrior mom’ characterisation and the family boat’s name, The Sweet Sioux. Carol’s background is expertly contrast against Cady’s as he is descended from Hill People. He is the invader, a threat, whereas Carol is always pure of heart, but tough. Her dialogue with Sam reminds us she is capable and will do whatever it takes to protect her family.

    The Executioners asks some important questions about culpability that are still relevant nearly sixty five years later. We’re left in no illusions about how The Bowdens are pushed to the brink by Cady, plus their sense of helplessness is expertly drawn as they are forced to take the law into their own hands. Very much recommended!

    The 1991 Film

    Set Up

    So The Executioners was filmed twice under the title Cape Fear, once in 1962 and again in 1991. Most people remember the Martin Scorsese version thanks to Robert De Niro’s iconic and Oscar-nominated powerhouse performance, but many don’t realise it was a remake. The original starred Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady. Both men made cameos in the 1991 version.

    Opening on the water, 1991’s Cape Fear places itself not only in the geographical region that means something to the Bowdens, it establishes the tone for the audience. Beginning with a credits sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass and making use of the original movie’s dark and edgy score, Martin Scorsese lets us know this will be a movie that is ‘hyper real’ and uses Hitchock’s notion of the ‘unstable space’. This is further underlined by The Bowdens’ daughter Dani (an Oscar-nominated performance by Juliette Lewis) talking of summers past on the actual headland of Cape Fear, contrasted against the threat of the heavily tattooed Cady working out in his cell.

    The screenwriter Wesley Strick uses excellent subtext in the Set Up, hinting at what’s to come. First off Max is told ”This is the moment you have been waiting for’ as he’s escorted from jail. Next up Dani and her mother Leigh discuss Leigh’s latest project, with Dani summing it up for her: ‘Movement … Stability … And an arrow’ (is Max the ‘arrow’ moving to threaten the Bowdens’ stability? Certainly seems like it). Later, when the Bowdens watch a movie Max interrupts their evening with obnoxious laughter and cigar-smoking, yet the on-screen ‘Dad’ wrecks the home and yells ‘Bye junior!’ Given the events of the movement are Sam Bowden’s ‘fault’ (both overtly and covertly), this foreshadowing really works.

    The Bowden Family

    As mentioned, there are some significant changes to the Bowden family from the book, yet they’re different again from the first movie incarnation. In the book Sam is a righteous man, a good father and husband who puts his family first. What he saw Cady do in Australia appalled him and he worries about Nancy being taken advantage of. Unlike perceived norms of his time, he places wife Carol on an equal footing with him. They are a team.

    This is not the case with Nick Nolte’s Sam Bowden in the 1991 movie. Sam is a morally ambiguous character, placing the law at the heart of what he does … yet he won’t stop short of using the law to his own advantage. Swapped from being a key witness against Cady, Sam is now Cady’s public defender who buried evidence rather than see Cady go free. This ambiguity is carried through to Sam at home: he is not a good father or husband, prone to intimidating outbursts with a history of infidelity.

    Like Carol in the book, Leigh is tough and no-nonsense, but unlike her she is a wise-cracker: ‘You know how to fight dirty, you do that for a living.‘ Leigh is obviously not a happy woman. Her behaviour after she and Sam have sex suggests she is as bored as he is. Her lack of surprise when she busts him on the phone to Lori is telling. Her outbursts when the dog dies or the affair in Atlanta suggest she is not as ‘together’ as she might appear.

    Jessica Lange is not Native American, but instead has a Tippi Hadron-like blonde pixie cut, further underlining Scorsese’s Hitchockian vibe. As the film progresses she lets go of her anger at Sam and starts to think more strategically. It’s her who tries to stop Sam from slipping about in Kersek’s blood and firing randomly into the garden. She also delivers a powerful speech to Cady about sparing Dani from rape and Sam from murder. It’s also her who pushes Dani from the boat before it wrecks.

    Dani is child-like and naive, almost babyish in the set up. We hear how she is in summer school for being caught smoking marijuana, but see little evidence of her wild side. This of course changes later in a shocking scene with Cady in the theatre where he ‘grooms’ her to his point of view, kissing her and putting his thumb in her mouth in one of the most overtly sexual and uncomfortable scenes between a grown man and a teenager I’ve ever seen. It’s highly doubtful such a moment would be written in a Hollywood A List movie – let alone filmed – in the post #MeToo era.

    Dani is savvier than we realise when she tells Cady she memorised Sexus for him when he appears on the houseboat. She tries to scald him with water and eventually lights him up via his own cigar after he trapped her in the hold. When teen characters in adult movies are often sidelined as ‘objects’ only needing to be rescued, seventeen year old Lewis’ performance shows us what younger actors can really do. It’s no wonder she has had such a strong career in the past thirty years.

    Max Cady

    Robert De Niro really hams it up as Cady in an unapologetic manner that is both frightening and at times, darkly funny. Even his attempts at affability seem sinister. This approach is on purpose: his garish shirts, leopard print pants, white patent shoes and slicked back hair make him a caricature. The fact he knows what the Bowdens are going to do before they even do might stretch credibility at times, but also give his actions a kind of nightmarish quality. He is every bit the ‘bogeyman’ and this of course makes his performance all the more memorable.

    Cady has a powerful motivation for his vendetta against Sam Bowden. He’s absolutely correct when he tells Bowden he should have defended him to the best of his ability according to the law; that Bowden had no right to play judge and jury himself. His points about compensation and how he’s lost contact with his own daughter and had to ‘get in touch with his feminine side‘ in jail reminds us of what he went through. His iconic threat, ‘You’re gonna learn about loss’ seems worse and worse the more we learn about him.

    The Showdown

    What’s scariest about Cady is not his violence, but his cunning. The way Cady targets the women in Sam’s life – first court clerk Lori, whom Sam had been having an emotional affair with, then Leigh, then Dani – is hideous. He shuts off all potential avenues Bowden can utilise, leaving us feeling: ‘If a lawyer can’t get justice, how can anyone?’ Some of these actions no longer quite work now stalking laws have been passed in both the UK and USA, but in 1991 it was a different world for such cases.

    Like the book, the Bowdens hunker down at their home with P.I Kersek to create a trap for Cady. Unlike the book, this does not work and Cady is somehow able to slip into their home again like he did when he poisoned the family dog. The fact Cady dresses up as family maid Graciela is risible, as is the notion the family would have called her into work that day at all. That said, Kersek goes out in a blaze of glory, the expendable hero … But only in America can a family hear a gunshot in their home and not freak the f*** out immediately!

    The failed trap prompts The Bowdens to go on the run to their houseboat, little realising Cady is under the car. He makes an appearance that night, pulling Sam off his feet on the deck with one arm and superhuman strength. This sets the tone for the ultimate showdown: Cady is comical, his ability to withstand injury absurd. But most of all his ‘trial’ of Sam is hilarious, as his ‘speaking in tongues’ when the houseboat eventually goes down even more so.


    I expected this one to be a tough one … and it is!!

    Cape Fear was one of my favourite thrillers as a teen. When I studied film at both A Level and university I did projects on it both times, so I felt fairly certain the movie would come out on top.

    So imagine my surprise when I saw the novel in a local book exchange. I’d always meant to read it, but never got round to it. I took it home and devoured it … and found myself thinking about it days and even weeks later.

    Whilst Cape Fear is a classic, the movie has dated considerably. In contrast, The Executioners has stayed relevant the best part of 70 years after its first publication. For this reason, I’m going to call the book the winner.

    What do you think?

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