Breaking Bad Versus Almost Criminal

Almost Criminal

E.R. Brown's novel, Almost Criminal, is making waves. It was nominated for an Edgar Award (named for Allan Poe, and the most prestigious award in the mystery genre) and is up for an Arthur Ellis Award in June. And in press and reviews, this novel about a guy with a secret life producing illegal drugs inevitably gets compared to another blockbuster, this time of the televised variety: Breaking Bad. So we asked E.R. Brown to take a moment (in transit) to tell us what he thinks about this comparison, and why, in this age of images, the book still has a job to do. 

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My book, Almost Criminal is about a bright young man who attempts to get himself out of difficult times by making fast money with BC Bud. Many people—including reviewers like the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Cannon and the Liquid Hip blog—have compared it to the TV show, Breaking Bad. I’m flattered. Although when I began the book I hadn’t heard of the show, and didn’t watch an episode until I’d finished the first draft.

The comparisons have brought up an old question: which is better, reading or watching? When shows like Breaking Bad can dig into character to a depth that used to be reserved for the novel, why do people bother to pick up books?

I’m writing this in a plane, on the way home from the Edgar Awards. I was amazed—over the moon—that my book was nominated. I ended up coming in second, you might say, alongside Stephen King and the other four non-winners in the Best Paperback Original category. The very deserving Alex Marwood now gets to put “I beat Stephen King” in the first line of her bio. Her book is The Wicked Girls.

The Edgars are a spectacular gala—a gigantic ballroom in New York City, filled with nearly 500 people, in black tie and cocktail dresses. All in celebration of the written word. While there is an award for Best TV Screenplay, it’s five or six categories back of the big one, Best Novel. Books are first.

Which is, in my view, where things should be. 

But, I must admit, at writers’ conventions, everyone wants to know if you’ve sold the screenplay rights.

Here’s the thing: when books are turned into moving pictures, the result almost always sucks. Think of a movie adaptation that you saw, having first read the book, that wasn’t a pale imitation. Or just bloody awful. The Great Gatsby, anyone?  (OK, there’s The Shining. And The Godfather. Forget those for a minute.)

Even excellent adaptations, like Mystic River, are shallow compared to the novels that spawned them. It’s almost inevitable. A 90-minute movie comes from a 90-page script, more or less. If that was adapted from a 300-page novel, there’s a whole lot that simply can’t make the cut.

But it’s not just length, it’s the entire experience. The moviemakers have pre-digested the book for your passive viewing experience. They‘ve designed the imagined world. They’ve cast the characters and given them voices. You, the viewer, sit back and munch popcorn.

Because I’m old enough to have read the Lord of the Rings trilogy decades ago, I got to do something no one will do from now on: I got to imagine a Frodo that wasn’t Elijah Wood with gelled curls and cheek blush. I got to envision my own private Shire, and mine was different from anyone else’s.

Reading is active, and that’s half the fun of it. The writer draws the outlines and the reader fills in the details. In Almost Criminal, there is very little description of the first-person character, Tate. The reader knows that he’s short and that he looks younger than his age. Or, perhaps he’s insecure and just considers himself short and young looking. The reader decides. Other characters, like the weed-business boss, Randle, are seen through Tate’s eyes, so there’s more detail, but it’s kept to a minimum.

Which brings me back to reading vs. watching. Which is best?

I’ll be Canadian here: they’re different. They’re both fine. Now that I’ve watched the show, I love Breaking Bad. With series TV, gifted actors get to show us depth and nuance far beyond what’s possible in a 90-minute feature.

And books are not about to disappear. Digital downloads may be a threat, but an event like the Edgars demonstrates that books will be all right. They survived the advent of radio plays, then feature films and broadcast television, and they will tough it out against cable and Netflix. Because of the power of the reading experience.

So... Breaking Bad vs. Almost Criminal? There’s plenty of room for both. In fact, I hope some of the zillions of Breaking Bad fans discover my book one of these days.

And if someone wants to make an offer on Almost Criminal, Brad Pitt in a ponytail would make an awesome Randle. Just sayin’.

E.R. Brown is an award-winning advertising writer whose fiction has been heard on CBC Radio 3 and seen in national magazines. Born in Montreal, he lives in Vancouver.

May 21, 2014
Books mentioned in this post
Almost Criminal

Almost Criminal

A Crime in Cascadia Mystery
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : hard-boiled, crime
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