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American Gangster by Max Allan Collins
Review by Linda Marie Schumacher
Forge Mass Market  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765359018
Date: 02 October 2007 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Read the book that followed the movie and read American Gangster by Max Allan Collins. Then, enjoy the movie even more.

American Gangster by Max Allan Collins is different from a standard novel. Normally, the novel is first and the movie follows. In this case the movie came first. Ironically, due to my schedule, I read the novel before I saw the movie.

The movie American Gangster was released in 2007. The plot is available in numerous reviews, but I will summarize it here. The movie centers around the heroine trade in the early 1970s in Harlem in New York City. The lead character is Frank Lucas. He is a back man, with roots in the deep south, that is able to take over the heroine market by importing heroine directly from its source in Southeast Asia. The other primary character is Richie Roberts, a Newark, NJ police detective who heads a newly-established drug combatant task force.

For the review, I am going to discuss the differences that I saw between the book and the movie and the pros and cons of each.

The plot of the novel is identical almost to the letter from the movie. The few things that were different moved faster in the movie, and I understand that was necessary because movies don't have the advantage to pause and provide background information.

The novel provides some background early on about Frank Lucas that you do not learn about him until the end of the movie. Frank Lucas grew up in poverty in North Carolina when it was not a very good time to be black. Having that background helps to understand his motives and actions a bit, and that background is not available in the movie.

The movie obviously has sound where the novel does not, and that adds to the story. The most prominent thing that moved me in the movie was the sound of babies crying around the junkies as they do heroine. As you read the book, it is very easy to associate the junkies as "them" and not part of the lives that we lead. Hearing the babies adds much reality to the vision. The junkies have lives too, and other people suffer, particularly their children, based on their addictions.

I think that novel adds ambiance to other scenes that are easy to miss in the movie, the scenes in Southeast Asia particularly. In the movie, the scenes progress quickly and although the elements of the jungle are there, the description of the locations in the novel caused me to create more vivid images. The climate and the atmosphere of the jungle were more present in my mind while reading than I saw in quick passes through the jungle in the film.

Reading the novel helped me to keep track of the characters better also. Movies move quickly and I often get the characters confused. I think it would have happened in this movie too if I did not have the advantage of reading the novel first.

I question casting Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts. He plays the part very well, but there is one reference in the movie and in the book about him being Jewish, and I don't think that the blond-haired New Zealander fits the ethnic look correctly. The Italian mobsters in the story all fit the look and so do all the other policemen on Roberts' squad. The casting of Crowe is forgivable though. He is very believable as a Northern New Jersey detective, and I understand that the point of a movie is to sell tickets and that he is a box office draw. I probably would have cast Crowe in the part and just left the (derogatory) Jewish ethnic slur out of the movie. I really don't think that the ethnic reference adds anything to Richie Robert's character.

I think that Denzel Washington is an excellent portrayal for Frank Lucas. Before I saw the movie, I thought that Denzel would be too "polished" to play an adult that grew up under such poor conditions, but he pulls it off well. The book goes into much more detail about Frank Lucas' youth than the movie and the poverty under which he grew up, and that lack of detail makes the movie more believable. But even so, Denzel pulls it off. Part of Frank Lucas is that he does not want to be the flashy, attention-getting typical drug lord. He wants to have class and dignity, and Denzel captures that middle ground very well.

The big question remains, "Why would I read the book written after the movie if I already saw the movie?" I touched on that above. The answer is in the details. If you are a closet movie buff like me, things like scenery, camera angles, facial reactions, etc. are fun to watch when you have the additional background that the book provides.

Overall, I highly recommend American Gangster. Even if you have already seen the movie, I recommend that you read the book and watch the movie again. The details that you learn in the book will make the movie better. For closet movie fans like me, the book will help you get in the mind of the director to try and understand why he chooses to portray a scene a particular way.

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