Note: If you’ve seen Drive or read the book but not both, I don’t think there is anything here that will ruin any surprises that might be waiting for you despite changes from one to the other. If you haven’t experienced either, you’ve probably already decided whether or not you want to risk having the plot spoiled and know you’re reading at your own risk.


“He existed a step or two to one side of the common world, largely out of sight, a shadow, all but invisible. Whatever he owned, either he could hoist it on his back and lug it along or he could walk away from it. Anonymity was the thing he loved most about the city, being a part of it and apart from it at the same time.”
– James Sallis’ Drive

On the surface of the movie Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn and his screenwriter Hossein Amini stick pretty closely to the basic outlines of James Sallis’ 2006 novella. Both the original and the adaptation center on a stoic mystery man, referred to only as “Driver,” who works as a mechanic and Hollywood stunt driver by day and as a getaway driver for hire to various unsavory criminal elements by night. In the movie and in the novel, Driver gets involved in the inevitable heist gone bad (the fuel of so many films noir) and he winds up with both a big bag of money and a lot of dangerous people who would like to do him harm.

There are a couple of structural differences – the movie follows a linear track while the novella starts with the scene in the motel room where Driver and Blanche hide out after the job turns sour and then flashes back to fill in the gaps – but Driver’s arc is essentially similar in each telling. Even the final confrontation between Driver and his nemesis remains pretty much the same with only minor details of location changed. In between the main plot points however, Refn and Amini have made a number of additions and subtractions that leave the story’s basic shape intact while fundamentally altering “what it’s all about” in interesting ways.

The first thing Refn and Amini did was to jettison Driver’s back story. Though Sallis himself never dwelt on the character’s past, he at least offered a few teasing glimpses into his biography.  Small as a boy, Driver was useful in his father’s burglary trade for his ability to fit through tight spaces. As he grew, his connection to his father dwindled along with his utility as a partner in crime. Driver’s mother meanwhile struggled with mental illness. One night she knifed Driver’s father to death rather suddenly and the boy was hauled off to live with foster parents in Tucson. At 16, Driver abandoned his foster family and made his way to Los Angeles where he entered into the stunt business. It’s just a sketch really, but it provides an anchor for Driver’s actions throughout the book and lays the groundwork for his behavior.

Along with the back story, the filmmakers also trimmed way back on Driver’s dialogue and eliminated most of the character building scenes with secondary characters who themselves don’t survive the transition from page to screen. The overall result from all three changes is to lend the movie character a stronger air of mystery.

It turns out, understanding where Driver was coming from was the main problem I initially had with the film and I assumed it was the fault of the filmmakers. Just about everything that bugged me about Drive stemmed from not understanding what was motivating Driver. As the story progressed I was anticipating a fatal love triangle, but that never materialized. When the story took a turn leading up to the fateful blown heist, Driver’s actions either didn’t make sense or they weren’t believable. Why would Driver assist the man who stood between himself and the woman to whom he was drawn? Ryan Gosling’s performance didn’t help since it was seemingly based on just two expressions: either a studied blank or a curious smirk. With few clues to go by, Driver’s actions appeared dictated by the needs of the story rather than growing from the needs of a realistically human character.

I read the novella shortly after seeing the film for the first time and I was surprised to discover that Driver’s through line was subtle but clear and completely different from what I’d seen on screen. Like Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank (see previous From Page to Screen comparing Richard Stark’s The Hunter to John Boorman’s Point Blank and Brian Helgeland’s Payback starring Mel Gibson), Sallis’ Driver is more of an existential character, defined purely by what he does and how he does it. Whether the job is driving stunts or driving getaway, following that particular job’s predetermined and organized steps to its previously agreed upon conclusion regardless of the danger involved is what Driver does. If he doesn’t do those things, he’s no longer Driver. He no longer exists.

Until I saw the movie a second time, I thought Refn and Amini had made a huge mistake in eliminating Driver’s back story. Drive the movie wanted to be a character study, but its subject was a cipher – a man whose actions were motivated by what looks cool on a big screen or fit the directors idea of an interesting plot, but not by anything recognizably human. Worse, he was a man who repeatedly broke all the rules he set out for himself at the beginning of the movie seemingly only because it made for a more exciting story. It turns out though that just about everything you need to know about Driver and his motivations are right there on the screen within the confines of the story Refn and Amini are telling (my mea culpa on the film). They don’t need a lot of character history because Driver fancies himself as a certain archetype. He basically thinks he’s Alan Ladd in Shane: a protector of innocents (or innocence) in a world in which he himself is unfit to live. Unfortunately for the characters in the film, Driver is more like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver than Shane and very probably a sociopath, but that’s the subject of another essay.

This leads to the second important difference from the novella: the movie’s sort-of-romance between Driver and Irene simply doesn’t exist in the book. Yes, there is a woman who grabs Driver’s interest (she’s called Irina in the book) and she has a little boy and a fresh-out-of-prison husband named Standard (there’s even the same joke about the deluxe version), but there’s less of a spark between Driver and Irina, it is shorter lived. This is important because, in the movie, Driver’s need to protect Irene and her son is what dictates his every action from the moment he meets her until the film’s conclusion. Not so in the book. Driver doesn’t agree to help Standard for Irina’s protection as he does in the film. Standard’s heist isn’t even the one that leads to all of Driver’s trouble nor does Irina factor into the lengths to which Driver goes to return the money.

In the book, all these events are just bumps along Driver’s road. Much more of the focus is placed on Driver putting things right between himself and the bad guys purely for the sake of order in his own tiny, very specific universe. Remember, he’s a man defined by what he does and it’s very important that everything go according to plan even if someone else starts changing the rules.

Here’s an exchange from the novella between Driver and a victim:

“I know you?”
“We spoke once,” Driver said.
“Yeah? What’d we talk about?”
“Things that matter. Like how once a man makes a deal he keeps to it.”

Another minor note: Sallis presents Los Angeles almost as a character of its own. Refn’s cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, on the other hand, beautifully renders the city on screen, but it’s really more of an interesting tableau across which the action plays than an actual character. In Sallis, LA looms as kind of a dusty, run down, sad sort of place that softens the unwary with its material excess while forever denying them the dreams that drew them here in the first place. Such attention probably would’ve given the film version of Drive a little more resonance and depth, but it also might have altered the film’s important mood. It’s interesting too that the omnipresent LA sun is only prominent twice in the film: once during the fantasy drive down the LA riverbed and then at the end in order to cast the final deadly shadow struggle – an unexpected moment of restraint from the usually flamboyantly graphic Refn.

And then there’s the film’s controversial violence. Had the movie been thematically more like the novella, these sudden and shocking bursts with their accompanying gouts of blood would’ve been pointless and off-putting. They’re still a little off-putting depending on how you respond to these kinds of things, but most of them are absolutely necessary. The ones involving Driver directly show us (and more importantly Irene) what kind of man lurks behind the character’s passive facade. Forgetting for a moment the basic unreality of the infamous elevator sequence (seriously? that bad guy doesn’t just turn around and shoot them mid-kiss?), it turns out to be the key to the whole film. If you don’t see the character as a monster who fancies himself a romantic hero (as I failed to do initially), this scene is just appallingly gratuitous. It’s still appalling, but not gratuitous when you think about it in the right way. We’re seeing exactly what Irene is seeing albeit in a heightened way filtered through the character’s dream-turned-nightmare perspective.

Even after I came around on the film and I finally understood the motivations of Gosling’s character and I was satisfied with the need for the violence, I wondered if Refn’s preference for mystery over back story wasn’t still a mistake. It had helped lead me astray in my initial thoughts about the film – or it at least compounded my confusion. The thing is, Shane didn’t need a back story and neither does Driver. The characters’ pasts are irrelevant. You knew what Shane represented and you know what Driver thinks he represents. He’s a character fueled by his own sense of mythology. Who Driver really is and how he got to the place shown in the film doesn’t matter. His actions tell you everything you need to know. Rather than the existential figure in the novella, the movie version of Driver is an anti-hero driven by a fantasy about love he’s absorbed from movies. He’s a more cinematic character and he’s drawn from the archetypes of cinema – exactly the raw material with which Refn is playing in Drive.

Another more minor difference between page and screen, but one that really bugged me when I was a little bit down on the film, is a subplot involving vaguely connected mob guys Bernie and Nino. In both novel and film, they’re ultimately the baddies who threaten Driver when the heist goes south, but in the film there are also plans in the works for them to bankroll Driver as a legitimate stock car racer. It’s only a huge, awkward coincidence that Driver winds up on their bad side and it all feels like an unnecessary contrivance. It pretty much is, but at the same time the subplot gives Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman more time to enjoyably hog the screen which they both do with entertaining relish. At this point, I’m willing to give a little dangling thread a pass in the name of entertainment.

In the end, the differences between Drive the novel and Drive the film don’t really amount to a case where one path is better than the other. The two are just surprisingly different. Though its reality has been dreamily heightened, the film is ultimately more concretely and simply grounded in a character who believes (or desires) himself to be a certain type. By getting rid of specific history, however, Refn allows his main character to seem more mysterious. The novel’s more existential character is a bit headier, but he’s more rooted in the familiar and ordinary. These are two very different results that stem from very similar DNA, but they’re equally interesting and valid. Hopefully comparing one to the other illuminates both by highlighting the specific choices each artist made.

10 Responses to “From Page to Screen: Drive”

  1. At the risk of starting things up again…

    One of the reasons I still can’t gravitate to the fantasy-of-romance aspect of the film (among others) is because at least as I viewed it, I’m not even sure Mulligan herself is the real draw for Gosling. Throughout the film, he’s really interacting more with the kid– staring contest in the garage, watching cartoons, putting him to bed in two slow-mo sequences. That drive down the aqueduct to the riverbed is something that’s more likely to appeal to a kid, really. Even in that pic you have up there, Gosling’s eyeing the kid, and finally the thing that appears to motivate him to take the getaway job is the threat of violence represented in the bullet those thugs gave the kid as a warning. In that sense, the comparisons you’re making to “Shane” are quite right, as it does feel like the Driver’s aspiring to be a protector of the innocent/innocence. He feels less a mature, adult individual himself, for how he relates to the kid, and how he’s living out an archetypal kid’s idea of being a getaway driver (the scorpion jacket, the toothpick), up until the violence errupts.

    And then, the kid just sort of disappears, except for the phone-call he shares during the mom’s interrogation (shouldn’t the cops have noticed that?). The love-interest, however appropos the fantasy aspect is, comes off a little sudden to me, manifesting in genuine form almost at the exact moment that it becomes impossible (not when he kisses her, which is almost irrelevant, but when she slaps him following his pathetic “let’s get away” speech). Or rather, because of how solid the subplot with the kid is, even in scant form, the love-interest feels especially tangential, even if it is meant to be more a phantom than the real thing. As it stands, it feels a little like seeing a version of “Terminator 2” where Arnold kisses Linda Hamilton before lowering himself into the furnace instead of sharing his last moments with Edward Furlong. And maybe I could find something to like about the film if I looked at it deeper from this stance, but there’s just too much about it that bores and annoys me, beyond that.

  2. In this piece, I refer to it as a “sort-of-romance”

    That’s the only time I even mention the word here.

    But since you want to argue this point, yeah kid is definitely a huge draw for Driver, but Benicio and Irene are essentially the same thing. They represent endangered innocence.

    But you can’t deny the heat between Mulligan and Gosling. You see it the first time he catches sight of her, and the 2nd and 3rd time before Benicio even enters the picture.

    In the image above, Gosling is watching Benicio but Mulligan is eying Gosling eying Benicio and she totally wants to jump him right there. Clearly you’ve never been involved with a single mom.

    Romance goes both ways. It’s not just Gosling’s interest in Mulligan, it’s the other way around and a big draw for Mulligan’s character, and I suspect a lot of women in the audience, is Gosling’s handling of the little kid.

    I’m not sure why you’re getting so hung up on the idea of the romance when, as you noticed yourself, I was pretty explicit in pointing out there is more to it than that. I say: “Driver’s need to protect Irene and her son is what dictates his every action from the moment he meets her until the film’s conclusion.” How much more explicit do I have to be?

    This 2000 word piece is barely about romance at all, so I’m not even sure why you want to keep hitting that button. Especially since your conception of romance probably begins and ends with Princess Leia saying to Han “I love you” and Han replying “I know”

  3. Craig, I understand what you’re talking about (and Gosling’s interest in the kid can definitely feed into the romantic aspect). But yes, you really can deny the “heat” between them on the screen or the interest “written on their faces” when their performances are so restrained. Maybe this is part of the design, maybe this is there to feed into the fantasy, asking us to treat them as ciphers who we project our emotions onto rather than telegraphing everything, a romance by Kuleshov. But that’s going to depend on an audience’s personal, subjective view of what they see on-screen. You’re making a lot of assumptions with the characters, and those assumptions can be sound, but it’s not rooted in anything concrete, and I’m not just talking about there being a lack of sex (in fact, I’m not talking about sex at all). At the very least, their relationship is one that you need to read between the lines to appreciate, and therefore it’s going to be interpretive in nature. You can see an interest between the two of them, depending on how much you’re willing to actively invest in them, and obviously you can feel it too, but for my sakes, there’s not nearly enough in their scant, inexpressive interactions for me to become too emotionally attached. And I know I’m not the only one out there who feels frustrated or bored with it, and the film in general.

    I suppose what I’m saying– the Gosling/Mulligan thing is obscure, perhaps deliberately, and that makes appreciating it far from a sure thing. The thing with the kid, while it might not be the focus, has far more clarity, is much more tangible, and frankly is a lot more interesting to me than any love-interest subplot, obscure or otherwise. His paternal longings, to ascribe a name for them, make a certain amount of sense in regards to his relationship with Cranston’s mentor figure and the backstory you’re elaborating on in the novel– he comes across, psychologically, as a damaged kid on-screen, and the relationship with the kid is the one that’s easiest to trace, the one that depends less on interpretation.

  4. Bob, for the sake of my own sanity, I’m not going to argue with you any more about whether the movie is romantic or not.

    Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t change a goddamn thing about what I said in the piece above and it doesn’t change a goddamn thing about whether I like the movie or not.

    The fact Drive ultimately had less to do with sex than I assumed the first time I saw it actually makes me like it better.

  5. Again, Craig, I’m not talking about sex. As for the romance– at most, it’s a question. It’s open-ended. And maybe that’s what gives it power for those who admire the film, what gets them invested in it. I’m just saying that it comes at the expense of alienating those who can’t feel it, no matter if they can see it. Maybe I’m just more cynical than you are.

    And anyway. I’m just saying the thing with the kid is more interesting than the idea of the romance, even if it were less open-ended. It’s not as common in these movies.

  6. I’m going to play a game now called “If a Bob falls in the forest of logic and I ignore him, does he make a sound?”

    If anyone else wants to chime in on the matter and tell me I’m just not getting what Bob is saying or I’m just being an asshole or any other thoughts about what I’ve said regarding the movie, I’d love to hear them.

  7. The stock car racing subplot was unnecessary for me, and the scenes with Perlman and Brooks were probably my least favorite in the film.

    I enjoyed everything with Gosling though. I also love the soundtrack in this movie. I’ve been listening to it all week.

    Bob, I have to say, I’ve enjoyed your writing and I think you have interesting opinions, but you gotta tone it down a bit. Some of your comments on this site, especially when you strongly disagree about something, are way too aggressive and condescending for people to engage with. It’s good to be passionate, but not to the point where you alienate people from the conversation. I also feel like you often mention “Star Wars” for the sake of igniting an argument (there was no reason to mention the prequels and the bad boy romance angle of AOTC in the previous “Drive” thread). I know you genuinely love the movies, and that’s great, but not everything relates to Lucas, and making comparisons to his work all the time won’t convince anyone that you’ve been right about the series all along.

    I don’t remember you being this way on Aspect Ratio, and one of the reasons people like Craig’s site is because the conversation is friendly and laid back. There’s none of that internet flame war Hollywood-Elsewhere B.S. over here.

  8. I’m a good friend of Bob, and my meetings with him in person have been utterly delightful. But there’s no denying he beats a dead horse. We can take all his criticism over the past weeks towards this film and reduce it to one simple sentence:

    “The film didn’t work for me.”

    All his eleaboration comes down to personal taste, and is N/A for those who have been ravished by it’s cinematic and visceral wonderments. The raminfications of aggressive promotion of opinion invariably results in tuning out.

    Craig: This is honersty, truthfrully, unequivocably one of your finest hours as a writer at this site, at the expence of annointing myself as creative writing instructor. It honors it’s subjects with acute insights, and it connects teh pages to the screen superlatively. I must say I am happy that Gosling’s character was more mysterious on-screen. I also agree with the validity of the violent sequences, which you note were not part and parcel to the novella. Interesting.

    Man, you have enhanced the DRIVE literature in a very big way.

  9. Ari, if you didn’t like Brooks and Perlman, than yeah, that stock car part isn’t gonna work at all. I liked them quite a bit so I’m going to give it a pass.

    Sam, once I “got” the Gosling character, or at least felt like I did, suddenly the violent bits which stuck out and bugged me a little fell into place. There’s still one scene with a certain character’s head getting blown off with a shotgun that doesn’t really seem to exist except for shock value, but I imagine arguments could be made in favor of it.

  10. Ari, I was under the impression that I was “toning it down”. I certainly haven’t resorted to personal insults in any of my comments here, and I’m frankly at a loss as to what could be considered condescending other than not agreeing with somebody after being dismissed repeatedly as being ignorant, and just trying to explain myself. Yeah, the Lucas thing is a shtick (an honest one, though, not a flame-war thing), but lately here I think I’ve tried to confine my comments on him mostly to stuff directly involving him, like “Red Tails” or people complaining about blu-rays or bars (the “Drive” thing was just to make a point about personal preference, really, which is where I wish my comments on the movie could’ve stayed).

    At any rate. I’m not insulting people. I’m not even insulting a movie, at this point. It goes a bit beyond “This film didn’t work for me”, but instead to “It didn’t work, and here’s why”. My very first comment on “Drive” came down hard, yeah, but I’ve tried to dial it back since then and explain things. I’m not making things personal.

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