City of Thieves – David Benioff

Generally speaking, I don’t care for film adaptations of books. The way I see it there are three possibilities:

  1. The book is better than the movie, and the adaptation therefor extraneous. A cheap cash-grab with a deluded fan behind the camera. (Watchman)
  2. The movie is better than the book, and it diminishes the book in comparison. The original is left to languish. (The Godfather)
  3. The movie is so unlike the book that there can be no real comparison. Pointless, probably adapted for the sake of brand recognition. (Minority Report)

None of these seem like particularly good outcomes to me. But I’m wandering from the topic at hand: David Benioff. If you’ve heard his name before it’s probably in connection to 25th Hour (a Spike Lee movie with a screenplay adapted by Benioff from his first novel) or Game of Thrones (the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novels, co-created by Benioff.) I liked the 25th Hour film (never read the book) and I have little interest in Game of Thrones (it’s a crass, tarted up version of a series that was plenty crass already and I promise not to use anymore frickin’ parentheses, okay?)

My fear was that Benioff would be one of those writers who writes “novels for the screen.” Books made to be adapted, little more than storyboards for a later project. There is nothing in the world I hate more than a book untrue to it’s form. It’s a grotesque kind of prostitution and a betrayal of the art. Anyway, that’s the set up. Here’s what I thought about the book:

* * *

City of Thieves is a hell of a good time. The pacing is pitch perfect, the concept is engaging and daring without being ludicrous, the characters are well-drawn and compelling and real. The dialog is natural and the descriptions evocative. It’s dark without sacrificing humor, bleak without turning maudlin, exciting without being trashy, thoughtful without coming across as ponderous. Every literary component works, clicking into place with absolute efficiency.

And yet…

I don’t know. It feels like there’s something missing. It seems a touch too balanced, like it’s been heavily focus-tested, tweaked for maximum efficiency. There are no rough edges, and it ends up feeling a bit empty for it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic read and I’d recommend it in a heartbeat. But this is not a “great book.” Maybe it could have been great. At some point, though, it falls short, most likely on the grounds of lacking ambition.

I just finished China Meiville’s The Scar a few weeks ago and, while I think Thieves is a much better novel, Benioff really could have benefited from a touch of Meiville’s off-the-wall audacity. The Scar, on the other hand, could have done with a deal less.

There is one last thing which should be said about City of Thieves. It has an odd meta-fictional streak to it which caught me completely off guard. The book opens with a brief prologue set in present day Florida in which the author appears as a fictionalized version of himself, and frames the novel as an account told to him by his grandfather Lev. It wasn’t the introduction I was expecting, and I do think that it works better as a short story than an introduction. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about after the first couple chapters.

That meta-fictional streak pops up again, however, in the main thread of the story. The second half of the buddy-movie team is a charming and intellectual soldier named Kolya. Throughout the novel Kolya is constantly chatting with Lev about a supposed masterpiece of a novel, The Courtyard Dog. Near the end of the book, Lev catches on to the fact that this so-called masterpiece is, in fact, a work-in-progress novel of Kolya’s own composition, and its author a complete fabrication. It’s an almost Nabokovian twist, to nest a story of a fake-author inside a story told by a fake-grandfather to a fictional version of the real author. Confused yet?

The thing is, Benioff doesn’t seem to be saying anything with all this. The thread is left dangling when Kolya – spoiler alert! – dies. How does he meet his end? He’s accidentally shot outside Leningrad by a Russian guard, having just escaped the German army, and bleeds out on the way to the hospital. No big surprise this is the guy they picked to adapt Game of Thrones; that sort of knife-twist character assassination is the sort of thing for which Martin made his name.

I don’t want to come across as too disparaging here. Like I said, I did like the book quite a lot. I just can’t help but feel like it could have been more.

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