Devil in a Blue Dress' Walter Mosley
There's an old rule about screen adaptations: to be faithful to a book, one often has to be unfaithful to it. That's a lesson that Walter Mosley knows all too well. When director Carl Franklin adapted Mosley's first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, for the screen, he made a slight change. "Someone else commits the murder in Carl's film," laughs Mosley, who originally wrote a first draft of the script. "My draft just wasn't working," he recalls. "I was guided by people at Universal who wanted to do a straightforward mystery-crime thing." Instead, Franklin's film version -- like Mosley's novel -- takes a lot of time to establish the setting -- South Central Los Angeles in 1948 -- and characters, including the black detective hero, Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins, and his violent boyhood pal, Mouse. These turn out to be choice roles for Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle, respectively. With its emphasis on mood, atmosphere, and character, the film has been labeled by some as a "black Chinatown" -- not a bad analogy. Franklin did more than just change the identity of the killer in Mosley's story: he juggled the order of events, invented an oddball character who lives on Easy Rawlins' street near Central Avenue, and omitted the sexual relationship between Easy and Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) -- the mysterious woman of the title whom Easy tries to locate. Mosley, who admits that his novel is not without flaws, says Franklin's plot changes streamlined the story. "When I look at the movie, I don't think about the book. The ending is different, but I'm not unhappy about that because the movie needs to be a little more uplifting. The book is darker. Easy is carrying a lot more baggage." Mosley does regret the loss of the Easy-Daphne affair in the film. "Their relationship had to be shortened or you'd slow down the film," he says. "But I love their relationship in the book. My favorite line occurs when Daphne turns to Easy and says, 'If my pussy was like a man's thing it'd be as big as your head.'" That sort of overt depiction of Daphne's uninhibited sexuality had to go. There's still plenty of passion in the film, however. "Some of my favorite parts are in the beginning," Mosley continues. "When Easy walks into John's bar, you can feel the heat between the people and it radiates throughout the room. You see it when Coretta's looking at Easy. You see black life in Los Angeles the way it was, but never saw on film before. And you've certainly never seen it in a film that doesn't turn into, 'Well black people do this, and white people do that, and racism is...' There's racism in Devil, but it's not about that; it's about Easy. Overcoming racism is just one of Easy's problems; another is dealing with his best friend." Easy's pal, Mouse, is a killer -- a precursor of today's cold-blooded gangbangers -- but he's strangely appealing despite his psychopathic behavior. Franklin has simplified Mosley's coda, in which Easy turns in a friend to save himself, to suggest that one never betrays a pal, not even a guy who is likely to get you and your friends killed. It's the kind of message that keeps gangs thriving, yet Mosley relishes the moral ambiguity and what it says about being black in America. "Certainly, when you come from a middle-class sensibility, it seems that you should just be doing the right thing," Mosley says. "But we have a black community today where the law is not there. If you are a poor man in a black neighborhood, or any neighborhood, you can't call the cops. They're not going to come down and help you. If you've got problems with gangs, they'll tell you, `You should leave.' Well, you can figure that out for yourself. So guys like Mouse offer a problem. He's like the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas, except that Mouse is more insidious because he's truly lovable. There's an innocence about him. Mouse and Easy are black men living in a place where the laws don't apply to them." For Mosley, any good piece of work generates controversy. "I'm glad Bob Dole's been saying stuff lately about movies because it brings up some things that need to be discussed," he says. "You want people to talk. It's what America's about. You can't just say, `Well, we don't want to think. Let's just talk about good things.'" Born and bred in Los Angeles, the 43-year-old Mosley left the city permanently when he was 20. He moved to Vermont and attended Goddard, then dropped out and went back to a state college. His graduate work in political theory was left unfinished. The author, who now lives in New York, started writing about nine years ago. At the time, he was earning a living as a computer programmer; it looked as if his career course was set. "I could have retired on it," Mosley says. Except for one small detail -- Mosley hated it. "I was always looking for a way I could get out of programming. I've always loved reading, but I couldn't figure out how I could be a writer. I thought It'd write a couple of stories and that maybe I'd get a job teaching. Then I could write more stories, and in ten years or so, I'd get published. The whole idea of my success is surprising." It's not that surprising, considering that Mosley, whose mother is Jewish, says that there was a lot of storytelling on her side of the family. "Old Jews sitting around talking about what it was like in Russia under the czar. We'd go to their house -- my Aunt Fanny and Uncle Abe would tell stories about my grandfather. I was close to both sides of the family, so we experienced that all the time. How that stuck to me, I don't know." "I don't pay much attention to it," Mosley says, referring to his multiethnic background. "Anna Devere Smith quoted Angela Davis as saying, 'Race is a consequence of racism.' To call black people in America a race is kind of a crazy thing; black people are all kinds of colors, sizes, and cultural backgrounds -- French, English, German, Jewish -- all these things are mixed up together. It's hard to define what black is in America. The only way you can really do it is through a mode of racism. Most people come from various backgrounds. Either you accept it, or you don't. I happen to accept it." With five novels to his credit, including four Easy Rawlins mysteries and the recently released RL's Dream, about the famous blues-man, Robert Johnson, Mosley's success is assured. Not bad for someone who wasn't convinced he wanted to write until he was 34. Mosley recalls conceiving the characters of Easy and Mouse for a story called "Open House." Mosley pauses to recite a section of the story from memory: "His name was Raymond, but we called him Mouse because he was small and had sharp features. We could have called him Rat, because he really wasn't very nice, but we liked him so the name Mouse stuck on him." Once the slickly dressed Mouse came through the door, laughing and slapping hands with people, Mosley had his black gumshoe's name. "Mouse sees the narrator and suddenly says, 'Hey, Easy, how you doin'?'" "Everything about writing comes from your unconscious," Mosley continues. "It's there but you don't know what it means, really. You just start putting it together. You sculpt it when you come to edit it later. Mouse is a murderer, but I didn't know that when I wrote 'Open House.'" If Mosley writes out of his unconscious, then it is perhaps not surprising that he can't predict how readers will react to his books. Many women read him, for instance, but he's been held in suspicion by feminists who find scenes in his novels sexist. "You have to be careful not to become a victim of political correctness," Mosley says. "There's something wrong if you can't talk about the problems, if you can't risk being unpopular in order to try to cause a deeper understanding. In White Butterfly, Mouse is just as much a slut as the woman he meets. Easy's as much a victim of women as they are of him. I talk very much about Easy being a father, for instance. EttaMae [a character in Devil] is no victim. She makes big mistakes, but if you don't talk about the kind of mistakes people make, then you can't talk about the things they do right. I write about poor people. Poor people have few outlets in life in America. They have sex, intoxicants, and storytelling. And this is what my characters do." "Easy is a black man at a particular point in history trying to make it in America, and he's alone," observes Mosley. "He has certain feelings about women. Sometimes, Easy is wrong. In White Butterfly, Easy rapes his wife, but he doesn't understand it. "It's an internal view. His violence is in his inability to understand. So his wife leaves him. I don't make value judgments when I write." It's no accident that there's an existential, even noirish, element in Devil in a Blue Dress. "I'm interested in that kind of world that's slightly cracked," Mosley says. "You're trying to figure out what's good, what's bad, what's true and not true. Trying to hold onto your own memories and sense of yourself. Trying to do the right thing in a world where doing the right thing means you have to do something wrong."