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Who Told It Best: You Were Never Really Here

Hello everyone and welcome to this new periodic feature on Book For Thought. My name is Nicolò, I’m an award-winning filmmaker and owner of the YouTube channel EnjoyTheMovies. In these essays, I will be analysing the key differences between specific books and films to declare which one told it best.

Adaptations of novels for the silver screen are often failures. While the term itself, “adaptation”, does not necessarily mean a direct translation of what was on the page into a visual medium, what usually happens is an attempt to recapture the aesthetic of the author’s words while losing the soul of what made the novel so special. However, there are very few cases where a film manages to surpass the quality of its source material, and one such example is You Were Never Really Here.

Jonathan Ames wrote the novella back in 2013, a little over 100 pages long, telling the pulpy story of Joe, war veteran turned vigilante for hire, as he rescues the daughter of a State Senator, only for things to spiral out of control. “Nuance” is not a word one could use for describing the book, as much of it is spent explaining everything that is happening in the narrative and in Joe’s head, removing any layer of mystery and subtlety that could have been present. However, all of this was fixed by Lynne Ramsay, who wrote and directed the 2017 adaptation. The film of You Were Never Really Here was made on a relatively measly budget of $17 million and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was recognised with a Best Screenplay award for Ramsey and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix.

On paper, the film follows almost every beat of the novel, which would be fitting for a direct translation of the events. However, Ramsey managed to see the story’s hidden powers and themes, delving deeper into them in a manner that is more poetic and lyrical than the pedestrian approach of the novel. The film’s version of Joe is an enigmatic character, a disturbed individual with a tragic past that is understood on an intuitive level. Every scene in the film is seen from his perspective, the camerawork lingering on details of the people he meets, the soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood creating a disturbing soundscape that mirrors his suicidal thoughts (atonal drums play over beautiful string melodies).

It is a well-rounded cinematic experience that truly takes advantage of the medium, opting for visual storytelling instead of heavy dialogues and exposition. If Joe’s understanding of the mystery behind young Nina’s kidnapping was literally spelled out in the book, it comes as a shocking revelation in the film. The relationship between Joe and his mother is key to Ramsay’s vision, elevated by moments of tenderness between Phoenix and actress Judith Roberts.

The moments of violence are also very profound and as far removed as possible from most other revenge thrillers or the book’s descriptions. Joe is completely detached from the world around him, to the point that his jobs as a hired gun are carried out with extreme precision and zero emotions, perfectly captured with his assault on the brothel, shot entirely through CCTV cameras. A standout moment happens in the second half of the film, when Joe fends off two hitmen in his house, killing one and mortally wounding the other. Instead of simply living him to die, Joe stays with him after interrogating him, laying by his side and touching his hand, a moment of connection, of not wanting to let someone die alone. There is not a single moment in the whole book that even comes close to how human and heartfelt that sequence is, something that can only be achieved in a film rather than with words alone.

You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames was a serviceable throwback to pulp crime stories. Lynne Ramsay’s film is a profound and multi-layered movie, a condemnation of violence and war, a character study on abuse and depression, and ultimately a story of hope and redemption. A perfect example on how not only to adapt a book, but also to elevate it to new heights by embracing every element that makes the medium of film so unique.

Have you read the book or watched its adaptation? Let us know in the comments below what you think, and we will see you soon for another round of “Who Told It Best”.

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