So we binge watched the three seasons of 'Hap and Leonard', a TV show on the Sundance Channel that Joe R. Lansdale created and adapted from his own book series. These seasons are based in turn on the first three novels and I got a real kick out of each of them.
I have a whole stack of these novels, many of them bought from and signed by the author at Phoenix Comicon, but unread until now, though I have enjoyed other of his books, such as 'Zeppelins West' and 'Flaming London'. Clearly it's time to find out how Hap and Leonard continued on after the show ended.
But first, let's see how different those first three books are from their TV adaptations. The first is shorter and leaner than the six episode season it became, but it follows the same sweep of story with few changes. I might say that those changes are minor, because they surely are in the grand scheme of things, but some of them involve little details that tighten up some things and set up some others better. It's interesting to compare the two.
For those not introduced to Hap and Leonard, they're a pair of good friends who live in the fictional town of LaBorde, located somewhere in the author's home area of east Texas. Lansdale gives good panel with his trademark drawl and it's easy to hear his voice in both Hap and Leonard, as different as the two are.
They're both working class men, who start out this book as labourers in the rose fields, but there are three key differences. For one, which is greatly important in this series, Hap is white and Leonard is black. For two, Hap is straight but Leonard is gay. And for three, Hap was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war, who spent time in jail for that view, while Leonard served in the army, which may or may not have anything to do with his anger issues. I should add that Hap is not a coward and both men know how to fight.
The first difference I noted was in how they met. In this novel, they simply meet in the rose fields and that's it. In the show, that relationship is an inherently deeper one, evolved out of growing up together as kids. There's a whole new back story for both of them, in which their respective fathers are killed by a drunk driver while Hap's is helping Leonard's. This brings in a set of other characters who simply don't exist in the book.
The core story is almost exactly the same. Hap's ex-wife Trudy shows up out of the blue with a lucractive offer for Hap, which he takes up but only with Leonard's assistance. It's a search for cash, which is stored in watertight containers in a boat lost somewhere in the Bottoms, an area of swampland in which Hap grew up. It's near an iron bridge, or so says the man who put it there after robbing a bank. He's dead now but, in time-honoured crime novel tradition, passed on the key info to his cellmate, now Trudy's current beau. If Hap can track it down, it'll be $100,000 for his trouble.
Trudy's an important character in both the book and the show, but it seemed to me that her story arc makes more sense in the novel. There's a point here in which she tells Hap about how she killed his pet bird during his time in jail. It's a flashback scene in the show, at a later point in the story, and the original way Lansdale wrote it paves the way much better for some of the things that she does later on.
One of Lansdale's greatest talents is the seemingly effortless way that he's able to endow his characters with depth. This isn't a long novel, running a blip over two hundred pages in my British paperback edition, and it's leaner and meaner in every way than its adaptation to screen. That extra back story is gone. The introduction of a characterful pair of violent crooks happens a lot later and in a much more straightforward way. Entire scenes unfold much quicker and without any of the embellishments of the show. Yet, both Hap and Leonard seem even more deeply written and Trudy does too.
I was rather surprised to discover how short this felt, almost like it's an initial draught of a novel that Lansdale would then pad out with additional dialogue and maybe even a subplot or two. I guess that's exactly what he did with the show, expanding it out to fit its six episode run.
That said, I was also rather surprised to discover how little that mattered. I'd enjoyed all that expansion in the show but was refreshed to go back to the bones of the piece in print. Suddenly, those extra characters felt like a removed distraction from the core of the story. Scenes that worked so well on screen felt like they had no need to be in the novel, but little details that answered some of the questions the show left me with were right there where they needed to be.
I do expect Lansdale's writing to grow over the series, because I've read a few of his earlier and later books, but I have a feeling just from the size of the other Hap and Leonard novels on my shelf that he's going to stay lean and mean throughout.
It's also worth mentioning here that Lansdale's work has quite the habit of flouting genre conventions and it did so from the very beginning, with crime and horror mixing with fantasy, action and even western styles to create the recognisable Lansdale voice. This, however, as bloody as it gets at points, is fundamentally crime with little extra added. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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