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Books, Films, Modern Films

Brighton Rock – stick to the plot, please

One of the first films I saw this year (apart from a re-run of my old favourite, The Eagle Has Landed) was the remake of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. I read the book in 2011 and liked its balance of intrigue and deliberately uncomfortable moments, especially concerning the amoral gang leader, Pinkie Brown. When it came to watching the film I knew things were not going to be straightforward – Rowan Joffe’s adaptation moved the story to the 1960s, mixing in the famous clash of mods and rockers on Brighton Beach and giving things an extra twist of danger and anticipation. I was perfectly happy with this change as I felt it added to the mood and didn’t feel too overbearing. What I didn’t expect was for there to be so many seemingly inconsequential changes of character job, death or scene setting that made this feel like a very loose retelling of the tale overall. Here are ten quite important things from the book that I instantly spotted as being drastically altered (look away now if you don’t want spoilers):

1. Hale, who we meet at the beginning of the novel, is a journalist who is being paid to play Kolley Kibber, a person who plants cards in a treasure hunt – in this case, the location is Brighton – which members of the public have to find. The film ignores this set-up completely and we are introduced to Hale as a member of a gang and nothing else.

2. Hale talks to Ida (Helen Mirren), a woman he meets in a pub who later becomes a central figure, out of desperation. He knows he is being followed and wants to look like he is with people, so they can act as witnesses. In the film then Ida and Hale already know each other and are old friends. This completely changes their relationship and also makes Ida’s quest for the truth a lot more basic – in the book then you are gripped by the idea that she has got a lasting impression from a man she met only briefly.

3. The book gives us Ida as a barmaid, who cares a lot more about socialising and men than she does about her job. Her film equivalent is not a lowly barmaid but the owner of the cafe, Snow’s, where another protagonist (Rose, played by Andrea Riseborough) works. Instead of seeing Ida as a ballsy everyday woman, she comes across as a bit of a bitch who regularly intimidates Rose and rules with an iron fist. I much prefer the original.

4. The first murder we read about is one that has already taken place, at Brighton Station. In the film then this murder is played out to the audience and it is conducted underneath the promenade along the seafront. I did like the new location, but there was something more edgy about Greene’s choice of having someone stabbed in broad daylight in a bustling public place. Instead we are given a deserted and dingy bit of beach, which feels much more like a shady gangland act. There isn’t the same shock at the gang’s boldness.

5. Greene cast Pinkie Brown as the leader of his gang, despite him being only 17. In Rowan Joffe’s adaptation we see him (played by Sam Riley) as a minor member who seems to just let things go to his head after the true leader is killed. Part of the book’s clever portrait of Pinkie was that everyone was so afraid of him, despite him looking young and a bit pathetic. Seeing him effectively as a cog in a wheel is less dramatic.

6. The title of the book becomes very significant when it’s later revealed that a stick of rock emblazoned with the word Brighton is used to kill Hale. Ida also tells Rose that people never change, ‘like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down’, which is true of many characters. The film gives us a new weapon for Hale’s death – an actual rock from Brighton beach, instead of the edible version. The stick of rock comes into play with the murder of Spicer. I don’t know why Joffe changed the plot so much, but I do like the use of the real rock as a means of killing off a character; it’s just a shame that they couldn’t have left this for Spicer rather than Hale.

7. Spicer is attacked at the racecourse, which nicely ties in the betting that the gangs are both involved with. Ida is also seen here, betting on a horse which she hopes will help to fund her investigation into Hale’s death. Joffe completely removed the race and any linked scene, instead choosing to have Spicer pounced upon as he walks under the pier during the riotous fights between the mods and rockers.

8. Pinkie’s violence escalates when he kills Spicer, a loyal member of his own gang, by pushing him down the stairs. This is witnessed by Pinkie’s lawyer, who he tells to leave the country. The film still leaves us with a dead Spicer, but it’s more of a collaborative gang effort, with other members helping to drive the body to the coast and send it off a cliff. We don’t get the same shock of seeing the gang’s home turned into a place of danger, but we do get a sense of the wider impact of this crime.

9. Rose says she thinks she is pregnant at the end of the book, whereas in the film we see her get up from her bed and she is clearly in the last trimester of pregnancy. I’m pleased that they decided to make her pregnant, as it leaves the audience wondering if Pinkie’s child would be inherently evil or if Rose’s positive influence would keep it on the straight and narrow.

10. True to the book, we see Rose listening to a sound recording that she insisted Pinkie should make for her at the pier. But rather than letting Rose hear what Pinkie really thought of her – “God damn you, you little bitch, why can’t you go home for ever and let me be?” – the film has a happy twist of making the record skip at the point where Pinkie says “I love you”. Though he only said it as a throwaway scornful comment and not as his actual sentiments, Rose is filled with pride at what she sees as a testament to their relationship. This was a nice way to end the film, but it did completely change how Greene wanted the characters to close their story.

What worked in this adaptation: the gang’s flat was exactly as I imagined it, as was Rose’s home. I also enjoyed the characters of Dallow and Spicer, who came to life a lot better than in the book. Lastly, Pinkie’s apt death was impossible to tear yourself away from, and it was brilliantly done.

What didn’t work: the movement towards the climatic cliff scene felt too fast and improbable. There was also not enough emphasis throughout the film on Pinkie’s dislike of people and his repulsion towards sex and alcohol. In the book it is clear that most of his fears come from a lack of control, whereas in the film he just seems wary and not completely averse to these things. Another odd moment came with Rose’s glasses, which were very much like a rom-com reference (girl with massive specs gets independence and attention from man, takes off glasses and becomes pretty). I don’t see what the glasses added, other than making her look like Deidre Barlow.

Would I recommend this film? Yes, but it might be worth reading the book beforehand, to get a better grounding and understanding of the characters.

About Polly

I'm a journalist, based near Brighton. This blog, which is separate from my professional life, will document my reaction to current affairs, as well as some personal projects.


2 thoughts on “Brighton Rock – stick to the plot, please

  1. Very interesting article, I agree with a lot of what you say. I’m about to write a piece on my website comparing the book with the film, although in this case it will be with both versions. The biggest problem I think is the one you identify, that in the book (and the 1947 version) Pinkie is, although only 17, very steely and rules the gang with a rod of iron, backed up with ruthlessness and fear. In the 2010 version he is, as you say, just a minor member – and the scene where Hale (now the one who killed Kite, a major distortion of the novel) takes Pinkie’s knife off him in the toilet and Pinkie cowers before him is a big mistake. I hope to get my piece done in a couple of weeks, can I reference this piece and credit you please? I’d also like to share your piece on Facebook in my group ‘British crime and noir films’ if that’s OK.

    Posted by Paul Thompson | January 8, 2015, 8:12 pm
    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comment – I’m glad the post struck a chord with you, and I’m more than happy for you to share it on your Facebook group. As you can tell, I no longer update this blog, but it’s nice to see you came across it. The two versions of the film, and of course the book, stand up in their own right, though I think the 2010 version did move a bit too far away from the novel for most readers.


      Polly (@misspallen on Twitter)

      Posted by Polly Allen | January 8, 2015, 9:25 pm

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