Den Of Geek Book Club: Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family

This month's film and TV non-fiction book selection is Nicholas Pileggi's renowned Mafia crime biography, Wiseguy...

This review contains spoilers.

For many directors it’s all about the source material.

Stanley Kubrick believed it was easier to turn a good book into a great film than to adapt a great book successfully, which makes me wonder – how many adaptations have you seen in which a phenomenal book becomes a film to match it? Or is something always lost in translation?

I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but I would argue that Scorsese took a good book and made a great film out of it when he found Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. He saw a filmic potential in that story, and ended up with Goodfellas (1990). I think he improved on the source material, although this is difficult to judge, for reasons I’ll go into later.

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So Wiseguy is the life story of Henry Hill, a mobster from the 1950s to the 1980s who got caught and eventually turned evidence against his friends in exchange for entry into a Witness Protection Programme – because his friends would have undoubtedly killed him, just as they killed everyone else who threatened their way of life. Hill told everything to Pileggi during a series of meetings that took place in high secrecy, once Hill and his family were established in their new identities. Pileggi’s factual, clear style provides the framework of the book and then we also have Henry’s smooth and engaging voice. His wife Karen is also heard from directly, to add another dimension – what it’s like to marry into the Mafia family. It’s those personal accounts that really drag the reader in, and the screenplay for the film (co-written by Scorsese and Pileggi) lifted the best lines directly from the book, along with using some improvised lines from the cast.

Henry survives, and thrives, in an environment that kills many, and he has an amazing street-sense. He can make money at just about anything without stepping on the toes of important people. Mafia boss Paul Vario takes him under his wing, and he becomes part of a crew that includes very frightening people such as Jimmy Burke and Tommy DeSimone. He sees they are dangerous, but he walks the tightrope of appeasing them and watching out for himself so successfully that he really does seem to be untouchable for a while. But, of course, none of them are.

In Wiseguy we don’t meet these incidental characters immediately. In Goodfellas Scorsese leads with them. Here’s where the film has a real advantage. Robert De Niro plays Jimmy and Joe Pesci plays Tommy (the surnames are different in the film), and they bring immediate appeal that gives way to a depth of emotion. Although, to be honest, terror is still my overriding emotion, particularly when Joe Pesci appears on screen. Their drive to stay alive and stay on top, and the damage they have inflicted on themselves as well as on other people as they age, can be read in their faces as the film progresses. It’s brilliant casting, not just in those roles, but throughout. But it also means that Scorsese has us from the opening moments. These are actors who provide instant watchability.

The honesty of the book is, I think, its real strength. It gives an amazing sense of detail about living without rules, without a mainstream morality, and with a vast amount of money. For the truth is that, for people like Henry (who might be described, to steal a line from John Cusack in Grosse Point Blank, as having ‘a certain moral flexibility’) it’s an absolute blast. Both Henry and Karen are in love with the glamour of their lives: front row seats at the Copacabana, the best clothes, meeting Hollywood stars, looking down on the ordinary joes who have to wait in line. The fact that they both miss their past and would return to it in a heartbeat infuses their voices.

It’s a wonderful read, but to return to the question of whether the film is better – well, maybe I only think that because I saw the film first. It’s impossible to read the book and not see Hill as Ray Liotta. It gives him a swagger, and those little boy eyes that can turn hard in a moment, and that strange snakelike charm. Paulie is Paul Sorvino in the pages, and Karen is undoubtedly Lorraine Bracco. And every event seems to come with its own perfect soundtrack. If those images and sounds hadn’t existed for me before I read the book, would I have enjoyed it as much?

It’s impossible to judge. So when I come down on the side of Kubrick, and say that Wiseguy is a good book that got turned into a great film, I can understand if you have a different opinion. But hopefully we can agree that the strengths of the story remain the same from book to film – and it portrays fascinating events. Unfortunately for us all, those events were real. And if you take the Scorsese magic out of the picture, you end up with a reality that is, beyond the glitz and the front row seats, very hard to stomach.  

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What did you think of Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi? Leave a comment below.

The next Den of Geek book club choice is The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. Kaci will be reviewing it on Monday 15th September.

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