Adaptation: City of Thieves

City of Thieves Book Cover

City of Thieves

City of Thieves is the rare book written by a screenwriter that works because it is written by a screenwriter. I picked up this little World War II novel at this bookstore in San Diego, and buried it away in my apartment, only reaching for it when I had a little time to read. Somehow, I knew I would need a two-day block because the story was so tight, the plot so extravagantly dark and twisted, I wouldn’t be able to put it down. And I was right—like a well-paced screenplay, every moment worked, every scene built to an excellent climax. I know that this will make an excellent movie one day—and judging by Benioff’s success in Hollywood so far, will be soon. So here is my advice to anyone who is embarking on an adaption of this excellent book.

1) Stay true to the story because it already works as a screenplay. Act One: During the siege of Saint Petersburg in 1943, a young boy, Lev, is caught by the cops looting a dead Nazi parachuter freshly fallen from the sky. Knowing he will be shot at dawn by ruthless military police, he waves goodbye to everyone and everything he has ever known as he disappears in an army truck to the fortress-like Crosses prison. Act Two: Lev and cellmate Kolya, a deserter, instead of being shot, are sent on a fool’s errand to retrieve a dozen eggs from a starving St. Petersburg for a maniacal KGB officer. Along the way they meet the arctic cold, cannibals, maniacs, partisans, and finally, the Nazis. SPOILER ALERT: Act Three: Lev and Kolya (along with newly recruited friend Vika) face down a member of the Einsatzgruppen, Abendroth, a devious demon who challenges Lev to a chess game of life and death and eggs. SPOILER ALERT OVER.

2) Understand and exploit the imagery. For me, a successful movie captures unique details and this story is filled with them. I may have read the book over a month ago, but I still remember the loving way the narrator, Lev described a chicken broth, and I still have a craving for soup, and I’m not starving during a total siege. Other details abound: the cold of Saint Petersburg, the haunted look on the faces of the Nazi’s prisoners, or the taste of spirits stolen from the Nazi parachuter. Every clue to the right setting, scene, and prop is within this book—it would be the fault of the director, not the author if anything is left out of the movie.

3) Keep the characters honest. Fine, the violence is not all that heavy, which may surprise someone who is expecting a World War II epic in the vein of Inglorious Basterds. But the desperation of World War II, the very weariness of the Saint Petersburg siege is already reflected in the characters. You don’t need to punch up Lev and Kolya to be more macho, as long as the script is honest to the story, all of the desperation, the honesty of war will come out in the movie. Of course, I’ve never lived through a war, but this felt pretty awesome (in the Biblical sense) without being an explosion-a-minute. It was the characters and their decisions that made the war very real for me. They’re funny without trying to be, desperate without being pathetic, and endearing without doe eyes. Keep the perfect pitch of the characters and you have an excellent movie.

I am not one who likes movie adaptations, but if the right director were on board for City of Thieves, this could be a very successful movie. In fact, these three pieces of advice could be helpful for anyone embarking on an adaptation; the author already knows what he or she wants, stay true to his or her vision and the movie will work from that point. For me, adaptation is as simple as that.

Now go pick up a copy of City of Thieves by David Benioff.

TANGENT ALERT: I hated the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movie without even seeing it. I loved that book when I was a child, but the reason wasn’t the plot but the very strangeness of the situation—it’s raining food and no one in the book offers a reason. I didn’t want more explanation, I wanted less. Plus, I loved Ron Barrett’s illustrations, and for the movie to have worked it would have had to foreswear CGI for good. TANGENT ALERT OVER.

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

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