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Partie IV. Filming the Crime Novel

From Chicago to Hollywood: the Metamorphosis of V.I. Warshawski

Nicole Décuré
p. 177-183


L’adaptation au cinéma d’œuvres littéraires est souvent problématique. Dans le cas de la fiction féministe, le problème devient aigu car l’idéologie hollywoodienne en général et celle du metteur en scène en particulier s’accommodent mal d’une telle vision. En prenant pour exemple la série policière de Sara Paretsky mettant en scène une détective privée, V.I. Warshawski, et l’adaptation cinématographique de Jeff Kanew pour les studios Disney, l’article montre et démontre comment ce qui est subversif dans le roman est affadi dans le film pour produire une œuvre conventionnelle avec un personnage féminin affublé des clichés millénaires sur les femmes dans les rôles principaux de séductrice et de mère. Le corps devient objet (du regard masculin), la femme est minimisée dans ce qu’elle entreprend par le biais du ridicule ou de la comédie bon marché, voire grivoise. Heureusement, l’entreprise de destruction s’est révélée être un échec commercial.

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Texte intégral

1The cinema frequently draws scenarios and ideas from the novel and writers often complain about the betrayal of their work when put on celluloid. Most of the time, it does not really matter, especially in the case of the thriller or the detective novel. A good story is a good story and suspense requires different forms and means in writing and film. Humphrey Bogart and Howard Hawks did not substantially betray Chandler.

  • 1  Or so she told Jeremiah Healy in a private discussion which he relayed at the conference, Paris, 2 (...)

2What can be worth investigating is the following question: what does Hollywood make of women’s fiction and particularly feminist fiction? More specifically, how does a male director deal with female/feminist material? Reportedly, Alice Walker was not very happy with Steven Spielberg’s treatment of The Color Purple.But then, was E.T.’s father a good choice? Did she even have a choice in the matter? Sara Paretsky’s novels were adapted by a less well-known director and she was not very happy either, although she put up a brave front. Readers especially felt let down and betrayed: the film was not only disappointing but damaging to the image of V. I. Warshawski. What possessed Sara Paretsky to sell the rights? It seems that the money she received enabled her to leave her job and write full time1.

3The matter of money notwithstanding, one may question the wisdom of the authors selling their rights to the cinema. Alice Walker and Sara Paretsky are not naive, much less politically unsophisticated. They must know that Hollywood is not a hotbed of feminism and should not therefore wonder if the moving pictures made out of their books fall short of their expectations.

4V. I. Warshawski was made in 1991 by Jeff Kanew (Hollywood Pictures). The credits acknowledge the film to be based on the V. I. Warshawski novels by Sara Paretsky, featuring a Chicago female private eye. The series, as of the time of writing, comprises nine books and a number of short stories. (not a lot compared to a lot of more prolific series writers). Sara Paretsky, one of the first writers to tackle this new sub-genre of hard-boiled fiction, is considered one of the best, if not the best writer of the new wave of women writers writing about women as private eyes. She is certainly one of the most articulately feminist and political.

5The film draws elements from the first two books of the series, Indemnity Only, Deadlock and a little from the third, Killing Orders. The plot is not the plot of any of the novels, nor is it really original, as it mixes ingredients taken from the three books – characters, names, places, dialogues – and adds a few spices of its own, thereby altering the taste of the ingredients, sometimes beyond recognition. This seasoning is what can be questioned as it transforms the original voice of the novels into a more standard one. Not quite all the time, but too often, and on crucial points, although the film, on the whole, is fast-paced and entertaining enough, and the actress, Kathleen Turner, portrays V. I. remarkably well and saves what can be saved of the film. In fact, only the magic of the cinema, the large screen and the dark room make this film palatable. There is no time to think, to reflect on what we see, as we do when we read and the talent of the actors contributes to the illusion. Apart from surface, superficial details however, the film totally betrays the essence of the Warshawski novels and this is why the adaptation must be questioned from an ideological point of view.

6The intention here is not question anybody’s inalienable right to make a bad film. And, as bad films go, this one is neither better nor worse than many other Hollywood productions. It might even be better because it has an unusual woman character as central hero, is not blatantly sexist, does not relish in blood and gore and even, to some degree, portrays an independent woman. Sara Paretsky, in an interview, acknowledges this.

Both Ms. Turner and I wish that the script had been stronger and less slapsticky. However, the movie brought pleasure to millions of viewers and it had this major redeeming feature: it is one of the few feature films to have an action figure who is female and who does resolve her own problems without needing to sacrifice all for love in the end. (in Grape 290)

7What is objectionable is that Jeff Kanew, instead of making his own film, has used a well-known feminist heroine and downgraded her so as to appeal to a wide audience who, he must have thought, could not accept some of the traits the novels’ heroine exhibits. There is some justice though: the film was not the success it was supposed to be. Intended as a series, it stopped right there.

The positive points

8On the positive side is the presentation of the main character. A few short cameos, right at the beginning, introduce the viewer to the basic elements of V. I.’s life: Chicago, her dirty clothes, her empty fridge with rotting food, her jogging habit, her concern with her weight, her office, the Golden Glow (the bar where she drinks). Some other scenes also stick close to the books: her attachment to the glasses her mother left her (she tries to save them when the fire breaks out in her apartment, a common occurrence in the fiction), the gun her father left her, her constant wisecracking. All these details form the background to her daily life which has an important place in the novels. Her relation to police lieutenant Bobby Mallory reflects the books accurately, with its mixture of antagonism and mutual affection: he has known her, his friend’s daughter, since she was a child, and feels more or less like her father. Her relation with Lotty Herschel, although barely sketched, is well rendered. The scene where she gets kidnapped by mobster Earl Smeissen and beaten up as a measure of intimidation is also a perfect translation of the book, all the more striking as, if women are abundantly beaten in the cinema, it is not usually as part of their job and they do not fight back as successfully as V. I. does. Or at all. V. I. getting her revenge on the thugs at the end is also in character.


9But, as Philip French remarked in his review of the film in The Observer, “It could be shown in film schools as an example of how not to adapt a novel from the screen” (in J. Walker).

Relations to men

10Most blatant is the portrayal of V. I. as a scorned woman who has a hectic affair with a womanizer. Although she puts up a brave front, she is hurt by his unfaithfulness and her denials sound hollow and false. She complains to Sal, the Golden Glow bartender, about having “Murray trouble”, which is supposed to be girls’ talk but not something V. I. ever indulges in. The fictional V. I. is a loner, a woman who chooses her men, who decides when, where and how often to see them and when to start and end the affair. She is not kept dangling on a string. All the men in her life (and the women too) complain that she is too independent. No lover of hers has ever had a key to her apartment, none will come uninvited, the way Murray Ryerson does in the film. The character of Murray is especially badly chosen. He is a recurring character in the books. They have been lovers “occasionally” but they are too much in competition on the crime front for anything to really happen between them. The typical interaction between them is V. I. extracting information from him, using him and the press to achieve her own ends, with him complaining that she never gives anything in exchange, until the crime is resolved. In the final line of the film, V. I. threatens Murray with a nutcracker (already used on one of the thugs), a not very subtle allusion to castrating females, reinforced all along the film by various kicks in the groin, the kind of blow the “real” V. I. never deals. On top of it all, there has to be a “happy ending” in the purest Hollywood style with V. I. kissing Murray and even the lieutenant.

11The other man V. I. shows a romantic interest in is Boom-Boom Grafalk, whom she picks up in a bar because she wants to get her revenge from finding Murray with a woman. This can only be done by picking up a good-looking man, which is also totally out of character. The whole scene is extremely heavy-handed. V. I. has come into the bar with the express purpose of borrowing from the bartender a pair of red lame high-heel shoes with which she trips Boom-Boom to attract his attention. The Cinderella hint is gross: the slipper to attract the prince is really a hooker’s shoe and, for good measure, in case we missed the hint, Cinderella is mentioned twice. It is interesting to note that the French translator accurately saw the shoe fetishist side of Kanew and called the film Un privé en escarpins (the masculinisation of the name proves, once more that private eye is an unsuitable job for a woman).

12In Deadlock,Boom-Boom was V. I.’s cousin, the only member of her family she was really close to, but there was no love interest there. His death was a deeply felt loss, after that of her parents, leaving her with almost no family. The film-makers must have thought that the death of a cousin was not a strong enough incentive to undertake an investigation. A woman’s only important ties are those of love, with the opposite sex. Why else would V. I. accept to play baby-sitter to a man’s child, especially a dead man’s child? The fictional heroine would not do it, especially for someone she hardly knows and who does not give her a choice.

13Later on in the evening, after they have parted with a kiss, Boom-Boom turns up in her bathroom, following closely his daughter who barges in with an unlikely “You’re fucking my dad?” Firstly, no one can come into V. I.’s flat uninvited and secondly, Kat, the awful, “catty” brat who spouts horrors that are supposed to sound funny in a teenager’s mouth, sounds more like a cartoon character than a real person. The character of Kat is borrowed from Indemnity Only, except that, in the book, Jill is a nice girl whom V. I. befriends and helps willingly. Kat’s dirty talk is very cheap comedy, of the sit-com variety (as the film was intended as a series, we can recognise here one of the tricks of the trade).

The body

14In the novels, V. I. spends a lot of time in her bath, cleansing herself, resting, but here we have a feeling this is just an opportunity to show a bit of flesh, another thing the cinema doesn’t seem to be able to do without. For the same reason, V. I. is made to get into a taxi in her bathrobe and to strip under the eyes of the cab-driver to put on the (black) lame (again!) dress Kat had borrowed. She walks around on the docks, the scene of the crime, in her black evening dress, covered by her bathrobe... and with furry slippers on her feet (still the Cinderella syndrome). This is the kind of comedy that ridicules and minimises, that is meant to comfort endangered certainties. How could someone thus attired be threatening or strong or even clever? In the same way, later on, V. I. takes her handbag to go to the dock and meet the killer, whereas in the books she always keeps her hands free by stuffing her pockets with whatever she needs. At the beginning of the film, V. I. the jogger, in shorts and running shoes is quickly turned into V. I. the street-walker in high heels. Again, there is emphasis on the body (the bare legs) rather than the brain.


15Things degenerate after the bath scene. V. I. takes Kat along with her on her enquiries, totally foregoing her “lone ranger” usual M. O., pretending she is training her. They even indulge on a boat chase on the Chicago waterways (quite impressive from a cinematic point of view), with bullets flying; and the girl who, only two days before, was devastated by her father’s death, is having a thoroughly good time. Again, the likelihood of V. I. taking a child along on such a venture is nil. Comedy has to have the upper hand but it diminishes the stature of the detective by making her work look like a game, since she involves a child, and by emphasising the motherly side of her character. At one point she wonders wistfully if she would make a good mother. This is a question that crops up sometimes in the books but in context and it is discussed and analysed. Here, it just points out that a woman without children is not complete.


16Which is not to say that Sara Paretsky’s books are not funny. But what is funny is her comments on people and society, V. I.’s witty repartees. They are there in the film too, but too often with vulgar, coarse innuendoes, as when she says of a potential client in the meat-packing business that he needs her to look after his sausage. Again, in case we missed the hint later on, we get a scene at the beginning with the leering client (the sort of leer that could be seen in silent films) on a background of sausages hanging on a wall.

What was saved of the novels

  • 2  In Novak.
  • 3 Shots on, the Page Conference.

17Sara Paretsky reports that five men wrote the film script (in fact it was three2) and when a woman applied, she was rejected because it was already too feminist. And it took Kathleen Turner to fight for the “integrity” of the character and preserve some of its more feminist aspects, especially at the end. According to the script, V. I. was supposed to be rescued by Murray and the actress insisted that it could not be3. It would have destroyed completely the essence of the character. In the scene of the confrontation with the murderer(s), Murray is reluctant to handle a gun (he does not know how to), wounded, unable to do anything except watch the fight and push a gun towards V. I. at the right moment. So, there is unusual role-reversal in the film. In the same way, when the girl, Kat, is dropped into the water, unconscious, a male passer-by was supposed to jump in and rescue her but Kathleen Turner insisted, successfully, on V. I. saving her instead. Sara Paretsky commented: “No one would even have thought of doing it the other way if V. I. were a guy [...] V. I. faces great difficulties, but she doesn’t expect to be rescued, she solves her own problems” (in H.R. 89). And that is the appeal and the strength of the character.

18The final showdown takes place between V. I. and another woman, Kat’s mother, a “monster”, of course, since she does not love her child, an impossibility as everybody knows. The cinema loves few things better than two women fighting. V. I. kills her, another betrayal. In the books, V. I. wounds (often with her bare hands) but never kills: her creator will not let her (in Shapiro 92). And it seems that the authors of the film could not let her kill a man; a woman can only kill a woman whose life, no doubt, is worth less. What would the world be coming to if women started killing men or, to be more accurate, if good women started killing (even bad) men? Kat’s mother kills her second husband to save her child (which is excusable according to common wisdom) but anyway she has to pay her double villainy (as a bad mother and a worse wife) by being killed straight away.

Further betrayal

19Not only is the feminism toned down but there is a scene, totally useless, at the beginning of the film, where V. I. has a brief confrontation with Mr Contreras, her landlord, who is too mean to replace the electric bulbs in the stairs so, when he asks for the rent, she replies with a mock Mexican accent. Contreras, in the books, is a loveable old man, her downstairs neighbour, who helps her, feeds her, protects her from intruders, generally looks after and out for her and her dog, with a pipe wrench if necessary, a “foster father” whom she resents sometimes, as breathing too heavily down her neck and threatening her independence, but a good friend. Certainly, she would never make ethnic jokes, nor disparage people on account of their ethnic origin. V. I. is always on the side of the underdog. Being herself a second-generation immigrant, she is very class and race conscious. The film, again, plays on cheap, racist feelings.

20Presenting V. I. Warshawski the way Kanew does is like presenting Simone de Beauvoir as a schoolteacher or Marie Curie as a lab assistant. It is part of who they are but not the whole picture, far from it. The subject must be upsetting enough to have prompted at least two other feminists to write about it (Klein; Jones). It could be said that criticising Kanew is a bit like shooting at a hearse but it takes some nerve for someone whose sole claim to fame is a film called Revenge of the Nerds to tackle the best of feminist crime fiction. What possessed him to attempt the adaptation? Was it a nerd’s attempt at revenge on the feminists? It is likely that, being given a subject far beyond his abilities, he fell back down on well-known and (supposedly) reliable clichés about men and women. V. I. was/is just too much for a man like Kanew.

21“Never underestimate the ability of a man to underestimate a woman”, says V. I. in the film, a line that is never spoken in the books (but could have been).

22This could be the motto of the film itself.

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Grape, J. D. James & E. Nehr (eds.), Deadly Women, New York, Carroll & Graf, 1998.

Klein, K. G., “Watching Warshawski”, Reynolds, William & Elizabeth Trembley (eds.) It’s a Print! Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, Bowling Green, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992, p.145-57.

Jones, M., “Shot/Reverse Shot: Dis-solving the Feminist Detective Story in Kanew’s Film V.I. Warshawski”. K. G. Klein (ed.) Diversity and Detective Fiction: Gender, Ethnicity, Race, Bowling Green, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999.

Novak, R., “Screen”, People, vol. 36 (8 May 1991), p.13-4.

Paretsky, Sara, Indemnity Only, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1982.

Paretsky, Sara, Deadlock, London, Gollancz, 1984.

Paretsky, Sara, Killing Orders, New York, William Morrow, 1985.

R. H., “Fearless and Female”, Working Woman, August 1991.

Shapiro, L. “Sara Paretsky”, Ms., January 1988.

Shots on, the Page Conference, Nottingham, UK, June 1993.

Walker, Alice, The Color Purple, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1982.

Walker, J., ed., Halliwell’s Film Guide, London, Harper Collins, 1995.

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1  Or so she told Jeremiah Healy in a private discussion which he relayed at the conference, Paris, 27 November 1999.

2  In Novak.

3 Shots on, the Page Conference.

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Nicole Décuré, « From Chicago to Hollywood: the Metamorphosis of V.I. Warshawski », Sillages critiques, 6 | 2004, 177-183.

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Nicole Décuré, « From Chicago to Hollywood: the Metamorphosis of V.I. Warshawski », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2009, consulté le 21 janvier 2018. URL :

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Nicole Décuré

Professeur de Littérature anglaise et américaine, Université Toulouse 3

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