It’s a good idea for a story--a man who can’t escape his past. That past, in this particular plot, which began as a comic book before being adapted by Josh Olson for David Cronenberg (Viggo Mortensen plays the man, Tom), is indeed one of violence. And it comes back to haunt Tom after an act of defense (in the book--it’s heroism in the film) brings him national media attention. People from his past show up, and his family is put in danger.
I’ll be straightforward here: The reason the movie is better than the book is that the book has no characters. It has plot points in the shape of people. They exhibit no real emotion, intensity, complexity, or pathos, and thus are completely unengaging. Olson’s adaptation gives them this complexity, which thus makes the story more complex and interesting.
I’ll give the most obvious example: the scene where the wife confronts Tom about his past. He’s been wounded defending himself and his family from gangsters, and they’re in the hospital. In the book, his son’s there, too. They say they want the truth from Tom, and he tells it to them. We learn it in the form of an extended flashback, where we see that Tom does indeed have a history of violence, though he was a bit reluctant to engage in it. That’s it. Nobody reacts to the news that their husband or father is a killer. We just move on to the next scene.
In the film, it’s just husband and wife. There’s almost no mention of what the incident was in the entire film, no flashback, no concern with specifics. The fact that he killed for reasons other than self-defense is all that’s important, and that he doesn’t want to do it anymore. If you were his wife, would that be enough for you? In the confrontation scene, there’s anger, pain, and believable emotion. Mortensen and Maria Bello do a fine job. They play real humans, not plot points.
In both book and film, Tom confronts and defeats his past. He has made his future safe for his family. Only the film has the guts to ask if that’s enough. Can we transcend the choices we made? Can we become a new and better person? What are the consequences of twenty years of lies and twists of truth? The book does not ask or answer these questions in any meaningful way. It says that we solve violence by violence. And then we go back home. The film says that maybe we have to solve violence by violence, but that there are consequences, and there’s a bit of doubt about whether there will still be a home to return to when it’s all said and done.
I’m not sure what I think of History of Violence as a film. It’s certainly better than the book, by a wide margin. The book is interesting, but lacks the main qualities that make a story great. The film has many of them, including a deft hand a creating suspense and tension, but I felt like there was something missing. Not sure what it was though. It may just be that the film moved Tom’s new home from Michigan to Indiana. Not sure why that would bother me.