(It’s officially beach season, and the masses have begun the sun-and-fun-minded migration to the Jersey shore, so I thought it would be a good time to re-post this piece first published on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2011.)
Eddie and the Cruisers was the first movie I ever watched when my family purchased a VCR back in the mid-80’s. Today, I own the DVD, and have watched it countless times. For all my familiarity with the film, though, I was oblivious to its literary source. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally purchased and read the 1980 novel by P.F. Kluge that inspired the movie. So how do the two versions stack up against one another? Read on… (caution: plot spoilers).
The novel is narrated by Frank “Wordman” Ridgeway (Tom Berenger’s character in the film), so Eddie and the Cruisers is literally and figuratively his book. He forms the central character, even as he plays Nick Carraway to Eddie Wilson’s Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel is referenced several times throughout the book). The narrative thus proves much more personal/confessional than the film version. Frank’s voice–inflected with world-weary cynicism–also creates distinct echoes of hard-boiled detective novels (cf. the work Raymond Chandler).
Like the film, the book shifts back and forth in time, moving back through the decades to the Cruisers’ heyday, and contrasting that golden age with the tarnished nature of the band members’ modern lives. Kluge’s scenes, though, take time to unfold, whereas the film (thanks to jump-cutting) often offers smoother–and more poignant–transitions.
The cast of characters is more fully developed in the novel, which helps elevate them from background figures to major suspects in the mystery stemming from the popular resurgence of the Cruisers’ music. For instance, Wendell, who doesn’t deliver a single line of dialogue in the film (and is killed off midway through), is integral to the plot of the novel.
The book does a much better job of establishing Eddie’s dream, the musical goal he is trying to accomplish (something more complicated and significant than in the film version). On the other hand, director (and co-screenwriter) Martin Davidson more skillfully handles the subject of Eddie’s death: the question of whether the nascent rock star’s demise was an accident, a suicide (a consideration the book seems to shy away from), or possibly even a faked death.
While the film wonderfully captures the vibe of the Jersey shore scene of the mid-20th Century, Kluge’s novel extensively details the sights, sounds, and smells of the Garden State. Readers travel with the Cruisers from Newark to Camden, Asbury Park to Atlantic City. In effect, Kluge (a native of Berkeley Heights) has penned a Springsteenian ode to New Jersey.
The film’s major advantage, however, is its musical aspects. In the novel, Frank has to resort to quoted lyrics and his own paraphrasing narration (he acknowledges his struggles to depict the Cruisers’ performances: “How can I recapture that night? I can’t sing it, play it, or relive it. All I can do is recall bits and pieces.”).The film’s viewers, meanwhile, get to see the Cruisers in action, get to listen to the soundtrack (which I would rank as one of the top five in film history) furnished by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Indeed, it’s doubtful that Eddie and the Cruisers would have struck such a chord with its audience if not for its interpolated songs–the enthusiastic anthem “Wild Summer Nights,” the haunting ballad “Tender Years,” and, of course, the bar-rocking classic “On the Dark Side.”
Perhaps what most distinguishes Kluge’s Eddie and the Cruisers is its dark, sinister tone (as it slips into the dark side of American Gothic). A derelict Quonset hut forms an eerie yet integral setting; the book climaxes with a series of bloody murders. The film opts for a milder air of spookiness, but its final scene raises goosebumps for a whole other reason. The music builds to a shattering crescendo, the documentary footage of the Cruisers fades to black, and suddenly the reflection of an older, bearded Eddie Wilson (he’s alive! he’s alive!) appears in the storefront window. A delightful twist ending, especially for anyone who happened to have read the novel (where Eddie’s fate is much different) first.
I absolutely loved Kluge’s novel, and have cruised through it twice since obtaining a copy. For all its strengths, though, the book is hard-pressed to match the film version for sheer, affective power. That’s why, using the 10-point divvy system, I ultimately give the edge to the 1983 cinematic incarnation:
Film: 6 ⇔ Book: 4