Book vs. Film: "The Long Goodbye" vs. "The Big Lebowski"

Much has already been written about the influence of Raymond Chandler’s work on the Coen Brothers’ 1998 masterpiece The Big Lebowski, a movie identified by the filmmakers as intentionally Chandler-esque. In an interview with IndieWire, when asked how much The Big Sleep (the first Phillip Marlowe novel) informed their film, the brothers said:

Joel Coen: We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story—how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery. As well as having a hopelessly complex plot that's ultimately unimportant.

Ethan: And there was something attractive about having the main character not be a private eye, but just some pothead intuitively figuring out the ins and outs of an elaborate intrigue.

The Big Lebowski begins like most Chandler novels, with The Dude becoming embroiled in the story’s mystery by sheer accident

Note that the Coens side-step The Big Sleep and focus on Chandler’s work in general. I think perhaps because both the titles and plots are similar (TBS: a wealthy old man hires Marlowe to track down his “wild child” daughter; TBL: a wealthy man hires The Dude to find his kidnapped, “wild child” trophy wife Bunny), critics are quick to assume the first Marlowe mystery is the most direct influence. This misconception is effectively busted in an article by Marcus Brown, in which the author details numerous connective narrative threads from Chandler’s oeuvre that appear in The Big Lebowski, including the famous scene from TBL involving a Malibu sheriff hurling his coffee cup at The Dude (“Ow! Fucking fascist!”), which echoes Marlowe’s three day, violent interrogation by L.A. police officers in The Long Goodbye. Marlowe also gets a coffee cup thrown at his head, though not being a pothead, he dodges it.

There are numerous other connections between Chandler’s sixth novel and Lebowski, including wealthy, power-obsessed old men who judge the protagonists as low-lives, trophy wives who perturb their husbands, weird high society-types, even weirder avant gardists and fringe-dwellers, dangerous gangsters/thugs, and of course the L.A. backdrop (not to mention that “hopelessly complex” and “ultimately unimportant” mystery). As Brown and the Coens point out, you can find these elements in just about any Chandler novel.

That being said, I still view The Long Goodbye as perhaps Lebowski’s closest relative. Whether intentional or not, the above plot elements serve the same thematic purpose in both Chandler’s novel and its not-so-direct adaptation. At this point, you might be asking, “Why not compare/contrast the novel with Robert Altman’s direct film adaptation?” The answer to that question is two-fold: 1.) Eh, that’s boring. I mean, how many of the "samo samo" Book vs. Films can I write? I want a damn challenge!; 2.) Though I love Altman’s version, in many ways I view the Coens' Chandler-esque tale a more “faithful” version of The Long Goodbye than Altman’s take (and I’ll address that here in a bit). 

As I closely examine some of these shared elements in the context of deeper thematic meaning, be warned that spoilers will occur. If you haven’t seen either films or read the novel, approach with caution.

Split Personalities: Marlowe and The Dude as Men Apart and Men In-Tune

The Big Lebowski begins like most Chandler novels, with The Dude becoming embroiled in the story’s mystery by sheer accident—he happens to share his name with wealthy entrepreneur Jeffrey Lebowski, whose wife owes money to Jackie Treehorn, a local gangster/pornographer. Treehorn’s thugs mistakenly rough up the Dude, attempting to collect, and piss on the Dude’s rug in the process, ruining it—a shame, since it "really tied the room together." Thus, the plot begins to move. Chandler similarly sets the The Long Goodbye in motion, in that Marlowe's involvement in the mystery is largely accidental—he helps out pathetic drunk Terry Lennox, who is also married to a wild girl that mostly disgusts him, save for her extensive wealth. When Lennox seemingly murders his wife, he goes to Marlowe for help, and the story moves along from there, splitting it’s time between mystery and black comedy/social critique on high society (but more on that later). 

Chandler presents Marlowe as a kind of anachronism, a man out of step with the changing world, though he’s clearly not a step behind, but rather a step ahead. This is an older Marlowe, and thus technically wiser, but no less foolhardy and devil-may-care. He sees and scrutinizes from a distance, and wears his distinct “apartness” like a badge, demonstrated in this passage, in which Marlowe criticizes consumerism, setting himself on the fringes of society with distinct pride:

It was the week after Thanksgiving…The stores along Hollywood Boulevard were already beginning to fill up with overpriced Christmas junk, and the daily papers were beginning to scream about how terrible it would be if you didn’t get your Christmas shopping done early. It would be terrible anyway; it always is.

Marlowe navigates “a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness"; he encounters gangsters, socialites, newspaper magnates, hack writers, money hungry publishers, too-slick Hollywood producers, junk-peddling doctors, man-boy-toting gurus and corrupt police officers, all of whom he regards with equal scorn and suspicion. He becomes “involved” with all of them to varying degrees, but he can never be considered a part of them. 

Though we’re not directly discussing Altman’s film, it is important to note that the filmmaker takes this anachronistic man-apart concept literally, depicting Marlowe in 40s/50s era suits; he drives a period car, chain-smokes and wisecracks, all the while the world around him is clearly Los Angeles circa 1973. It’s also important to mention that the entire plot is set in motion when Marlowe looses his cat (an element not present in Chandler’s novel). 

The Big Lebowski also plays with anachronisms. Set in 1992 amidst Operation: Desert Storm, The Coens, via the film’s narrator “The Stranger,” describe The Dude thusly:

Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he's a lazy man—and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide.

While in many ways, The Dude lives up to this description as "a man for his time and place," he is nonetheless an anachronism as well, a fried-out old hippie who throws around the term fascist, but who, rather than protesting the war in Iraq, goes around quoting George H.W. Bush (“This aggression will not stand, man”); he also keeps a poster of Nixon in the throes of a bowling release, likely initially placed on his wall as an ironic statement, but now serving only to further alienate The Dude from his grass-roots. I’m not suggesting The Dude is now a conservative, but, as The Stranger puts it, he is merely a “lazy man.”

Like Marlowe, The Dude navigates a world he doesn’t understand, be it the extravagant wealth displayed by Lebowski, the seedy porn-business of Jackie Treehorn, the "fascist" Malibu sheriff, or the avant-garde, post-modern weirdness of Maude and her artist friends. The Dude is always a fish-out-of-water who nonetheless manages to fit in as best he can. Also like his PI counterpart, The Dude’s apartness from culture and counter-culture alike gives him a leg-up on solving the hopelessly unimportant mystery—by weaving in and out of conflicting circles of people, The Dude manages to piece together the facts and solve the crime, a feat his semi-deranged friend Walter and everyone else in the narrative can only guess at.

Social Critique: The Haves vs. The Have-Nots

As mentioned briefly above, both narratives offer social critiques on the dichotomy of the excessively rich and the hopelessly meager, with individuals representing both extremes going head to head at some point in the story. For The Long Goodbye, wealthy newspaper giant Harlan Potter represents the haves, and Marlowe represents the have-nots. Potter summons our anti-hero to his mansion and orders him to stop investigating the Terry Lennox case; he is the father of Lennox's deceased wife, and wishes the whole matter closed. He also subjects Marlowe to long tirades that reveal his hatred for the modern world—a sentiment much stronger than the detective's dislike for Christmas ads. Potter particularly digs at the working class, who he feels are responsible for “the shocking decline in both public and private morals,”

The average man is tired and scared, and a tired, scared man can’t afford ideals. He has to buy food for his family…You can’t expect quality from people whose lives are a subjection to a lack of quality.

Righteousness has compelled Old Man Potter to seclude himself in his mansion, his own “private corner” of the world, wielding his power like a ruthless king with no regard for his subjects. In this way, he is also like Marlowe: well-connected to the world around him—both as a newspaperman and an opinionated son of a bitch—and yet removed from the world simultaneously. But as alike as these two men are, they are also polar opposites (or, two sides of the same coin). Solving the Lennox case becomes, for Marlowe, not only a means of satisfying his own curiosity and quelling his sense of justice, but a means of generating dissatisfaction in Potter, of robbing the man of the one thing he holds most dear—privacy. Put simply, digging into the Lennox case really pisses Potter off, and Marlowe loves it.

The Coens explore this duality of man more pointedly: the have and the have-not share the same name, Jeffrey Lebowski. They are the “same” man, but they couldn’t be more different. As The Dude, protagonist Lebowski is a lazy, pot-addled, White Russian-downing bum, while the Big Lebowski is a wheel-chair bound entrepreneur who hates The Dude and everything he represents. When these two extremes meet in a room, the mood quickly turns sour. Unlike Potter's desire for privacy in The Long Goodbye, the Big Lebowski wants The Dude to dig into his affairs, hiring him to investigate his wife’s disappearance. However, Lebowski’s goals turn out to be quite nefarious, and in the end, exposing the injustice becomes The Dude’s primary goal, even if the end results will be “pointless.”

Conclusions: Nihilism vs. Doing "The Right Thing"

Marlowe expels much of his energy in The Long Goodbye "reopening" the Terry Lennox case, despite warnings from virtually everyone—the cops, Mendy Menendez (a gangster and Lennox's friend), Harlan Potter and his other daughter Linda Loring. They all insist his investigation won’t lead him anywhere. Without spoiling too much, I’ll let you know that everyone was right: Marlowe’s investigation, while revealing and shocking, leads him straight to nowheresville, and leaves him, “as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars." He has the opportunity to take eye-for-an-eye vengeance, but he doesn’t, his sadness too great and his sense of justice too shattered by the layers of corruption exposed by his own peeling. In this way, Marlowe becomes a kind of moral nihilist: there is no right nor wrong, and killing the man responsible for pretty much every bad thing that happens in the novel would be pointless. Chandler doesn’t write these sentiments explicitly, but he doesn’t need to, as Marlowe’s dejected silence and bitterness in the last few pages of the book clearly telegraph his character’s deepening nihilism.

All Marlowe ever wanted was his cat back.

Of course, key figures in The Big Lebowski also “believe in nothing” (quote along with me now—”Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.” ). Alongside the Big Lebowski and Jackie Treehorn, the three nihilists—or, the once-prominent electronic krautrock band Autobahn (patterend after Kraftwerk)—collectively represent The Dude’s main antagonists. They claim responsibility for Bunny Lebowski’s disappearance and threaten The Dude with castration if he doesn’t deliver (say it with me—”We just want the money, Lebowski.”). 

As such, The Dude’s fight against high society as represented by the Big Lebowski is also a fight against nihilism (or half-assed nihilism, since these guys clearly believe in the power of cash). The BL cheated and committed crimes to achieve his goals, and by setting out to expose this man for the crook he is, The Dude takes a specific moral stance; in so many words, he says, “What you did was wrong, and I’m going to expose you.” The Dude does exactly this, confronting the Big Lebowski in his mansion, with Walter there to witness the man’s confession. 

And then…Well, then, nothing happens. The truth is exposed, and status quo reinstates itself. Lebowski doesn’t go to jail or pay for his crimes in anyway. Perhaps Walter’s pseudo-assault on the wheelchair-bound man makes them even; or perhaps, like Marlowe, The Dude realizes putting this crook through the ringers would, ultimately, be pointless. Would exposing the Big Lebowski on a grander scale erase all the hardship The Dude suffered? Not in the slightest. Really, all The Dude ever wanted was his rug back. While perhaps not a swing into full-blown nihilism, The Dude certainly slips into moral-relativism territory. He gets the bad guy to admit he’s a bad guy, and he gets his rug back. What more could he ask for?

And it is this conclusion that sets The Big Lebowski apart from the “direct” adaptation of The Long Goodbye. In Robert Altman’s version, Marlowe does take vengeance. The antagonist says of his horrendous, selfish crimes, “Nobody cares”—a statement dripping with nihilism—and calls Marlowe a born-loser for being the only one who gives a shit. “Yeah,” Marlowe quips just before pulling the trigger, “I even lost my cat.” He may as well have said, “All Marlowe ever wanted was his cat back.”

So, to tie all this together, Altman’s Marlowe and the Coens’ Dude are forced into labyrinthine mysteries after losing their MacGuffins—a cat, and a rug, respectively. These items are both departures from Chandler’s original text, and yet, while Altman’s film is titled The Long Goodbye, features Phillip Marlowe and understands the anachronistic nature of the character; the Coens’ distinctly indirect adaptation of all Marlowe novels (not specifically The Long Goodbye) still manages to outdo Altman in terms of thematic intent. 

Any other similarities between The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski you’d like to discuss? How about the Coen brothers’ film as it relates to other Chandler novels? Have an argument for Altman’s film over TBL? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

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