Book vs. Film: Drive

I’m not the type of reader who obsesses over whether the film adaptation of a novel is true to the original text or not.

At one time I was. I remember reading The Shining by Stephen King and then watching Kubrick’s adaptation and practically having a stroke. Because even though all the principal characters were the same, almost nothing else was. Fourteen-year-old me wanted to kick Kubrick's ass for completely butchering King’s classic ghost story. Of course, at the time I didn’t realize that The Shining was one those novels that was basically all but unfilmable, and that Kubrick was actually doing us a favor by not sticking closely to the text.

As I grew older, I began to realize that most novels are completely unfilmable. There’s too much detail, too much internal wrangling going on for a filmmaker to capture it all. Plus, once an author sells the rights to their book, they usually have zero control over how the screenwriter and the director interpret the material. Hell, when you talk to most writers about one of their literary babies making it to the big screen, you find out that most of them could give a shit what the filmmakers do, because, hey, that movie money is pretty goddamn nice. And if the filmmaker does happen to get it right (or even if they completely fuck it up), the adaptation is most likely going to cause a HUGE spike in the source materials sales; so it’s kind of a win-win for an author.

But when I heard Nicolas Winding Refn was adapting James Sallis’ Drive, I had high hopes he would get it right, especially since Refn has spent his career making (mostly) crime films. He knows the pacing, tone, and nature of his subject matter. Even Refn’s self indulgent Viking flick, Valhalla Rising, possessed the same sparseness of a crime film. And at a scant 157 pages, Drive is the very definition of sparse.

Sallis writes small. He’s one of the few novelists working who understands that not every minute detail needs to make its way onto the page; he doesn’t paint a picture, he sketches it and let’s the reader fill in the blanks. It’s a writing style perfect for film, because the screenwriter can do the same thing as the reader and still manage to capture all the details the author included in the script.

But enough of the bullshitting. Let’s get to fucking up both the book and movie for you.


The Plot

Both the movie and book’s plot are virtually identical. Driver is a part time stunt driver and wheelman who becomes involved in a robbery gone wrong, and then Driver decides to get his revenge on.

Simple enough, but it’s the details of how Driver becomes involved in the fatal heist that get muddied in the adaptation.

In the film, Driver jumps into the job as a favor to the ex-con husband of his next door neighbor, Irene, who Driver’s become emotionally involved with. The husband, Standard, owes protection money to some piece of shit cons and they want him to stick up a pawnshop to pay it off. Standard is pulling the movie con rap that he wants to go legit for his wife and four-year-old son. Driver knows that with his badass behind-the-wheel skills, there’s no way the cops will catch them as long as Standard makes it past the ‘put up your hands, this is a robbery’ stage of the heist.

Of course, this doesn’t happen and Standard ends up taking a couple of rounds to the chest. But their wingman, Blanche, manages to make it back to the car with a much larger haul than they were expecting. They speed off only to be followed by a second car, which Driver manages to ditch in spectacular fashion. The duo hole up in a motel room, but obviously Driver isn’t as crafty as he thought he was, because Blanche ends up getting her head blown off in one of the most realistic close range shootings ever filmed. Driver comes to the conclusion that his crew was set up and he then sets out to find the how and why of the situation.

Driver ends up tracking down a small time L.A. gangster named Nino. Nino’s a panty waist who’s tired of living in the shadow of his east coast paymasters and wants a bigger piece of the pie. Of course, he doesn’t really want them to know he wants a bigger piece, so he sets up a crew of nobodies to pull the job, thinking he can kill them and get away with the stash. Perfect set up, except Nino’s a fuck up who can’t cover his own tracks and he’s pissing himself because Driver not only lived, but has the mob money.

All Driver wants to do is give the money back to Nino and call the whole thing even steven, so he can get back to mooning over Irene. But Nino sees Driver as a loose end and decides to come after him. After Driver stomps in the head of a would be assassin, Nino panics and goes to his business partner, Bernie, who’s plenty pissed because Driver’s supposed to be piloting the race car he’s recently invested in (via Driver’s handler, Shannon). Bernie goes after Driver, kills Shannon in the process, almost manages to kill Driver, but ends up getting gutted instead, and Driver cruises into the sunset battered but presumably alive.

Now with the book, the heist in question is actually two separate incidents. The robbery involving Standard happens early on in Driver’s career. He doesn’t go along with the job because he feels the need to protect Standard, therefore protecting Irina (I’ll be getting to the name and race change here in a second) and her young son from any undo harm. Driver takes the job because it’s a job, nothing more, nothing less. And Standard isn’t being shook down to do the robbery, either. He’s doing the robbery because he’s a crook and he needs the dough to get the hell off his ex-wife’s couch. That’s right, ex-wife. In the novel, Irina doesn’t stand by her man, because her man is a natural born fuck up who only ends up at her house because he has nowhere else to go. Standard does ask Driver if he would look after Irina and the boy in the event of his death, which Driver has no problem with because you get the impression that Irina and his connection is far more than an emotional one.

Yes, Standard buys it, but Driver doesn’t go looking for his killers, because he knows if you’re a life long criminal, you’re either going to end up dead or in prison. He does keep his promise to look after Irina, but she ends up taking a stray bullet to the head in a drive-by gone wrong.

The second heist is where we see Nino and Bernie get involved. The set up is virtually the same, but the only emotional connection is that Driver obviously doesn’t like people trying to kill him. And that whole race car subplot with Shannon, that doesn’t happen in the book. There is no race car, and Bernie and Nino have zero connection to Driver.

Let’s move on to the characters of Drive, because let’s face facts- both the novel and the film are character based, and it’s the liberties that Refn took with the characters that drew the most ire from fans of the novel.


In the film, Driver is painfully guarded; so much so that you can barely get a word out him. And if you do try talking to him—much like the con who tries striking up a conversation about a possible job—chances are he’ll threaten to kick your teeth in. The man is a shadow. He's the type of guy who, if you spent an hour or a day with him, chances are you wouldn’t remember a single detail other than the fact that he’s a dead ringer for Ryan Gosling. But because of the nature of his work, it's better that he doesn’t form any bonds in case he has to skip town suddenly.

In the novel, Driver is guarded; he’s weary of striking up friendships and establishing emotional connections, but not because he may have to skip town in a hurry. It's because it seems like every time someone gets close to him, they end up dead. His father, mother, (both of whom do not appear in the film), Shannon, Standard, Irena, Doc (yet another lost, but pivotal character who I’ll get to in a second)- all dead. But Driver isn’t so guarded that he doesn’t have any friends. In fact, Driver’s a fairly affable guy; he just happens to be a man of few words, which is common enough and therefore makes him a far more believable character.


In the movie, Irene is the focal point. All of Driver’s actions are not for his own self preservation, but a means of protecting her and her son, Bennicio. I mean, who wouldn’t want to protect that pretty, blonde haired, blue eyed white girl from harm? Seriously, hasn’t she had enough trouble raising a son on her own while her fuck up husband’s in stir? And you really can’t help but admire the fact that she is standing behind her convicted armed robber of a husband. Isn’t that shit just down right noble?

In the book, Irina, as stated earlier, doesn’t stand by her man. She knows Standard is a fuck up and more or less has nothing to do with him. She lets him crash on her couch so he can spend time with their son and hopefully get his shit together. Oh, and Irina doesn’t need anyone to look after her, she’s hard and hardworking. A single mom who works three jobs and strikes up a relationship with Driver because she’s lonely, and, hell, if I was a woman I’d sure as hell want to get friendly with my next door neighbor who just happens to be a dead ringer for Ryan Gosling.

And here are a couple of more things about Irina:

A) She’s Mexican
B) As stated before, she dies.


In the film, Shannon is a retired stunt driver who got into some bad business with Nino and had his pelvis shattered. Now he owns a garage and acts as Driver’s stunt agent/heist job handler. He’s also put together a race car thinking that with Driver behind the wheel, he’s sure to make millions on the Nascar circuit. Shannon’s also a pretty big screw-up who tends to tie himself to all the wrong people in his business dealings. He’s a sad, albeit likable character.

In the book, Shannon’s a blip on the radar; there is no garage, there is no race car. He’s a legend on the Hollywood stunt circuit, and after Driver befriends him, he takes Driver in and helps him to get stunt gigs, before he promptly rolls his car and dies. The Shannon of the movie is actually an amalgam of the three pseudo father figures who appear throughout the course of the novel. The first being Shannon, the second being Driver’s screenwriter friend, Manny, and the third being Doc, a disgraced alcoholic former physician who patches up criminals for beer money. I more or less think that the Shannon character from the film was written just so Refn could cast Brian Cranston, which was more than okay with me, because he does add to the overall body of the film.


In the book and the film, Bernie’s a straight up badass. He doesn’t take shit off of anyone and he’s incredibly likeable as a person. But there’s something around the eyes that let’s you know this isn’t the type of guy you want to screw around with. Albert Brooks really was the right choice for this role

Nino and Standard

I combined these two because they’re both fuck ups in the film and the novel. True, Standard in the film is far more articulate and intelligent, but he’s still just another ass clown who muddies up the water, and it’s the same deal with Nino. And when it comes right down to it, both of them get what they deserve.


Yeah, she gets her head blown off with a twelve gauge in both. Ah, but what a waste of perfectly good eye candy.

The Verdict

Much like Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining, Refn created an entirely singular piece of art with his adaptation of Drive. The essence of the story is there, but he takes the novel and shapes it to his own vision, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The opening heist scene where Driver is dodging the cops around Staples center, that was all Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini. Same goes with the strip club scene. These were beautifully crafted, wholly original pieces of filmmaking which made Drive one of the few watchable wide release films of 2012.

But I’ll tell you this, there are few novels—crime or otherwise—which have had the effect on me that Drive has. The novel is a wonderful throwback to the hardboiled revenge novels of the 1950’s, but it is also something entirely different. This happens to be one of Sallis’ true strengths as a novelist, taking a well worn plot or character device and giving it a completely new spin.

So if I was to chose between the two, that’s actually a pretty easy one for me, because I’ll pick the novel every single time. But don’t get me wrong, Refn’s Drive is still very much worth your time, and besides, with the nature of Hollywood and their obsession with remakes and properties, there’s a better chance than not that some hot, new director will come along and want to make a word-for-word adaptation of the novel in the next five-to-ten years.

Alrighty, gang, that’s all I’ve got for you today, but I did want to give you a reward for making it to the end of this bad boy, and here it is:

The good folks at the Poisoned Pen Press were kind enough to donate TWO signed copies of Driven, the forthcoming sequel to Drive. And all I want from you is for you to tell me what your least favorite book-to-film adaption is and why.

As usual, the contest is open to U.S. and Canadian residents only.

Keith Rawson

Column by Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 5, 2012 - 1:24pm

Starship Troopers is my least favorite book to film story adaption, because they transformed a complex interspecies war story focused on human dependency on machines while fighting hive minded monsters into thinly reimagined U.S. military (nothing wrong with the U.S. military just don't see them off world) blowing up space bugs who poop flack at space ships. Doogie Himmler as comic relief was the only saving grace.

Ryan Maher's picture
Ryan Maher March 5, 2012 - 1:40pm

Growing up, and still today, I've always been a huge Michael Chricton sci-fi thriller fan (RIP).  So when in late 2002,  a 14 year old me found out that there was going to be an film adaptation of Timeline, one my favorite Chrichton's at the time, I sprained my ankle running up and down the house in excitement.  I was first in line opening weekend and couldn't sit still through the credits.  What happened over the next 90 minutes served as my introduction to dissilusionment with Hollywood. Deep roots of cynicism were planted on day when I watched an early Gerard Butler and a forgettable Paul Walker trudge through what I was expecting to be a blood and guts medieval sci-fi blast.  I can't even watch it with a grain of salt to this day. It was utterly butchered from start to finish.  This may not be the most egregious offense of source abuse or the most literary but man did that one leave a mark.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 5, 2012 - 1:44pm

@Dwayne - Yeah, they absolutely butchered Starship Troopers. As a film, it's good, mindless entertainment as long as you haven't read the book.

@Ryan - I didn't even know that an adaption of Timeline had been made?

.'s picture
. March 5, 2012 - 1:48pm

My least favorite adaptation from book to film is Chuck Palahniuk's Choke. The film stars Sam Rockwell as Victor Ward. 

The film in my humble opinion seems to lack the charm and edginess that Palahniuk incorporates into his novels. Victor Ward (in the novel) is naive and a hopeless romantic. He sleeps with women who are as sex addled as himself and he can only tell them he loves them during the peak of his orgasms. It seems that he never grew up or grew out of his awkward child hood. 

The problem with the adaptation is the movie tries too hard to be edgy and shocking and relies on the material alone to deliver the laughs and gasps. The movie feels more like another teenage-sex-comedy. And a sex comedy is what the audience takes away with them rather than the feeling that you learned something as when you first read the book. Something philosophical. 

A more obvious flaw is that this is almost a word-for-word adaptation and this always leaves me feeling cheated. I feel that the screen writers and director are treating us as though we can't properly visualize the novel material so they have to spoon feed it to us with images on a screen but they dare not add a shred of originality to the work. 

  • The well rounded characters in Choke are flattened to cardboard in the movie. 
  • Word for word adaptation.
  • Failed attempt at an edgy sex comedy.
  • The humor is marginalized at best. 


.'s picture
. March 5, 2012 - 1:47pm


OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz March 5, 2012 - 2:00pm

I'm going to go with something recent - The Rum Diaries. The film adaptation was pretty bush league. They essentially wiped out a main character and Kemp's cohort and tied the love interest in with Sanderson. At times, it seemed like you weren't even close to watching a movie that was loosely based on a novel, and it wasn't for the better. In my opinion, there's very little value to the changes made to actually better the story. It just came off clunky. Moberg, the drunk, was more annoying and cariacture than anything. And they basically dropped the ball with the climatic ending with Lotterman and the real reason everyone had to get the F outta dodge. It was just lame. Even more lame considering how long it took to get this made. You'd have thought they'd of done it right...

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 5, 2012 - 2:11pm

I say I AM LEGEND mostly for the ending. 

Great column, Keith. Was cool to see both sides of this.

Georgia Manry's picture
Georgia Manry March 5, 2012 - 2:13pm

What an oddball film. Between the pink cursive font of the logo and Ryan Gosling's jacket I thought it was supposed to be some kind of '80s thing at first, but the cell phones made it clear that wasn't the case. And personally I never got so much a "deep" feeling as a "the less we say the more they think we're saying" feeling.

I didn't even realize it was based on a novel...maybe I'll have to check it out and see how it compares.

As for my favorite book-to-movie adaptation, I might say Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. Not all of the Potter flicks did it for me, but I hadn't read the first novel when I saw the first film and the instantly iconic feeling of the world in that movie had me speeding off to a book store to get started.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 5, 2012 - 2:16pm

@jacks_username - See, I liked Choke, I thought Rockwell was perfectly cast and the pacing was excellent. But I still thought the book was better. And I applaud you on your double post.

@OtisTheBulldog - I haven't seen the Rum Diaries yet, although I absolutely despise Hunter S. Thompson.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 5, 2012 - 2:18pm

@Keith - and having read the book it was just shy of a tooth ache. Wanted was almost as bad, but it was comic book to movie. Do a article on bad comic book to moives!

.'s picture
. March 5, 2012 - 2:21pm

I knew I was forgetting something, yes, Rockwell was perfect for the role. 

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 5, 2012 - 2:34pm

@Richard - You know, if they had just left the original ending alone, it would have been fine. Not great, but at least watchable. And thank you for the praise, sir.

@Georgia - The ad campaign for the movie (along with the soundtrack, which I thought was great.) seemed to be what turned people off the most. But I strongly encourage you to read the novel, because they are two completely different beasts.

@Dwayne - We have a new comic book person here at LR, so that might be something for him to tackle. Personally, I don't even want to touch the mess that is Wanted. (And I talking about both the comic and the film.)

RonEarl's picture
RonEarl from Charleston, WV is reading Dove Season by Johnny Shaw March 5, 2012 - 2:35pm

If graphic novels were included into the mess, I would definitely say League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. As much as I enjoy Sean Connery as an actor (at least in most parts), his muddling with the script to make his part greater ruined a perfectly horrid script. ;)

For an actual book to movie adaptation, I'm going to throw one out there that most love, and I have a place in my heart for it, but The Wizard of Oz is a bad adaptation of the book. My first experience as a reader were the Oz books. I was a late reader, but my mom loved the series and since the 7 year old me loved the Judy Garland musical, she figured that the Oz books would be a perfect gateway. She even made me write book reports. But it worked, I became a reader and I enjoyed the series (as a whole, some of the books were kind of off). The movie, while great, is not faithful.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 5, 2012 - 2:43pm

@keith - i loved Rockwell and CHOKE. and yeah, if they didn't screw up the ending of IAL, it would've been a great flick. 

some of the best adaptations? FIGHT CLUB for sure. And while THE SHINING was not true to the book, I still love the movie. recently on TV, i'd say JUSTIFIED (based on the work of Elmore Leonard) love that show.

.'s picture
. March 5, 2012 - 3:06pm

@Richard Agreed, Fight Club was an awesome adaptation. As was Trainspotting.

Almost better than the books I'd say.

Ryan Maher's picture
Ryan Maher March 5, 2012 - 3:27pm

@Jacks-wow, Trainspotting was a suprisingly well done adaptation comparing the two side by side.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 5, 2012 - 4:45pm

@jacks_username - I agree the film Trainspotting was the superior piece. I like the novel, but the film blows it out of the water.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 5, 2012 - 10:40pm

@Keith - I meant "you" Litreactor, not you as a individual. Sorry my bad. The comic was over the top, sure but it had a dark fantasy fulfillment aspect I found very interesting. And even if you think Wanted the comic was horrible, I think we should all be able to agree that the film was.... I don't know the term exactly. "Worse" comes to mind but it seems like such a understatement I feel like I'm lying. 

spence's picture
spence from planet is reading Books March 6, 2012 - 7:24am

The Virgin Suicides. The movie was just okay when it could have been great with just a few tweaks. The relationship between Lux and Skip was only touched on in the film when it's what drove the novel. The book is easily on my top 5 books of all time but the movie was easily forgettable. James Woods was weird as the father. The narration was off, it was just a lackluster movie. It didn't express the urgency of the book and it didn't match how ominous the book seemed.

Tom Piccirilli's picture
Tom Piccirilli March 6, 2012 - 7:33am

I think it's a tie between everybody who's ever tried to bring HP Lovecraft to the screen.  No one thus far has made a truly decent adaptation, much less one that's been faithful to the rich and vivid source material.

As for DRIVE, I hated to see two elements from the book excised from the film.  The first: how Driver is actually the instigator in the novel who badgers and hounds Nino and crew, killing by whim. Also, I really missed the thread involving the second car and the other stunt driver who moonlights in the crime world.  In the novel, their confrontation does more to put Driver into perspective than almost anything else, and that was something sorely lacking in the film.  It would have given the audience some understanding and focus on what drives Driver.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 6, 2012 - 8:09am

@Pic- Didn't you think Driver in the film was a bit of an amalgam of Driver in the book and the second driver? BTW, good to see you on here.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks March 6, 2012 - 9:33am

I don't watch many movies because I tend to be a novel purist. I have trouble advocating any change from the novel to the movie, and believe that if it's "unfilmable," it shouldn't be filmed in the first place. Fight Club was a great movie, but the ending was unforgivable and tainted the entire film for me. Harry Potter is a wonderful movie series and brought the characters to life, but I hated them because they messed with time, removed entire sections of the plot, and made it as commercial as possible. I'd love to believe that authors would forgo movie adaptations to stay true to their work, but no one will turn down the millions these movies make.

Spence, I love Jeffrey Eugenides and his writing, but Virgin Suicides was a fantastic movie. I read the novel after I'd seen the movie upwards of a dozen times and felt like I was reading the script. James Woods might not have been the best father for the role, but he played it well. Kirsten Dunst was fabulous as Lux, as well; she stayed true to the character. Lux and Skip's relationship seemed to fall flat on the page for me, so I was glad they cut it out of the movie.

Tom Piccirilli's picture
Tom Piccirilli March 6, 2012 - 11:43am

Keith: I hadn't thought about it before how in the film Driver is  silent like the second driver.  I don't know if that's where they got the idea but it does seem to fit.  The film really needed a couple more action sequences so far as I'm concerned, and that final duel between the two drivers would have been perfect.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer March 6, 2012 - 11:27am

The adaptation to Starship Troopers really, really sucked. But, as a movie on its own Starship Troopers wouldn't have been that bad. There was at least a message about propaganda versus the realities of war in there. Who would even expect that with the cast it had?

The problem was that it attached the Starship Troopers name at all. There was very little taken from the book for the movie. All the characters were changed so liberally they might as well not even be the same people. Dizzy went from a dead man mentioned in passing to a major female romantic lead. How the Hell does that happen?

If they had never called it Starship Troopers, if it had never tried to pass itself off as a book made into a film, we would look at it very differently today. As a teenager seeing the movie before reading the book, I thought it was okay. After reading the book a couple of years later, I can't even see how they got one from the other.

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies March 7, 2012 - 8:14am

The Road comes to mind. It was a decent enough movie but it was filmed in such a way that it lost what made the book so good. It was too bright and Hollywood-y. I never felt like they were walking around in McCarthy's scorched wasteland, it just looked like 2 homeless people wandering through the countryside. The movie didn't scare me like the book did.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 7, 2012 - 1:54pm

@Conley -  I have yet to see the adaptation of the Road for this sole reason. It seems far too slick.

.'s picture
. March 7, 2012 - 7:09pm

When does this contest end?

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 8, 2012 - 6:54am

@jacks_username - I'll announce the winners on Monday and PM them both.

.'s picture
. March 9, 2012 - 6:04pm

Okay thanks.

Jackie's picture
Jackie March 11, 2012 - 5:31am

Breakfast at Tiffany's. They shouldn't have even used that title. There wasn't even a love plot in the book. The narrator nicknamed "Fred" was gay! I enjoy the film for what it is, but strictly looking at it as an adaptation, not even close.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 12, 2012 - 10:40am

@RonEarl and @OtisTheBulldog are the winners of this one. PM me your mailing addresses and  your books will be mailed out at the end of March when the book is released.

Thistle-87's picture
Thistle-87 November 14, 2022 - 5:47pm

@keithrawson thanks for writing this! One of my favorite movies of all time. To answer your question, Maze Runner was so far away from the series to book. It was painful watching the movies and making the mistake of reading the books first. I would also point out High Rise which I had “high” hopes for. Instead the movie caused mass confusion half way through and never addressed why residents don’t just leave the building. Looking forward to to reading more of your blogs.