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Friday, March 18, 2016

March 18, 2016: Political Thrillers: Manchurian Candidates

[On March 18th, 1915, novelist Richard Condon was born—so in honor of the 100th birthday of this talented American writer, this week I’ll AmericanStudy political thrillers, one of the genres in which he wrote most prolifically. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post, so please share your own thrilling texts and takes in comments!]
On political thrillers on the page and the screen, and how reality might trump both of them.
Birthday boy Richard Condon published 26 novels between his 1958 debut The Oldest Confession and his 1996 death, most of them thrillers of one kind or another; but it is his second published work, the political thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1959), that remains his most famous and influential book. Condon’s science fiction-infused (and, it’s important to note, possibly partly plagiarized) tale of a brainwashed Korean War hero controlled by his mother (a KGB agent), a Communist plot to overthrow the U.S. government and install a puppet dictator (the mother’s new husband), and the war hero’s fellow veteran and best friend who discovers and thwarts the conspiracy, was a mega-bestseller that was very quickly adapted into the hugely popular 1962 film starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, and Oscar nominee Angela Lansbury (as well as a much less successful 2004 film with Liev Schreiber, Denzel Washington, and Golden Globe nominee Meryl Streep).
As you might expect when a film adaptation follows so closely upon the novel’s release, the film version of Candidate is similar to the novel in both its central storyline and many specific aspects. But there are a series of differences between the two versions, all related interestingly to the novel’s heavily prevalent sexual themes that are largely absent from the film. For example, in the novel the relationship between the brainwashed war hero and his mother is explicitly incestuous, culminating in a late scene where (reminded of her father, on whom she had an equally taboo crush) the mother seduces and sleeps with her son. More broadly, the hero’s Communist brainwashing not only programs him to carry out the assassination plot, but at the same time (if for much less apparent reason) turns him from a very conservative man on issues of romance into a highly sexualized playboy. These differences could be explained in many ways, including that what works in a novel wouldn’t always translate onto the screen (such as Angela Lansbury sleeping with her son). But it’s interesting to consider whether the shift from the more repressed 50s into the more liberated 60s, even within a few years, might have made the Communist sexuality of the novel seem less appropriate.
And now for something completely different: Donald Trump. I’m not actually going to suggest here that Trump’s candidacy is an elaborate brainwashing conspiracy planned by Kim Jong Un or the like in order to destabilize or overthrow the U.S. government (although you have to admit, it sounds possible—and Jeb Bush and others have indeed argued that Trump is part of an elaborate liberal conspiracy). Instead, I just want to note that as our political rhetoric and realities have gotten more and more extreme, to the point where the likely Republican presidential nominee is bragging about the size of his genitalia in a nationally televised debate, it’s fair to say that political thrillers will have to get even more extreme if they want to keep up. To name an example about which I’ve written at length in this space: when the Netflix political thriller show House of Cards premiered a few years back, its plotlines (featuring murders and other high crimes performed in service of political ambition) seemed over-the-top and unbelievable. Now? The fourth season of the show has recently been released to far less attention, perhaps because the stories on the nightly news are far more extreme. Which is to say, we might just be living in a political thriller, for good or (more likely, I’m afraid) for bad.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: thoughts on these thrillers? Others you’d highlight for the weekend post?

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