The Cinematic Legacy of Donald E. Westlake


June 12, 2024


By Koraljka Suton


I subscribe basically to the theory that a movie is not the book it came from, and in almost every case it shouldn’t be the book it came from. The responsibility for a movie is not as easy to define as the responsibility for a novel. There’s one thing I’ve learned, and that is that the writer isn’t supposed to know what he’s doing. If you know what you’re doing, you can’t do it. Later, you can look back and see, with some surprise and maybe pleasure, what it is you did. In the early days, I used to answer questions about what I meant to do next, until I realized, by the time it was in print, I’d been absolutely wrong, every single time.

—Donald E. Westlake


American crime novelist Donald E. Westlake shuffled off this mortal coil in 2008, at the age of seventy-five. The prolific writer left more than one hundred fiction and non-fiction books in his wake, as well as five screenplays, all of which were written on manual typewriters due to his disdain for electric ones and computers. Aside from using his own name, the author also published his works under a plethora of pseudonyms, such as Alan Marshall, John Dexter, Edwin West, Samuel Holt and the like. But his most popular pen name and one under which he most frequently wrote, other than his real name, was undoubtedly Richard Stark. As Stark, Westlake’s writing style was significantly colder, meaning that it was perfect for describing the adventures of Parker, the anti-hero of a total of twenty-four novels. Apart from Parker, there was one other character created by Westlake who got his very own series, which the author penned under his birth name. And that protagonist was John Dortmunder, a comical, down-on-his-luck thief who appeared in fourteen novels and eleven short stories.

Needless to say, both Parker and Dortmunder ended up getting many a cinematic counterpart. Out of a total of seven feature-length films that revolved around the latter—The Hot Rock (1972), Bank Shot (1974), Come ti rapisco il pupo (1976), Jimmy the Kid (1982), Why Me? (1990), Jimmy the Kid (1998), What’s the Worst That Could Happen? (2001)—the one that stood out the most was director Peter Yates’ The Hot Rock, adapted for the screen by two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976)).


Based on Westlake’s 1970 novel of the same name that was initially intended to be a Parker story but ended up being funny, thus becoming the first Dortmunder book, The Hot Rock is a light and highly enjoyable caper comedy that stars Robert Redford as the clumsy crook who assembles a team of burglars with the intention of pulling off a diamond heist that manages to go awry more than once.

And while Dortmunder is a comical anti-hero, Parker is anything but. Emotionless and extremely violent, he is a man of few words defined primarily by the actions he undertakes. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that he was played a total of eight times by eight different actors. The first-ever adaptation of a Parker novel was Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 crime film Made in U.S.A based on The Jugger and starring Danish-French actress Anna Karina as the Parker character. But even though the movie was released in Europe in 1966, American audiences got to see it in theaters in 2009 for the very first time, due to the fact that neither the director nor the producer paid for the movie rights, resulting in a suit from Westlake.

After Karina, the criminal protagonist was portrayed yet again, this time by Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank, an adaptation of The Hunter.

A unique mixture of American, English and French influences, Boorman’s movie is fragmented and dream-like, with the lead actor doing a fantastic job, which led to many a fan claiming that he was and still remains the perfect cinematic Parker.

That very same year saw the release of Alain Cavalier’s Mise à sac (Midnight Raid), a French adaptation of The Score with Michel Constantin in the lead role that had its very first American screening in MOMA in 2013.

The novel The Seventh served as inspiration for Gordon Flemyng’s 1968 neo-noir The Split and starred Jim Brown as the Parker character, whereas Robert Duvall portrayed the anti-hero in John Flynn’s 1973 crime film The Outfit (an adaptation of The Outfit), with Westlake himself claiming that the actor was, in fact, the perfect Parker (‘What Lee Marvin did was a wonderful destroyed Lee Marvin. What Robert Duvall did was a wonderful, terse, taciturn Parker.’).

Ten years later, Terry Bedford helmed the British crime thriller Slayground that was based on the novel of the same name, with Peter Coyote in the lead role. And in 1999, then first-time director Brian Helgeland made Payback, an adaptation of the aforementioned The Hunter starring Mel Gibson that became a box office hit, grossing $161.6 million. The most contemporary rendition of Westlake’s character is Jason Statham in Taylor Hackford’s 2013 action film Parker, made on a $35 million budget and based on the novel Flashfire.


But the beloved author did not only provide source material for cinematic adaptations—he also wrote screenplays himself. Westlake co-wrote the scripts for the aforementioned Dortmunder caper comedy Why Me?, the comedy crime drama Hot Stuff (1979) and the thriller Ripley Under Ground (2005), as well as penned screenplays for Joseph Ruben’s cult 1987 psychological horror The Stepfather, Aram Avakian’s 1973 comedy Cops and Robbers and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (1990).


He adapted the latter from Jim Thompson’s novel of the same name and was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay. The critically acclaimed and successful film, produced by none other than Martin Scorsese, helped Westlake make a name for himself in Hollywood, although his screenwriting career never really took off (“If I write a novel, I’m a god. If I write a screenplay, I’m a minor deity.”)


He was initially supposed to co-write the script for the 2005 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, but after having delivered two story treatments, his ideas were rejected.

It would be safe to say that not only does Westlake’s legacy live on in the countless books he wrote and the screenplays he penned, but also in the numerous cinematic adaptations of his works, many of which are listed above. And even though he passed, his novels continue to provide much-needed inspiration to filmmakers, as evidenced by the fact that Anomalisa director Duke Johnson is set to adapt the author’s noir Memory to the big screen under the title The Actor, which will star Ryan Gosling.

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »


Photographed by Adger W. Cowans, Virgil Apger, Jack English © Landers-Roberts Productions/Twentieth Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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