From Page to Screen with Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom and Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low

I’ve been a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 suspense film High and Low since I saw it years ago. I just watched it again after my first read of the 87th Precinct novel it’s based on: Ed McBain’s 1959 procedural King’s Ransom – the 10th installment of the highly-celebrated series penned by Evan Hunter under the McBain pseudonym. The Wikipedia page for High and Low states that is it “loosely based” on the McBain book; but while there are certainly differences between the film and the book, I’d say that statement is a stretch, as the two versions of the story are very similar in some essential ways. In any case, both are worthy examples of works done in their respective media, and it was interesting for me to look closely at what happened when a masterfully-written crime novel got channeled through the vision of a brilliant film director.

Before I delve into the storyline of King’s Ransom and High and Low, I have to confess that I’m going to commit a spoiler where the movie is concerned. There’s just no way for me to comment on the similarities and differences between novel and film without doing that. But what I’m spoiling is something that happens only about halfway into the film.

The setup in the two versions of the tale is exactly the same: A wealthy businessman, who is a honcho at a shoe manufacturing company, is at a crisis-point in his dealings with the other members of the firm’s brass. The guy, who goes by Gondo in his portrayal by Toshiro Mifune in the movie, and whose name is Douglas King in the book, is involved in a power play ,wherein he and a small team of other execs are all looking to take over a majority interest in the company. The other guys want to begin making cheaper shoes to save costs, while Gondo/King insists they continue to produce quality footwear. The others have a shareholder merger plan that would make one of them the new top dog. But unbeknownst to them (initially), Gondo/King is working on a secret deal whereby he is going to buy his way into becoming the leading shareholder and king of the shoe empire.

Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) finds bad news on the other end of the line.

Immediately after a testy meeting between Gondo (let’s simplify things by mostly going with the movie character’s name from here on) and the other execs at Gondo’s home, he receives a phone call from a kidnapper who has just abducted his young son. If that’s not bizarre enough (the boy was in front of Gondo’s eyes a few minutes before, playing with Gondo’s chauffer’s same-aged son), Gondo’s son comes charging into the room not long after the phone conversation is over. Turns out the kidnappers got the wrong kid, snatching the chauffer’s son while thinking he was Gondo’s boy. But even when the team of three crooks realize this mistake, they still demand ransom of Gondo. He can pay the wildly hefty sum they name, or his employee will never be reunited with his son, at least not while the child lives.

The conflict for Gondo is that everything in his financial life is on the line to set up the business transaction. If he pays the ransom, he will not only no have the money to complete that deal and buy his way into the leadership of the shoe company, but he will be closed in on by creditors he can’t pay back and pushed out of the firm altogether. Gondo is a guy who started with the outfit as a rank-and-file laborer in the factory, working his way up to his present status via dogged effort and perseverance. Can he really throw all of that away to save the life of a kid who’s not even his?

To this point in the tale, the book and movie are identical, except for the character names and the fact that McBain’s book takes place in the fictional district of Isola, where all the 87th Precinct novels occur, while Kuroawa’s film is set in different locales in Japan. The more significant differences start with the Gondo character’s response to his dilemma. In McBain’s novel, the guy is fully callous and materialistic, and states with no qualms that there’s no way he’s paying the ransom, no chance he’s going to throw away his hard work just to save the life of the son of a lowly chauffeur. The only reason he’s given cause to reconsider is because his wife tells him she and their son will leave if he doesn’t make an effort to retrieve the kidnapped boy. In Kurosawa’s film, Gondo is a much more sympathetic character. He is torn and initially says he won’t pay, but he quickly changes his mind and goes through with the transaction as it’s dictated to him by the kidnappers.

And this is where the second big difference between book and movie happens, and where I have to do the spoiling: in the movie, via a breathtaking episode that’s beautifully filmed and adrenaline-pumping intense, the transaction is made, and the crooks get their money, and the boy is returned to his father and to Gondo’s household. The focus of High and Low then becomes the police force’s efforts to track down the kidnappers and bring them to justice. In so doing, they’re trying to understand exactly why these people set out to abduct Gondo’s son, as it looks to them like this was a personal attack, an effort to ruin him as a man and not just to take some of his abundant cash. In the novel, the matter of the ransom and whether Douglas King will pay it is not resolved until the very end of the story.

Another major change Kurosawa made in adapting the McBain novel for his film, has to do with what we see of the kidnappers. In both versions of the story, they are a team of three, made up of one leader and his two accomplices. In the movie, we never really meet the two sidekicks, and only see the actions of the head kidnapper after the ransom transaction, when the cops are hunting him down. In King’s Ransom, a fair chunk of the book takes place inside the world of the three criminals, and we get to know a little about all their personalities and their interpersonal dynamics. The two accomplices are a couple, and the woman takes a mothering interest in the boy they have kidnapped. She wants to let the kid go free, and for her man and herself to break away from this scheme and from the clutches of their bullying leader. However, her lover wants the money they can get from the ransom, so he can set them up nicely and allow them to lead the good life, not being small-timers who get pushed around by society. Kurosawa had his reasons for having the kidnappers’ roles play out as they do in his film, and it makes sense within his portrayal of the story, but in the book, the development of these three characters and their relations with one another adds an important element.

The biggest differences between the novel King’s Ransom and the movie High and Low are in their respective scopes and their takes on the principal character. Both are basically police procedural stories that also probe the conscience of a wealthy businessman. But whereas the McBain novel seems mostly out to examine how money’s motivations can corrupt the soul of one person, Kurosawa’s film is an indictment against the entire business world and its cutthroat viciousness. Through the movie, Kurosawa also makes a powerfully condemnatory statement against the crime of kidnapping. It’s interesting that, in the book, the lead character is basically a creep; in the movie, he becomes a hero. These changes make the cinematic version a suspense film that verges on being a sweeping epic, whereas the book contains itself to being a thriller that also studies the moral character of one man. In my opinion, both novelist and film director accomplished what they set out to do, and then some.


Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.

See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.

Comments

  1. Scott Adlerberg

    Very informative, Brian. The movie is an absolute masterpiece, among my top 5 certainly for Kurasawa (which is saying something since there are so many great films to choose from), but I never read the book and always wondered how much the very Japanese Kurasawa took from the so American McBain. Your piece sheds a lot of light on the adaptation. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  2. Brian Greene

    Thanks, Scott. I’m glad you got something from that. Nice to hear.

  3. David Cranmer

    I’m a card carrying Kurosawa/Mifune fan and this falls right behind Rashomon, Yojimbo, and The Hidden Fortress for me. The moral dilemma present in this storyline and the way it plays out is perfection. Oddly enough, Brian, I was working on a review of High and Low myself but not appraching your insightful essay here. Well done.

  4. Brian Greene

    Nice to hear, David. I was fascinated by the ways Kurosawa’s film was both faithful to and a deviation from the McBain novel. Two artists working in different media and from different cultural outlooks, seeing the same basic story in both similar and different ways. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

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