I’m not sure if Criterion Collection is releasing a new edition of the 1980 movie Hopscotch because of the timeliness of the plot, but timely it is. A retired CIA agent who threatens to publish a book filled with leaked classified information … um, yeah, that kinda gels with the present times here in the U.S. The film, directed by Ronald Neame (he also directed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Odessa File (1974), among others) is based on a 1975 novel by Brian Garfield. Garfield co-wrote the screenplay for the movie with Bryan Forbes. Let’s take a look inside the book and movie.
The aforementioned one-time intelligence agent is Miles Kendig, portrayed by Walter Matthau in the film. Kendig, currently 53 in the novel and seemingly around that age in the movie, was once a respected CIA operative. There are variations between novel and film as to why this came about, but in both versions of the story, a point was reached in the past where Kendig’s superiors felt he had become obsolete as a field agent. They gave him a meaningless desk job.
Kendig, a proud and crafty man and not one to suffer fools gladly, found the office work to be the stuff of drudgery and to be shaming. Soon enough, he quits. In the present, he has become embittered and decides he’s going to make the agency feel his pain. He writes a few chapters of a book that will be filled with inside spy information about which the general public should never know. He hires a literary agent to help him shop the work-in-progress to publishers all over the world, and he makes sure the CIA knows he is doing this. Then, he goes on the lam—in various assumed identities and on various continents—and writes more and more of the book, knowing the agency is after his ass. It becomes a game to Kendig. But he knows it’s a chess match that will likely end up with him being killed on sight if he ever allows himself to be caught.
There are several layers of complexity in the cat-and-mouse game that gets played as the CIA attempts to track Kendig down and silence him. The agents hunting the freewheeling retiree don’t really know what he ultimately has in mind with this scheme. Is it a suicide mission where he just wants to feel empowered for a little and get his revenge on them before going down in a blaze? Or does Kendig actually intend to live to see his book published and enjoy the celebrity it would bring?
Also, one of the agents assigned to stop him is a rising star in the agency (played by Sam “Law and Order” Waterston in the movie) who was once Kendig’s protégé—and who still has a lot of respect and friendly feeling for Kendig. Additionally, as these are Cold War times, the KGB has its own reasons for not wanting to see Kendig’s dirty-secrets exposé published. There comes to be an uneasy alliance wherein American and Soviet spies reluctantly agree to join forces in seeking to locate Kendig and shut down his literary enterprise. Hmm, Americans and Russians secretly working together on affairs involving international intrigue—did I say something about this story being timely?
There are differences between book and film, both major and minor. Some of these shouldn’t be detailed to those unfamiliar with the story. But one mentionable way Neame’s film differs from Garfield’s novel is that it adds a character (played by Glenda Jackson): a shrewd and tough woman who’s an old friend and lover of Kendig’s. She aids Kendig in his efforts to elude the agents chasing him down.
Kendig’s relationship with this woman adds a dimension to his character not seen in the book, where he is a lone wolf with no lasting romantic attachments. But apart from that film character and some changes to how certain things turn out, the tale is basically the same on page and screen. I’ve come across writings about Hopscotch that state that the film is done in more of a comical way than the novel. I have to disagree. Both have the same balance of light touches combined with edgy suspense.
When writing Page to Screen posts for this site, I don’t generally see a need to state whether I think the book a movie’s based on is more worthwhile than the film or the other way around. But in this instance, I feel compelled to mention that the cinematic version of Hopscotch is easily superior to the literary one.
Garfield, who also wrote Death Wish (1972), apparently wanted to prove that he could author a thriller that didn’t contain any blood and guts. He accomplished this with Hopscotch, and he came up with a clever plot that was ripe for film adaptation. But the book is dull, and not just because it lacks violence. It moves slowly, has unending needless detail and uninteresting dialogue, and makes you tired of Kendig and his intrigues by around the fourth chapter.
This is a tale that simply plays out better on the big screen, in large part because of the quality of the acting in the movie. Matthau, Jackson, and Waterston are all excellent in their screen roles, as is omnipresent character actor Ned Beatty, who plays a constantly enraged CIA chief. Matthau earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.
To go back to the timeliness aspect, with so many people these days making comparisons between the actions of the current U.S. President and Richard Nixon, some might appreciate the movie’s inclusion of a lot of talk about Nixon’s dirty tricks campaigns.
So watch the film if you haven’t seen it and the story intrigues you, and be sure to take in the treasure of extras that come on the Criterion disc—but skip the book.
Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.