Page to Screen: The Harder They Come

I’ve written many page-to-screen features for this site. In most of those cases, my pieces have been odes to particular films on which I think it’s worth shining a light, with some commentary on the novels upon which they are based. In a few instances, the heavier slants of such posts have been on the books, with some scattered attention sprinkled on the subsequent films.

This is the first book/movie article I’ve written for Criminal Element (or anybody) where the novel in question was based on the film. An unusual situation and a departure from the normal way of how these artistic relationships go. So, yeah, it’s screen-to-page this time around because Michael Thelwell’s 1980 novel The Harder They Come was inspired by, and based on, Perry Henzell’s 1972 movie of the same title.

Before I go any deeper into the movie or the book, I want to say a few things about what is probably the most well known of all the media to which the title The Harder They Come is attached: the film’s soundtrack. Released the same year as the movie, the album is one of most universally recognized long players ever recorded within the genre of reggae. Jimmy Cliff, the musician who also plays the lead role in the film, contributed several of the songs, including the title track, which he penned specifically for the movie.

Apart from Cliff’s contributions, there is an assortment of cuts by various influential artists of the genre—these songs all released between 1967-72 and handpicked by director/co-writer Henzell. Every track is a mini-classic and, put together, they comprise a timeless gem.

If you’re like me, you find a lot of the most widely celebrated music lacking in substance and favor sounds that are more under the radar and, to your mind, better. But while there is an endless amount of deserving reggae that remains unheard by mass audiences, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come is like a Beatles or Rolling Stones within the world of this style of music in that it’s ubiquitous for all the right reasons.

Interestingly, this story, which focuses on the plight of underprivileged Afro-Jamaicans in Kingston, was the brainchild of a white man. Henzell (1936-2006) was born into privilege, raised on a sugarcane estate in Jamaica, and sent to a British boarding school in his teen years. But Henzell, who later dropped out of Canada’s McGill University to romp around Europe, was an outsider who rejected the lordly lifestyle he was born into and was clearly sympathetic to the downtrodden black people from his home country.

After doing some work for the BBC in London as a stagehand, Henzell returned to Jamaica in the late 1950s and established his own film production outfit. He directed a slew of commercials, some of which are said to be shot in a highly experimental way. The Harder They Come was Henzell’s first full-length feature effort. His second, No Place Like Home, was conceived shortly after the release of his debut but halted due to financial problems; it was finally completed and shown in the same year that Henzell died. In between the unveiling of the two movies, he wrote some novels and staged a musical.

Before we delve into the storyline of The Harder They Come, and then some notes on Thelwell’s novel, it’s worth mentioning some things about the significance of Henzell’s film. It is noted for being the first major motion picture made in Jamaica, by Jamaicans, about Jamaicans, and starring Jamaicans. Its authenticity is unquestionable. Ten years after the Caribbean nation formally established its independence from British rule, its capital city was still largely separated into haves and have-nots, and the latter group was suffering. Henzell’s movie acutely brings out the harsh reality of Kingston’s mean streets in vivid ways. The film, which was distributed worldwide by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, showed the outside world some of what was going on in the city’s poverty-riddled corners, just as its soundtrack did much to deliver the nation’s homegrown music to global listeners.

Rolling Stone called The Harder They Come “the film of the year” at the time of its release, and it was praised by Roger Ebert, who said it was “brash” and “direct.” I’m not sure if the movie or book have ever been referred to as works of noir, but for what it’s worth, I think both could and should. The tale is a dark, bleak, and edgy story involving crime, and it contains a core noir theme of an antihero fighting an uphill battle against indifferent and hostile outer forces. A big part of the heart of the story is a focus on corruption: police corruption, political corruption, and spiritual and moral corruption. Whatever genre you want to say the movie belongs to, it was an instant classic that has more than held up over the decades since it first made its powerful initial impact.

Ok, so about the story. Cliff portrays Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin—his character referencing the same-named Jamaican folk hero who was a criminal outlaw that went by the nickname “Rhygin,” which Cliff’s character is also often called. The real-life Martin (1924-1948) moved to Kingston in his teen years and became a notorious gang member who was eventually shot down by police after escaping from prison at age 24. Revered by some as a kind of Jamaican Pretty Boy Floyd, Martin can be seen as the original reggae/ska figure known as a “rude boy.”

Henzell—along with his writing partner, the Jamaican dramatist Trevor D. Horne—took the legend of Rhygin and set it in contemporary Jamaica by way of Cliff’s character Ivan, who as a young man leaves the rural village where he was raised to try and make a life for himself in Kingston. Ivan comes to the capital city driven by wanderlust and a vague dream of becoming a star within the rising world of reggae music. But he is quickly disillusioned by what he finds in the city.

There’s no work to be had for an unskilled person, the well-to-do city people don’t want to see a commoner like him around their fine homes, and many of the poor people Ivan encounters are looking to rob and otherwise take advantage of a countrified innocent such as himself. There’s just not enough money around in the pockets of the city in which Ivan comes to inhabit, and this widespread want brings about a vicious way of life for many.

Ivan is temporarily rescued from the brutal life of a street person by a preacher who takes him in, and then later he gets his shot at making it in the music business, but … well, never mind the but—if you haven’t watched the movie or read the book, you should find out for yourself what becomes of Ivan’s life in Kingston.

One big difference between Henzell’s film and Thelwell’s novel is that, while the former begins with Ivan’s arrival in Kingston, in the latter we learn much more about his early life. A good fourth of Thelwell’s book takes place in the countrified area where Ivan was raised by his pious, no-nonsense, world-wise grandmother.

The book is often cited as a novelization of the film, but Thelwell (1939-) takes exception to his (only published) novel being seen that way. In his preface to the original edition of the book (which is still in print), the author took pains to explain why his creation shouldn’t be viewed as a simple novelization. While showering great praise on Henzell’s movie, he explains (justly) that his novel does much more than merely add some odds and ends to the story of the film upon which it is based. Thelwell, a Jamaican-born writer, scholar, and political activist, did much to add historical and cultural context to the tale of Ivan Martin. A reader comes away having received a lesson on the ways of Jamaican people, in both the country and the city.

Also, while the movie’s depiction of the story is perfect for its media and moves the way a feature film needs to, in Thelwell’s lengthy (but never boring) novel we see additional layers into the hearts and minds of the characters. The book is a compelling read—in its own way just as educating and moving as the motion picture on which it is based. Chinua Achebe and Harold Bloom are among its outspoken champions. Stop calling it a novelization.

See also: Page to Screen: Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe


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.

His writing blog can be found at: Follow Brian on Twitter @greenes_circles


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