10 years of Drive: From book to movie
With the Ryan Gosling starrer turning ten today, here's a look into the symbolism and screenwriting choices of this adaptation of James Sallis' novella that have made it age so well
“Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there'd be no doubt. But for now, Driver is, as they say, in the moment." This passage does enough to set the mood and get you back into a pivotal scene from Nicolas Winding Refn's 2011 film, Drive, in which Ryan Gosling's Driver has his hands bloodied for the first time in a motel room. The passage quoted is from James Sallis’ non-linear story from his novella, Drive (2005), based on which Hossein Amini wrote the screenplay for this cult hit.
If you don’t remember Drive too well—and I’m not taking that kindly at all—here’s a quick recap. It’s about a Los Angeles loner named Driver, who works as a Hollywood stunt driver in the day, and as a getaway driver for robberies in the night. His world is perilous, desolated, and confined. When he gets pulled into a set-up robbery, things go awful… for his enemies. The work is a deep dive into the impulsive, dangerous psyche of Driver, that takes us on a violent ride, and in adapting it for cinema, screenwriter Amini and director Refn have made some fantastic decisions:
Focus on the psyche
While Sallis prefers to explore Driver's psyche through a backstory and his relationships (a few of whom are combined into Bryan Cranston's Shannon in the film), Amini begins at a place where the character seems settled. While Sallis fixates on Driver's monotonous routine, Amini directs his attention towards a new romantic relationship between Irene and Driver. In Sallis' version, Irene just passes by. Here, she’s no passerby, and it's to unlock a part of his psyche.
The folk tale of The Scorpion and The Frog (about how some people cannot resist hurting others) is brought into this world. Note the scorpion on Driver’s white leather jacket. Or how about (the antagonist) when he calls Nino, the partner of Bernie (the main antagonist), the dead frog of the story.
Sallis' Driver is no doubt a scorpion. Gosling's Driver feels like a younger, vulnerable version of a hard-boiled loner. His routine existence breaks when impulse takes over. He is a scorpion misidentified as a frog and living like one. Driver is in a sense a composite of all the movie characters he has worked as a stunt double for. He wears a mask during the day and removes it at night. Notice the face mask prop in the final showdown scene.
That Elevator scene
The culmination of this film occurs in an elevator scene, a scene that many remember the film by. In the middle of a heated conversation with Irene, Driver realises that he’s pursued by an enemy. The duo gets into an elevator, along with an enemy. Driver, as we see in slow-motion, pulls Irene behind him and kisses her. The lighting turns golden—and you see this every time Irene and Driver are together. After the kiss is over, he knows Irene will have to see who he really is. He smashes the face of the enemy. As Irene steps out, all she can see is the scorpion on his back. There’s that symbolism again. In seconds, these characters go from the closest they were ever together to the farthest they have been.
The high point
The elevator scene is catharsis and a high point that doesn't exist in the book—and it’s no easy book to make an adaptation of, mind you. And there are many such examples in this film, like the romantic angle itself, for instance. It’s harder for a filmmaker to capture the unsaid details than it is for a writer. The film language comes with more limitations. And yet, Refn and Amini have liberated this story from the book by creating a detailed, tasteful sensory experience, and have made a film that will stay in public memory for a long time to come.