A comparative review by Annabelle Lee
The Good Liar, originally written by Nicholas Searle, has recently been adapted into a film starring Hollywood A-Listers Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren (DVD release February 4th 2020). It tells the story of Roy, an elderly con man using the medium of internet dating to find his next mark. Betty is an intelligent, well-aged woman. She is widowed and looking for companionship to compliment her otherwise comfortable life. Betty seems taken by Roy’s straight talking charm. Before long he moves in to her house, gaining her trust before he moves to gain her life savings.
Here at Dark Matter Zine we love and adore Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. Regardless of whether one is a good liar. Just saying. – Editor.
In the novel, spliced throughout Roy and Betty’s story are flashbacks to different times in Roy’s life. They start in more recent history as he cons shady business associates. Then each flashback jumps ten to twenty years back further into Roy’s past, right back to his childhood. Each flashback reveals another aspect of Roy’s character and the life that led to the present day.
In the film, a select few of these flashbacks are included, however, one is played as happening concurrently with the Betty story, and the others are revealed by the present day characters in conversation.
I am a book lover. Just saying.
It is important for you to know straight up that I am a book lover. I also enjoy films, but books are my passion. I would stake far too much on my firm belief that the book is always better than the movie. I’m the person who sees a great movie trailer and goes and gets the book. That is exactly why I read this book, and oh boy. I was wrong.
Critique- warning, spoilers ahead!
The Good Liar, the Novel
This novel, unfortunately, felt like a slog to read. There was some tension in the fear for Betty losing everything, and yet it was fairly clear from the outset that Betty isn’t as naive as she lets on. This means you don’t turn pages out of concern for her, but rather just to get to the end and find out how it will play out.
The majority of the novel is spent focused on Roy. We hear his motivations and read his inner thoughts, and almost every flashback is of a time in his life. Flashbacks of Roy’s life are interspersed throughout the current day story, and they feel like a jolt away from the action into almost unrelated stories. This makes the reading disjointed and at times confusing.
Betty vs Roy
The issue is that Roy is a truly awful person. He is entirely selfish, arrogant and entitled so makes decisions to deliberately hurt or take advantage of others. He has no reflective capacity. Even taking the journey to his childhood does nothing to endear him as a character. He is a sociopath, even as a child, but there is no exploration of why he is like that. There is nothing likable about him and it is difficult to spend 360 pages with someone you despise. Even though it’s clear he has it coming, that doesn’t make it easier to read.
Betty, on the other hand, is intelligent, kind and courageous. She has a fascinating back story which is barely touched on, until a single chapter toward the end. In order to create the big twist, Betty presents as bland and passive (in order to pull her own con), but as a result we don’t get to experience her true spark.
Finally, by the time we get to the twist, and Roy’s comeuppance, the pace slows, spelling out every detail, leaving nothing unexplained, and then petering out towards the end of their lives. As a result, the ending drags. What could have been a snappy, thrilling story instead became uncomfortable, obvious and overworked.
The Good Liar, the Film
With such talent playing Roy and Betty, let’s be honest, it was going to be hard for this movie to be a flop. McKellen and Mirren each bring a spark to these characters, which immediately make them both more likable. Many of the plot and structure flaws in the novel have also been addressed in the movie.
The film is very much an adaption of the novel, not a point by point copy. Many of the flashbacks into Roy’s life are not featured, only those that outline his career as a conman and set up the facts for his demise. Perhaps the greatest improvement in the movie is that the intricate details of Roy’s thoughts are not voiced, making the character as a whole infinitely more tolerable.
Unlike the book, the entire film is set in the present, allowing time to develop the characters and keeps the story flowing. Allowances have also been taken with Roy’s character. He is more directly violent in the movie, showing he is a terrible person, and a sinister threat to Betty. Conversely, in the film he is also shown to have inner conflict and a moment of remorse, making his character more complex and personable.
By bringing Roy’s business con into the present day, the story holds good tension as characters who have been wronged by him seek their own revenge. This subplot keeps things interesting without the disjointedness of the novel’s flashbacks. This is also an extra ingredient in his demise, and feels like a more satisfying ending.
As much as it grieves me to say it, the film adaption of The Good Liar is the sharp and clever thriller that the novel should have been. All the source material of the book was there, but the story was over-complicated and drawn out. Determined to show what a despicable person Roy is, the novel spent too long in his world, at the cost of being a gratifying read. The film redistributed this balance and established itself as the story that deserved to be told, and even more so, enjoyed.
The Novel: 1 out of 5 Stars
The Film: 4 out of 5 Stars
Format: paperback, 360 pages
Director: Bill Condon
Writers: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle (novel)
Stars: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey
Production: Warner Bros
Running Time: 109 minutes
Reviewer Annabelle Lee
Annabelle Lee is a chronic book nerd who loves nothing more than a good story and some people to talk to about the story. Congratulations, you are now those people. Occasionally she puts down a book long enough to take care of her kids and even to write and illustrate some books of her own. You can find her horribly punny series of picture books for grown ups on Facebook and Instagram, or all good online bookstores.
DMZ discovered Annabelle Lee at Impact Comics’s festival where Annabelle showed us her hilarious adult picture books.