Fletch: Female Characters in the Book vs. the Movie

I saw the 1985 movie Fletch for the first time probably about 5 years ago.  I was a fan of Chevy Chase and the movie looked like fun. I had no idea until after I watched the movie that it was based on a 1974 novel of the same name, and that the book won its author, Gregory Mcdonald, the Edgar Alan Poe award for Best First Novel.  Since I’m always interested to see how books are adapted for the screen, I read the book soon after.

Having started this blog, I decided to reread the book and re-watch the movie in order to document some differences and similarities between the two.

First I’ll start by saying that both the book and the movie have a very similar tone. There is dry and sarcastic humour in both, and so if you like the movie I can guarantee you’ll like the book, and vice versa.  The two have slightly different resolutions to the story, so it’s not the case that knowing the plot of one will ruin the other for you–there will still be some surprises in store for you.

The main differences between the book and the movie usually stem from the challenges of adapting words to the screen.  For example, a lot of Fletch’s investigative work in the book happens over the phone. Since no one wants to actually watch someone talk on the phone, this is where Chevy Chase shines in the movie as Fletch personally visits people in disguise.  Also, since this is a Hollywood production, much of the dark moments in the book have been “cleaned up” or simply written out.  In the book, Fletch is a typical — flawed — hardboiled detective, and some of his moral choices simply wouldn’t fly in a movie.

Re-watching the movie made me realize that one of the biggest consequences to “cleaning up” the story meant that the movie had far fewer female characters in it.  And even the female characters that did make the cut were made to fit a feminine ideal.

1. Bobbi (appears only in the book)

The biggest cut from the book is the character of a teenage drug-addicted “streetwalker” that Fletch is shacking up with as part of his cover for the drugs-on-the-beach story.  The parts of the story revolving around her character are the grittiest parts of the book, and it’s understandable that it simply wouldn’t fly in the movie production. But in the book, she serves as a very important role in driving the plot. Plus her character was reportedly Gregory Mcdonald’s main motivation for writing the books, so it’s a shame she was written out of the movie.

2. Joan Stanwyk (book and movie)

Joan Stanwyk in the movie and Joan Stanwyk in the book are two very different people.  In the movie, Joan Stanwyk is a total sweetheart — innocent and endearing.  In the book, she drinks cocktails before noon and puts the moves on Fletch because she finds him hot.

3. Larry (appears only in the movie)

There is no person named Larry in the book. In the book, Fletch has a female editor, Carla Snow, but most of her lines were given to the editor-in-chief, Frank, in the movie.  Looking back at the book, I’m generally confused about whose role Geena Davis’s character is meant to be taking over.  She seems to fill the role of all the other newspaper departments that Fletch contacts in the book to get more information.  But as for her job at the newspaper?  It seems she only exists to be Fletch’s assistant… which is a far cry from the female editors he comes into contact with in the book.

. . .

So in addition to there being more of them, the female characters in the book are also much more multi-dimensional.  All the female characters in the movie are super likable, but in hindsight also uncomfortably fit a vague male chauvinist ideal.  In the book, many of the women can be described as total assholes, and I think that’s great.  (Just as an example, in the book, Fletch has two ex-wives, both of whom try to move back in with him for selfish reasons — one seems to simply be horny, and the other’s lease is running out so she’s hoping for a place to live).  But it’s not just the women in the book that are flawed, so is everybody else, and so they fit right in.

P.S.  The one thing they added to the movie that I wish they didn’t: the whole fantasy scene with Fletch playing basketball. It’s unnecessary, and also vaguely racist.  All this to say that, in general, I feel the book stands the test of time more than the movie does.

Plus, another thing that’s great about the book for mystery fans in particular is that, every once in a while, we get a recap of all the major clues as Fletch narrates his thoughts into his dictaphone. These scenes make for a convenient place to pause and reflect on the clues, and try to puzzle them out on your own.


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