All the King’s Men is Robert Penn Warren’s classic American novel about politics, redemption, and corruption. Based loosely on the political career of Huey Long, the novel, narrated by the character Jack Burden, explores the rise of Willie Stark, a passionate and idealistic lawyer who transforms into an unabashedly corrupt governor.
The novel was first adapted for the big screen in 1949. However, in 2006, Hollywood released another adaptation of All the King’s Men.
The first film was widely acclaimed, winning Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, and Best Motion Picture. Yet the 2006 adaptation, when revisited, proves that sometimes it is worth adapting novels like this one to the screen more than once. Here are some reasons why 2006’s All the King’s Men stands on its own and shows that “remakes” are often worthwhile pictures.
All the King’s Men explores several interesting themes. However, it’s impossible to avoid the topic of political corruption when discussing the book. Willie Stark, before his political career, appears to be a character with the virtue of Abraham Lincoln. By the end of the novel (and both films), he is a power-obsessed figure who has no qualms with bending the law to fit his needs. Like many corrupt politicians, Willie Stark comes to believe that the ends justify the means. At times, he seems to genuinely want to serve the public, even when he is no longer the naïve, morally upstanding character he was at the start of the novel. He just believes that he doesn’t need to play by the rules in order to do so.
This type of character isn’t a fiction—again, the character was inspired in part by Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long, a fiery populist who served his state during the Great Depression and was assassinated in 1935. Throughout the world, people often see the rise of political leaders who are more than willing to play fast and loose with their values, as well as the law. That’s one of the reasons All the King’s Men is a timeless story, and one of the reasons a new adaptation of it will always be relevant.
The original film adaptation of All the King’s Men deserves praise, but its visual style is somewhat limited, simply due to the resources available to filmmakers in the late 1940s. They didn’t have the cameras and technology to put images on the screen that today’s filmmakers can. Thus, the first film version of this novel focuses more on performances, like a play, and less on striking visuals.
Sometimes that’s the ideal approach to adapting a novel or story. Not every novel requires an adaptation that overwhelms the viewer with beautiful imagery. In many instances, it’s necessary and smart to let the performances dominate the picture.
However, Robert Penn Warren’s novel is often very evocative of its setting in the American South, putting readers in a world they can easily see in their own minds. The 2006 adaptation of the novel is significantly more visually striking than its earlier counterpart, successfully putting on screen an element of the source material that was lost in the first adaptation.
For all its well-deserved accolades, the original film version of All the King’s Men takes certain liberties with the source material. Relationships between characters are altered for the sake of convenience, character arcs that were important in the novel are essentially abandoned, and some deeper themes are left unexplored.
This isn’t to say that all film adaptations of books must follow the source material to the letter. For example, The Godfather ignores many elements of the book upon which it is based, and it’s better for it.
However, the difference is that Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather simply isn’t on the same level as All the King’s Men. For example, the New York Times book review of The Godfather uses the phrases “corniness” and “over dramatization” and complains that Puzo has included scenes that don’t advance the plot or characters. Francis Ford Coppola and the other filmmakers involved in the 1972 film adaptation (including Puzo himself) managed to take the essential story, trim the fat, and create a masterpiece.
All the King’s Men, though, is different. It’s a genuinely great American novel that deserves a certain degree of faithfulness when adapted for the screen. The truth is, the 2006 film simply hews much more closely to the novel than the first film. It incorporates critical elements, like the full nature of Jack’s relationship with the character of Anne Stanton, that were not explored as thoroughly in the earlier adaptation.
While some books don’t need to be adapted into a movie twice, in the case of All the King’s Men, the filmmakers revisited a novel that truly deserved another look. The 2006 film is a reminder that just because a book has been made into a good movie, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to revisit the source material and create something new and fresh.