When the film Death Wish was first released back in 1974, it was met with fury and outrage. Centered around an architect (played by Charles Bronson) who becomes a gun-toting vigilante in the wake of his wife’s murder during a vicious home invasion, the film drew major criticism because of its support for the idea of the brutal punishment of criminals while rejecting due process. That said, its story is one that captured the minds of the public and sparked plenty of debate over how to handle the rampant crime that had plagued cities in that time like New York City. It is no wonder, then, how it would become so frequently discussed. However, there is one thing that some might forget these days about that movie: it was based on a book of the same name. The book was written back in 1972 by Brian Garfield, inspired by an incident in which he was scared by his own flash of anger after finding his car vandalized. As for his response to the film adaptation of his novel, Garfield hated it. He hated it for a very specific reason: unlike the movie’s pro-vigilante stance, his novel takes the side of anti-vigilantism.
Paul Benjamin was a New York accountant, a life-long liberal, and an old man. One day, which had seemed so ordinary at the start, would change his life. A call from his son-in-law Jack brought him out to a hospital. He received the news that his wife and daughter had been attacked in a random home invasion within his very apartment, one that had left his wife dead and his daughter in an increasingly catatonic state. In the aftermath, Paul now finds himself haunted. He has trouble sleeping, finds himself afraid of any dark shadows in the streets and alleyways. The police are investigating, but they have no leads and no major progress. He feels like the world is not making sense. That all changes one night, when a mugger pulls a knife on him. He is overcome with rage, swinging at the mugger and scaring him off. The feeling is intoxicating to him, a salve to the fears that had filled his mind. Soon, he comes to believe something: that people have to take back control of their lives. That someone has to stand up against the killers walking the streets. Of course, he knows he can’t just rely on his own rage. He needs a weapon to use against the thugs he wants to seek vengeance upon. He wants a gun.
Brian Garfield’s novel makes for a fascinating read. The story flows at a steady pace, painting an evocative picture of the world and Paul’s increasingly dark mental state. For those who might expect to read about a spree of killings much like the 1974 film, they might be disappointed. Instead, the bulk of the book is devoted to Paul’s change, showcasing him as he finds himself grappling with grief and seeing his left-leaning views gradually shift to a right-wing hardened edge. Along with that, Garfield also brings up and explores various aspects of crime stats and crime prevention techniques. Occasionally, there is the odd fact or statistic that feels a bit exaggerated, such as a character claiming that a crime is committed every twelve seconds in New York City. Aside from those odd moments, they fill the story with a sense of realism and a feeling that Garfield has really tried to make this a story that one could believe. Of course, that leads me into the biggest standpoint of the book, and what might in fact be its double-edged sword: the evolution of Paul Benjamin into a vigilante.
Experiencing the tragedy of a murdered spouse and traumatized daughter is a moment that would shake anyone to their core. It is understandable that Paul would become enwrapped in grief, that he would want to do anything to take back some control of his life. However, the story does not hide just how dangerous this new path would be for someone to follow. For instance, it is made clear that Paul has some trouble in how to exhibit and experience his grief. When he finds himself bursting into tears suddenly, he can’t understand it and believes that his sadness was weakness. Later, as his thoughts become consumed with the idea of bringing violence against criminals, his own view of the world around him changes. The faces that would have once brought him pity and concerns on how to help, he now presumes as those belonging to criminals and killers. Fear fills his mind, along with an anger that seeks to vent itself by lashing out at crime itself. The tragedy in Paul’s life is certainly understandable and the path that Garfield presents gives a clear understanding how someone could give in like this, but the image of him as a vigilante who intentionally draws out criminals to target him is still one presented as dangerous and one to avoid. In a way, however, one can see how a film adaptation might lean into a pro-vigilante stance. The book does a great job in presenting Paul’s change over time, and the tragedy is one which others could relate and sympathize. It does a good enough job that some might glaze over what the reality means to intentionally hurt and even kill others, throwing away our legal system just for the visceral feeling of a personal and perceived vengeance. It is a shame, then, that such a fascinating character study should be eclipsed by a more lurid film (and eventual franchise) that goes against the very point the book makes.
The name Death Wish is one that conjures up the image of a gun-toting Charles Bronson shooting muggers and a movie that supports such actions. The book it is based upon, on the other hand, goes against that stance with a character study that captures how one might change into such a person.