When you turn a novel into a film, you have to make changes. Some things just work better on the page, and if the integrity of the story hopes to survive the transition to the screen, the filmmaker has to make trims, truncate details, and eliminate some pieces altogether. It’s grown into one great big cliché—the book is always better than the movie. There are some exceptions, however, and Fearless, the 1993 film by Peter Weir, is one of them.
Fearless falls into that tricky realm of storytelling no one likes to classify. It’s part disaster, part love story, part human drive for catharsis. Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) is a successful architect, and he’s scared to death of flying. Ten minutes after takeoff, his flight suffers a complete hydraulic failure and plummets back to earth. And he finds that he is unafraid.
Max is one of the few to walk away. The film opens just after the crash as Max leads a small parade of survivors through a cornfield and into the arms of first responders. He manages to avoid their attention—he doesn’t have a scratch on him. Instead, he hails a cab and gets away. He rents a car, finds a lonely freeway, and drives as fast as the car will let him. He seeks out an old high school friend, a girl he once knew, and for no discernible reason, he asks her out to lunch.
Here, the film makes its first real departure from the novel. In the novel, Max stumbles upon a small group of college kids from whom he buys some LSD. He reacquaints himself with his old high school friend in the midst of the resulting fugue. In the book, his aloofness disarms this married housewife enough for him to lure her to a cheap motel where they apparently have sex. Author Raphael Yglesias’ prose muddies the water enough that, as the reader, you’re not totally convinced it actually happens. Max is tripping on LSD, after all. When the FBI catches up to him, they find him alone. The book makes no further mention of his old friend. Max, however, seems to think it was real.
Weir’s film, adapted for the screen by Yglesias, omits the sexual union. The focus instead shifts to the plate of strawberries Max enjoys while they eat lunch. Max has always been allergic to strawberries, enough so that they could kill him. For some reason, however, he can enjoy them now without fear.
This departure foreshadows the story’s most significant difference between its screen incarnation and its paperback counterpart, and deals mainly in Max’s developing relationship with Carla (Rosie Perez), who also survived the crash.
Carla was traveling with her two-year-old son, Bubble. His seatbelt refused to fasten, and in the moments between the flight’s malfunction and its imminent doom, a flight attendant told Carla to hold the child in her arms. Bubble is killed, and after the crash, she feels excruciating guilt. For a single moment before the crash, the plane seemed to right itself. She had loosened her hands, and lost her child. It’s a secret she reveals to no one, and her pain is irreversible. Until she meets Max.
The media calls Max the Good Samaritan, a moniker he’d like to disavow. During the crash, in those intervening moments between threat and disaster, Max left his best friend to sit with a small child near the front of the plane. He didn’t want the boy to die alone – that was his only concern. Now, Max’s friend is dead. The boy survived with Max, and now feels attached, closer than kin. Max also carried a small baby from the wreckage, and delivered the child safe and unharmed to its mother. The media has turned him into a small celebrity. Max, however, feels something far different from famous.
The way he tells it to Carla, all the survivors died already—meaning they faced death, and emerged on the other side alive. He insists that Carla is safe with him. “Everyone who was with me survived the crash,” he tells her.
“So what are you saying?” Carla says in return. “There’s no God, but there’s you?”
Max could almost believe it, but he doesn’t. Not really. The film seems to suggest Max feels like he lives on in defiance of God’s efforts to the contrary. “You want to kill me but you can’t!” he yells. The novel, however, doesn’t quite go there, but both develop this theme to an astonishing moment of transcendence.
After spending increasing amounts of time together, after bonding through their grief and their sorrow, Carla tells Max her secret: she let go of her son. The crushing sorrow finally breaks her. Carla falls so far into herself that all she can do is sit in Max’s car and recite Hail Mary to herself over and over. Her breakdown chips away at Max’s own crumbling interior faculties, and he’s at a loss, until he finds a tool box in his trunk.
Up to this point, Max has already been fueled by extremes. He isn’t interested in living life by any kind of predetermined rules or moors. He knows Carla could never have held onto her child, that what happened is not, could never have been, her fault. So he carefully ushers her into the back seat. He hands her the tool box. This is your baby, he says. This is your chance to save him.
It’s absurd, on the page and on the screen, but Carla is so lost she goes along with it with the willingness of a small child. Max gets behind the wheel. Since the crash, he has sought again and again to push the limits of his fear. This is just another step up the ladder for him. He accelerates the car down an alley, speeding toward a concrete wall. Pray for us now in the hour of our deaths, he yells, and plows ahead.
The book only tells us; the film shows us in a way mere words can only express. Upon impact, the toolbox flies through the windshield and into the wall, crumpled and destroyed.
The experience lands them both in the hospital. Max’s wife thinks he’s finally gone insane. Carla’s husband is ready to sue, but she refuses to let him. The stunt worked. Carla has emerged from her guilt. She can finally grieve.
The largest split between the novel and the film begins here with Max’s wife. The intensity of Max’s actions leads Carla to finally visit her. The book names her Debby, the film names her Laura, and they are totally different characters. When Carla meets Debby in the book, there’s a hint of repulsion. Debby senses she’s losing her husband to this woman, but she seems to surrender to the notion that he needs something that only Carla can provide. Meaning sex. They’ve been intimate in almost every way other than physical up to this point, so why not make the leap, right? Debby comes off then as a meek, frustrated woman, someone who can’t stand against the currents of her husband’s behavior, and chooses to just accept it.
Laura Klein (powerfully played by Isabella Rosellini) is an altogether different woman. There is no mere hint of repulsion here; Laura wears it on her sleeve with angry pride. She doesn’t trust Carla, and she’s furious that Max has traded in his feelings of love for his wife and his son for this stranger. She recognizes the intense connection, and even accepts the fact that all of this may have been inevitable. But it doesn’t mean she has to like it. It doesn’t mean she has to accept Max’s attraction to Carla as prelude to a predetermined union.
The split between characters of Laura and Debby is not the only point of divergence between novel and film. Carla takes a much different turn as well. In the novel, she’s aware of Max’s attraction, and like Debby, feels the pull of inevitability that will lead her into Max’s arms. The novel’s Max grows increasingly paranoid, convinced his wife wants to have him institutionalized. He calls Carla, frantic, says he needs to see her. Carla seizes upon this development to bring their relationship to the only place everyone in this universe assumes it has to go. They meet at a hotel. They make love throughout the day. When it’s over, Carla tells him to never try to see her again. This needed to happen, and now it’s over. It’s time for both of them to move on. She returns to her husband, and Max returns home. Their spouses both know what happened—the novel makes it clear. Carla returns home empowered. Max returns home just as lost as he’s ever been, but at least his loins are finally satisfied. Their spouses, we’re left to assume, just deal with it.
In the film, Carla faces Laura with strength and courage. She’s well aware of Max’s growing affection for her, and she recognizes it for what it is: a symptom of his trauma. Both women leave the conversation at a point of understanding. Carla clearly expresses that she has no intention to take any part of Max away from Laura. She leaves and finds Max at the hospital where he’s still in recovery. She tells him it’s time to go home. She tells him it’s time to say goodbye.
It’s a seismic difference, one that separates the thematic focus between the two iterations of the same story so much that they effectively become two different stories populated by characters that happen to share (some of) the same names. The novel seems intent on manufacturing some kind of transcendence in Max’s union with Carla. The strange focus it has on the subject of infidelity is both troubling and confusing.
Both acts of infidelity happen under circumstances that debilitate Max’s ability to reason—the first while he’s high, the second while he’s paranoid. The first instance, the novel tells us, increases his sense of shame. The second satisfies his desire for intimacy, something Carla has satisfied in every way now, until she cuts off their relationship. Both instances, then, become frivolous distractions from an otherwise cohesive narrative. The decision to remove these scenes from the film restores the narrative and brings the story to a truer sense of transcendence in its final moments.
The ending scene is virtually the same in both versions. Max returns home to learn that his lawyer has scored an incredible settlement from the airline. Max and his family will be very wealthy. The lawyer is just giddy as he spins the tale. As he talks, Max reaches for a bowl of strawberries. Once again he’s faced with something that could kill him, and he’s compelled to overcome it. He must. So he takes a bite. This time, his allergic reaction returns. Max faces the moment of his death one more time.
The film cuts back and forth between the crash and his Laura’s attempt to save him. It’s a striking moment. While the book details the crash in the opening chapters, the film saves that harrowing experience for the end. This is our first look at the disaster as it happened. Juxtaposing it with Max’s reaction to the strawberries effectively returns Max to his original wound, the place where he really needs to heal. That’s the focus of the film from the very beginning, and it recognizes that having Max fall into Carla’s bed only undermines the integrity of the story and its characters.
At the story’s very end, the book seems intent to make Max’s transcendence dependent on the recovery of his fear. “He was alive,” Yglesias writes, “and he was afraid.” It makes sense and provides ample motivation for Max’s increasingly destructive behavior, including his infidelity. The book even makes a point that Max is well aware that the sex he has with Carla is quite unsafe. Max of the book wants to fear again instead of feel. Fear, the book seems to say, is what makes him human.
Max’s final lines of the film omit the book’s last four words, and again, that simple trim achieves a profound shift in focus. “I’m alive!” Max cries. These are the words of resurrection. For the film, what makes Max human isn’t his fear; it’s his ability to really live. In the film’s final moments, Max passes through death again, and is at last reborn.
More or less, the book lands in the same place, but with decidedly less effectiveness than the film’s tighter narrative and change of focus. The book can’t help but to surrender to titillation under the guise of achieving something profound. It’s an interesting counterpoint, given that Yglesias wrote both the book and the screenplay at the same time (he originally sold both to Warner Bros, which published the book, and distributed the film). Whatever the author’s intent, his story comes into much sharper and revelatory focus on screen than it does on the page.
The difference between them is all the difference.