Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: John Godey

In 1974, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was released as a film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. If you have seen that film, then you have a good idea of the basic plot of this book. 

This is the story of the hijacking of a New York City Subway train. The train that is hijacked is designated Pelham One Two Three to indicate its point and time of origin. Thus it had left Pelham Bay Park station at 1:23 p.m. Four men take over the train: one ex-mercenary soldier; one former motorman (driver) for the subway; one ex-Mafia crook; the fourth is hired muscle. They demand a $1 million ransom, or else hostages will be killed.

The story is told from the point of view of the hijackers, policemen, staff from the transit agency, and some of the passengers taken as hostages. With so many characters, at times it can get confusing, but I enjoyed the story. It takes place over one afternoon, although there are a few flashbacks to the preparations for the attack.

The tension builds up well. I had no idea how it would turn out. Would there be a very dark ending or a more upbeat ending? 

Through the interactions of various characters, the book provides insight into racial issues and the realities of race interactions in the early seventies in New York City. There were characters working in the police and in the transit system with prejudices towards blacks (and women). There are several important characters who are black and we see race relations at that time from their point of view. Some readers complained about racial slurs in this book, but I felt like it gave a balanced picture of racial prejudices at that time and how it affected individuals.

The Adaptation

A few days after I finished reading the book, we watched the 1974 film adaptation. Robert Shaw is the leader of the hijackers, Martin Balsam plays the ex-motorman, and Walter Matthau is a lieutenant in the Transit Authority police. Tony Roberts has a small role as the Deputy Mayor, which he handled very well. 

It is a fairly faithful adaptation, although we get little background on the characters. Many characters have different names, and the four hijackers are not identified by name, but are called Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown. The story moves well, no dull spots. I enjoyed it especially for the picture of New York City at the time. There is more humor in the film than in the book, although the subject is still treated very seriously.

There have been two other adaptations, in 1998 and in 2009, but I have not seen those.


Publisher:  G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973.
Length:      316 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      New York, NY
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      I purchased my copy in 2018.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I have only seen the movie. That must have been the movie that gave Tarrantino his names for characters in Reservoir Dogs. Once I have seen a movie I rarely have interest in reading the book but if I read the book first I always want to see the movie. I wonder why that is.

Margot Kinberg said...

I always find it so interesting to see the differences between a book and the film adaptation, Tracy. I especially wonder why filmmakers change things like names. Names don't affect the dramatic value of a scene (well, not usually), and yet very often they are changed. At any rate, I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

Cath said...

The title of this is very familiar and I know I haven't read the book so I must've seen the film or read about it somewhere. As it's from 1974 I suspect I've seen it, me being easily ancient enough to have seen hundreds of movies and completely forgotten about them! The book sounds like it would be a completely different experience, but that's nothing new as regards books made into films.

TracyK said...

Patti, I think you are right about the names in Reservoir Dogs. I had not thought of that but I did read that while I was researching the film.

I always like to read the book first if that works out, because I like to come to a book with as little knowledge of the plot as possible. I had seen the film before but did not remember much of it other than the four men, so it made little difference. Plus the approach was very different between the two.

TracyK said...

Margot, I also wondered about the name changes. Especially since it was only some of them. One reviewer who compared the book and film said that Walter Matthau's role was a combination of several characters in the book. Since they could not really provide all the background that the book did without making it a miniseries, I think they did a good job with the film. It is very rewatchable.

The book was very good and I am glad I sought out a copy.

TracyK said...

Cath, it is quite possible you saw the film. I saw it at least two times before, maybe more, possibly on TV when they used to rerun movies, and then several years ago, a rented copy. Yet still it felt new to me this time.

One reason I enjoy reading books that were turned into films is because books usually provide so much more about the characters and their motivations. But the film shows New York as it was back then, although the MTA would not allow any graffiti in the subway to be filmed.

Rick Robinson said...

I saw the film on TV twice, at least, and enjoyed it, but remember little of the plot.

If I’m scarce around here for a few days, I’m getting new glasses and the current ones have to go away for the new lenses, so I’ll be glass less for 4 days. Sigh. I’ll try reading an ebook on the iPad, where I can enlarge the font, but…well, we’ll see.

Happy Labor Day!

Sam Sattler said...

I have rather vague memories of the movie version you mention here, but I haven't read the book. That is a real memory-tickler. Sounds as if the book is much better than the film, and in this kind of story, I wouldn't expect anything less. Makes me want to find a copy of the novel.

Rick Robinson said...

eyeless in Gaza

TracyK said...

Rick, I did not remember much about the film either, and I enjoyed watching it again.

I am glad to hear you are getting new glasses but sad that it may make you scarce for a while. Maybe you will have luck with reading on the iPad with a bigger font.

TracyK said...

Rick, I had to look up Eyeless in Gaza. That sounds like an interesting book. Or were you referring to the musical group? Both are new to me.

We are having a quiet Labor Day.

TracyK said...

Sam, the book is very good. It moves at a good pace and we get to know the characters, or at least some of them. I bought a very inexpensive copy (on Abebooks probably) when I got interested in reading it.

Rick Robinson said...

I was referring to me with no glasses. I can’t read ANYTHING. Wash!

TracyK said...

I am sorry, Rick. I hope you will find some things you can do without them.

My husband has problems with his eyesight and he has lots of difficulties reading. He can read but his pace is slow. We are waiting until that can be corrected before we will be able to watch any films with subtitles.

Todd Mason said...

As you note, Tracy, the first film is excellent (with a little bit of heavy-handedness in a couple of spots), and I should probably go back to the novel, which I found disappointing as a kid after first seeing the first film ("Godey" is a pseudonym, IIRC). As I've mentioned elsewhere, the two remakes, one for cable tv originally and one for cinematic distribution, of the film are both Not Bad, but not up to the propulsive nature of the first adaptation and real sense, slightly satirized, of NYC in the mid '70s--Ed Koch wasn't Mayor yet, but the mayor faced with the crisis the story presents is Very clearly a parody of Ed Koch, already a very visible politician in the city, and Walter Matthau's subway police detective character is more than competent and only incidentally and mostly unintentionally abrasive while also coping more directly with the odd notion of a subway hijacking for ransom and trying to avoid a bloodbath.

Todd Mason said...

As WIKI notes, more correctly than I could clearly recall, in re EYELESS IN GAZA:

"The title [of Aldous Huxley's novel] originates from a phrase in John Milton's "Samson Agonistes":

"... Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves ..."

(The band took their name from the Huxley, almost certainly.)

Good luck and a speedier delivery than you were promised, Rick!

col2910 said...

I'll have to dig out both the film and book from the vault I think. You've whet my appetite for both!

TracyK said...

Definitely worth reading, Col. I think you would like the film too.