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From page to screen: Gomorrah

Reading time: 6 minutes

*Spoiler free*

The ‘From page to screen’ series takes a look at the journey of a piece of writing (be it novel, non-fiction, play etc.) to the screen and other manifestations.

You’ll often hear people lament that a film or series didn’t live up to the book, but it’s an unfair comparison. There’s too much detail, even in a relatively short novel, to keep it all in a motion picture. Plus, why would you want to? They have very different experiences and purposes.

With that in mind, From page to screen looks at the content and structure of a novel and examines its trajectory and presentation as a screen, radio or stage production.

This is the legacy of Roberto Saviano‘s 2006 book Gomorrah and its utterly consuming exposé of the murderous, far-reaching economics of the Neapolitan Mafia – known collectively as the Camorra (Gomorrah is a colloquialism for a member of said crime gang). Some of Gomorrah’s offspring will also be examined, these being, three-series (thus far) TV show and a film.

The book

“I was born in ’79 and at the end of the 80s, there was an incredible Camorra war – 4,000 dead, three or four a day. I saw my first corpse in my first year of secondary school. Since then I’ve seen dozens. They didn’t shock me.”

– Roberto Saviano, in an interview with the Guardian.

Roberto Saviano is a philosophy graduate and Naples native. Only 26 years old at the time Gomorrah was published, it detailed his experiences with the Camorra and their deadly grip on the people of his home city. The cost of Gomorrah‘s success has been monumental on Saviano’s life. He lives with a permanent police guard, although Silvio Berlusconi’s government constantly criticise the decision to grant this. Read into that what you will. Saviano moves around a lot for the same reason.

Saviano is, one suspects, rather well off. Gomorrah sold 4 million copies by 2008. In the ten years since, it’s been adapted into a TV series, film and a successful play in Italy. He’s also written ZeroZeroZero, about the cocaine trade and more recently, Piranhas, a novel based on the child gang leaders of his home city.

The book itself is part economic breakdown, numbers and figures, which on their own, might be off-putting to someone with no interest in numbers. Except they slide so well into the story as to be integral to it, the keystone. The numbers are the raison d’être for the Camorra, they drive it, in whatever form. Drugs, murder, pollution, fashion… you name it, their bloody fingers desperately count the cash from it.

Gomorrah is also a wonderfully told portrait of the people who live under the rule of this awful organisation, those who exist within it and those not a part of it, but will profit nonetheless. Saviano is a wonderful storyteller and it’s through his microscopic examination and understanding of motivations and meaning that his novel becomes enthralling. Gomorrah somehow makes sense of the spider’s web and shocks and entertains while doing it.

Being entertained by the real-life murders of children and priests. The deaths of drug addicts given free testers to see whether the new mix will kill, too desperate and hooked to avoid the risk. This is entertainment, essentially, and Saviano knows he walks a thin moral tightrope. He engages, allowing you to understand, navigating wonderfully – Gomorrah is a must-read.

The film

“I wanted to show the everyday lives of members of the Camorra.”

Matteo Garrone, Indie London interview.

The 2008 film of the same name, was never going to be the same beast. It couldn’t be. Saviano’s book doesn’t focus on any one or two main characters, it has dozens, scores of human lives interwoven, locked in the grasp of the Camorra. Instead what writer Maurizio Braucci (et al.) did, was pick out a few contrasting, yet complementary stories, fictionalise them and flesh them out. Just like the book, each of these player’s role slips and slides against the other, dangling as the mafia grasps their tails above them.

Director Matteo Garrone (Tale of Tales, Dogman) does a wonderful job of keeping the film together. Gomorrah’s cinematic offspring is about as close to the book as one could hope for, while still being unique. There are splashes of violence, arriving occasionally at random and but often at depressingly predictable times. The depth of fiscal desire or desperation is key for every character and the tides of power ebb and flow throughout. Only they don’t, not really.

Gomorrah is, even by the standards of mafia films, brutal. Brutal, yet grimly believable due to the realism of the source material and the skill in handling it. There’s a cost, a risk to every move under the omnipresent Camorra and sadly that risk either touches or throttles all involved. If the Camorra can see you, they can hold you in their pocket or throw you away. Gomorrah has an earthy, believable essence which prevents it from ever celebrating this horror.

At 137 minutes, Gomorrah isn’t short but how could it be? Though it doesn’t drag, with half a dozen central characters, there’s plenty of dialogue and action to chew through. On release, it had awards and praise practically thrown at it – the pinnacle being the Grand Prix at Cannes. Gomorrah is a film that did the book proud.

The series

“You murdering ministers, wherever in your sightless substance, you wait on nature’s mischief.”

– Lady Macbeth, Macbeth.

Slicker, glossier, rangier and much, much longer, Gomorrah: La Serie was in danger of being a mass appeal, watered down production. A knock-off from the markets of Naples.

Each season is ten, hour-long episodes with its focus in the first series on the Savastano dynasty. There’s Don Pietro, his wife Lady Imma and their chubby, spoilt son Genny. Working for them is Ciro, an ambitious soldier in their clan. Ciro and the Savastano’s have a somewhat strained relationship with rival gang leader Salvatore after Ciro burns Salvatore’s mother’s home to the ground at the start of the first episode.

A lot to take in. Every episode of La Serie is complex, every conversation is laden with hidden intent, doublespeak and murderous, mimicking eyes. Every single player in this bloody business is a danger, even the street kids who will kill for a leg up. It’s often compared to The Sopranos, but The Wire is more akin to Gomorrah’s TV personality. There are plenty of fine lines, many characters are both cold-blooded killers and likeable human beings. Everything and everyone splinters. This ambiguity and love of complexity comes directly from Saviano’s source material.

Over three seasons, naturally, there are power shifts and all the excitement, entertainment and action which come with that. There’s that word again. Entertainment. It is entertaining, La Serie is exciting, incredibly so. We tell ourselves that it’s just a movie, it’s just a movie, it’s just a movie. But with the words on the page, we told ourselves, it’s just a book, it’s just a book, it’s just a book. But it’s not just a book. This is a story borne of reality. A desperate excoriation into the disparate, overlapping lives of the people of Naples who, like sinew, Camorra runs through.

La Serie is the Gomorrah text in its scope, in its ability to layer the existence of dozens of characters big and small. It feels less real than the film, certainly than the novel. But this is a good thing. Gomorrah the novel is a real-life read, terrifying and fascinating, Gomorrah the film is a brilliant transition to a two-hour format for an exposé and one must remember that’s what the book is, an exposé. Then Gomorrah: La Serie is obvious fiction based in fact. It’s brilliant television, entertaining, but even better, it’s an ongoing middle finger to the Camorra.

In Roberto Saviano’s words:

“It’s my reader who bothers criminal organisations… My reader is what they don’t want.”

The reader, the viewer, these words are interchangeable. All three of these creations beset unwanted awareness on a beast desiring darkness. They do it in differing ways, but each plays to the strength of the medium it communicates through.

Gomorrah is one of the best examples of how a text transitions and transforms through the differing formats. It’s one book, one film and three series not to be missed.

(2) Comments

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