“The Warriors” vs “The Warriors”

“You warriors are good. Real good” -Masai
“The best.” -Swan

There’s a great moment toward the end of the film “The Warriors” in which two of the protagonists, Swan and Mercy are on a train with some of the other Warriors. They are exhausted, covered in sweat; Swan has visible cuts and bruises from all the fighting he has had to do. A group of promgoers get on the train, laughing and oblivious. They notice The Warriors, and stop talking; everyone sizes each other up. The promgoers are obviously richer and more carefree. Mercy goes to fix her hair, and Swan stops her. The message is clear: Have pride in what you are, and also don’t have ideas outside your station, all conveyed in a simple gesture. In the next scene, they arrive back at their home turf; there will be a final confrontation, but there’s a moment of victory. 

The same scene happens in the book, except the prominent characters are Dewey, Hinton, and the Junior. Mercy, who doesn’t have a name in the book, was gang raped around 100 pages back. Hinton, now the leader, orders a pointless and ultimately unsuccessful raid on a rival gang’s territory. They get home. It’s one of many scenes that are weirdly parallel, but entirely different to the book. The entire film is like that; more of an echo than an adaptation. For example, “The Warriors” of the book are all of the gangs, collectively, the protagonists are in “The Coney Island Dominators”. None of the characters have the same names. There’s some fascinating territory in here, and I’m going to explore it just a little bit. 

Some background: “The Warriors” was written by Sol Yurick in 1965. It’s loosely based on “Anabasis” by Xenophon. The broad strokes of “Anabasis” are the same— greek soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines, and have to fight their way out, back to their home territory. It’s an interesting framework. 

Yurick was a writer of ‘literary fiction’ and it shows. He frequently describes dialog rather than relating it. In the inciting incident of both the book and film, one of the more powerful gangs in the city seeks to unite the other gangs to essentially take over. Their leader, named Cyrus in the film and Ismael in the book (not the only Moby Dick reference) makes a speech. In the film, it is thus:

In the book, the speech takes approximately seven pages, and none of it is quoted. It’s instead like this:

Ismael talked. He talked, hard-lipped and softly the way he always did. He told three signalers squatting in front of him; he told the swarming darkness and the far-off shifting headlights, and he told the city lights….

A page later:

He reminded them about the Enemy, the adults, the world of the Other, those who put them down. The courts and the prisons and the school-prisons and the home-prisons; these put them down…

Two pages later:

What was to be done, Ismael asked? Ismael said that at any time there were twenty thousand hard-core members, forty thousand counting regular affiliates, sixty thousand counting the unorganized but ready to fight…

It makes sense that the speech would be given weight; it’s the reason the gangs have gathered together. In the film, the speech is sabotaged. In the book, it’s obvious from the beginning that Ismael’s plan is doomed. Yurick emphasizes that the gangs are made up of children. One of the older members of The Dominators is Dewey, who is 17. James Remar, one of the actors in the film would have been around 26 when the film was made. None of  the actors in the film look particularly young, and Rembrandt, who is portrayed as the young member who others look out for, was played by an actor who was 22 at the time. 

I’m going to speculate that the reasons for this are largely practical. Even if the idea of the gangs being made of children was preserved, working with large groups of child actors is a challenge, and the film is heavy on stunts, and was shot at night. Even in the late 70s, keeping children up all night to film would have been, at best, challenging. There’s a further difference, however. While the characters in the film do horse around, they move and act like adults. Ajax is the exception, and he is punished and put in his place by others for not “soldiering”, and in fact his attempted seduction/would be rape of someone in a park takes him out of the film— his childish short sightedness is punished.

In the book, the children act like children. There’s a fairly lengthy sequence in which Hector, the leader of the Dominators, teases and torments the other gang members by withholding a candy bar from them. It’s exactly the kind of pointless, petty bullshit children get into. Yurick devotes six pages or so to it; the exchanges between the characters, even though they are pointless and dumb, are given prominence, which illustrates who these people actually are. And indeed it’s because they are children that Ismael/Cyrus plan falls apart. In the film, Cyrus is shot by the leader of one of the gangs, who’s stated reason is “no reason. I just like doing things like that.” It’s actually one of the weaker parts of the film. David E. Kelley gives a remarkably unhinged performance as Luther, and you almost believe he’s insane enough to do something that impulsive and dumb, but he has too much of a sense of self-preservation to make it entirely feel real. 

Instead of an assassination, in the book, someone slaps a mosquito, and the gathered gangs, already tense from being outside their own turf and gathered unnaturally together, mistake it for something else, panic and begin fighting amongst themselves. Ismael is shot in the confusion. We never learn by whom. It actually makes a lot more sense that it would be random bullshit rather than actual malice. But it does change the tenor of the rest of the book— the main enemy The Dominators are worried about are the cops. Rival gangs are a concern, because they are always a concern, but mostly The Dominators don’t want to be spotted by the police, and the book emphasizes this. 

The film and the book both make the city out to be a sort of unknown territory. In the somewhat dense and lengthy afterward to the book Yurick makes it clear he is writing about ‘fighting gangs’— lower class kids who self-organized and in fact were fairly ignorant of the rest of the city in which they lived. They were, as described by Yurick, ‘totally marginal’. Unlike the gangs we think of today, they had no power or influence— “The very need to form gangs was a product of their irrelevance.” They’re more Jets and Sharks than Crips and Bloods; there’s no sense that these gangs are involved in any sort of organized crime. The film glosses this over; the gangs fight over turf for no reason other than ‘it’s our turf’. It’s fine from a story perspective, and it doesn’t require a whole lot of suspension of disbelief. 

Yurick tries to elevate all this in his afterward: references to Moby Dick, the Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost (all the gangs have names related to Paradise Lost) abound in his essay, but I don’t find it in the text, except in a superficial manner.  There are a fair few lurid moments in the book— The Dominators murder, rape, and fight their way though. While the film contains a lot of violence; it’s mostly fairly cartoony in nature. The enemies of The Warriors dress in silly looking costumes: one of the big fight scenes is against a gang wearing baseball uniforms and facepaint. The book’s violence is much more direct and graphic. There are two rape scenes; one of which is accompanied by a fairly horrifying description of a murder, and I get it, I really do. These are people capable of doing awful things and thinking nothing of it. The film needed not just protagonists, but heroes, and committing a gang rape is going to ruin that. And, while this was a fairly low budget movie, it was not an independent film; the scenes from the book involving women would have guaranteed an unreleasable movie. 

To give Yurick some of his due, however, there’s one sequence in the book that really stuck with me. Hinton is separated from the group and walks through a subway tunnel alone. Apparently Yurick was something of a method writer, and actually did this himself. If the book is roughly analogous to “Anabasis” (a climbing up), this sequence is a catabasis, a journey into the underworld. In the film, it’s a bonding moment between Mercy and Swan. In the book, it’s a place for Hinton to confront who he is, and what the gang has forced him to be. Hinton is the only one who directly dreams of a better life, and it’s easy to connect it to this sequence. He literally writes “Hinton D. shits on the MF Dominators from the Father and the Mother on down, and on all his brothers.” He regrets it almost immediately, as “though they couldn’t see it [the gang] would somehow know what he had done”. He concludes that the best thing he can do is to be strong— the catabasis ultimately offers him no real insight, it simply reaffirms his bond to the gang. It’s a powerful moment, one filled with tension and insight into who these children actually are. It crackles; even if there are some extraneous exclamation points (a particular bugbear of mine). 

The author did not like the film; that’s not all that uncommon. Stephen King legendarily hates Kubrick’s “The Shining”, to the point where there’s been a two part made for TV remake of it, which King produced. Yurick was present at the scene in which Cyrus makes his speech, and was, in his own words “fascinated by the difference between what I had tried to do in the book and the way the film tried to deal with the problem of the grand assemblage of gang representatives”. 

He concludes “I looked for my novel on the screen. I found the skeleton of it intact.”

He’s not wrong— I’ve touched on just a few of the differences; listing them all out would turn this essay into a book, and not a book I’d care to write or read. I sort of wish he’d been able to see that that ‘skeleton’ had in fact been fleshed back out into a cult classic; a film that has a following to this day. But I understand pouring your heart into a thing and watching it radically re-ordered. Yurick particularly fixates on a sequence involving a mechanical ‘sheriff’ arcade game and Hinton, which oddly I found overlong and a bit out of place. Again, I understand; but I don’t agree. Yurick concludes his afterward saying “The Warriors is not the best of my books.” Yet it’s the only one of his still in print, largely due to the film. 

There’s an old cliché that “the book was better”, but here they are such entirely different products that comparing them for a ‘better’ is ultimately pointless. They’re both flawed, fascinating in their own way works of art. I went into the book hoping I could recommend it unequivocally, the basis for a beloved film. What I found was a unique but sort of confused unpolished gem: I can see why someone would want to adapt it, but I also understand why it was changed so radically in the adaptation. Is it worth reading the book if you like the movie? For someone like me, sure. But you have to approach it as it’s own thing, as it very much is. I had said on twitter that the film is “…like the movie was made after someone described the book to three people at a four martini lunch.” That’s a bit unfair. It’s more akin to a contrafact— a musical work which puts a new melody over an old harmony. How well that works for you is going to depend on how attached you are to the harmony. Does the new melody offer you something interesting, or do you just want to stick with what you know? That’s going to depend on how much time you want to take to listen.

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