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Primal Fear

This week’s rec has a very special place in my heart. I first watched the film when I was very young (too young to have been allowed to watch something like this, but oh well), and I’ve subsequently re-watched it three more times. For something whose main quality is the element of surprise (in my opinion), the fact that I’ve seen it four times and I still love it speaks volumes.


The film I’m talking about is the 1996 legal thriller Primal Fear. I’ve considered making separate recs for the film and book (written by William Diehl and published in 1993), but I’ve decided it’s better to just talk about both, as they’ve both got something special going on for their respective mediums.

Primal Fear centers around Martin Vail, a hotshot attorney who ends up taking a pro-bono case defending Aaron Stampler, a 19 year old altar boy who’s accused of murdering a very influential Bishop Rushman.


I recommend watching the film before you read the book (I know, weird), because the book will spoil some of Edward Norton’s acting magic as he plays Aaron. And after you read the book, rewatch the movie and bask in the glory of knowing what’s going to happen and how well Norton shows everything. Trust me, seeing it a second (and third, and fourth) time really makes it better, oddly enough.


For this, I’m going to try to limit the spoilers as much as possible. Without further ado:


Why you should watch the film:


1. Really well executed intro that seems expositional but really gives you the biggest possible clue about the climax, literally from the get-go. It also does a great job of showing you who Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is, what he cares and stands for, and what’s going to be his undoing. Simple, but brilliant.


2. The character dynamics will engage the hell out of you. Marty and Janet (Laura Linney) are enemies in court, but have a spark that’s natural, exciting, and makes for an even better fight as they try to argue Aaron’s case. In my opinion, this is an improvement from the book, as Marty’s not shown bedding every female character that crosses his path anymore (although Janet alludes to it), and the focus is more on how his off-work connection to Janet affects the case and vice versa.


3. From that, maybe it’s because a woman was involved in writing the script (Ann Biderman), but the female characters are treated with respect and are key to the story (also in the book, except for the bedding issue in point #2). Especially Janet, who seems more elevated from her book version (or maybe it’s just Linney’s portrayal). She’s smart, she knows how to balance her work with her history with Marty, and she takes no shit from her bosses. Not to mention her badassery in court.

4. For any Brooklyn Nine-Nine fans, Andre Braugher is in this. He plays Tom Goodman, Marty’s investigator, and although he doesn’t get to shine as much as others, he provides the rationality we need once we delve deeper into the case. The fact that they kept Goodman’s “I’m his uncle” line from the book when he goes to investigate Aaron’s apartment is gold, as… well. Look at Mister Braugher and look at Edward Norton. That dash of comic was needed, especially for such a heavy story.


5. I have to appreciate the gender and race-bent Judge Shoat (Alfre Woodard). Although her role is small, she makes her mark, and she’s way cooler than her book counterpart.


6. Edward Norton. He is why I keep coming back to this movie. If you decide to watch this for any reason, it should be him. He’s incredible as the angelic, stuttering, innocent-looking Aaron Stampler, and I honestly don’t know how anyone else would’ve been able to pull this off like he did. He’s absolutely mesmerizing and he really makes you feel for Aaron the first time. But you rewatch, and you can see it. You can see the subtlety of his acting even better once you Know. It’s this performance that honestly made me kind of terrified of this man for over a decade to be honest, but in a good way. He’s so good it’s scary.

7. The pace is perfect. It doesn’t drag on, it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and I am not lying when I said I got heart palpitations near the end, for the final reveal I’d already seen three times before. The excitement for it never died. A truly brilliant ending.


Why you should read the book:


1. Diehl takes a lot of time working on his characters and letting us know more about them. This is especially important for Aaron’s character, as it allows the readers to understand him better than the movie. We learn of his tragic past – growing up in Crikside, his father’s abuse, his terror at going into The Hole – but also find out about his desire for more, his passion for learning, his genius. We’re given more clues as to how Aaron ends up being the way he is by being told about his various jobs, his relationship with his teacher, his initial idea of religion, as well as his mother’s condition.


2. From that, the book also adds to The Other Side of Aaron (I’m trying to be sneaky). It explores more than what we see in the movie when it comes to Him, and it’s really great to see the build-up to the man we see in the present. Surely, considering the nature of the Rushman murder, it couldn’t have been the first murder, right? Wink wink nudge nudge.


3. The therapy sessions Aaron has with Molly Arrington are, in my opinion, more exciting in the book. Although you can’t see the brilliant Norton-facial expressions, the back and forth between Aaron and Molly and the build-up to the story’s revelations are so well executed you cannot stop reading and then want to skip forward to the next session.

4. Rushman’s murder is more gruesome (genitals in mouth everyone?), which gives the reader even more insight into the motivations behind the death. If you’re a murder mystery, crime-show watcher like me, this lil’ aspect makes the case that much more interesting.


5. From that, the book also doesn’t shy away from more cruelty by introducing pedophilia, both in Aaron’s backstory, and his time at Savior House. In the film, Linda (Aaron’s girlfriend) is aged up, which makes the whole Thing with the tapes… a little less disgusting, although still horrible. But in the book, she’s only 13, and it’s not just Aaron and Alex (another altar boy) participating either… So even though it’s awful and appalling, it does kind of flip the tables on who you’re rooting for even more so than the film does. So what if Aaron did kill the Bishop? The fucker deserved it.


6. The place where Aaron is caught is way more symbolic. Although it doesn’t do much to change the story for the better or for the worse, it’s just really neat that the book has him found in the church’s confessional as opposed to running away from the cops on the train tracks.


7. The motivation behind Marty taking the case and the reason Janet is saddled with it are both more dynamic in the book. It’s understandable that the film decided to go the faster route though, because getting into all that story would’ve made it 3 hours long and would’ve made it lose the great flow it has. As the book didn’t have this problem to think about, it made for a great high-stakes game for both Marty and Janet (Jane in the book), with the added backstory of them having faced off before and finally getting a rematch thanks to Aaron.


8. Honestly? If I had to pick which courtroom face-off I liked more, I’d go with the book. Marty and Jane questioning their witnesses was such a pleasant read, especially because of how they presented their questions and arguments. Trapping witnesses, triggering… ahem… *spoiler*, Marty’s entire court strategy and Jane trying to read his game, it’s all so exciting to go through. My opinion of the book-trial is just two words: Chef’s kiss.

9. The reveal is just as good in the book as it is in the movie, and I think more so because it stops at exactly the right time to leave you both with your jaw on the floor, and terrified out of your wits. That final line? Brilliant ending.


So there you have it, my attempt at very succinctly recommending you this brilliant story. I’ve surpassed my usual 10 points per rec, but I’m allowed to, as I’ve pretty much dealt with two different things and also I love it too much to limit myself to 10. This is the least amount of spoilers I could manage for a rec, so forgive me for not offering more details, but I’d honestly ruin it if I said any more.


Go watch this movie. Go read this book. Then go watch the movie again. Best choices you’ll make when it comes to the media you consume. Trust the Donut on this.


As always, thank you so much for your time! I will see you next week with another rec, and just in time for Valentine’s Day. Give you a cure for the nightmares you’ll get from Ed Norton, right?

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