I've just re-read Jim Thompson's The Grifters, and the farther into it I got, the more apparent it became to me that Thompson's novels provide an especially useful illustration of the differences between third- and first-person narration in fiction. I still enjoyed The Grifters, which is narrated in the third person, but reading it a second time made me more aware of its limitations, as well as the virtues of the first-person narratives to be found in novels such as The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, and After Dark, My Sweet.
Here are a few paragraphs near the beginning of After Dark, My Sweet. The story is being told by "Kid" Collins, the novel's protagonist, and he has stopped in at a roadhouse for a glass of beer:
The bartender slopped a beer down in front of me. He scooped up the change I'd laid on the counter, sat down on the stool again, and picked up a newspaper. I said something about it was sure a hot day. He grunted without looking up. I said it was a nice pleasant little place he had there and that he certainly knew how to keep his beer cold. He grunted again.
I looked down at my beer, feeling the short hairs rising on the back of my neck. I guessed--I knew--that I should never have come in here. I should never go in any place where people might not be nice and polite to me. That's all they have to do, you know. Just be as nice to me as I am to them. . . .
We then learn that Kid Collins has spent some time in "institutions" (eventually that he has just escaped from one), but we really don't need that information to know that something's not quite right with the Kid. His very need to elicit a response from the bartender and those short hairs rising tell us what we need to know. And we wouldn't know it in the same way if the Kid himself wasn't telling us. The novel immediately plunges us into the world of Kid Collins as he is able to articulate it, and most of its melodramatic punch comes from being jolted by the Kid's direct verbal flourishes. (And he is, it turns out, an ex-boxer.)
The Grifters starts out pretty well, too:
As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Now with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.
Somehow, he got back to his car and managed to slide into the seat. But that was all he could manage. He moaned as the change in posture cramped his stomach muscles; then, with a strangled gasp, he leaned out the window.
Several cars passed as he spewed vomit into the street, their occupants grinning, frowning sympathetically, or averting their eyes in disgust. . . .
This also steeps us immediately into the world as experienced by Roy Dillon, but in The Grifters he shares our narrative attention with his mother Lilly and his girlfriend, Moira Langry, and so the story involving the three of them will have to be told by a third-person narrator who has access to their thoughts and emotions but filters them through his own more distanced narrative voice. It's not quite full-blown "pyschological realism," but Thompson nevertheless can achieve his signature hard-boiled, scary/depraved effects only by fishing around in the characters' minds for their perceptions of and reactions to the inevitably untoward situations they encounter. The verbally-constructed "voice" of a character like Kid Collins is lost, and we have to pick our way through such vague verbiage as "incredible agony" and be satisfied that just "somehow" Roy Dillon returned to his car.
Thus, while the novel commences with a typical Thompsonesque bang, it's not long before we get a little bogged down in passages like this:
. . .He had looked around extensively and carefully before choosing Los Angeles as a permanent base of operations, and his capital was now reduced to less than a thousand dollars.
That was a lot of money, of course. Unlike the big-con operator, whose elaborate scene-setting may involve as much as a hundred thousand dollars, the short-con grifter can run on peanuts. But Roy Dillon, while remaining loyal to the short con, was abandoning the normal scheme of things.
At twenty-one, he was weary of the hit-and-get. He knew that the constant "getting"--jumpring from one town to another before the heat got too hot--could absorb most of the hits, even of a thrifty man. So that he might work as hard and often as he safely could, and still wind up with the wolf nipping at the seat of his threadbare pants. . . .
In my view, we're being given way too much "information" in a passage like this, information that is perhaps important for us to have but that would be less intrusive if it were parceled out gradually by a first-person narrator or if it was at least provided to us dramatically--through showing rather than telling. It would be better, for example, if we saw Roy Dillon "abandoning the normal scheme of things" rather than being told this was the case through an awkward inventory of the contents of Roy's mind. A secondary effect of this third-person technique is the fuzzy, flabby language: "He had looked around extensively"; "can run on peanuts"; "the wolf nipping at the seat of his threadbare pants". Not only does such writing lean heavily on cliche--which again might be more tolerable if it were issuing from a first-person narrator--but it helps to make passages like this themselves seem like just so much perfunctory "scene-setting."
Perhaps this is why I actually prefer the Stephen Frears movie made from The Grifters to the novel, something I would not say of the film adapted from After Dark, My Sweet. Frears's film is able to dispense with the third-person narrator and focus on the characters and their overlapping stories in a direct, unmediated way. We get Thompson's lowlife plot without his narrator's sometimes laborious attempts to move it along. It is also probably why I think Thompson's best novels are those related to us by his sublimely scuzzy first-person narrators. It's impossible to reproduce these novels on screen because their narrators are so inseparably a part of their appeal. Such is undoubtedly true of most well-devised first-person narrators, which is one reason I believe this method of storytelling is almost always more promising as a way of creating distinctive, aesthetically pleasing works of fiction than the kind of close-in third-person narration that has in most literary fiction become more or less the only available alternative (and that is probably often used precisely because it does lend itself more easily to screen adaptation.)