on January 27, 2001
I started off being a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the movie, and have been for years, and didn't read the book until this year. I am very glad I did, because in some ways it is better than the movie. There are things about Luke's background and his personality that are easier to understand in the book. Also, I love the way it's told, from the character Sailor's perspective. The book gives us a better idea of how truly brutal the conditions were for chain-gang convicts, which we didn't really get a true picture of in the movie. I felt that was an important aspect of the book, the living conditions of the convicts, and one the author, Donn Pearce, wanted us to have an understanding of, since he was in a chain-gang himself. Life was miserable for Luke and all the convicts.
For those of us who love the movie so, we have to remember that Donn Pearce was the Creator of this CoolHand Luke character and without him there would be no movie. We are grateful to him for creating all the characters and the whole story, and also writing the screenplay for the movie. Pearce suffered the life of a chain-gang convict himself only to go on to write a bestseller that was made into one of the greatest films of all time. Not bad for a one-time prisoner.
Note: Pearce wrote his character Luke to be 28 years old in the book. Paul newman was 42 when he played the role. But who would notice?
By now "Cool Hand Luke," is of course, a legend. Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to the novel, but rather, to the well known Paul Newman film (referred to in the sitcom Cheers' inaugural episode as "the sweatiest movie ever made,").
However, I digress, back to the novel. This was Donn Pearce's first novel. I initially had no interest in reading it. Rather, I came to it in a backdoor sort of way. Being a World War II buff, I heard the good reviews of Pearce's latest effort, "Nobody Comes Back," a novel about the Battle of the Bulge. I bought it and read it. It was an excellent novel and since "Cool Hand Luke," is without a doubt his most famous book, it was inevitable that I would eventually want to read it.
It took a while, but I found a copy and I read it in a few days.
"Cool Hand Luke" is an excellent novel. The story is told in the form of flashbacks. In fact, the novel's structure is very close to Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." A mute witness narrator who records the events of a naturally tempestuous and outgoing personality in a strictly structured environment (in Kesey's book, it's an insane asylum, in Pearce's, it's a chain gang prison) and the incidents that flow from it. The one difference between Kesey's book and Pearce's is that Kesey worked at a mental hospital, but Pearce (who also has a very colorful resume in addition to being a novelist) did do time on a chain gang. So there's a definite real life experience in "Cool Hand Luke."
It's a great book. First time readers might be off put by the lack of quotes, but it's a small adjustment to make. For lovers of the movie, they will be surprised at how closely the movie follows the book. Of course, there is more characterization in the novel than the movie can give (this should be no surprise since Donn Pearce himself co-authored the script).
Still, it's a wonderful novel and is a quick read.
on March 16, 2015
I've been on one hell of a lucky streak with reading good books. This book is fantastic. This is old school writing, not the homogenized big-box-store style of writing so popular today. Written in a unique, unforgettable voice, it has the dim glow of greatness humming up from its pages, a kind of once-in-a-lifetime act of lightning-catching, mysterious and beautiful and sad and defiant, everything that makes great art.
I've seen the movie at least 20 times. I watch it whenever I start to get them ol' existential doldrums. But this is the first time I read the book and I tell you that it is a different experience and worth reading even if you're familiar with the film. It's not better or worse, just different, and the moment I finished the book I knew I'd read it again. There aren't many books I read more than once.
Read it before or after the movie, or on its own. It doesn't matter. It's a great tale, a book to tuck in your pocket and take to the grave.
on December 26, 2008
I'm just getting around to reading the book version of Cool Hand Luke, after having watched the movie several times over the years, although only in pieces, and I usually fell asleep while watching it. After reading it, I'll say I love them both but actually prefer the movie version.
Donn Pearce, the author, was in prison himself among other activities in life (such as joining the merchant marine), so there's some authenticity to the story. What added some interest for me was the prison in the story is Florida State Prison in Raiford, which I passed by every time I went to Gainesville during my seven years at UF. I'd also read that some of the road work scenes were filmed in Jacksonville, though it must have been the outskirts at the time. They also had the actors help pave an actual section of state road for the movie.
So I got a copy of the book and dove in. There are some nit-picky issues with editing that those not in publishing won't really notice, but the book and movie are essentially identical. That's probably because Pearce wrote the screenplay. The book also uses some racial epithets that really don't add a thing to the story other than to reflect some of the ignorant attitudes of the time. After reading the book, I found the movie online and watched it all the way through, and I think Pearce took great advantage of a rare opportunity - he got to make important improvements to the original story.
While on the surface, it's a story about a non-conformist who doesn't fit in (a major theme of the 1960s), and who others look up to as a role model of "coolness" under pressure, it seems to also be about a larger issue. Prison could be thought of as a metaphor for life on earth, and the Free World (as Pearce calls it) is heaven. They all had an original sin - Luke's was cutting the heads off parking meters. The guards and the Captain ("What we got here, is failure to communicate") maybe represent organized religion or even government when it dictates how we live our lives. Luke seems to know the True Way, contrary to the way enforced by beatings and punishment, and seems to live as an example to others. Luke also embodies humility. "Sometimes, 'nothing' is a really cool hand," he says after bluffing his way through a poker game, earning his nickname.
Luke is a Christ figure - more clearly so in the movie than in the book. He meets every hardship with a relaxed and calming smile, advising others to always play it cool. He turns the other cheek when he boxes with Dragline (a scene only in the movie), he tries to treat the Man With No Eyes with kindness by handing him his walking stick, but spends the night in the box for it. He performs miracles like eating 50 eggs in one hour.
The guards want to break him, but they never do. Three escape attempts fail. One attempt, he tries to make it in the Free World and can't. Wandering in the wilderness, maybe - he realizes the truth and resigns himself to his fate. The third attempt ends in an old church as dilapidated and disused as organized religion itself. Luke pleads with God to show him the way, and he gets shot in the throat, fulfilling the Captain's promise to shoot him if he tried again. They couldn't get Luke's mind right, because Luke's mind was the only one that was right.
A key difference between the movie and the book was in the final scene. In the movie, the Captain drives Luke off to the prison hospital and runs over the mirrored sunglasses of the Man With No Eyes, crushing them. It's as if to show that Luke "broke" the system or maybe took away its blindness in return for the system breaking Luke. The book's ending is less symbolic.
In the book, the narrator is a fellow prisoner. He occasionally intrudes on the story, and one time starts to remember something from his WWII Navy days, but nothing of this narrator is ever developed, just that he's called "Sailor." The movie drops him completely.
Luke had been in the Army in Europe during the war, won silver and bronze stars, but got busted to private before being discharged. The book further develops his war days, with his squad moving through Italy and Germany, literally raping and pillaging as they went. Luke stalked a girl up the stairs of one house and cornered her in the bathroom before gaining his senses when he looks up at a crucifix on the wall. This was probably the start of his disillusionment with society and his failure to reconcile killing in war with religious teachings. At age 28 on entering prison, this would make the story take place in the early 1950s.
The movie is a better-told story, but the book is definitely worth reading. As I said, the author made many vital improvements and incorporated them into the screenplay. Cool Hand Luke is a timeless story, and is a vital part of our cultural heritage. The characters and dialog are still popular to quote and are as relevant today as when written over forty years ago.
He had a pair of nothing. Smiling, he murmured softly.
"Just remember, man. Wherever you go and whatever you do. Always play a real cool hand." -Cool Hand Luke
Cool Hand Luke is narrated by Sailor, much of it as he overhears it from Clarence "Dragline" Slidell, as the road crew is resting in a churchyard, a yard which they consider "sacred ground" because it is where Dragline and Luke were finally captured.. Together their gospel recalls how Lloyd "Cool Hand Luke" Jackson came to be among them. His crime, like Christ chasing the moneylenders from the Temple, was cutting the heads off of municipal parking meters. Sentenced to serve on the chain gang at Raiford prison, he is put to work on what the convicts call the "Hard Road," his own Via Dolorosa. The men are watched over by a group of brutal bosses, the most fearsome of whom is Boss Godfrey, with his reflective sunglasses which make him inscrutable.
Though not a particularly large man, Luke is a war hero, excellent musician, sharp card player, extraordinary worker and incredible eater. All of these add to his legend, but it is his indomitability that raises him to mythic status. In the most symbol rich scene in the novel, Luke bets that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in one hour. Fifty four are prepared for the event, and by no coincidence that happens to be the number of men serving on the chain gang. Luke of course succeeds in the effort, several of his acolytes finishing off the remaining eggs.
After Luke's mother dies, the warden has him put in "the box," just in case he gets any ideas about escaping. Luke responds to this unjust punishment by taking off as so as he can (on the 4th of July, naturally) and the remainder of the novel details his series of escapes and subtle and large defiances of authority. Throughout, the other convicts live vicariously through his courage and his demonstration of will. Though unwilling to resist the bosses themselves, they take inspiration from his example. In their most powerful moment of resistance, they follow Luke's lead on a Friday afternoon as he prods them on to finish a particularly difficult stretch of roadwork ahead of schedule.
Finally, he becomes too great a challenge to the authority of the bosses and they determine to break him through a series of sentences to the box and brutal beatings, leading to the predictable but still affecting moment :
With a final blow, Luke's head was flung forward. He hung there by the arms, limp, sagging, held up by the trustees who turned their faces with sickened grimaces, unable to look at him, unable to look at each other. And we stood there staring up at Cool Hand's body that was crucified against the sky, his bleeding head bowed toward us.
Behind him stood Boss Godfrey, his black hat outlined on the cloudy heavens beyond, his mirrored glasses catching the full rays of the sun and reflecting them down upon us, the eyes of the Walking Boss becoming two balls of blinding celestial fire.
And in the end they do indeed make him despair :
Don't hit me no more, Boss! Please! Don't hit me no more! I'll do whatever you say. Just don't hit me no more.
The music stopped. Boss Paul smiled. The faintest trace of a grin moved at the corners of Boss Godfrey's lips. Bending over, he spoke quietly, anxiously, almost with tender concern.
Have you got your mind right, Luke?
Yes sir, Boss. I got it right. I got it right.
Are you sure, Luke? You ain't gonna backslide on me are yuh? You sure your mind's right?
Yes suh, Boss. Please. Please don't hit me no more.
All right Luke. All right. Ah won't hit you no more.
The Building was silent.
But this is not the end of Luke, any more than Christ's cry of "Oh Lord, why hast thou forsaken me!" was the end of Him. Luke escapes one last time, and though it is the last, even after he's gone his life, his defiance of authority, and his passion for freedom serve as the examples that the men aspire towards. Just as Luke took on the burden of their souls and their sins in the eating of the eggs, in their stories, if nowhere else, he has achieved Everlasting Life.
GRADE : A+
on August 26, 2016
Donn Pearce, a former convict, who served time in a prison similar to the one presented, has written an outstanding work of literature. The author does not use quotation marks for dialog (works very well - I've never seen that before) and the book's time-line is brilliant. I found the book to be sadder and darker than the movie with a far superior character development of Luke. Many of the familiar scenes in the movie appear in the book, but the book adds many more. You'll meet some memorable characters such as Dragline, Walking Boss, Rabbit, and more.
on February 13, 2013
If you love the movie, you'll love the book. No need to say more. Spare writing that cuts to the meat of the story; it's one you can read in one or two sittings and then want to watch the movie again.
on November 10, 2013
Curiosity got the best of me, having seen the movie 376 times (approximately). Pearce used his personal chain gang experience as the backdrop for this gritty slice of life/character study. Most of the incidents in the book appear in the film even though the story is structured in the first person. The violence is grittier and more intense here but Pearce does an excellent job fleshing out the chain-gang inmates and bosses.
on April 18, 2015
The classic prison story. But it takes many readings to realise that Luke (like many) has been so damaged by his experiences in WWII, that he can not function in society anymore. His rebellion is part of that as is his end, but had they not put him in "the box" when his mother died he may not have ended up being executed by Boss Godfrey.
on September 22, 2012
Maybe you'll never read this, but if you do, I want to thank you Donn Pearce for writing one of the finest books anyone in this country has ever written. I come back to Cool Hand Luke every year or so and I never fail to find new beauty and new inspiration it. In my opinion, you never got the credit you truly deserved, but you're one of the best, Donn. And when you wrote that book you gave us all a beautiful gift. Thank you.