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20 July 2017

Marathon Man and a marvellously gruesome dentist’s drill

William Goldman's 1974 novel is adapted for BBC Radio 4.

By Antonia Quirke

“Is it safe?” – perhaps the most penetrating line William Goldman ever wrote, repeated many times and with a tantalising disgust during the famous tooth-drilling scene in the 1976 movie of Marathon Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. Is it safe? In this swift radio adaptation of Goldman’s 1974 novel (15 July, 2.30pm), the line gets the same treatment. Repeated until it’s almost sung, while the hero Tom Levy (Jack Lowden), an innocent history postgrad, suffers at the hands of an ageing Nazi dentist gloatingly come to NYC to collect his stash of diamonds stolen from Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz.

I’m not convinced that this 58-minute radio version would make much sense to anybody who hadn’t seen the movie. It’s very well performed (British actor Lowden’s American accent unusually casual) but as with all radio versions of famous movies I find myself fixating – to the exclusion of almost any other sensation – over which lines are going to be retained. Happily, my favourite remark turned up: “You’re much too trusting. It’s going to cause you grief someday. Welcome to someday.”

Marathon Man was a far better movie than it ever was a book, parading all the good habits of cinema at the time, the very definition of what a thriller should be: a merciless succession of exciting images and scenes. On the radio, that’s harder. But the director (Kirsty Williams) resisted the temptation to go overboard with a too-busy soundscape (the drilling scene is most certainly retained, natch, and marvellously gruesome).

Of course, there was something powerfully whimsical in its being set in 1976 – people using landlines, mentions of Nixon, etc – but thankfully there was no effort to make the case for “how little has changed”. The adaptor, Stephen Keyworth, didn’t even go to town with the street protests about pollution and bombs in Paris cafés of the original story. The truth is that everything has changed, and everybody knows it. Watching, reading or listening to Marathon Man is more than anything lulling – the protests somehow nicer, the bombs less violent. None of us like the new news. We all prefer the old news. Is it safe? Hell, no. 

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder