The Medium, The Message, and The Man: HBO's Nucky Thompson vs The Novel's Nucky Johnson

The Steve Buscemi characterization of Nucky Thompson in the HBO show
Boardwalk Empire is a lesser man than his print counterpart, Nucky
"Johnson" in the pages of the novel, "Low Light." Both characters are
ambitious, shrewd, and when it suits their purpose, either magnanimous
or mean. But readers of Low Light get an entirely different picture than
viewers of the TV show.

1. The medium vs. the message. Prose and film stimulate different kinds of imagination. In my novel, Nucky
is a tall well-dressed gentleman, a dance floor smoothy, and backroom
persuader. Just those few phrases triggered an image in your head
of a dignified person who acts with restraint. The less a writer says,
the more the reader imagines. I limited description of Nucky to his
dialog (always grammatical and slightly old fashioned), a handful of
incidents, some retold by verbally challenged people, and few
adjectives. The result is that the reader puts flesh on these skeletal
scraps and builds the character himself.

2. The Message: Blood flows from many people in many places in the first episode of the TV
show. Although Nucky does not pull any triggers, scenes with his image
bracket all of the violent action. By association, therefore, the viewer
will think of Nucky as violent. My guess is that the estimable writers
of the TV show will never put a gun in Nucky's hand, but it won't make
any difference. The subplot of TV's Boardwalk Empire, what's shown in
trailers and what's shown as the "solution" to problems the authors
raise is consistent: Violence Pays. In my book, brains and and integrity
win.

3. No matter how gifted the actor, a viewer cannot fully separate a portrayal and a portrayer. Nor can stereotypes be banished.
Heroes are handsome, tall, and strong. The adage 'handsome is as
handsome does' sounds cute, but is not true. Viewers assume handsome
characters will do the handsome deeds, not the other way around. Indeed,
we want the tall and handsome characters to do the right things,
because we all want to have our stereotypes validated. Mr. Buscemi,
whose features are captivating, whose eyes say far more than most
actor's mouths ever will, has a serious challenge in giving his Nucky
the gravitas and heroism viewers crave.

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