Books to be Scene: Simon Lelic's RUPTURE

"The teachers would have been standing by now, fixated and immobile, like theatre-goers trapped in the circle as chaos consumes the stalls. They would have seen him fire for a third time and they would have seen the third child fall. [...] When he had then looked to them and taken his first step towards the stage, they might finally have run themselves."

A man walks into assembly at the school where he used to teach, draws a gun and kills three students and a member of staff before taking his own life. But when a police investigator attempts to ascertain any motive behind the attack, she starts to realise the man pulling the trigger wasn't the only one responsible. Yes, you read that right; Simon Lelic's novel Rupture (known as A Thousand Cuts in the US) attempts the monumental task of humanising, if in no way excusing, a school shooter and despite a few minor stumbles reaches this ambitious goal in terrific style.

Wait, wait, wait. 'Novel'? What's going on here?

Okay! Welcome to the first of what we plan to be a regular feature here at Twitch, where we take a look at books which for one reason or another - the subject matter, the writing, the imagery - we think they'd make an awesome film. Some may have been optioned but never seen again, others completely passed over. Simon Lelic seems to specialise in tilting at windmills (The Facility takes on civil liberties, while The Child Who gives a kind of dignity to a juvenile rapist), and even though Rupture was his début it still impresses at every turn. This is a remorseless crescendo of a novel, piling on the tension page after page with ever more painful reveals like blasts of Inception brass, reminding you looking for easy answers in a case like this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Do we get any answers at all?

Do we ever! Over the course of 300 pages we discover nigh on everyone had it in for Samuel Szajkowski, a campaign of sustained and horrific emotional and physical abuse that made his career at the school completely untenable. Pupils mock his authority, seize on his every weakness and the staff condone it, even contribute. Lelic slowly reveals just how fragile the man really was, why he would not, could not imagine fighting back, and how none of the participants had the slightest clue what harm they were doing him. He doesn't spare anyone - staff and students are all plainly aware they're taking part in something deeply wrong that should have stopped long ago - but at the same time Szajkowski never lets his mask slip until it's much too late, and none of his colleagues or his charges have any real idea what's underneath.

"He shot three children. He killed a teacher, an innocent woman. And I'm feeling sorry for the bloke. ... I'm acting like he deserved compassion. ... If he hadn't done what he did, he might even have deserved it. The sympathy. These people you've talked to showing him pity. But not now."

Rupture manages a sustained emotional pitch most films can't even dream of matching, let alone keeping up. Lelic refuses to let you look away: your only escape is to put the book down. And while he rams it home how arrogantly, ignorantly and downright criminal almost every last person in the school behaved, he also makes it abundantly clear Szajkowski was a weak, emotionally crippled man far out of his depth who should never have been there in the first place. This is even before he reinforces the horror of the shooter having taken four human lives, three of whom had barely started living. It's a cheap, easy get-out to describe a story as "sucking the air out of the room", but Rupture feels like such a demanding, looming presence while you're reading it you know why the cliché was invented.

So this is, what, the British Irreversible?

Not so much: Rupture is definitely more than simple car-crash fascination or horror for the sake of it. Lelic weaves a dramatic, multi-layered plot where although nothing much seems to happen the main characters have to face up to making potentially life-changing decisions. Detective Lucia May is painfully aware she's living a lie; assigned to a station that's run like an old boys' club and does not want her, bullied, put down and stepped on day in, day out, getting Szajkowski some small measure of justice despite his crimes is Inspector May's last chance to come clean with herself. Rupture's fluid morality and incisive examination of what it means to shout "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more" puts over-rated, crowd-pleasing schlock like Confessions to shame. No pat villains here, no cartoon melodrama; you'll be wondering who was really in the right for months after reading.

"Samuel says, please, Headmaster. Please.
Mr Szajkowski, the headmaster says. Get a grip on yourself. You can't go on behaving like this in front of the children. You're a teacher, man. Set an example.
... And Samuel doesn't reply. He doesn't say anything, nothing that I can hear."

Admittedly Rupture offers few opportunities to experiment with visuals. This is relatively standard inner city drama, crumbling, under-funded schools where the wheels are greased with tedium, uneasy camaraderie and the stink of disinfectant masking old sweat. However artful the writing, however human the main characters, they're still fairly predictable types. Good casting could decide most of any film version's appeal, as long as you had a director willing to push his actors. Some eye for a memorable image would still help. The novel does evoke a kind of detached, horrid beauty in places, the rotting, wounded heart of British suburbia, and giving the production some polish or even a director willing to play with what audiences would expect to see would be useful. Rupture is a slog; tremendously rewarding, but still a grim, hard uphill climb. You'd want a Paddy Considine, someone who could lend proceedings a little grace and lighten the load, not beat audiences over the head.

Do you seriously believe this would ever get made into a film?

It would take a brave director to even attempt to bring something like Rupture to the screen. The film rights to the novel have been optioned! But there's been no sign of anyone working on them since. If a studio like Warner Brothers are prepared to drastically edit a high-profile film like Gangster Squad in the wake of the tragic The Dark Knight Rises-related shootings it's doubtful any studio would want to adapt a complex literary novel by a relatively unknown author that tackles the same kind of subject matter head-on. Regardless, there's few, if any, stories like this which don't devolve into empty, rockstar glitz and Oscar-bait. A Michael Winterbottom or a William Friedkin (if you transplanted it to the US) could see it as their next brush with notoriety, maybe? Controversy aside, however, Rupture poses questions that need asking. Anyone who could frame them just right would be hated the world over, true... but surely, surely fêted just as much.

Simon Lelic's Rupture, also known as A Thousand Cuts, published by Penguin (US) and Picador (UK) is available now on Amazon in paperback, hardcover and Kindle editions.

Want to suggest a book you think would make a phenomenal movie that no-one's picked up the rights to yet? Email bookstobescene@twitchfilm.com with your contributions.
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