In the 1930s, James T. Farrell wrote the trilogy Studs Lonigan. There have been two adaptations of this book, both with the same title, but neither of which is readily accessible for viewing. The film adaptation made in 1960 invites comparison with Rebel Without a Cause (1955), since both movies are about troubled youth. Because this movie is only 95 minutes long, it is a much abbreviated version of the story as told in the book. In 1979, a TV mini-series was produced whose length of 360 minutes stood a much better chance of faithfully representing the book, but it failed to do so.
It would be tedious to enumerate all the differences between the book and the two adaptations, but there is one difference that stands out from all the rest, a change in the very essence of the central character. Both the movie and the mini-series make Studs out to be a much better person than he was in the book, more likable and sympathetic. And this is too bad, because it is the only novel in which the central character is a bully, and it would have been nice to have this defining trait preserved in either adaptation, which could easily have been done, even in the 95-minute movie. This is not to say that Studs Lonigan is the only novel featuring a bully, but typically, it is the character who is bullied that is central, not the bully himself. In Farrell’s trilogy, we are always inside the head of Studs. We get to see what it is like to be a bully, how he thinks and feels.
A lot of people might not even think of this as a novel about a bully. Certainly, the title character never thinks of himself in that way. But then, you will not hear many people say, “I am a bully.” Oh, sure, one might admit to having been a bully on one or two occasions, for which one is ashamed. But we seldom encounter anyone who will characterize himself as a bully, as if it were his essence. And yet, we have scarcely reached the third page, when Studs refers to “goofy Danny O’Neill, the dippy punk who couldn’t be hurt or made cry, no matter how hard he was socked….” A minor character, it was the bullied Danny O’Neill with whom Farrell identified.
The day never passes that Studs does not think about beating someone up, although it is something he thinks about more than he actually does. Studs does have his moment of greatness when he beats up Weary Reilley, who is an even worse bully than Studs. But throughout the novel, Studs finds plenty of glory in pushing others around who are smaller, weaker, or more timid than he is, especially when he and his pals outnumber their hapless victims.
One of my favorite parts of the novel occurs when a priest gives a passionate sermon attended by Studs and his gang. We hear Father Shannon warn against the evils of smoking, drinking, and necking. And for a brief moment, we allow ourselves to hope that he will admonish the young toughs about fighting. We don’t expect him to say they should turn the other cheek. That would be asking too much. But perhaps the priest will at least urge them not to be so quick to throw the first punch, especially if the boy being punched is weaker and smaller. It is not to be. In fact, Father Shannon tells them that if they catch some college atheist making a play for their sister, they should beat him up. Later, Studs and his gang talk about the sermon, and it is clear that they are glad they have sisters, because beating someone up always feels better when you can be righteous about it.
At the end of the novel, Studs regrets the fact that he never kissed Lucy when they sat in that tree, that he dropped out of school instead of continuing his education, that he didn’t save his money, and that he ruined his health with all the smoking, drinking, and carousing around. But he never regrets being a bully.