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Literature / All the King's Men

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All The King's Men is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 novel by Robert Penn Warren. It chronicles the life of radically-liberal (in point of fact, populist-socialist) governor Willie "the Boss" Stark (in the book and films)/Talos (in the never-properly-completed play), through the eyes of Lemony Narrator and eventual main character Jack Burden. In particular, it covers Stark's two campaigns for governor, his chronic infidelity, and his increasingly frenzied attempts to create a new state hospital.

The novel is almost universally assumed to be loosely based on the true story of Louisiana governor Huey Long, although Warren himself always denied it — because, as he put it, if viewed solely through the lens of a fictionalized Long, the entire work would thus be seen as veiled condemnation of (or, even more irritating to Warren, praise for) a real man, rather than as his own creation, and invokedwould be unable to stand on its own two feet. While Long is clearly one of the chief inspirations, and the events of his life and death — the state hospital, his assassination on the courthouse steps — inform Stark's, he was not the only influence, as the era proved rife with crooked Southern politicans from which to draw. Warren often pointed to the character first being named "Willie Talos" as an homage to Talus, the ruthless, sadistic assassin of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.

Made into a film two times, in 1949 and 2006. The 1949 version, directed by Robert Rossen, was a critical and commercial success, winning three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge). The 2006 adaptation however was a Box Office Bomb, and critical failure, despite a huge cast including Sean Penn and Kate Winslet.

This book contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Name Change: Willie Stark's name in the original, unproduced play and early drafts of the novel was "Willie Talos". Some editions of the novel change the name back to "Talos".
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Boss and Adam Stanton both die, but Jack has gotten over his nihilism, accepted the past, and is even married to Anne Stanton. Lucy Stark also seems to have dealt with grief fairly well by raising Tom's probable son.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Sadie is this to Willie, getting worked up into a frothing rage every time Willie takes another lover. Jack even has to remind her that he's two-timing Lucy, his wife, and not her. This comes to a head when Sadie orchestrates Willie's assassination because he was planning on leaving her.
  • Convenient Coma: Averted with Tom. His spine is crushed during a football game and he doesn't regain consciousness, and after an operation he ends up in a vegetative state where he ends up dying of pneumonia.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Jack, in spades.
  • Death by Woman Scorned: Willie leaves Sadie, his mistress, who is unable to cope with the idea of being cast aside, and she arranges his murder because of it.
  • Deep South: Although it's never quite made clear which state the novel is set, it is very obviously Southern, and probably a fictionalized Louisiana.
  • Driven to Suicide: Duncan Trice, Mortimer L. Littlepaugh, Judge Irwin.
  • Election Day Episode: At points it focuses on Willie Stark's campaigns for election and re-election for Governor.
  • Fat Bastard: Tiny Duffy.
  • Gold Digger: Jack's mom is indicated to have been this and a Lady Drunk. In reality both are fueled by her suppressed love for Judge Irwin, who is Jack's real father.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Jack says his investigation into Judge Irwin was successful. It's enough to convince Adam to betray his idealism and become Willie's hospital director. Jack just also happens to find more than he was bargaining for, cause Irwin to kill himself, and send Anne into the arms of Willie, which ends up getting both Willie and Adam killed.
  • The Great Depression: The time period in which the novel is set, and the reason Willie Stark gets elected. (The 2006 film adaptation shifts the setting to the 1950s for some reason.)
  • Hair of the Dog: Willie didn't drink until his first campaign for Governor. Then, one night, he drinks for the first time in his life. Suffering from the hangover of his life, Jack recommends the hair of the dog. He then delivers the speech of his life.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Willie starts honest, but quickly is corrupted when he realizes what he needs to do to become Governor. Adam's fear of being corrupted is part of what leads him to assassinate Willie.
  • Heroic BSoD: Jack Burden and the "Great Twitch".
    • Jack has an earlier set of these called "The Great Sleep."
  • The Hero Dies: Willie is shot, lingers for a few days, and dies, regretting about how things might have turned out differently.
  • Hope Spot: After Willie is shot, the doctor says that he might live and muddle through it, as he's strong and an operation is possible. The operation is a success, but he gets an infection and dies a few days later anyway.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Stark justifies his illegal and unconstitutional actions by saying that he's done a huge amount of good for the state, and everyone just makes up morality as they go along anyway. The former is definitely true, and you can decide the latter yourself.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Willie tells Sadie that it's over between them, as he's going back to his wife. She can't take him leaving for good and arranges his death.
  • Ironic Nickname: Tiny Duffy isn't.
  • Is This Thing Still On?
  • Jerk Jock: Tom Stark nearly kills one girl and might have knocked up another, but shows little remorse for his action, chalking it up to him being young and having a good time.
  • Karma Houdini: Duffy. Though Jack figures that his career in politics is over, since Stark pitied him enough to keep him on the political team.
  • Knight Templar Big Brother: Adam goes after Willie when he learns that Willie's been sleeping with Anne as part of a deal involving him.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Tom Stark paralyzes a girl in a car accident he caused, walking away scot-free. He himself becomes paralyzed during a football game.
  • Lemony Narrator: Jack, at first.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Jack's real father is Judge Irwin. Jack doesn't learn this until after Irwin's death.
  • May–December Romance: Mrs. Burden had a love affair with Judge Irwin, who was quite a bit older than her, a companion of her already-older husband.
    • Jack notes that Mrs. Burden's husbands get continuously younger. Her latest husband is younger than her son. Subverted in that she doesn't actually love them, though she keeps them around for financial and power gain.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Subverted with Cass Mastern and Annabelle Trice; she's only seven years his senior, but it's played up to be about the same effect.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Most commentators have noted that Willie Stark, in his actions and ideology, resembled Huey Long, which would make sense since Warren lived in Louisiana for a time. Warren always denied that Stark was based on Long.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: After Cass Mastern has an affair with his Annabelle Trice, his friend's wife, said friend kills himself. Annabelle is paranoid that a servant knows of the affair and looks at her with a judgmental stare, so she has her sold off as a sex slave. Cass, overcome with guilt, goes to try to find the servant in order to buy her back and give her her freedom; he ends up getting mortally wounded for his troubles and suffers a pathetic death.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Jack is about to sic Sugar-Boy on Tiny Duffy, knowing that he was the one to have goaded Adam into killing Willie, but stops at the last moment, knowing that it's the same dirty tactic that Sadie and Duffy used.
  • Parental Neglect: Willie is a pretty poor father to Tom, focusing more on his political career than being a parent, and his few attempts at disciplining are completely ineffectual. When Tom is knocked unconscious during a football game and has to be carried off the field, he doesn't even get up, just keeps on watching the game and makes an offhand comment about his son's injury, with Jack remarking that he might as well have been talking about the weather. An official has to eventually come out and ask him to come to the field house to review his son's (mortal) injury.
  • Parental Substitute: Irwin for Jack. Subverted in that Irwin is Jack's actual father.
  • The Pollyanna: Lucy, who ignores her husband's infidelity and assorted antics at first.
  • Puppy Love: Anne and Jack, although by the time of most of the book's events (and even some of the flashbacks) they're both of the appropriate age.
  • Put on a Bus to Hell: Mrs. Burden leaves for Europe near the end of the 1930s, even as Jack warns her that things are about to go south there.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Stark's campaign team, weird-but-happy True Companions vibes and all.
  • Sassy Secretary: Sadie Burke. (Sassy Campaign Manager, actually, but the dynamic is the same.)
  • Satellite Love Interest: Done deliberately with Lucy Stark, who exists to be hardly anything but Stark's bland, smiling wife. Though eventually she does grow to leave him.
  • She Is All Grown Up: What attracts Jack to Anne in their youth.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: After Willie's death, no one cares about Jack Burden's name anymore, and he becomes this, ruefully reminiscing on the time where his name made people sit up and take notice.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Lucy ends up adopting a baby who could be Tom's, and names him after Willie.
  • The Starscream: Tiny Duffy. A successful example.
  • Stepford Smiler: Duffy takes Stark's abuse and mockery with a dumb smile, but Jack catches him with his facade dropped and ruminates that he really is human. The resentment boils over to where he's a perfect weapon for Sadie to use to kill Stark.
  • Took A Level In Jerk Ass: Willie, as he becomes more and more corrupted.
  • Trauma Conga Line: It starts with the suicide of Judge Irwin, continues with Tom getting paralyzed, and ends with Adam Stanton and Willie Stark killing each other. It's a Trauma Conga Line for everyone in the story, but is worst for Jack, Anne, and Sadie. Jack found out that Irwin was his father right after his death, Anne was the instrument that was used to set Adam off on Willie, and Sadie being dumped after Tom's paralysis was what led her to give Tiny Duffy the ammo to kill Willie.
  • True Companions: See Ragtag Bunch of Misfits above.
  • The Unfair Sex: In all the instances of infidelity, the female half of the affair gets sympathetic treatment and all get off scot-free while the male half of the affair ends up dying.
  • Victorious Childhood Friend: Jack and Anne end up marrying.
  • Villainous Glutton: Tiny Duffy again. Also Willie Stark, for a given value of "villainous".
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: Warren never makes clear what state All The King's Men takes place in (if it even exists), other than that it's Southern. However, the parallels to Huey Long are sufficient to get most people to conclude that it's Louisiana. If it is Louisiana, the author drags a red herring by referring to counties (a term used in every state except Louisiana and Alaska) rather than parishes (the Louisiana equivalent).
    • It borders on No Communities Were Harmed, but the fact that it's never identified, rather than given a different name, is sufficient to keep it on this side of the trope. The 2006 film outright changes it to Louisiana to further the comparisons between Stark and Long.
  • Who's Your Daddy?: Jack's father is really Judge Irwin.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Adam Stanton. Willie before Sadie revealed he was Harrison's Dupe.

Tropes found in the 1949 film:

  • Balcony Speech: In retrospect, that scene where Willie makes his first triumphant speech as governor from a balcony to a torch-wielding crowd was a bad omen.
  • Bowdlerize: To comply with the Production Code, the angles of Tom having a (posthumous) illegitimate son and Jack being the fruit of an extramarital affair were dropped.
  • Death of a Child: A fire escape at the schoolhouse collapses and kills several children. This is important for Willie Stark's career as he had earlier campaigned against the corrupt construction contract for the schoolhouse.
  • Fat, Sweaty Southerner in a White Suit: Tiny Duffy, who sends his goons to disrupt an early campaign rally of Willie's, is dressed this way when he's bullying Willie and Jack.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: While the novel is focused on Jack, the film shifts the focus to Willie, making Jack a supporting character. The film is still told from Jack's POV with Jack's narration, however.
  • Film Noir: One focused on political corruption rather than crime, with a largely rural setting in lieu of an urban one.
  • Food Slap: When Jack's nasty stepfather, Floyd McEvoy, makes an insulting comment about how young people like Jack have been bought and paid for as well, Jack throws a drink in his face.
  • Grammar Nazi: Sadie mocks Jack's fastidious use of "whom".
    Sadie: I take notes.
    Jack: For whom?
    Sadie: For those whom pay me.
  • It Will Never Catch On: After Willie loses his race for commissioner early in the film, Jack says "Well, I guess that's the end of Willie Stark."
  • Lady Drunk: Jack's mother entered into an unhappy second marriage to the loathsome McEvoy in order to maintain her social standing. She's turned into a sad alcoholic. Jack describes her as "trying to keep herself young, and drinking herself old."
  • Time-Passes Montage: A series of clippings in Lucy Stark's scrapbook illustrate Willie's early political rise after the schoolhouse tragedy.
  • Time Skip: Four years between Willie's first and second campaigns.
  • Worst News Judgment Ever: Anne Stanton is good-looking, but her arrival in town probably doesn't merit a newspaper article with picture.

Tropes found in the 2006 film:

  • The Unintelligible: Possibly unintentional. Sean Penn's accent is really thick and half the things he says are metaphors only people from 1950s Louisiana would understand.

Alternative Title(s): All The Kings Men