We all know that Grand Prix is one of cinema’s most iconic depictions of motorsport — a classic that has withstood the test of time and introduced countless generations to the glory that was Formula One in the 1960s. So, when I learned that there was a novelized version of the movie written by Manning Lee Stokes, I had to see what that was all about. And folks, I hate to report that the novel is so bad that I have no idea how it was published.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. In honor of being trapped indoors, I’ve made the reading a little more frequent; every two weeks instead of every month. This week, we’re looking at Grand Prix by Manning Lee Stokes, the novelization of John Frankenheimer’s iconic motorsport film.)
As I’m sure you can imagine, the book follows, roughly, the plot of the film that we’re all familiar with, but it goes off on some very strange tangents. Tangents that were very uncomfortable to read.
In the film, Hugo Simon plays a pretty small role. But in the book, Count Simon takes on a whole different depiction and becomes one of the plot’s major players. It’s brought up multiple times that he’s impotent, that women view him as worthless and harmless because he’s unable to engage in sexual activity. That fact angers him, and he imagines raping Pat Stoddard as a way to make her fear and respect him. Yikes.
And why is Simon impotent, you ask? The author invents a strange backstory that involves young Hugo peering at his father’s dead body in his home’s parlor, then hiding under a couch when he hears someone coming. That someone is his mother, who proceeds to start having sex with another man on the very couch under which Hugo is hiding. Hugo tries to stop that man from “hurting” his mother, and in the ensuing scuffle, the casket containing Hugo’s father falls over.
(There’s a happy ending for Simon that doesn’t include rape, though. In an old Duesenberg race car that he keeps in his mansion, Simon discovers that engine noises make him hard, which is apparently something Simon had never realized during all his days of following Grand Prix races around the world. Nevertheless, he starts recording the sounds of the cars, which he then plays in order to engage in consensual sex. I have to say that Claude Dauphin deserved better.)
And raping Pat Stoddard is also a recurring theme in the book, much to my chagrin. Aside from Simon’s rape fantasies, Pat Stoddard also notes that she was also nearly raped by Jeff Jordan, the owner of her husband’s car… and that that is part of the reason why she hates racing so much. Also yikes.
It wasn’t until after I’d gotten well into the book and ran across two different mentions of sexual assault that I decided to actually look up the author, Manning Lee Stokes. Apparently, he was best known for writing all kinds of pulp fiction, including “sleaze,” so all the descriptions of trembling, jiggling boobs check out. Aside from that, though, the Internet doesn’t provide much info on Mr. Stokes. Maybe that’s for the best. I did find out that he’s from Indianapolis and has written at least one other book about racing called Winning.
I wasn’t expecting a lot from the novelization of an iconic movie, but Grand Prix left a lot to be desired. Mostly because now I have to think about Claude Dauphin getting a stiffy in a Duesenberg when I see Hugo Simon on screen.
There were a lot of other odd touches. Monique Delvaux, Jean-Pierre Sarti’s wife, is outed as a lesbian… and her lesbian lover was giving Delvaux’s money to a boyfriend of hers. Sarti intends to use that dirt to blackmail Delvaux into a divorce, which she doesn’t grant him in a strange scene that also includes Sarti fantasizing about her murder.
Scott Stoddard’s brother was said to be physically and mentally abusive to his younger brother. And there are a lot of scenes that focus on Stoddard’s physical pain in recovery, something that’s never really shown in the movie. Stoddard is only able to ask Pat to come back to him after he’s burned all of his brother’s belongings and excised the abusive memories from his soul in an extended flashback scene.
It’s just strange. Grand Prix, as a film, does a great job at illustrating the gritty horrors of racing without having to rely on pulp fiction plotlines — but I guess every author will have their spin. I think one of the most frustrating parts was the Spa scene where Jean-Pierre Sarti kills two children. In the film, podium celebrations are cut with a father discovering that his children are the dead bodies being retrieved from a ditch. Sarti is in pain, and Louise Frederickson is heartbroken.
In the book, though, Sarti gets comically drunk with the aforementioned Hugo Simon and a prostitute, throwing champagne bottles at the wall of a bar. It’s up to Pete Aron — who seems to be the favorite character of Indy-born Manning Lee Stokes — to rescue him. The stark pain of that moment in the film, which is followed immediately by an intermission to let you really think it over, cut so much harder.
The rest of the book was… okay. There were some valuable descriptions of the cars at speed that helped me think about how I’d like to describe vintage F1 machines in my books about vintage race cars. It mostly followed the plot of the movie in the very broadest strokes.
But I can’t say I recommend it. In fact, I strongly recommend against it. Even if it hadn’t been supremely gross and rape-y, it would have been a daunting enough task to turn into words the gorgeous cinematography and aural delight of Grand Prix, which is a large part of what makes that movie so special. It’s rare for me to say it, but put down the book and go watch the movie. That’s the way Grand Prix was meant to be experienced.
And that’s all we have for this week’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on December 20, 2021. We’re going to be reading The Chequered Year: The Story of a Grand Prix Racing Season by Ted Simon.