The crowded book-to-movie pipeline has another hot title to welcome. Tangerine, the thriller debut by Christine Mangan, sold in the seven figures to HarperCollins in 2016 and was swiftly optioned by none other than George Clooney; Scarlett Johansson and scribe Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) have since signed on to star and write. Put simply, it’s got quite a pedigree.
And it’s not hard to see why. Tangerine is cinematically engineered, an aromatic stew of ingredients ripe for a big-screen treatment — exotic ’50s setting, unreliable narrators with inscrutable motivations, mysteries clouded in madness. The book begins with an ambiguous prologue, then introduces Alice — a near-agoraphobic newlywed transported to Morocco by her obnoxious husband, John — and then her scheming college roommate, Lucy, a woman also new to Tangier who is looking to track down her estranged partner (in crime?). The two women were involved in an unspeakable “accident” during their college years, and Alice appears desperate to forget it; when John disappears upon Lucy’s arrival, it seems tragedy is once again around the corner.
The plotting all but demands comparisons to Patricia Highsmith; the sweaty, paranoid atmosphere screams Hitchcock. This isn’t to say Tangerine is at the level of those masters. It’s deliberately evocative of them. And once that initial intrigue wears off, Mangan’s touch loses its luster rather quickly. Her style feels more imitative than original, a dispiriting reminder of what more daring storytellers could do here. The writing is laborious, particularly early on, and Mangan’s Hitchcock emulation turns problematic as confounding sexual politics increasingly drive the narrative. It becomes clear that there’s not enough of a story here: The twists are fun, but hardly jaw-dropping, and the descriptive redundancies feel like padding for a book thinner than its page count suggests.
What Mangan has done — quite well — is lay the foundation for a better movie. The book is undeniably readable, even at its clunkiest, and some of its scenes are vividly imagined. One flashback involving Alice, Lucy, and a bracelet should make for an indelibly unsettling screen moment. If only it were as good on the page. C+