Casablanca is my favorite film. It’s an unlikely one given my preference for sci-fi and epic effects films but Casablanca is the film I go back to endlessly. Rick Blaine’s moral crucible fascinates me. He’s someone determined to believe he’s a bad person but he comes to peace with the decent soul at his core. Then there’s the theme. The film is a grand statement on how minor human squabbles are in the face of serious issues. Casablanca laughs at all of it. It’s as perfect a film as any I’ve ever seen.
So I’m sadly breaking my policy on this column to only look at good tie-ins to discuss why making a prequel/sequel to Casablanca is an idea on par with invading Russia in the winter. Because really this is a stunningly bad idea.
As Time Goes By: A Novel of Casablanca is best understood in context. In the 1990s, there was an odd spate of sequels to classic works. The big one was Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind which even got a miniseries, but there were others. Les Miserables got one. There were several tries at sequelizing Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. And years after this wretched trend, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy even got one. You’ve probably never heard of any of these because they’re all awful.
So I get why Warner Bros. commissioned this book. And before I go any further, as nonsensical as this is, I want to praise the work Michael Walsh does here. He’s got a very cinematic eye and he crafts a book that reads briskly. Were this not a novel tied to Casablanca I would even probably recommend it as good even if not really my thing. Everything wrong with it lies in the license.
What is the plot? The book is part sequel and part prequel. In the prequel sections, we follow gangster Yitzik “Rick” Baline as he falls for the daughter of a crime lord, a move that will of course result in him becoming the Rick Blaine who runs Rick’s Cafe Americain. In the sequel section, Rick, Ilsa, and Victor get involved in the real life assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
As I said, there’s really nothing wrong with the story of this book. What I can’t get past is this: The book only exists to give Rick and Ilsa a “happy ending.” I’m 100% certain this book exists, like Scarlett, to pacify people who aren’t happy with an unhappy ending to a movie. In order to do this not only must Victor die, but we have to see him as a villain as he does. We have to feel guilt free as the story ends.
And that’s a wretched idea for a book. The ending of Casablanca is the point. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” That’s not just a pithy line in the film. It’s the movie screaming at you “World War 2 is going on! NONE OF THIS MATTERS!” That’s why Casablanca endures. It’s about the greater good.
So to have a book that raises its hand and says “nope, the love triangle really did matter” is ludicrous. And it’s really ludicrous when so much of the sequel section is built around a real life story. In fact it’s kind of bizarre how much what we came for—Rick and Ilsa reunited—is sidelined for the plot. Really only at the end and briefly at the beginning did I feel that itch scratched.
I especially hate how the book throws Victor under the bus. Victor may not be the impossible force that is Rick Blaine but he’s a genuinely good and rational man. Here he’s shown as cold and unappealing. Ilsa seems to admire but not love him. Then, just to make the worst decision the book can, Victor shoots Louis, thinking he’s a traitor. He murders one of the most delightful characters ever. WHY?
The prequel sections are much less annoying but it’s really a lot of “so?” I don’t honestly care how Rick Blaine became who he is. His exposition is handled in one of the funniest quips in film —”I came for the waters”—combined with Louis’ wonderful speculation on Rick’s past. Sure this is a fine backstory, largely because Walsh cleverly accepts every theory of Rick’s past as true, but it’s nothing I care about hearing.
And that’s really this book’s big issue. It has no idea how to use the license. Nothing about this feels like Casablanca, something that the David Soul color TV show* even captured. That felt like I was in the world but this? It has the character names but nobody sounds right. None of the scenes flow right. Nobody acts like they should.
Despite the genres, Casablanca really is a story about human interaction in the face of a larger context. That’s a giant idea that the film didn’t even intend but pulled off anyway. Making it fully a war story and fully a gangster movie misses that those were the settings. The movie was about people in war but not actually tactics and military operations. Operation Anthropoid merits discussion but not as a sequel to Casablanca.
And ultimately no sequel to Casablanca can work. Casablanca is a play essentially. It’s not Star Wars with an epic universe. The story begins at the right moment and ends the second it’s over. These characters aren’t meant to go on. They exist in that brief window. Anything more destroys the magic.
But the magic isn’t destroyed for me. This book isn’t canon. It never will be. Even if it was, it could be ignored. Casablanca is a singular entity. This was a well intentioned but horribly executed work by a fan. The movie remains in constant screenings theatrically while the book is only in print digitally. Sounds right to me.
*I’ve watched an episode of the TV show and it’s honestly fantastic. It has the spirit down. It’s surprisingly well shot. David Soul isn’t trying to be Bogart and probably makes it work for that reason. I only stopped at one due to time but that I do quite happily recommend.