Joseph Finder knows a few things about the paranoid state of mind. It’s something of a way of life for the Boston author, whose 2004 bestseller, “Paranoia,” has been adapted into a film starring Harrison Ford, Liam Hemsworth, and Gary Oldman (Ty Burr’s review appears on the Names page).
Not long ago, while researching Russian organized crime in Moscow for a novel he was working on, Finder, 54, had to get out of town fast to escape assassination as a suspected CIA agent. And as early as his first book, “Red Carpet,” a 1983 nonfiction expose of financier Armand Hammer’s links to Soviet intelligence services, he also had cause for alarm. “Hammer threatened me with a libel suit,” he said over the phone from Los Angeles, where “Paranoia” was having its world premiere. “I had threats from people who worked with him and were associated with him. He was powerful, a billionaire, corrupt, and evil.”
That sounds like a description of the villain of “Paranoia,” Nicholas Wyatt (played with lubricious menace by Oldman). The ruthless head of a high-tech corporation, Wyatt extorts his low-level, 20-something employee Adam Cassidy (Hemsworth) into spying on Jock Goddard (Ford), the head of a rival company. Not that Cassidy needs much arm-twisting. “This is a voyeuristic fantasy about how if you’re willing to be a spy then you’ll be enriched and empowered and the coolest kid in the room.” Finder said. “And this is what Adam is hoping for.”
Until, that is, he finds himself besieged by surveillance, threats, and impossible moral choices. And there’s something else at stake, too, apparent more in the film than in the novel (Finder did not contribute to the screenplay written by Jason Dean Hall and Barry Levy). It’s a subtle change that reflects key events over the past nine years, such as the 2008 financial meltdown, the bailout, and the rising anger of the deprived versus the privileged 1 percent. Unlike the character in the novel, Adam in the film is not a cynical loner, but part of a community. He leads a group of friends filled with ambition and innovative ideas who have been stymied by a ruthless, entitled elite.
“I think that was a smart take on the movie,” Finder said. “The director [Robert Luketic] created a kind of generational story which the book did not.”
This is Finder’s second novel to be brought to the screen (he has a third, “Killer Instinct,” which is “in development”). In the first, Carl Franklin’s adaptation of his “High Crimes” (2002) starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, he actually got a chance to be on screen, appearing in cameos.
Not so this time, though he was on the set for two days, during which time he witnessed an acting workshop put on by Oldman.
“I watched the scene when Gary Oldman brings Liam into his office for the ultimatum,” he recalled. “I had pictured Wyatt as mean and musclebound, ‘a brown condom filled with walnuts’ is how I described him in the book. A cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Alec Baldwin. Very different from Gary Oldman.”
But watching Oldman in action convinced him of his apt casting in the role. “The scene took 45 minutes to write for the book. It’s kind of comic and scary but nothing great. But here I watched them do take after take. Each time, Oldman infused different emphases and facial expressions and he squeezed all this meaning out of the scene that I never anticipated. It’s humbling when you realize the power of a great actor.”
Finder has also demonstrated a certain power in his craft — prescience. His first novel, the 1991 thriller “The Moscow Club,” imagined a KGB coup d’etat against the government, and six months later an attempt was made to oust Mikhail Gorbachev. His second novel, “Extraordinary Powers” (1994), involved KGB infiltration in the CIA. Days after its publication, Aldrich Ames was discovered to be a mole. And his 1996 novel, “The Zero Hour,” eerily foreshadowed some of the circumstances that led to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Does such proximity to the secret workings of history make him feel a little — paranoid? “Not at all,” he said. “I talk to people who are smarter than I am, or better informed. And people talk to me more openly than they would to a journalist.”
And what is he hearing these days from his sources?
“I don’t think people really understand the degree of surveillance that’s out there,” he said. “Paranoia is the only rational response.”