On the surface, the novel does not work nearly as well.
Ben may be capable of love, but Chon is not. It is plausible that Ben would agree to $20 million dollars in ransom for O, but not plausible that Chon would do the same.
So Chon must agree to give up everything to get O back only because he knows that it means war, and he loves war more than anything. Does O not say that, instead of orgasms, Chon has wargasms?
Chon's monologue says that Aristotle was right, that body and mind are one, that there is no divide, that we are all savages--hence the title of the book. Later Ben's epilogue says that Plato was right, that if we do not recognize the better angels of our nature, we will destroy each other.
And indeed, at the end of the novel, that is what happens. What happens at the end of the movie? I do not yet know, but perhaps Oliver Stone changed it.
The surface story is a simple war-over-a-woman-abducted tale, wide variations of which have been with us since before Homer told us the story of Helen and the siege of Troy. History began with them. They abound in our best western books and movies, such as Frank O'Rourke's A Mule For The Marquesa which was made into the Lee Marvin film, The Professionals.
According to which account you believe, Europa was either abducted or seduced and taken away by Zeus, which spawned a series of like abductions. Roberto Calasso, in his great work on myth, says:
"Out of these events history itself was born: the abduction of Helen, the Trojan War, and before that, the Argonauts' expedition and the abduction of Medea--all are links in the same chain. A call to arms goes back and forth between Asia and Europe, and every back and forth is a woman, a woman and a swarm of predators, going from one shore to the other."
The variations of myth and history are always controversial. Did the woman leave of her own accord? Was she tempted and seduced by a snake? Or was she violently carried away? And no matter which way the story is told, the question remains: Is she guilty or innocent? And no matter how that question is resolved, is the war over her worthwhile?
Since ancient times, Herodotus and Aeschylus and Sophocles, the myth and counter-myth are retold. Was Helen a slut and simply a macguffin, a piece of propaganda used to goad men into a merchant war? Both O and Chon, in Don Winslow's novel, seem more interested in the act of sex than in love itself, something alien to their promiscuous and materialistic nature.
Ben suffers when O is kidnapped, and he suffers again when he kills a man attempting her release. Ben is like an old man in a world where there is no country for old men. The crossroads scene in the desert is a confrontation between Ben the dog and the wolves, but also between Chon the wolf and other wolves led by a cat woman. Same/Same. The fatally wounded Ben might as well have cried out, "Lobos and Leones."
Elena is more like a lioness than a wolf, but a predator just the same. When she plans the kidnapping, she equates O with Helen of Troy, saying that "Men will do anything for this woman." On page 133, as the plan dawns on her, she smiles cryptically. The omniscient narrator says, "Yeah, it's a goddamn shame that Elena is allergic to feline dander, because it would be great to have a cat on her lap at that moment."
The picture on the back of the dustjacket of the first edition of Don Winslow's SAVAGES has no savages, no drugs, no wolves, no dogs, no cats, no warriors, not even a gun. The picture is of a naked woman, perhaps on a desert floor--mythic, a symbol of purity or cheap commercial eroticism, take your pick. She could be Eve. She could be Helen. She could be a macguffin. Anything a reader might make of her.