Rewind book: Midnight Express, by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer (1977)

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm

Midnight Express
by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer
Curly Brains Press

Billy Hayes lived out one of the worst nightmares of anyone on the 1970s hippie trail: during a random drug search at Istanbul's airport, he was picked up for smuggling hashish and jailed for four years in Turkey.

One of the best-known books on doing time in a foreign prison, Midnight Express earned almost instant cult status when it was released in 1977. Hayes' story is dramatic and spawned plenty of spinoffs - a movie and even a ballet - and while many people think they know what happened to Hayes in that Turkish prison, you have to go back to the book for the truth.

For a naïve young man from Long Island, a Turkish prison came as a serious shock when he was sentenced in 1970 and he had to learn fast how to survive. Ironically, there was no shortage of drugs on the inside, consumed by prisoners and guards alike. Just weeks from his release, his term was changed to a life sentence - and that's when he decided he had to escape.

Smuggling dope out of Turkey was stupid, getting caught was even less smart, but Hayes showed some daring initiative when it came to fleeing: he stole a boat, rowed to the mainland and escaped to Greece, then to the US. His father had gone bankrupt trying to get him out of prison and he returned home filled with remorse.

When freelance writer William Hoffer suggested collaborating on a book about his ordeal, he saw it as a way of repaying some of the money.

It's a great story, but the film veers wildly from the truth. As a movie it was a huge success, winning Oliver Stone an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, but it did nothing for US-Turkish relations.

The film exaggerates the brutality of the Turkish prison system. In the book, Hayes is beaten once, but in the film his years behind bars are filled with horrific physical and mental torture. Stone's version has a guard rape Hayes, but he was never sexually assaulted. And the consensual sexual relationship he had with another prisoner is left out.

Even the endings of the book and film are poles apart. In the movie, Hayes kills a warder in order to escape, but it never happened - no wonder Turkey wasn't happy with the film. Years later, Stone apologised to Turkey for over-dramatising the script. Hayes collaborated on the movie and wasn't happy about his row-boat escape being switched for a fictional ending, but he did well out of the Midnight Express story that turned him into a hippie hero.