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the book was better

5.3.99

Winona Ryder once swore that if anyone ever made a movie adaptation of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, she'd rent a plane and drop a bomb on the set. Conversely, Jerry Lewis hungered for years to adapt J.D. Salinger's classic -- not only to direct it, but to star in it as Holden Caulfield! By the late '60s, as he passed forty, Jerry had to admit that maybe he was too old to play the teenage Holden.

The common denominator here is deep love for a work of fiction. One person never wants to see its purity smudged by film adaptation; another wants to bring its story and message to the mass audience that doesn't read. Most of us who've read and loved a book will cop to a similar dividedness. Part of us wants the book to be left the hell alone; another part can't help casting it, and even filming it, in our heads.

I had a brief, loud (the loudness was mainly from her side) conversation about the book-to-movie phenomenon with a friend of mine, to whom I owe the idea for this piece. "Doesn't Hollywood have enough original stories?" she screamed. "Aren't there tons of original screenplays they could be making instead of screwing up good books?? Aaaaaaagh! [bangs her head on desk]"

...Well, maybe I exaggerate just a tad. But my friend has been frustrated lately: She read and enjoyed John Irving's A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, then went to see the film version SIMON BIRCH, and it sucked. She read THE HORSE WHISPERER and thought it sucked, so she wasn't too surprised to hear that the movie sucked. She read and enjoyed Anna Quindlen's ONE TRUE THING, and didn't even bother to see the film version because she figured it would suck. She read and enjoyed Cathleen Schine's THE LOVE LETTER, and the film version of that is coming out later this month. She figures it's gonna suck.

Essentially, I agree with her and sympathize with her annoyance. But I also don't think Hollywood deliberately goes to Barnes and Noble looking for good books to fuck up. Herewith, some reasons for the road to hell paved with good intentions:

IT WORKED ONCE

If a story was popular in one format, the studios figure -- hope -- pray -- that it'll go over just as well on the big screen. We can think of examples of good adaptations: L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS -- terrific books, terrific movies. But these cases, to invent a completely new phrase, are the exceptions that prove the rule. In the worst cases, a platoon of script doctors toil on a project, trying to "crack the book" -- make it work visually, distill its essence, simplify its characters for the less reflective medium of film. But what works on the page doesn't always play on the stage -- just ask anyone who laughed through baby Gage's scalpel spree in the film version of PET SEMATARY. A chilling scene when allowed to unfold in the mind's eye; a ridiculous scene when visualized by someone else, trapped in amber up there on the screen.

IT SOLD ONCE

Closely related to "It Worked Once," but more about a movie's financial prospects. A bestseller, or a book on Oprah's Book Club, has a built-in audience. Unfortunately many of them are wised-up, jaded readers who've watched their favorite novels get reamed once too often, and they stay home. I mean, Jesus, you figure BELOVED or THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN or MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL would've been hits if every person who'd bought the book bought a ticket. They didn't.

THE JERRY LEWIS FACTOR

Yes, sometimes a producer or director genuinely loves a book and wants to swim around in that fictional world by recreating it for the screen. What they usually lack is the necessary distance from the book. They want to stay too faithful to the novel, and they fail; or they try to invent things to compensate for what has to be left out due to time limitations, and they fail. Or they don't have enough clout to resist the studio's demand that the ending be made happier because test audiences didn't like it. Very few good adaptations are made by directors who've been obsessed with the book since its first appearance in hardcover. The best adaptations are by directors who sign on because the story sounds interesting and aligns well with the director's interests and concerns. Almost all of Kubrick's films, for instance, are adaptations, including EYES WIDE SHUT. Kubrick would select a book and then become obsessed with it, instead of the other way around. Kubrick wasn't going around for years yearning to do A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or FULL METAL JACKET. (He just spent years making them.)

IT'S AN ACTUAL STORY WITH A BEGINNING,
A MIDDLE, AND AN END

It's not a Frankenstein's monster stitched together by five contract script doctors at Paramount. One person (okay, sometimes two) has sat at a keyboard and thought this story through from the opening epigram to the final period. It is, in short, a good blueprint for producers looking for a solid structure. But then, more often than not, the book is handed to a tried-and-true screenwriter to adapt, and that's where the trouble starts:

BOOKS ARE INTERIOR, MOVIES ARE EXTERIOR

You cannot, unless you want to be laughed at, have characters engaging in inner monologues. It didn't work in DUNE (though it enhanced that movie's surreal appeal), and it sure as hell didn't work in THE THIN RED LINE. The cardinal rule in all writing is

SHOW, DON'T TELL

and nowhere is this more true than in movies. If a book takes ten or so pages to brief us on a character's background, that's fine; but how the hell do you do that in a movie? A cumbersome flashback? Phony-sounding exposition ("Ever since he fell off that horse during a tornado when he was five, he's always hated wind and saddles")? Occasionally you get an original screenplay like John Sayles' LONE STAR that can be novelistic in detail and structure. But then, that movie was made outside the studio system, and Sayles was starting from scratch, not trying to adhere to someone else's story.

SCREENWRITING IS HARD; ADAPTATIONS ARE MURDER

Ask anyone who's tried it. I've tried it. It's a bitch. You've read the book, you've made the movie in your head, and now you want to take that movie and transfer it to the page. And the fucking thing won't transfer. The first scene you write is awful. The second and third are worse. What seemed fresh and vital in the novel has become flat, flat, flat as Wyoming. Eventually you give up and leave the book alone. If you treat literature as an organ to be transplanted into the larger, superior body of a movie, don't be surprised when the transplant rejects the body. What would-be adapters don't realize is that they're mentally filming the book scene by scene, as they read it: This scene's great; this scene's great; this scene's really kick-ass. But you can't put all those scenes in the script unless you're doing a four-hour miniseries. When it comes time to distill that 450-page book into a 120-page script, what do you save and what do you shitcan? It's not easy.

NO MATTER HOW GOOD THE MOVIE IS...

...it's not as good as the vision in your head. Even if the movie is scrupulously faithful to the book's story, the devil is in the details. A character is wearing a baseball cap; you know damn well that character would never wear a baseball cap. Subtle things like this can undermine your already tenuous ability to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. Then again, if the movie is good enough, details shouldn't matter. Last time I counted, Anthony Hopkins has ten fingers. In THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Thomas Harris tells us Hannibal Lecter has six fingers on his left hand. Did Hopkins' missing eleventh finger (a duplicated middle finger, in case you're curious) detract from your enjoyment of the film? Didn't think so.

THE JAMES M. CAIN THEORY

Stephen King has been fond of quoting James M. Cain, hardboiled author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and other noir novels. An interviewer once asked Cain if he minded that Hollywood had taken his books and changed them. Cain pointed to the copies of his books on the shelf and said "No, they're all still there." And that's the bottom line. You can be like J.D. Salinger and flat-out refuse to sell the movie rights to your books. Or you can be like 99% of authors and say yes to the easy money. If you say yes, then you really don't have much right to bitch about what they do to your book. In fact, the movie may help sales of your book; at the very least, it ensures a movie tie-in paperback edition. Whether the result is a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS or a BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, the book itself remains in bookstores and libraries, untouched, waiting for new readers. The smartest authors, like James Ellroy (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), take a "My book, your movie" stance; they realize that books and movies are two different animals, they take the money, and they hope the movie won't suck too much. Except for the taking-the-money part, book lovers would be wise to take the same approach to film adaptations.


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