Good Books, Bad Movies

by Rob Gregory Browne

Dusty’s off today, so I’m filling in.  He’ll pick things up next week.  In the meantime:

Like many of my writer friends, I absolutely love movies.  Almost as much as I love books.  And after years of watching movies, writing screenplays and, of course, reading and writing books, if there’s one bit of wisdom I’ve always lived by, it’s this:

Latob_16Let’s face it.  How many times have you read a truly wonderful book, only to see it destroyed by Hollywood?  Sometimes they get it right (Mystic River, Godfather, Gone Baby Gone), and sometimes they do it better (ha, you thought I was going to tell you the titles and insult some poor novelist?  Think again.) 

But most of the time, Hollywood screws it up.  Badly.

People who read my books often say to me, "Oh, this would make a wonderful movie."  Now, I agree that it would nice to see my books turned into movies, partially because of the financial rewards, but also because it would be exciting to see the books in a form I so love.  But chances are fairly good that my books would wind up unrecognizable on the screen.

And who would get the blame?  I’m guessing me.  A bad movie version of your book can, I believe, kill books sales.  Because, after all, if the movie stinks, the book must, too, right?

In fact, I was told recently that one very well-known author’s career was severely damaged by the god-awful excuse for a movie they made of her book.  I have no verification of this bit of gossip, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.

What follows are a few book to movie translations that I think completely missed the mark.  I had a lot more, but for the sake of space, I pared it down to what I think are three of Hollywood’s most egregious sins.  And I might as well start big.

………

THE SHINING

Yes, you read that right.  This is one of Stephen King’s most popular books and there have been two versions of it made for the screen.  But I’m not talking about the mini-series version.  I haven’t seen it.  What I’m talking about is Kubrick’s completely f’d up interpretation of the book.

I love Kubrick.  Paths of Glory is one of my favorite war movies.  Barry Lyndon another favorite.  A Clockwork Orange changed my life.  I even loved Eyes Wide Shut.  And I know there are people out there who absolutely love Kubrick’s version of The Shining.   

But I just hated it.  What was supposed to be a suspensful, nerve-shattering horror story turned out to be a complete and utter bore.  Except for a nice reveal ("All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"), and the last fifteen or so minutes when wife and son are being chased through the maze by crazy dad, this movie completely fails to deliver. 

Nicholson chews the hell out of the scenery and half the time Kubrick seems to be snoozing behind the camera.  If you’re gonna do King, please, please, please give Rob Reiner, William Goldman or Frank Darabount a call.

BLACK DAHLIA

I don’t even know where to begin with this one.  James Ellroy wrote the book.  Considered a masterpiece by many.  And when I heard Brian DePalma was doing the movie adaptation, I thought, hmmm, this might actually work.  DePalma is known for doing over-the-top set pieces, but it’s usually over-the-top in a good way.

But Black Dahlia?  Brian, Brian, Brian — what the hell were you thinking?  This movie wasn’t just bad, it made no sense whatsoever.  Disjointed scenes.  Weird changes of tone.   Characters played as if they were all in different eras.  Scarlet Johanssen delivered her lines as if she were straight out of a really bad forties noir film, while Josh Hartnet seemed to be a fugitive from CSI Miami, minus the red hair.  And I don’t put blame on the actors.  They’re both normally very good.  But they were betrayed by De Palma and an unworkable screenplay.  (Sorry, Brian — I love you, but…)

The Black Dahlia is a mess from beginning to end.  When it was over, my wife and daughter and I turned to one another and said, "WTF was that?" 

We still haven’t gotten an answer.  I don’t know how Ellroy felt about it, but I would’ve been crying.

FLETCH

This one is my biggest book to movie pet peeve of all. 

I absolutely love Gregory McDonald’s dialog heavy mystery/thriller Fletch.  It moves quickly,  is a real page turner, and the plot is as clever as it is hip.  Fletch Is a tall, tanned, smart-ass beach bum reporter who gets tangled up in a murder plot. 

The first time I read it, back in the late seventies, I kept envisioning William Hurt or Jeff Bridges in the lead.  Today I could see Pitt or possibly even Clooney doing it.  But, of course, when Hollywood got hold of it, who got the role of Fletch?

Chevy Chase.   Chevy f’ing Chase.  And Chase played Fletch as if he were…well… I think you can figure it out.  With Chase at the wheel, Fletch became a buffoon.  Who wore outlandish disguises.   And never said or did anything remotely clever.

The ONLY thing that saved the movie was that they stayed fairly true to the plot.  And the sad thing about it?  Whenever you mention the book Fletch, the first thing that pops into people’s mind is Chase.  Ugh.

I firmly believe that anyone who loved the movie — and there are more than a few — has never read the book.  Or, if they have, they read it AFTER they saw the movie.

Now I hear talk of a remake.  Ahh, finally, Hollywood gets a chance to redeem itself on this one.

So who’s up for the role?  Zach Braff.  Zach Braff?  I mean, sure it’s an improvement, but he isn’t the Fletch I know and love.

……..

So that’s it.  It was tough to pare it down to just those three — I could go on and on — and I’m sure a lot of you could, too.

So tell me what books you think have been destroyed by Hollywood.  And while you’re at it, tell us the ones you think worked.

HOUSEKEEPING

No, I haven’t forgotten about the solution to the Gerritsen/Browne video mystery.  Due to technical difficulties, however, I’ll have to show it next time.  But I can say that of the eight or so people who actually commented on the first part, one of them got the answer right.  So we have a winner — to be revealed…

27 thoughts on “Good Books, Bad Movies

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I have to admit when I first saw Kubrick’s film of THE SHINING I was outraged at the departures from my favorite book (and the misogyny, ugh…). But I’ve seen it dozens of times since then and I find it endlessly riveting as its own film, including the misogyny, which I’ve come to understand is Jack Torrance’s view of the woman who is ruining his life, and I think overall the film is more true to the creeping evil of the book than almost any other King adaptation, and there have been some stellar ones (THE DEAD ZONE, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, GREEN MILE, CARRIE).

    I’m sure a lot of people were outraged at the departures from COLD MOUNTAIN, too, but I love every second of that film.

    Same with APOCALYPSE NOW. One of my favorite films of all time, not true at all to HEART OF DARKNESS – but it is.

    Sometimes an untrue adaptation gets closer to the truth than a literal one could ever be.

    But great literal adaptations? ROOM WITH A VIEW (Merchant/Ivory/Jhavbala version), ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS… there are a lot. Hollywood does sometimes get it right.

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  2. Rob Gregory Browne

    I have yet to read or watch Cold Mountain, although I did once catch the first five or so minutes of the movie and thought what I saw was wonderful.

    I certainly agree about Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile — and, yes, Carrie (De Palma again, getting it right this time), but I’m not so sure about Dead Zone. It’s a partial success, but doesn’t quite live up to the book — but then Dead Zone is my favorite King book.

    I also agree about the last four you mention. But what I’ve noticed about these examples is that the filmmakers stayed as true to the source material as possible. I understand the need to stray — to make the book filmable — but these filmmakers managed to stray very little and made better movies because of it.

    Finally, Apocalypse Now is only loosely based on Heart of Darkness. I think the earlier drafts, by John Milius were truer to the book, but once Coppola got hold of it, things started to change. I have to say, however, that the last thirty minutes of Apocalypse are as snooze-inducing as The Shining, thanks to Brando’s self-indulgent performance and Coppola’s failure to edit him.

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  3. Catherine

    I can’t think of a book off hand that I felt was besmirched by Hollywood in movie form to the point that I remember being affronted by it. This may be partly due to my habit of reading more than movie watching though.

    One book’s movie treatment I do remember favourably is a Picnic at Hanging Rock. The novel was by Joan Lindsay… first published in 1967 and the movie came out in 1975.Peter Weir directed it.

    Although my memories are pre-teen, I do remember reading the book and then seeing the movie and thinking how well some key scenes in the movie reflected the feel of the book…the slow drift of the girls and teacher walking up to the Hanging Rock, and then later only one girl hysterically coming down with very little explanation of what had occurred.Both the book and movie evoked a very eerie mood throughout. The unsolvable mystery of it was rather maddening and thankfully not resolved in the movie for easy audience digestion.

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  4. joe bernstein

    “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was a very faithful adaptation of a good book and it was excellently cast and directed.”LA Confidential”was a great film,and the book was excellent,but they differed so much that even after seeing the film,it is worth reading the book(after reading “The Big Nowhere”if you want to know what is going on)because the plotlines are different enough to avoid the ‘spoiler”effect.

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  5. Matt

    I love both the film and book The Shining. I know that the Kubrick film doesn’t do the book justice, but I just keep them separated in my head. I try not to think of Kubrick’s film as anything more than an artistic adaptation. There are some great moments in the movie that have really influenced the way horror films have been shot these past few decades.

    And you’re killing me with the solution to last week’s puzzle… 🙂

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  6. R.J. Mangahas

    I agree with Godfather and Mystic River as two great translations. Especially with Mystic River, I think Brian Helgeland did one hell of a job with the adaptation, considering there was so much material to work with. My one and only gripe with the book was some of the back story didn’t seem all that relevant to the overall story. Other than that, one of my favorite books. He took out a few characters seamlessly, like Roman Fallow and Bobby O’Donnel. And well, Clint eastwood directing…

    The same is true with Gone Baby Gone. I have to admit when I saw that Ben Affleck wrote and directed, I had my doubts. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I think this is proof that he makes a much better director than actor (Gili, need I say more?) The thing with this movie that was lacking though was the true dynamic of Angie and Patrick’s relationship. If you’ve read the series, you can see all the complications and complexities of that relationship.

    One that didn’t work: The Lawnmower Man. As I recall, Stephen King though it was so bad he didn’t want his name associated with it.

    Alex — I have to agree 100% about Silence.

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  7. Pari Noskin Taichert

    WHAT’S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN? is one of my all-time favorite books and it just didn’t work in the movie.

    Another horror was the adaptation of one of Sara Paretsky’s books; I don’t know which one it was (it was kind of an amalgam), but it SOOOOOOOOOOO missed the mark it was painful.

    THE GOLDEN COMPASS was a textured marvelous book that lost all of its true magic in the movie. It’s like the producers fell in love with the animation/cgi and forgot the reason they fell in love with the book in the first place.

    A great adaptation was HOLES. The movie followed both the spirit and story of the book. Of course, Louis Sachar also wrote both the novel and the screenplay.

    Another movie that really worked was MATILDA. It didn’t follow the book exactly, but it kept the spirit so beautifully. And, I think the first HARRY POTTER worked very well in movie form.

    Can you tell that the only movies I’ve been watching lately are kids’ films?

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  8. Louise Ure

    I am so out of my depth with this topic.

    Okay, one true-to-the-book-but-just-as-good film that no one has mentioned yet is Ken Follett’s EYE OF THE NEEDLE.

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  9. Tammy Cravit

    Even before I read Pari’s comment, the movie adaptation of Sara Paretsky’s work was foremost in my mind. In reading the movie’s plot summary, I don’t recall it exactly matching up with any of Paretsky’s work – and that, I think, might be part of the problem. In crafting a new plot from pieces and parts, the screenwriters caught some of the flavor of the books, but didn’t manage to capture whatever it was that made them so wonderful to read.

    I recall hearing Sue Grafton speak once, and she said that she’d made her children promise (on pain of being haunted from beyond the grave) not to allow anyone to make a Kinsey Millhone movie after she’s gone. But then, Sue worked for some period of time as a screenwriter, and knows firsthand the power of Hollywood to mangle good fiction.

    The first couple of Harry Potter movies were very true to the books, I thought. (The movies made after Richard Harris died just aren’t the same; I’m sure Michael Gambon is a fine actor, but he just isn’t Dumbledore.)

    I wonder if the movies that work are those where the authors of the books are involved in the writing of the screenplays. After all, the authors are the ones who created the magic in the first place and, while they might need a skilled screenwriter to collaborate with, they’re perhaps the ones in the best place to help translate that magic to the screen.

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  10. Jake Nantz

    I read Christine when I was a preteen. In one sitting. I slept with the lights on for three days afterward, and would have for three weeks if my mother hadn’t told me how silly I was being (not the frightening imagination we have, eh?). I was terrified by that ghostly green figure in the car with what’s-his-name. Then I saw the movie. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!? WTF was that crap?

    Oh, and I seriously think Jefferey Deaver, a phenomenal suspense writer, should be more outaged than he says he is (he just cashed the check and moved on, so he claims), at THE BONE COLLECTOR. There were aspects that stayed close, but the setup for the villain, done so masterfully by Deaver, is a true Hollywood out-of-left-field “gotcha!” that makes no sense whatsoever. Criminal.

    I actually kinda like that Robert Crais doesn’t ever want Elvis Cole on the big screen, simply because he’s convinced no one could do it right.

    Oh, and My wife and I agree that Michael Gambon, while talented, will never truly be Dumbledore. Alan Rickman, however, could not have been a better choice. What an actor.

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  11. Doug Riddle

    The all time champ for having his books wrecked by the movies has to be Elmore Leonard.

    Leonard likes to remark that the only movie from one of his books that was worse then the original version of the Big Bounce was the remake. And let’s not forget Be Cool. The book was so/so, but no one deserved that movie.

    But, buy the same token when a Leonard novel is done by director who actually gets the book….it can be almost magic….Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown.

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  12. Rob Gregory Browne

    Yes, Alex. And I think because they were LITERAL, they worked better. I think Hollywood needs to learn to trust the writer, trust the source material. But I’m laughing at that thought. It’ll never happen.

    Pari, Westlake’s book to movie translations have been spotty. The Hot Rock turned out pretty well (A Goldman adaptation), and Point Blank and Payback were good, too. The problem with the Stark novels, however, is that the filmmakers always want to soften Parker. Bad mistake.

    Doug, I agree. Loved Get Shorty. But Be Cool just failed in so many ways it’s pathetic. They were trying too hard to recapture the magic of Get Shorty without actually concentrating on making a GOOD movie…

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  13. Stacey Cochran

    That people are still debating whether THE SHINING is a good movie and/or a faithful adaptation almost thirty years after its release is proof that something is working in the film. Isn’t the generation of debate and discussion part of how we measure a film or book’s success?

    For my two cents worth, I actually think the movie is better than the book.

    There, I said it.

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  14. gregory huffstutter

    One of the worst movie adaptations I’ve ever seen was Stephen King’s “The Running Man.” They basically paid for King’s title, miscast Arnold Schwarzenegger as the lead – when it was originally more of an “everyman” character – then gutted everything but the premise that the future has bad game shows.

    I’m with you on “Fletch”… especially how they Hollywood-ized the ending, which killed the franchise. The written sequels “Carioca Fletch,” “Confess Fletch,” and “Fletch’s Fortune” don’t work unless your character is trying to justify coming into a bunch of money.

    Too bad Kevin Smith dropped out of the remake, because he wanted to cast Jason Lee who would’ve been great in his prime. The latest rumor is that Pacey, I mean Joshua Jackson, will play the young I.M. Fletcher:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fletch_%28film%29#Sequel_and_prequel

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  15. JT Ellison

    I’m with Louise, in way over my head. I liked the adaptation of Patterson’s KISS THE GIRLS, though as much as I love Morgan Freeman, he just doesn’t feel right as Alex Cross to me. But he owned the role.

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  16. joe bernstein

    Elmore Leonard was writing great books until at some point he moved his action out of detroit and started writing screenplays disguised as novels.This is not so much a knock as an observation-his stories became easy to visualize as films.his earleir stuf didn’t have that feel-there was a more gritty atmosphere.Another good book/movie adaptation:Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg made as Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke.Or:No Country For Old Men-the Coen Bros.doing Cormac McCarthy was too good a combination to fail.

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  17. Fran

    For bad adaptation, let me throw in “The Haunting” as a vehicle for Shirley Jackson’s novel. Much as I love looking at Catherine Zeta Jones and watching Liam Neeson, and think that Lili Taylor is phenomenal, it wasn’t the book.

    And who decided Eriq la Salle would make a good Lucas Davenport? Besides D. J. Caruso, I mean.

    But you gotta love The Princess Bride! Of course, there you have Goldman doing Goldman, so how could it go wrong?

    Reply

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