The Oscars will be awarded tonight. And Martin Levin of the Globe and Mail has got into the act with a list of eleven-plus “great books” that were adapted into “fat turkeys” (h/t: Ted Gioia).
The problem with Levin’s list is not the films, which admittedly suck. The problem is the books. Nearly half of them (Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, H. G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) may be described in many ways, but “great” is not among them.
It is a commonplace, first uttered by Leslie Fielder, I believe, that mediocre books make the best films (Fiedler’s example was The African Queen, but The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs and Forrest Gump will also do).
Far more interesting are those novels that have been totally eclipsed by the films adapted from them, although the novels can still be read with profit and delight:
• Geoffrey Homes, Build My Gallows High (1946). Written under a pseudonym by Daniel Mainwaring (who went on to write the screenplay for Invasion of the Body Snatchers among other films), the novel, couched in tough-guy prose, was the source for Jacques Tournier’s brilliant 1947 film noir Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.
• Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place (1947). The source of Nicholas Ray’s 1950 thriller starring Humphrey Bogart is about a serial killer rather than a domestic abuser. Chilling.
• Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (1950). Nothing at all like Hitchcock’s film by the same title, Highsmith’s novel takes the reader deep into the twisted eerie psychology of Charles Anthony Bruno, the killer played by Robert Walker (and renamed Bruno Antony) in the film. Unfortunately, the title is out of print. Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), with a title character more blood-curdlingly amoral than anything Matt Damon could ever impersonate, also belongs on this list.
• John Fante, Full of Life (1952). A largely unknown novel that was the source of the wonderful Judy Holliday’s least-known film (directed in 1956 by Richard Quine), it is delightful, though very different, in both versions. Both deserve to be far better known.
• Donn Pearce, Cool Hand Luke (1965). Pearce’s novel has much the same theme as Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest — the freedom-loving refusal to buckle to arbitrary authority — but it doesn’t strain after effect, and as a result it is more successful, more persuasive. Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 film (the sweatiest movie of all time) is better than Milos Forman’s eight-years-later film too (and Paul Newman is a better apostle of freedom than Jack Nicholson).
• Leonard Gardner, Fat City (1969). This may be one of those rare occasions when a film, though great, is more widely neglected than the novel, though minor. Gardner was that saddest of creatures, a one-book novelist, but is admired by his younger peers. His study of club boxers in a depressed northern California town was perfectly captured by John Huston’s 1972 movie starring Stacy Keach.
There are more, but these are enough from me. I hope that COMMENTARY readers can suggest other good books that were turned into good films.
Update: Mark Athitakis writes: “The only one I can think to add is David Goodis’ noir Down There, which became Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. The film version is very different from the book, but both are excellent in their own way.”
Update, II: How could I forget Leaving Las Vegas? As good as the film is (it won Mike Figgis an Academy Award for best director), John O’Brien’s despairing 1990 novel is even better. O’Brien committed suicide four years afterwards, leaving only his novel to explain why.
Update, III: Andrew Fox writes: “Let me add another to your interesting list of good books which were turned into good films. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was adapted into Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (which, oddly enough, utilized the title of an unconnected William Nourse novel). The book and novel differ in significant ways, but each has earned the right to be called a classic of its genre. In particular, Blade Runner has been an enormous influence (at least visually and design-wise) on the science fiction films which have followed.”