Friday, February 28, 2014

The Good, The Bad and The Bookly!

Is it true that bad books make good movies and good books make bad ones?

There's no hard and fast rule about whether good books make bad movies or bad books make good ones. There's only about a million factors involved, from the screenwriters to the director, the producer, cast and probably even down to the crafts services personnel. And let's not forget the source material.

Books and movies by their natures are very different beasts and require different aesthetics and elements. Movies have to convey a lot of information in a small amount of time, so overly complicated story lines can drag a movie down. Books can handle information in a more leisurely manner, description of places and people are more important, and you can get more into the heads of the characters, examine their thoughts and feelings. A book has to wrap you up inside itself because it can’t rely on a visual picture to get across the look and feel of the characters and settings. And a movie should grab the essence of the book, without necessarily being true to every detail of it (see LA Confidential below). These changes can – on occasion – make the movie better than the book.

So, some good books make good movies and some good books make bad movies. And some bad books make good movies and some make bad movies. Well, of course, nothing is true all the time. And I wouldn't venture a generality, but it works both ways.

It's hard to narrow it down to a few examples as there's so many choices of each combination. And it's also hard to distill down the essence of why this worked and that didn’t, as each one that I've chosen could stand an entire essay on that subject. Here's a sampling, though I'm sure not everyone will agree with my assessments. And I'm sure I'll offend somebody with each one, but here goes (in no particular order):

Spoilers ahead:

In a Lonely Place (Dorothy B. Hughes): Good book, great movie. This is tied for my second favorite movie after Casablanca. I like it for a lot of reasons, but especially the story of the angry and alienated screenwriter. And I know I may offend some people here, Dorothy B. Hughes fans in particular, but for me the movie version is a huge improvement over the book, and I liked the book, but I didn't love it. The book, as I recall it, is a pretty straight-forward serial killer story. The movie takes the basics of the book and adds an ambiguity that leads to a much more bittersweet and poignant story and ending than in the book. So this is a case where the filmmakers did change a certain essence of the story, but it works out for the better. And if you want to hear a really good song based on this movie check out the Smithereens' "In a Lonely Place," which even cops a couple of the film’s most famous lines:

The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown): Bad book, bad movie. Sometimes bad books make bad movies. I know a lot of people like this, but in my maybe not so humble opinion, the book was very poorly written. It's a prime example of a great idea poorly executed. And the movie didn’t try to break out of the cardboard characters created in the book. It concentrated on remaining relatively faithful to the plot and didn’t stray so the movie remained as weak as the book.

Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe): Great book, horrendously horrible, piece of garbage movie: Why? Because, if I recall, as it's been a long time since I've seen it and I won't punish myself with wasting two hours of my life again, the producers didn't have the courage to do the book. The book is filled with various sensitive and controversial elements that deal with race and our perceptions of justice in society and the producers didn't have the courage to do that on the screen, so they turned it into a lame parody of what the book was trying to convey. And the movie was bad on every possible level.

1039199-g1 The Godfather (Mario Puzo): Okay book, a fun and quick read, great movie. In fact, one of the greatest American movies of all time. The movie, through great acting, directing, cinematography, a haunting sound track and a terrific screenplay, took a pulpy story about gangsters and made it a saga about family honor, tradition, a way of life and the struggle for the American Dream.  

LA Confidential (James Ellroy): Good book, great movie: Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland took Ellroy's sprawling novel, condensed it, pureed it and simplified it, making a tight, cohesive and powerful movie out of it, while still keeping the essence of the novel intact.

Mildred Pierce (James M. Cain): Good, maybe just okay book, good movie (the 1946 version w/ J. Crawford). Here the screenwriters and director took a major liberty with the book. SPOILER AHEAD: In the book the Monte character (Mildred's second husband) does not get murdered. In the movie he does. And this brings more tension, drama and mystery to the movie, without, IMO, messing with the basic integrity of the story line. And while the Kate Winslett mini-series follows the book more closely, to me it was more plodding and in a word, boring. Though I guess I'm in the minority here as on IMDB the Winslett version gets 7.7 out of 10 stars, and the Crawford version 8. So almost a neck and neck tie. Oh well.

high_tower (1) w photo attribute The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler) – Great book, wretched movie. Okay, I know a lot of people love this movie, think it's some kind of cult classic, etc. To me the only really good thing about it is the location of Marlowe's apartment, the Hightower Apartments in Hollywood, where I once looked into renting a place. Really cool building. But Elliot Gould's Marlowe, despite what some say is a Marlowe for the times (the 1970s), is not Chandler's Marlowe by a long shot. And Chandler was, and probably still is, rolling over in his grave at this one. And now that I've pissed off a bunch of people, I've got the Kevlar helmet and flak jacket ready to take the incoming.

And now for a little BSP: in addition to my novel WHITE HEAT, just out is LA LATE @ NIGHT, a collection of noir and mystery short stories. So far available on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback. And other venues shortly too.

LA Late @ Night ebook Cover FD1   White Heat cover -- new pix batch -- D26--small


Catriona McPherson said...

Fab posting! I agree too - except I do love The Long Goodbye and have never read The Godfather.

Mildred Pierce was the first film I went to see when my local pictures started showing black and white classics on the big screen and it was perfect and delicious - like every shot had been set up with more care than some modern directors use for a whole movie.

Never read it, but I have just ordered it from Amazon because Laura Lippmann in her NYT interview said it was great on workplace detail.

Catriona McPherson said...

Fab posting! I agree too - except I do love The Long Goodbye and have never read The Godfather.

Mildred Pierce was the first film I went to see when my local pictures started showing black and white classics on the big screen and it was perfect and delicious - like every shot had been set up with more care than some modern directors use for a whole movie.

Never read it, but I have just ordered it from Amazon because Laura Lippmann in her NYT interview said it was great on workplace detail.

Dana King said...

Wel ut, and not just because I agree with all your assessments. The key to THE GODFATHER was cutting the extraneous story of Sonny's girlfriend in Vegas, which sowed down the whole book.

The only thing that keeps THE LONG GOODBYE from being the worst adaptation ever filmed is BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. (Both had the same problem of not being true to the spirit of the book. One can change the plot, condense or remove characters, but the spirit of the book must remain.)

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Catriona. I'm honored to be "Fab" as were the Beatles :) .

Mildred Pierce is directed by Michael Curtiz, who had certain issues, but who also directed Casablanca, among other great movies. So that might account for great shots and care that you mention. I'd be curious what it is about The Long Goodbye movie that you love. I love the book. It might be my favorite Chandler, though that's a real Sophie's Choice.

Paul D. Marks said...

Love your comment, Dana, about the only thing keeping The Long Goodbye from beign the worst adaptation is Bonfire of the Vanities. I guess those filmmakers should be glad to place second. And I do agree with you that they can change and adapt various elements of the book, but retain the spirit. I don't think either of those movies did that and both were reallly terrific books.

Mysti said...

I think The Shining book was an average Stephen King, but the movie was a stunning work of art. Just me?

Paul D. Marks said...

I haven't the read the book, Mysti, but I'll have to check it out.

GBPool said...

I didn't like The Godfather, book or movie. Nobody to root for. Once Upon a Time in America worked better for me. At least they admitted the bad guy was a bad guy.

But you are totally right on L.A. Confidential. Both the movie and the book were terrific. The movie captured the era visually (a picture is worth a thousand words) and the book nailed the characters from the inside.

Great post. I need to read a few of those older books again. It's been a while.

Catriona McPherson said...

The Thing I loved most about The Long Goodbye, was that I watched it when I was too young to be watching it - my memory is that it was on the telly and my mum was away - and it was scary and glamorous and *American* and I'd never read the book. Then I read the book, a while later, and the admiration merged. I'm getting the strong message that I should never try to watch it again, right?

You can't imagine unless you were there how drab the 70s were in Scotland and how incredible the USA seemed. The day after Starsky and Hutch first aired, my school split completely down the middle into lucky tykes who'd seen it and losers who hadn't. (My mum was out again and my sister and I watched it with my dad.)

Meredith Cole said...

Love Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford (those shoulder pads!) and LA Confidential. But I have to admit that I usually see or read stories--almost never both with the same book/movie. Great Expectations (David Lean version) in an exception. I remember enjoying both the book and movie and appreciating each as a very different work of art.

Kathy said...

I love L.A. Confidential too. Both the book and the movie. When I heard they were making a movie of LA Confidential I was skeptical that they could pull it off, but they exceeded all my expectations. The screenplay very cleverly pulled the plot together. It could have been a confusing mess, but it wasn't. Interesting about the Long Goodbye, I agree with you but wonder if I would have felt differently if I'd only seen the movie and hadn't read the book first.

Paul D. Marks said...

Gayle, I understand what you're saying, but I think in spite of who they are and what they do many of us end up rooting for the Corleones. And you're definitely right about LA Confidential capturing the era visually. It's a wonder to look at. It captured the whole feel and spirt of the times.

Catriona, it sounds like you had "ulterior motives" for liking The Long Goodbye. I don't dislike it as much as I initially did, but I think that's only 'cause I'm used to it now and it doesn't seem as "shocking" in terms of the treatment they gave Marlowe. I don't know, it might be interesting for you to watch it again and see what you think now. I'm not sure what to say about Starsky and Hutch. I guess it does all look very glamorous from a different perspective.

Meredith, it's interesting that you almost never see and read a movie and book. Speaking of "expectations," sometimes we shouldn't expect too much. And I agree with you on Great Expectations. I thought the 1935 David Copperfield was pretty good too.

Kathy, you make an interesting point about if you might have felt differently if you'd only seen the movie and hadn't read the book first. With nothing to compare it to it might look pretty good. And that might go for a lot of different movies.

Susan C Shea said...

I'm not up on the book and movie combinations you chose, Paul. Was Chinatown a book before it was a film? I loved the film and think it would have been a terrific book if not. David Corbett turned me on to Bellman and True and after reading the spare, original novel, I watched the film, which was pretty good. Worked hard to capture the weirdness of the book anyway.

Paul D. Marks said...

Hi Susan, Chinatown was an original screenplay by Robert Towne. I agree it would make a terrific book...but not an adaptation. And only Towne should write it if it ever happens, which I'm sure it won't at this point.

Anonymous said...

As for GBPool's comment about The Godfather not having someone to root for. Your right and I look for that in films and books. It works anyway. I guess I just liked being a voyeur and watching people killed.