Monday, February 24, 2014

Two Thumbs Way...

So, is it true that bad books make good movies, and good books make bad movies?

In my head, a list of good movies (and TV series – I’m arbitrarily expanding the question) flits by and, yes, I’d have to say at least a few came from dogs of books. But it would be unkind and impolitic to identify the books I think were awful enough to make this list. I will offer one: The Frost detective series on British TV was created from the late R.D. Wingfield’s handful of books. I saw the series first and liked it more than the books, which were depressingly misogynistic in tone.

I have fewer friends in the film industry than in the author community, so for the next list, yes, some books and series I have loved just didn’t fly when translated to the screen and I’ll name names. V.I. Warshawski’s conscience-driven exploits didn’t take off even though Kathleen Turner’s a fine actor. Reacher doesn’t work for me played by a short guy who grins and grimaces for hours, even though – or perhaps because – he does many of his own stunts. The pert blonde who tried to sound like Stephanie Plum was so very wrong for the part of someone who grew up in Trenton. The only actor who could have done her right was Cher 30 years ago. Inspector Lynley on TV didn’t cut it for me and the wonderful actress who played Barbara Havers was way too attractive. I like my Havers lumpy, thank you. Some of this is casting and directing, but a lot of it is the scripts, usually “based on” rather than close to the originals and for good reason, i.e. 42 minutes or 109 minutes or whatever the convention is. The stories don’t get to unfold properly, there’s no character arc unless it’s in a TV series, and for some reason, there’s no suspense.

Exceptions to the rule: French crime drama in film. Why I don’t know but, man, do they do it well. But I’m wandering off topic since I have no idea if they were books first.

The question didn’t ask what good books made good movies – Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves, and Kate Atkinson come to mind immediately. Good storytelling, good translations to screen, and excellent casting. So all of you with optioned books, don’t lose heart. There’s hope!

Meanwhile, what about you, fellow Criminal Minds? Disagree with me completely? Have more to add to the lists?

- Susan C Shea


Paul D. Marks said...

Good piece, Susan. And re: people with optioned books or books being made into movies, there's so many elements that go into the making of a movie, the writing of a screenplay that it's really a crap shoot. And the author loses control, unless you're Grisham or someone of that rank – and even then they probably don't have any control – all you can do is hope for the best.

Meredith Cole said...

As someone who writes both screenplays and novels, I have to say that what makes certain novels great (internal conflict, rich history, complicated backstory, etc.) is part of what makes them terrible movies. Lots of brooding close-ups (or too much voice over) and a film starts to really drag.

Barry Knister said...

The simple, or not-so-simple truth is that print is the right medium for presenting complexity and inner reality. Video must traffic in surfaces--and keep moving. But video now runs our culture, and whether, in a few years, very many people will still want to reflect on anything complex has become a vexing question.

Robin Spano said...

Meredith, that's really interesting point! Different ingredients make different experiences good.

As always, Susan, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post.

Susan C Shea said...

Paul, I agree that we hear mostly that authors don't retain control. Craig Johnson seems to have built a great relationship with the people making "Longmire," but then that's Craig's style. Elmore Leonard said he thought "Justified" got it right, and I know everyone involved revered and consulted him.

Meredith, you've put your finger on what can go so wrong! You're right.

Barry, your description of the surface quality of visualized books, and the speed with which directors think we want content presented, is good, and discouraging. I even notice one-sentence scenes cropping up on "Downton." Sheesh, no time to think!

Catriona McPherson said...

"I like my Havers lumpy." Ha!