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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lights! Camera! Problem!


Well, leaving aside To Kill A Mockingbird, a slew of Chandlers, I Capture The Castle, and Atonement, yes.  And Harry Potter. But broadly speaking.  And The Great Gatsby. Quite broadly. Trainspotting.

So maybe no.

Sometimes the problem with a beloved book being made into a movie is that so much is lost. Nothing's missing from the film - the film's fine - but all you can think of as you sit there with a fistful of popcorn halfway to your open mouth are the purged characters, edited out like Trotsky.

Perhaps that's why short stories can make such successful films even for their fans: they start the right size.  Brokeback Mountain for instance is wonderful in both forms (unlike The Shipping News) and (Rita Hayworth and) The Shawshank Redemption too.  Whereas, when John Irving tried to turn the  - admittedly sizeable - Cider House Rules into a movie, the script had a running time of over eight hours.

Killing other people's darlings must be easier. Emma Thompson pulled off a near miracle when she adapted Sense And Sensibility. She took a wonderful book and made it better; removing characters no one misses (Lady Middleton and her four children? Who cares?) and giving purpose to dull characters too. Margaret Dashwood adds nothing to the world of the novel whatsoever but in the film she's funny, she reveals Edward's character through his relationship with her and the little actress playing her manages to steal scenes from Kate Winslet, no less.

When I was beginning to think about writing, I never daydreamed having written the books I was reading, but I quite often daydreamed the book that a movie I was watching would have been before its adaptation.  I still do.  (And if anyone else does, feel free to admit it and not leave me hanging, eh?) Some films made terrible imaginary books - Groundhog Day, for instance (RIP Harold Ramis), where short chapters could never capture the quick cuts of the days when Phil is getting into his repetitive groove.
Moonstruck on the other hand, I could never believe hadn't been a book. Its plot is perfect, its characters delightful, its world fully imagined. I wish I'd written it - even though I might have killed myself when they took my book and cast Nicholas Cage.

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

Friday, February 14, 2014

My Bloody Valentine

(And now for something completely different...)
by Paul D. MarksMiserable_Facts_About_St_Valentine’s_Day_1
Hmm, is there a classic love story I'd like to improve with a nice messy murder? Well, let's see. 
Aren't I the lucky one falling right on Valentine's Day itself. So for that special occasion, a special love story. Well, the kind of love story you might find running 24/7 on the Discovery ID channel.

So, as cleanup hitter for this week's question here's my Valentine's paean to love and death and some stories that could be improved with a murder or two in them:
In an alternate universe Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice and other stories morph into stories the Discovery ID Channel would be proud to air. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth strikes a blow for freedom and goes on a killing spree, murdering the condescending Mr. Darcy first. She then sends a text through time and space to a woman named Lizzie B. "borrow ur axe, pls?"
Lizzie replies "sry, already loaned 2 A Karenina."
Swish Pan: Volga River, Moscow. A young girl comes upon a man's body bloating in the river. Police are summoned. They pull him out.
He's dressed like an aristocrat.
"Count Vronsky," the lieutenant says.
"There's an axe in his back," his partner says, counting. "Forty whacks."
"Who would have wanted to kill Count Vronsky?"
"Let's check with his wife, Anna K."
They go to Anna's house. She is nowhere to be seen.
"What's that?" the lieutenant says.
They stare at some glittering crystals that soon disappear as A Karenina time shifts to a place called Sporks, Washington, USA. Golden hour is dying, twilight is fast upon her.
"Holy Guacamole," Anna says, in Russian, of course. "This place is filled with vampires and werewolves. I must off them all."
She finds a vampire named Bella, er, Kristen Stewart.
"Who-are-yoKristen Stewart moodsu?" Kristen S says.
"Oy!" Anna says, in Russian, of course. "You are one lousy actress."
She throws Lizzie B.'s silver-plated axe at Kristen cutting her head off.
"Ah! I have saved the world," Anna says, in Russian, of course.
Magically Kristen's head returns to her body. It's a little off kilter, but not so bad. Nobody can tell.
"Holy Cow," Anna says, in Russian, of course. "I thought I killed you."
"Your axe was only made with cheap nickel-plated silver, which, as we all know, is not silver at all. Ha! You can't kill me with that."
"Can I kill you  with a bad review?" Anna says, in Russian, of course.
"No, that can't kill me either."
"All is lost," Anna says, in Russian, of course. "This Putin guy is insane – I cannot go home again."
She takes Lizzie B.'s cheaply plated silver axe and whacks off her own head.
And everybody died happily ever after.
Happy Bloody Valentine's Day Everyone!
(Pass me my meds, please.)
The End
(This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, real or fictional persons, real or fictional actors, rivers, cities, aristocrats, axes, Russians, actors, sporks or actual events is purely coincidental.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Reader, I strangled him.

<3 Which classic love story would be enlivened by a nice messy murder? <3

Buh-bye, Humbert Humbert. Let's get that little bit of housekeeping out of the way.

Then perhaps Shade No.51: post-mortem grey.

And how about if the widow Karenina was discovered in chapter one, quickly unhooking the piano wire from the top of the stairs while Karenin lay dead and broken at the bottom? Okay the book would be shorter (and possibly unpublished) but I thought this when I was thirteen and I think it now: it's not love if you end up under a train.

That's pretty much my problem with so-called love stories all-round. I've never gone for the idea that love hurts.

And hurt - or at least conflict - is what makes a story. Empathy and Open-Mindedness by Jane Austen? I don't think so. Happy Valley by Emily Bronte? Perhaps not. Brokeback Mountain II: Ennis and Jack attend Wyoming Pride by Annie Proulx? If only.

Thankfully, my favourite literary love story already has the murders in it.  Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane meet when she is on trial for offing her lover in Strong Poison. They flirt over a stranger with his throat cut in Have His Carcass. They fall in love during a weekend of torrid psychological threats and general headwreck in Gaudy Night and then trip over a corpse in their (Busman's) Honeymoon cottage, hours after their wedding.

And woven through the four books, there's more genuine romance than in many murder-free novels.  Harriet, on remand in prison, rejects Peter's first proposal with the words: "If anyone does marry you it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle" but it's not piffle he's talking when, hitched at last in the final book, he says: "What do all the great words come to in the end but that? I love you, I am at rest with you, I have come home."

Then they open the cellar door and it all goes a bit pear-shaped.  But that's not love - that's a story.

Monday, February 10, 2014

All the News That’s Fit to Imagine

"What was the first moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?"

This is one of the questions writers get most often and it’s fun to hear the answers. I wonder, though, how many are apocryphal. I mean, how many four-year olds think about the process and think of it as FUN? It’s not like ballet or space walking or basketball. There’s not much to see, nothing glorious in action, no applause, no costumes. In fact, if we had a clue about the realities of being writers, we might run screaming, or at least retreat to law school or reality show stardom.

But something happens to a blessed number of kids, and it’s real. Some of us are writing plays, stories, whole newspapers (me), poems, graphic novels – also called comic books – by the age of seven or eight. And the passion sticks with us. By high school, we’re the student paper, yearbook, and drama club crews. We’re winning essay contests and scholarships, and writing letters to the editors about social issues. We’re readers, the ones who take out the maximum number of books every week from the library, who weep reading Louisa May Alcott, who read every ad in the subway car. We can’t help it. We’ve been hooked by the power of the word and we crave it.

The earliest I recall consciously wishing to write was when reading, probably for the fourth or fifth times, Mary Poppins and Stuart Little. The characters and the warm and ultimately protective universe in which they lived was one I wanted to create myself. That must have been when I was six or seven. I know that I was publishing a newspaper (multiples made with carbon paper, fully laid out and illustrated) when I was eight. Rather interesting considering my parents were drinking heavily by then and any newspaper reporting truthfully on our family life would have included reports of yelling and plate throwing. I think the “Wolff Weekly” reported on life as I wanted it to be, as it was in the Banks’ and the Little’s households.  

When I was in high school, it was generally thought by other kids that boys (it was always boys then) who wrote about their sports teams for the school paper were would-be athletes who weren’t good enough to play varsity. Girls who worked on the paper were never going to be popular enough to have lots of dates, so this kind of geeky activity was a consolation prize. Boy, were they wrong! We were the lucky ones who wielded the power to shape the news, to influence others, to give or withhold praise and glory…well, maybe it went to our heads a bit.

Later, I became a reporter and magazine writer, then went into college communications and marketing, speechwriting, and fundraising (creative writing). I didn’t take up fiction (acknowledged creative writing) until late in my career. But I’ve always been on the path I stepped onto with the first issue of the “Wolff Weekly.”