Wednesday, May 24, 2017

From the page to the screen

How do books you love stack up to their film adaptations?

by Dietrich Kalteis

I think of chapters as scenes in a film when I write them, so it’s alway interesting to see a film adaptation based on a novel that I read. One shows the story, the other tells it. One delivers the action with images and sound, the other goes deeper into the reason behind an action. One comes with popcorn … Well, maybe it’s not fair to compare them at all, although one does represent the other. 

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is a great example of a terrific novel turned into a film of equal caliber, the Coen brothers delivering a tight adaptation — a story that has a western feel with a serial killer on the loose, a compressed air tank and bolt gun as his weapon of choice. 

Over twenty of Elmore Leonard’s stories were made into film, and the tighter the film stuck to his original words, the better the film. Both screenwriter Scott Frank and director Barry Sonnenfeld kept true to Leonard’s terrific characters and trademark dialog in Get Shorty, a tale of a Florida shylock making a career change into the movie business. One of my favorite crime novels and films.

Rum Punch is another good example of Elmore Leonard’s work translating to the screen. A twisting crime caper with the quirky characters and dialog typical of a great Elmore Leonard novel. Quentin Tarrantino did it justice in the film version called Jackie Brown. Then there are the two versions of 3:10 to Yuma.

Elmore Leonard sent his manuscript for Raylan to the series creator Graham Yost and told him he could strip it for parts. And that’s just what Yost did, keeping true to the rich dialog and story lines for the series. It’s a terrific series based on one of Leonard’s favorite characters, Raylan Givens, a one-time coal miner, now deputy marshal, going back to Kentucky. Leonard readers will also remember Raylan character from the stories Pronto, Riding the Rap and Fire in the Hole.

Another great one: Nicholas Pileggi’s best-selling book Wiseguy chronicles the true story of Henry Hill, a guy who worked his way up in the mob and turned informant. It went on to become Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, Ray Liotta delivering a powerful performance as Henry Hill, and Joe Pecsi winning a best-supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Tommy DeVito. Both the book and the film are intense and realistic, the classic tale of life in the mob. 

Richard Stark’s Parker character has been portrayed a number of times in film by Lee Marvin, Michel Constantin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, Ana Karina, Peter Coyote, Mel GIbson and Jason Stachan. Of all the Parker adaptations, the character’s name was changed for all but the one Stachan played in Parker. It was Stark’s novel The Hunter that was made into Point Blank in 1967 starring Lee Marvin, and as Payback in 1999 starring Mel GIbson. Got to love Parker.

Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and the film starring Matthew McConaughey were equally good. And there have been a number of Stephen King’s stories that made their way to film. Among my favorites: The Shining and it’s film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick both cranked up the creepy. Also The Shawshank Redemption and the film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman; Misery with James Caan and Kathy Bates; Dolores Claiborne, also starring Kathy Bates; The Green Mile with Tom Hanks; and Hearts in Atlantis with Anthony Hopkins.

Other favorite novels that I thought made great films: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and the film starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey, and the film starring Jack Nicholson. James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and the film starring Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane and the film by Clint Eastwood, starring Sean Penn. The Untouchables based on the autobiographical memoir about Elliot Ness, co-written by Oscar Fraley, and screenplay by David Mamet.

I loved both Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy and the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt. Waldo Salt did a great job on the screenplay and also wrote the one for Serpico, another terrific film starring Al Pacino, directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the novel by Peter Maas.

Dog Day Afternoon was also directed by Sidney Lumet, starring a young Al Pacino, based on the novel by Patrick Mann. And although it had a great plot, I think the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike had a hard time keeping up with the screen adaptation of Bullitt. Those car chase scenes were the best ever on film, with McQueen ripping through the streets of San Francisco in the late sixties.

For some vintage black and white stuff you can’t top To Kill a Mockingbird — a classic either way, the 1960 novel by Harper Lee and the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. One won a Pulitzer, the other won three Oscars. 

And there’s Truman Capote’s non-fiction In Cold Blood, brought to the screen by Richard Brooks. The story also inspired a couple more films: Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman who won the Academy Award for best actor for portraying Capote’s experiences in writing the book; And Infamous starring Toby Jones. The book was also made into a two-part miniseries in 1996.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, published in 1939, and its 1946 film adaptation with Bacall and Bogart at their best. And there’s Strangers on a Train, the novel by Patricia Highsmith, film by Hitchcock.

There are many more that could be added, and there are a lot of good books out there that haven’t been made into films yet, but have that potential. And what author wouldn’t want to see one of their own stories up on the screen and watch scenes unfold that he or she created. 


Paul D. Marks said...

Lots of great examples, Dieter. And it can be hard adapting a novel to a film, they're different mediums, even though they seem the same in some ways. So when it gets done well it's really something to celebrate.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

You're right, Paul. They're different and yet the same at the same time, and it's always a treat when both work equally well.

Unknown said...

Dieter, you took this topic and ran with it. Love the examples. LA Confidential, one of my all-time favorite movies, did right by novel--in fact, it might even have been better. Elmore Leonard--God! The guy was cinematic right out of the chute.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

You're right Terry. Everything Leonard wrote sounds like it was written for the screen. A lot of great one-liners.