Another Grand Pooba of the Loyal Order of Web Loggers has linked to this site. Welcome to all of you who've been directed thisaway by the indefatigueable Terry Teachout.
I don't expect the traffic generated by Terry's link will be as high as what's still coming over from Eric Zorn's site or from Nance's, because Terry blogs so fast and so furiously that the post with the link will drop far down and then off his front page by the time I finish typing this sentence.
Terry, who runs the arts blog About Last Night with the mysterious but insightful Our Girl In Chicago, is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, writes about music and other topics for Commentary, writes about film, dance, painting, whatever for whoever whenever, has written three books, including the highly acclaimed bio of H.L. Mencken, The Skeptic, and he's at work, or will soon be, on a book about Louis Armstrong. On top of this he answers all his email. He's the hardest working critic in the critic business. Evan Schaefer, of Notes from the (Legal) Underground, once posted that Terry had exploded from consuming too much art and a lot of Terry's regular readers paused before laughing, thinking that if Terry was going to go before his time that's how he'd check out.
I appreciate the link, and the new company, but Terry was really linking to Charles Portis. He needed the quote from True Grit I posted a few weeks ago and which now resides in my scrapbook to help make some interesting points about the problems of adapting books for the movies, the problems reviewing movies adapted from books, and the problems reading books after you've seen the movies adapted from them.
On the last point, he reports that he's usually disappointed when he tries it, the movies either being so much better than the books or having worked their way so deep into his imagination that he can't read the book without re-playing the movie in his mind, which is distracting, at best.
I think it's generally agreed around Hollywood that the best movies are made from the worst novels. Howard Hawks famously bragged to Hemingway that he could take Hem's weakest novel and turn it into a great movie. Thanks to that boast we have To Have and Have Not and Lauren Bacall.
Book lovers are prone to reflexively dismiss any adaptation on the grounds that no mere movie---no mere strip of pretty photographs---can ever capture what is best about any good novel, the words and the world the words capture. But then what do they make of David Lean's Great Expectations?
One of the obstacles to a decent adaptation is that screenwriters' ears have been turned to tin by the usual drivel that passes for dialogue in movies and they're regularly make the mistake of substituting their own words for the book's author's. John Travolta was appalled when he read the script for Get Shorty. He couldn't find any of Elmore Leonard's words in it. He sent the writer and director back to the book for some education.
You'd think that a Leonard novel would be a natural for the screen, but it hasn't worked out that way. Get Shorty was great, of course. So was Out of Sight. Quentin Tarantino turned Rum Punch into Jackie Brown and the result was pretty good---lots of excellent performances. Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster and Robert DiNero and Bridget Fonda and even Michael Keaton. Pam Grier was fine to look at but she was stiff, as if she was aware she was about 15 years too old for the part but had too much dignity to try to play younger.---but it felt strained, as if Tarantino had to keep reminding himself he was making an actual movie. We've since learned from the Kill Bills that Tarantino doesn't want to make movies. He wants to force audiences into having the same kind of autistically obsessive conversations about movie trivia that kept him alive when he was living in exile as a clerk in a video store. Still Jackie Brown's true to Leonard while being an ok movie in its own right. But the Big Bounce has now been turned into two bad films and the others, Stick, 52 Pick Up, The Gold Coast, have been so forgettable I can't remember if I've actually even seen them.
Some good writers are easier to adapt than others, I guess. Larry McMurtry has been lucky enough to see two great films, The Last Picture Show and Hud, one pretty good one, Terms of Endearment, and an excellent TV movie, Streets of Laredo, adapted from his work. Then there was Lonesome Dove, a transcendent masterpiece of an 8 hour movie disguised as a TV miniseries.
Probably just as many adaptations fail for being too true to the book as the opposite. That was the grown-ups' rap on the first two Harry Potter movies, although I doubt you'll find a 10 year old who'll agree with it.
The movie version of A Series of Unfortunate Events doesn't appear to be about to make that mistake, and our kids don't mind. The 8 year old has observed that the movie is a comedy while the books are tragedies, and the movie Count Olaf is funny while Count Olaf in the books is scary, but that's ok with him. Movies and books are supposed to be different. They're different kinds of fun. That's why you need both, he says.
Hemingway said that the best way to deal with Hollywood was this. You drive up to the California border in the dead of night. You toss your manuscript over the fence. They throw back a big bag full of cash. You drive away fast and forget the whole thing ever happened.
Certainly Hollywood hasn't done well by Hemingway. Except for To Have and Have Not and The Killers, which used his short story as a starting point, adaptations of his novels have been monuments in celluloid, stiff, stony, and too reverent.
I should make a list of the best movies made from good books. Off the top of my head I can think of, besides the ones mentioned above, Little Big Man, A River Runs Through It, Wise Blood, Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers, Nobody's Fool, The Hot Rock, Howard's End, Clueless.
If you think of some, please chime in. Also if you think of the opposites, bad movies made from good books (Catch 22? Moby Dick?) and good movies made from bad books (MASH). And those in-between, good movies made from mediocre books (Ordinary People, Big Fish).
Short stories count.
The Dead's a short story, and James Joyce earned time off in Purgatory for writing it, but John Huston went straight to heaven for the film.