Books That Stack Up

Many noteworthy books have been translated into many more noteworthy movies. Here are some favorites.

Graham Greene and Alec Guinness Last year, when word went out that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio were once again sharing the silver screen in a film based on Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, I was pushed along a path of once again coupling films made from important or at least imposing novels. Yates, by the way, was a hero to a generation of young American writers (having mentored at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and other places) and Revolutionary Road is a novel that has a kind of exponential word-of-mouth that has kept Yates’s work in circulation and finally garnered him one of the accolades he pursued during his life: having a story published in The New Yorker.

At any rate, American classics have faired reasonably well in film: Grapes of Wrath and Moby-Dick (the Ray Bradbury/John Huston version), for example. The Last of the Mohicans and The Scarlet Letter—both with Daniel Day-Lewis—are equal to their textual origins. Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye was wonderfully realized by Robert Altman with Elliot Gould. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon had Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was wonderfully represented by Robert Mulligan with Gregory Peck (and Robert Duvall as Boo Radley).

Here are some more noteworthy film/novel couples:
  • Our Man in Havana (auth. Graham Greene, dir. Sir Carol Reed): Alec Guinness is perfectly cast in the revolutionary rat’s nest of Batista’s Havana; Ernie Kovacs has a cameo.
  • The Tailor From Panama (auth. John le Carré, dir. John Moorman): Spoof of Greene’s Our Man in Havana; Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan give the story some ballast.
  • The Conformist (auth. Alberto Moravia, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci): A poignant, soul-searching story with Jean-Louis Trintignant playing the subtle title role with precision.
  • Man on Fire (auth. A.J. Quinnell, dir. Tony Scott): Denzel Washington is the man, Christopher Walken lends a fine hand, and Mexico City is photogenic on many levels. Rachel Ticotin (seen all too rarely) and Giancarlo Giannini provide some nice support in minor roles.
  • 92 in the Shade (auth./dir. Thomas McGuane): This movie was fun in 1975, which is the first and last time I saw it. Does it hold up as well as McGuane’s writing? Someone let me know.
  • Out of Sight (auth. Elmore Leonard, dir. Stephen Soderberg): Does justice to Leonard’s finely tuned humor. The cast—George Clooney. Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, Don Cheadle, and Dennis Farina—are pitch-perfect.
  • Catch-22 (auth. Joseph Heller, dir. Mike Nichols): My first contemporaneous viewing left me underwhelmed but subsequent auditions have raised the valence of this film with its all-star cast of Orson Welles, Alan Arkin, Jon Voigt, Richard Benjamin, Charles Grodin, and Art Garfunkel.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (auth. Milan Kundera, dir. Phillip Kaufman): Juliet Binoche, Lena Olin, and Daniel Day-Lewis try to live in Soviet-violated Czechoslovakia. It’s a pathetic existence but all too real.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (auth. Ken Kesey, dir. Milos Forman): Kesey’s novel was perfect anti-authoritarian elixir. And what’s to be said about Jack Nicholson? Will Sampson does a nice turn as the big, quiet Chief Bromden.
  • Before Night Falls (auth. Reinaldo Arenas, dir. Julian Schnabel): Everything about this film of Cuban writer Arenas’s memoir is perfect—casting, montage, music, lighting—I mean perfect. Javier Bardem is amazing: His credence as a gay poet in revolutionary Cuba is off any scale of measurement. Perfect.
  • No Country for Old Men (auth. Cormac McCarthy, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): An outstanding drama with Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Badem. No doubt you’ve heard of it.
  • The Constant Gardener (auth. John le Carré, dir. Fernando Meirelles): Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz stumble into sleazy, globalized, racist exploitation just the way le Carré wrote it, sans any preachiness.
  • The English Patient (auth. Michael Ondaatje, dir. Anthony Minghella): Pretty decent movie especially since it was considered almost impossible to cinematize the narrative of Ondaatje’s novel. Of course that impossibility resides in the premise that adapting must be parroting.
  • The Quiet American (auth. Graham Greene, dir. Phillip Noyce): Michael Caine delivers one of his typically delicately nuanced performances as an ageing, circa 1954 British foreign correspondent in Saigon who doesn’t want to leave and whose love for his Vietnamese mistress is a skillfully dramatized dilemma—especially as a young Ivy League consultant played by Brendan Fraser complicates both the personal and the political.
  • Spider (auth. Patrick McGrath, dir. David Cronenberg): This is a hinky, awkward story about a schizophrenic man who as a youth saw his father murder his mother. How could it not be off-center?
  • In The Cut (auth. Susanna Moore, dir. Jane Campion): Moore’s novel about Manhattan homicide detectives bristled with primordial urgency. Meg Ryan woke up for this role and didn’t try to make it cute.
  • The Razor’s Edge (auth. Somerset Maugham, dir. John Byrum): Rich people in Chicagoland (Lake Forest, Ill.) enter the Great War. Lives are lost. Lives change. Bill Murray plays a disillusioned American in search of himself—in Paris, India, and Nepal. This is a pretty good film with a wonderfully savvy performance by Murray.
  • The 25th Hour (auth. David Benioff, dir. Spike Lee): Ed Norton and a dog dominate this Manhattan story. Brian Cox does an artful turn as a suffering father.
And yet, no one has yet done a film based on a George Pelecanos book. Why?
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