[Proprieter's note: As I hope more than a few of you know, the novelist Lawrence Block—a crime fiction maestro whose latest, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, part of his series of novels about detective Matthew Scudder (as great and durable an operative as American crime fiction has produced, I'd say) is a good 'un and well worth buying in its spiffy new hardback edition—has been making a bold frontal offensive into the world of social media of late. He recently unveiled an endlessly wise and entertaining blog, before which he even went and got himself on Twitter (follow him at @LawrenceBlock, where else?). And it was on Twitter that he made an incredibly generous offer to guest-blog for others while his own site was being put together. I alluded to this offer in my prior post, and as you'll see in the comments therein, Mr. Block, who was introduced to me in person some years ago by mutual friends Brian Koppelman and David Levien, let me know the offer still stood. Which offer I'd be an utter clod not to take up, so I did, and so he did, for which many, many thanks, and without further ado, here's the man himself on film adaptations of his own, and some others', books.—G.K.]
"No, But I Read The Book"
Over a good many years, my friend Donald E. Westlake wrote two dozen books about a career criminal named Parker. Because his agent had the good sense to retain rights in the character, many film deals were signed over the years, and quite a few pictures actually got made. At one time or another, and under one name or another, Parker was brought to varying degrees of life on the screen by Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, Peter Coyote, Mel Gibson, and Anna Karina.
Don, pondering all this, said he had to conclude that the character lacked definition.
Novels are forever being turned into films, though not nearly as often as their authors would prefer. But how accurately is the novelist’s vision conveyed in the film? And how much does it matter?
I’ve had three books filmed. First was Nightmare Honeymoon (1974), based on my Deadly Honeymoon. It was directed by Elliott Silverstein and starred Dack Rambo, Rebecca Dianna Smith, and Pat Hingle. Twelve years later, Hal Ashby directed 8 Million Ways to Die, based on my Eight Million Ways to Die, with Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia. And the following year, Hugh Wilson’s film Burglar was released, with its story drawn from two of my books about burglar/bookseller Bernard Rhodenbarr. Whoopi Goldberg had the title role, with Bobcat Goldthwait cast as Bernie’s lesbian sidekick.
Now one didn’t need to have written the books to regard all three of these movies as beneath contempt. Reviewers were pretty much unanimous in their disapproval, and the public stayed home; when one of the three bombs turned up on TV, everybody changed the channel. There were things to like here—Bridges and Garcia gave good performances, and Whoopi did what she could in a hopeless cause, but the films stank on ice.
Let’s forget Nightmare Honeymoon, because nobody’s seen it, and with luck none of you ever will. I haven’t had a peek at it myself in over thirty years, and even then I couldn’t watch it all the way through. But it’s easy to say that the other two fell a long way short of reproducing the books that spawned them. 8 Million Ways to Die took a story that was about New York and flew it to L.A., turned the plot every which way but tight, and recast the A.A. material as if written by someone on a bender. Burglar kept too much of the plot of The Burglar in the Closet, while rendering all of the book’s nuanced relationships into hard-edged and antagonistic ones.
Those are reasons why a book’s author might well be disappointed with the treatment given to his work. On the other hand, if I were handed several million dollars and charged turning a book into a movie, I don’t think gladdening the heart of the book’s author would rank very high on my list of priorities.
All things being equal, I’d want to get as much as I could of his vision on the screen. But not to the detriment of the film. Making a movie that worked, artistically and commercially, would be all that really ought to concern me.
Besides, it’s impossible to make a writer happy. Our egos won’t allow it. Whether it’s the treatment we get from cover artists (“Right there on page 117 and again on page 244 I describe her as having long black hair, and this girl’s hair is brown. And it’s not long enough, either!”) or interviewers (“The least she could have done was read the book all the way through. If she’s going to have a writer on for five minutes of drive-time AM radio, wouldn’t you think she’d be better prepared?”), we tend to come off like Rodney Dangerfield. We get no respect.
And what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the screen. I’ve done a couple of adaptations of my own work (and no, they never got made) and found I didn’t have to be asked to make changes; the different natures of the two media demanded it. In each case, I found the process instructive.
Once in a while, of course, someone really gets it right. Once in a while there’s a movie that takes a book, slaps it on the big screen, and works like a charm even as it reflects the writer’s vision. The most vivid recent example would be the Coens’ remake of True Grit. I’d read the Charles Portis novel first, then saw and enjoyed the Henry Hathaway film with John Wayne and Kim Darby. It wasn’t the book, but I thought it was a pretty good movie.
But the Coen brothers went back to Portis’s book, and took the revolutionary step of putting that story on the screen, using his scenes and dialogue pretty much as written. And blew the earlier picture out of the water.
Oddly, something very similar happened seventy years ago. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon succeeded so utterly that not many of us realize it was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. (The 1931 version starred Ricardo Cortez; the 1936 remake, called Satan Met a Lady, had Alison Skipworth playing the Sydney Greenstreet role.)
It’s also not widely known that Hammett deliberately wrote the book in the form of a prose screenplay, with nothing on the page that couldn’t be shown or spoken on the screen. It was his notion that movies were the future, that writers were best advised to write books that could be filmed, and that the ideal tactic would be to do the screenwriters’ work for them while writing the book. After this was conveniently overlooked by two sets of filmmakers, Huston did what should have been done in the first place, and put Hammett’s lines, essentially verbatim, in the mouths of the perfect cast. There’s a reason the film gets better every time you see it.
Long before he got anywhere near the bestseller lists, Elmore Leonard was selling book after book to Hollywood. (He never wrote a series because his agent, the legendary H. N. Swanson, wanted to make sure that each book came from his typewriter unencumbered. Once Dutch confided that he’d enjoyed writing about one fellow—Jack Ryan, IIRC—and would kind of like to do another book about the guy. “Write anything you like,” Swanny told him. “Just call him something else.”)
Leonard’s books have always lent themselves well to filming, and some good movies resulted over the years, along with some that weren’t so good. But the one that succeeded absolutely in transferring to the screen not merely the book but the unmistakable voice of its author was Get Shorty. I don’t even know how closely the plot of Scott Frank’s impeccable screenplay followed the book, and I can’t say I care. Those were Dutch’s people up there, and they were talking and thinking and acting as they did in the book, and making that happen is no mean trick.
It would be easy to point out all the book-to-film moves that didn’t work, and some casting choices that make Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher look positively brilliant. But the hell with that. I’ve come to believe that any film ought to benefit from the principal propounded by Dr. Johnson when he likened a woman preacher to a dog walking on his hind legs. It was, he pointed out, not ours to question whether it were done well; the wonder was that it was done at all.
I’d say that applies. As hard as it is to get any picture made, it seems like the worst sort of nit-picking to complain when one happens to be terrible.
And shouldn’t we let James M. Cain have the last word? When an interviewer asked the author of Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity how he felt about what Hollywood had done to his books, Cain looked puzzled. “But Hollywood hasn’t done anything to my books,” he said. “They’re right over there on the shelf, exactly as I wrote them.”