Columns > Published on October 28th, 2011

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

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Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the great washed – believe that Hollywood takes fine literature and inevitably turns it into shit, though of course the middlebrow euphemism for shit is bad movies. Take The Bridges of Madison County. Now that is a great book, they all agree - but what a bad movie! In fact, The Bridges of Madison County was shit to begin with and shit it remained onscreen. It was hardly a shock.

In fact, literary adaptations to film run the gamut: a sow’s ear can become a silk purse, and silk can just as swiftly turn swinish. A wise producer (just because they’re crass doesn’t mean they’re dumb) or a visionary director (just because they’re mostly assholes doesn’t mean they’re not geniuses) can read a dud, see a germ of inspiration, pull it out of the muck, rewrite it or get some screenwriter to do it, run it through a transformative camera and sound recording system, and shower art all over the big silver screen. The idea that Hollywood always ruins literature is, as Norman Bates would say, “a falsity.”

And if your taste runs to the middlebrow? Wait, don’t tell me: you loved The English Patient and hate splatter pictures without ever having seen one. Snap out of it! Stop letting the bourgie Joneses define what’s good and bad. The Joneses have terrible taste. Have you seen their hideous new Escalade?

From Sow to Silk

Psycho (1960). The three towering works in Western culture that most clearly and disturbingly define family relationships and men’s concomitant fucked-upedness are Oedipus, Hamlet, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hitchcock stands alongside Sophocles and Shakespeare despite getting his inspiration from an unthrilling thriller nobody bothers reading anymore. Robert Bloch’s novel is trashy without being fun, and he can’t avoid The Big Cheat: there’s a character called “Mother,” who walks and talks as though…. Well, if you don’t know how that sentence ends, I won’t be the one who kills Hitchcock’s mind-blowing, scream-inducing visual solution to a problem inherent to the written word.

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To Have and Have Not (1941): Howard Hawks claimed that Ernest Hemingway called his own novel “a bunch of junk” and boasted that he, Hawks, could turn it into a great film. He succeeded. Replacing Hemingway’s studiously bare-bones prose with the novelist-screenwriter William Faulkner’s richer, smarter, and thoroughly sexier dialogue, Hawks then cast Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who promptly fell in love with the camera rolling. It’s the epitome of the you-can’t-plan-it, it’s-in-the-stars mix of extraordinary film acting and the unpredictable sexual sparks that film stock can see as they fly back and forth between the leads. The camera picks it all up and lets us see and feel it. Moreover, Bogart’s eyebrows should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

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More Sows to Silk:

The Birth of a Nation (1915): After acknowledging the extreme racism of this film, can we also notice in passing that it’s a masterpiece the likes of which had never been seen before and has rarely been seen since? Who remembers the source novel, Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman?

The Fountainhead (1949). Ayn Rand was a cryptofascist hiding under those cornerstone Great American Principles, individualism and patriotism. Her dumbbell of a novel clobbers. At over 700 pages, it’s better for toning biceps than reading. Yes, King Vidor’s film adaptation is supercharged, but that’s Vidor’s all-stops-pulled style in the late 1940s – melodrama at it’s most melodically thunderous. His Fountainhead is visually spectacular, too.

The Godfather (1972). Okay, naming him here is unfair to Mario Puzo, whose novel is no Great Expectations, but it isn’t that bad, either. But compared to the erratic Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent adaptation, his book seems gutless and tasteless as well. Puzo’s Vito Corleone is a powerful character on the page, but as embodied by Marlon Brando he’s a terrifying titan. The 32-year-old Al Pacino’s no slouch, either.

From Sow to Sow

Less than Zero (1987). Brett Easton Ellis’s 1985 novel was what beauty parlor magazine literary critics considered a brilliant snapshot of the ‘80s zeitgeist: a cute young guy who could be you if you were a hair model goes on a lengthy drug binge and wrecks his life. Ellis set out to shock the Joneses and succeeded: Piles of drugs and gallons of alcohol! Oh, how horrible! Let’s see some more! It was just as ludicrous onscreen. The film’s inadvertent best moment: Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Julian, looking especially green and puke-ready after a night of gross overindulgence, moans to his girlfriend (played by the best-forgotten Jami Gertz), “My head feels like a frozen pineapple,” to which she brightly replies, “Are you okay?” No, Toots – I just said my head feels like a frozen pineapple. I am not “okay.”

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The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004). This one’s personal: Instead of making a biopic out of the clear-headed but sympathetic Mr. Strangelove: a Biography of Peter Sellers, which happens to have been written by me, HBO turned to the savagely mean-spirited The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, poison-penned by the master of libelous innuendo, Roger Lewis. Lewis obviously hates Sellers and spits about him for almost 500 pages. Filmmaking alchemy failed to transform this ugly book into anything more honest or insightful, and as impersonated by Geoffrey Rush, the hammiest performer since Red Skelton, poor Peter Sellers – truly one of the best, most intuitively precise actors of the 20th century - came off onscreen as a mean-spirited wackjob who, oh yeah, could be funny sometimes. What a waste of a good set of royalty checks – I mean, a perfect idea for a film biography.

Get The Life and Death of Peter Sellers at Bookshop or Amazon

Other Sow to Sows:

The World According to Garp (1978). The college crowd loved it in 1978, but I couldn’t get past page 10 of John Irving’s wordy novel. Destined to be filmed by the sheer force of the novel’s sales figures, it was still a big, boring mess onscreen, though you’ve gotta give some credit to a novel or film in which a handsome young blond guy gets his dick bitten off in a car crash.

Scarface (1983). Brian De Palma’s grotesquely overblown, leave-no-stoner-unturned fiasco was embarrassingly dedicated to Howard Hawks, who made the ripped-from-the-headlines original in 1932. Both films were based on a dull if informative novel by Armitage Trail, whose greatest distinction may be that he died of a heart attack at 28 while watching a movie at the Paramount Theater in L.A. If ya gotta go…

From Silk to Sow

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). The Czech novelist Milan Kundera hated Phillip Kaufman’s film adaptation of his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, so much that he has refused to permit any more adaptations of his work. Judging by this clunker, Kundera is scarcely overreacting. In an act of both hubris and sabotage, Kaufman took the evanescent spirit of a literary masterpiece and made it leaden and lifeless. Longeurs are Kaufman’s cinematic signature – exactly the wrong touch for a novel about how existence itself is weightless. Despite Daniel Day Lewis’s best efforts, it’s a truly unwatchable film.

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The Basketball Diaries (1995). The poet, novelist, autobiographer, and musician Jim Carroll was as authentic as Bret Easton Ellis is bogus. Carroll’s chronicle of his youth in New York City – playing basketball, writing poems, meeting authors, shooting heroin, hustling men for money - is a piece of raw beauty, a must-read for anyone who cares about crafting words and telling a painful truth. The film takes Carroll’s eloquence and turns it into claptrap – homophobic claptrap to boot. The camera gazes lovingly at the gorgeously lit bodies of shirtless adolescent boys (like Leonardo DiCaprio), then makes up a thoroughly fictitious anti-gay subplot to counteract its own visual pederasty. It’s twisted, and not in a good way.

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More Silk to Sows:

Jarhead (2005). During the Iraq War, Anthony Swofford was a Lance Corporal who saw combat; when he came back home he became a first-rate writer. His chronicle of life during wartime is tough, smart, and as beautifully hard as the Marines’ high and tight buzz cut for which the book is named. The phenomenally overrated Sam Mendes managed to drain Swofford’s memoir of all meaning and emotion. Que les cinéphiles français disent, quelle dud!

Endless Love (1981). No, really. I’m perfectly serious. Scott Spencer’s novel is fantastic! The protagonist goes realistically, frighteningly bonkers, and there’s authentic, obsessive agony rendered in thoughtful, eloquent prose. Franco Zeffirelli, cinema’s answer to artists who paint kittens on velvet, turns it all into sap. The object of this mad stalker’s obsession is… Brooke Shields? Maybe the guy was just a single-eyebrow fetishist.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). It’s inexplicable: Clint Eastwood is too good a director to have made such a snoozer out of John Berendt’s book. Under what curse did Eastwood take the murder of a hot hustler and bring it to the screen as such lifeless drivel?  First off, ask Kevin “Watch me act, Mom!” Spacey.

From Silk to Silk

Double Indemnity (1944). Billy Wilder came out of his office one day and couldn’t find his secretary. “She’s still in the ladies room reading that book,” he was told. Wilder’s ears tingled. “What book?” he asked. That’s how his and Raymond Chandler’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s marvelously grim potboiler began. Wilder cast the song-and-dance man Fred MacMurray radically against type as a hardboiled insurance agent trying to mastermind the perfect scam, and Barbara Stanwyck as his victim’s ice-hearted wife. Wilder’s original ending – MacMurray being gassed to death at San Quentin with the camera in the gas chamber, so the audience gets gassed along with him - was greeted less than enthusiastically by test audiences. Wilder and Chandler’s reworked final scene is very different but equally magnificent: a tender, perverse tableau of male bonding.

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Don’t Look Now (1973). Ask anyone who’s been there: Venice at night is a creepy maze that can easily disorient you to the point of paranoid terror. Daphne du Maurier captures the watery city’s heart-stopping quality with every-word-counts precision in her short story about a couple visiting Venice after the death of their daughter. Nicholas Roeg’s film adaptation is more leisurely, but it’s equally suspenseful and ultimately just as terrifying. Both the short story and the film are superb, and the experience of one won’t spoil the other. I saw the film first - I knew exactly how it ended - and yet when I got to the final paragraph of Du Maurier’s story many years later it literally jolted me off the couch cushions.

Get Don't Look Now at Bookshop or Amazon

More Silk to Silks:

The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003). That Peter Jackson made Tolkein’s The Two Towers work on film (it’s the weak link, what with its interminable recitations of the genealogies of the Elven Borodin, the Buprenorphine, and the Nevagøøna Seenoünicôrn) is nothing short of miraculous. So’s the whole series.

Into the Wild (2007). Instead of reading Jon Krakauer’s excellent true chronicle by the same name, try the much less famous novel Brendon Wolf by Brian Malloy, one of the best-written and most troubling novels of the 2000s. Read the novel first; then see the movie and see, thanks to Sean Penn, why Brendon is obsessed with Alexander Supertramp.

Fight Club (1999). Chuck Palahniuk’s spare prose and, um, alternative viewpoint form the perfect blueprint for David Fincher’s gorgeously complicated mise-en-scene. It’s the best film of the last 20 years, and the greatest film about masculinity ever made.

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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