Scriptwriters have long used novels and short stories as the basis for their scripts, dating all the way back to the silent film era. I suppose good ideas are hard to come by in Hollywood, so why not poach someone else’s blood, sweat and tears, right? And who among us hasn’t daydreamed about our book being turned into a blockbuster film or TV series? I’m guilty of that one.
I became a movie buff when I was a kid and if the film was based on a book, I’d usually read it after seeing the movie. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that in most cases, the two bore no resemblance to each other! I was disappointed. It also made me curious as to how often that happened.
“Double Indemnity” was a bestselling novel by James M. Cain. Naturally, that meant that a movie version had to follow to cash in on its popularity. The screenwriters apparently thought Cain hadn’t done his job correctly because they re-arranged the pieces. The result was a classic film noir with all of the required elements, and it still holds up today. Even Cain begrudgingly admitted that Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler had done an okay job.
Speaking of Chandler, his breakthrough private eye thriller “The Big Sleep” had “Hollywood blockbuster” stamped all over it. It was the second on-screen pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Bogart created the template for every actor who played Phillip Marlowe afterward. It’s a good film because of the chemistry between the two stars but unfortunately, you’re left scratching your head at the end and asking “So who done it? And why?” At one point the writers even consulted Chandler to figure it out but he threw up his hands in despair.
A lot of Ernest Hemingway’s stories were adapted for the screen, with mixed results. He claimed not to have liked most of them, with two exceptions. The first fifteen minutes of “The Killers” copied his short story word for word. When the script veered into finding the motive for the seemingly senseless murder, Hemingway stopped watching. He also enjoyed “For Whom the Bell Tolls” because it starred Gary Cooper, whom Hemingway had envisioned when he wrote the book.
He had reservations about another adaptation, “To Have and Have Not.” Hemingway felt that it was the worst book he ever wrote and bet filmmaker Howard Hawks that he couldn’t make a decent movie out of it. He was proven wrong. Of course, the writers only kept the title, changed the names of the characters and basically made it into a carbon copy of “Casablanca,” but who cared?
There have been some noteworthy exceptions. The first few James Bond adventures stayed true to Ian Fleming’s original novels. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes is very close to Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure. “The Godfather” is another example, probably because Mario Puzo co-wrote the screenplay. The Burt Reynolds thriller “Sharkey’s Machine” managed to capture the spirit of William Diehl’s novel. “The Maltese Falcon” is faithful to Dashiell Hammett’s book because screenwriter John Huston lifted scenes and dialogue directly from it.
Bringing James Jones’ World War II epic “From Here to Eternity” to the screen was no easy task. It’s a massive book and Jones didn’t pull any punches in his unflattering portrayal of the United States Army. It was considered adult fare because of the raw language, graphic violence, sex, racial slurs, and the fact that one of the love interests is a prostitute. Somehow they managed to clean it up to get it past the censors.
Many of Donald E. Westlake’s crime capers have made it to the big screen. When he sold the film rights to any of his stories featuring a career criminal named Parker, he refused to let them use the name Parker unless they bought the entire series, which no one was willing to do. Westlake turned out to be a shrewd negotiator because each adaptation credits the original novel. His Parker story “The Hunter” has been filmed twice, under the titles “Point Blank” (with Lee Marvin playing Walker), and “Payback” (with Mel Gibson as Porter). Each one bears a credit stating “Based on the novel ‘The Hunter’ by Richard Stark” (Westlake’s pen name). Unlike a lot of screen adaptations, the Parker films bear a lot of resemblance to the originals.
Elmore Leonard didn’t fare much better in the true-to-the-source department. While I enjoyed “Get Shorty,” “52 Pick-up” and “Stick,” I tried making comparisons to the books but couldn’t find very many. I noticed the same thing with some of Mickey Spillane’s filmed adventures. “Kiss Me Deadly” is a terrific movie, but many of the characters appeared in name only. Nelson DeMille’s “The General’s Daughter” was hard to put down once I began reading it, but I didn’t have that problem with the film version. Robert B. Parker did better with his Spenser stories because he took an active role in the writing and development.
Perhaps the nadir of book-to-screen adaptations was “The Green Berets,” with John Wayne. It was a factual account by Robin Moore of the elite military unit fighting in southeast Asia. What emerged onscreen was a piece of political propaganda designed to sell the public on Wayne’s firm belief that the Viet Nam war was actually good for America. Perhaps he thought he was still making those WWII movies where he single-handedly defeated the Axis of Evil.
Pass the popcorn!
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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author of romantic mystery/thrillers and contemporary erotic romance. Hs website is www.timsmithauthor.com.