Film: Novel Ideas

'Message in a Bottle' continues Hollywood's love/hate relationship with literature

Robin Wright Penn in Message in a Bottle

Robin Wright Penn doesn't fit the image of Theresa Osborne, the romantic journalist of Nicholas Sparks' novel, Message in a Bottle. With her short, blonde, tousled hair, Penn's look is decidedly different from Sparks' description of his heroine: "Her hair was dark brown, cut just above her shoulders, and straight as spider silk."

It's a small quibble, but one very indicative of the way Hollywood often treats adaptations of popular novels. Anything goes when producers get hold of literary endeavors: Settings change, characters are omitted, endings become more "Hollywood."

Transforming literary works into big-screen features is nothing new. In 1939 Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights each received the cinematic treatment. Each one became a screen classic, despite changes to the original texts such as omissions from Mitchell's 1,000-plus page tome. Perhaps the excitement of the movies — coming into color no less — prevented audiences from being harsh when it came to movie adaptations. Now, such changes tend to alienate audiences.

In a world that finds people with less and less time to embrace pleasure-reading, books have become a beloved commodity.

It's not the quantity read but the quality, and long after the final page, tales remain close to the heart with seemingly more books enjoying lengthy stays on the best-seller charts from the intelligence of John Berendt to the breeze of John Grisham.

When Grisham's second novel, The Firm, sold more than 12 million copies on the best-seller list, it became the perfect vehicle for pretty boy Tom Cruise in 1993. The mega-star was appropriately cast as upstanding lawyer Mitch McDeere caught in the web of a deceitful law firm. Moviegoers saw a vastly altered finale with Mitch striking a deal to save his life. Grisham fans were heartily disappointed. Those who hadn't read the novel believed they had witnessed a "good film."

Perhaps more than any other form of media, literary fans are die-hard. The power of the written word is overwhelming. If an author touches a reader, they've usually gained a fan for life. Last year Anne Rice released her critically panned The Vampire Armand, only to see it grace the best-seller charts. Actors don't hold the same control over their fans. Audiences don't remain loyal to Julia Roberts through her "off" periods (1996's Mary Reilly, for instance) only to return when she appears to strike gold (1997's My Best Friend's Wedding ).

Such literary loyalty flows over into movie theaters. By tapping into books as fodder for potentially blockbuster movies, Hollywood knows it has a built-in audience. Fans often follow, only to be shocked by what Tinseltown has made of their favorite reads. Such fans might be shocked with what they see in the film adaptation of Message in a Bottle.

The Kevin Costner/Paul Newman/Robin Wright Penn vehicle bears only a vague resemblance to Sparks' second novel. While jogging on a beach, Theresa discovers a love letter encased in a bottle that has washed ashore. When the letter is published in the newspaper, other letters turn up, prompting the beautiful divorcée to track down the mysterious and elusive author, Garrett (Costner).

Lovers of Sparks' fluffy romance, a true guilty pleasure, will be put off in the film's opening minutes. Theresa is no longer a newspaper columnist but a researcher; she lives in Chicago, not Boston; and the letters are typed as opposed to being hand-written. It's just a small sampling of the discrepancies between novel and film, changes Sparks can live with. "They are all very minor changes," Sparks says, speaking to CityBeat recently at The Cincinnatian hotel.

Even the movie's inclusion of a third letter found on the same stationery penned by a different author? That's a Hollywood creation to add some cinematic suspense; Garrett wrote all three letters in the book. "(The characters) are undergoing the same things as in the novel. It's one of the closest adaptations I've ever seen," Sparks says.

The book's lovers won't be as easily fooled. Literary fans never are. But Hollywood doesn't care. Producers use the name recognition of a book to bring in audiences, tampering with the original where they see fit. Hollywood, after all, operates on two principles: (1) How do we make more money? and (2) Anything you can do, we can do better. To that end, studios change endings, miscast name actors in roles, anything to maximize box office and egos. Literary fans often lose out.

Those changes may be why author Russell Banks mostly avoids Hollywood. For years, his novel Continental Drift has been discussed as a vehicle for the big screen. "Back in 1987, I was working with Jonathan Demme on Continental Drift, and we took meetings out in Hollywood, where you have to pitch the story to movie executives. I remember how demeaning it felt, to sit there and watch their eyes glaze over. I remember the absurdity of Whoopi Goldberg being considered for the part of the Haitian woman. It was just incredible," Banks says, speaking with CityBeat recently from a New York City hotel.

Banks' account shows Hollywood at its most stereotypical. A critical, though not commercial, success, Banks seems all too aware of how his books should be adapted, whether it's to appease him, his fans or both. Perhaps that's why independent films seem to be an author's best friend, with Banks seeing successful adaptations of The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and Affliction (1998, opening in Cincinnati later this month).

"I think my work lends itself more to independent films outside of Hollywood," Banks says.

Hollywood adaptations have become a mixed bag of winners and losers. The studios win by capitalizing on the built-in literary audience with sizable opening-weekend box-office grosses (The John Travolta-led A Civil Action grossed $19 million on its opening weekend nationwide). Non-readers, with no preconceived notions of how things should have been, often find enjoyment in the cinematic endeavor. Faithful readers leave theaters disappointed with Hollywood's bastardization of their beloved novels. But in the end authors win two-fold, receiving a sizable paycheck for the rights to their work and even more adulation from their loyal readers.

Occasionally, a Hollywood player cares more about the work than the paycheck. Angela Bassett expressed concern over accurately portraying the title character of Terry McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) and Grisham refused to sell rights to his debut novel, A Time To Kill, until a director could be found who shared his vision.

It is a love-hate relationship that's bound to continue. Book lovers may be further ostracized over the next year as the book-to-screen transformation kicks into high gear. Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, John Irving's The Cider House Rules, Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean are only the biggest of the batch to come to life in 1999. High hopes are often diminished.

Watching Message in a Bottle, it becomes crystal clear that Penn washes away the Theresa in the book simply by pushing her hair behind her ear. It's a momentary reprieve from Hollywood's callous treatment of novels, before Penn reads the type-written letter. And once again it's evident the literary lover is left out to sea. ©

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