Film: Popcorn Fiction

Why Hollywood makes good movies out of bad books

Jul 8, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor in The Rainmaker

Around the turn of the century, a European bookseller hit upon the idea of ordering only the first volume of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Shrewdly anticipating attention deficit disorder before it had a name, the bookseller correctly assumed that most people wouldn't make it to the second half.

Today, people aren't much more interested in a 1,400-page account of four intermingling Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, it seems the less the entertainment industry demands of the average consumer, the better. People don't necessarily buy books or go to the movies expecting to be challenged. They'd rather kick back in an easy chair and let the events — the more grandiose the better — wash over them.

That may be why one of the most popular categories of book-buying is genre fiction: medical thrillers, legal thrillers, horror thrillers, crime thrillers and international techno-thrillers. Or, more accurately: Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Thomas Harris and Tom Clancy.

While there are plenty of good books out there, these four authors are among the few who are household names and have their novels transcribed into blockbuster films on a regular basis.

It might be easy to dismiss these men as hacks, purveyors of cheap thrills to consumers who want easy and immediate satisfaction for their dollars.

It is indeed hard to argue that The Hunt for Red October and A Time to Kill will ever be regarded as literary masterpieces. If the writing is anything but exceptional, what sells these books are the events contained within, namely, unexpected and often grisly plot twists, explosions, murder and sex.

Readers who find these formulaic novels hard to bear often enjoy films that are adapted from them. Explosions, murder and sex translate easily to the big screen. It's actually the mix Hollywood thrives upon. And the result is often a blast. Sydney Pollack's version of The Firm, starring Tom Cruise, was a great time, as was Philip Noyce's Clear and Present Danger with perennial patriot Harrison Ford. It's worked on a financial angle as well. Nearly all the Grisham adaptations went through the box-office roof, except The Chamber and The Rainmaker. The Silence of the Lambs swept the big five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) eight years ago, and now studios are fighting for the right to produce Hannibal, the sequel to Harris' circus of murder and cannibalism.

Naturally there's no such thing as a guaranteed blockbuster. Michael Crichton had a few stumbling blocks. Though Jurassic Park was one of the all-time top moneymakers, and its sequel The Lost World set an opening weekend record, three of his other adaptations fell flat on their face. Rising Sun barely registered a blip despite being a respectable enough mystery. Congo fizzled without a whisper. Last year's Sphere sank grotesquely despite an A-list ensemble cast including Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharon Stone.

Nevertheless, the books from these authors are undoubtedly the easiest to film. They don't indulge in exposition. They're a little short on allegory, monologue and depth of character. With The General's Daughter, the Simon West (Con Air) film starring John Travolta, we have a story about two brutal crimes and the efforts of a powerful organization to cover them up. It comes from an author known for the intrigues of the mighty: Nelson DeMille. Despite being a mediocre film, it's the latest example of an event novel in which physical behavior fuels the narrative, which actors, costume designers and f/x technicians can easily duplicate on-screen. It makes one wonder if a lot of time and paper would be saved if DeMille and Grisham simply wrote screenplays.

Then there are the books that are the complete opposite: strong on writing but low on events. The classic example of the unfilmable novelist is Henry James. Anyone who saw Jane Campion's rendering of The Portrait of a Lady can attest to this. But a more modern example might be Tom Robbins. The value of his written work lies in its colorful wording, its philosophical tangents and the lengthy sermons of his characters. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues tried to present this on the big screen with and the result was a nonsensical, incoherent disaster. People who hadn't read the book (and even some who had) couldn't make the slightest sense of it. A guy like Robbins is heavy on ideas. And ideas have no visual equivalent to manifest on-screen, unlike Tom Cruise's Hitchcockian flight from sinister agents in The Firm and the rampaging dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.

One of the most lauded novels in recent years was Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, the story of a permanently damaged Civil War veteran who wishes only to go home to his beloved. It's a kind of period science fiction in the sense of the lone wanderer surviving in a devastated landscape. It's a novel that takes its time. Frazier is mostly interested in the state of mind of his two lead characters and how they relate to the wilderness in which they find themselves.

Cold Mountain, like any best seller, has been optioned for a film. Trying to represent a state of mind on film requires a film artist, and Hollywood studios seldom have patience for those types. It will be interesting to see what filmmakers come up with. Of course it's the easiest thing in the world to doctor a story until it fits the formula. ©