Monday, March 07, 2005

“Look at me.”

The Movie: Get Shorty, 1995 (Scott Frank, screenwriter, from the novel by Elmore Leonard; Barry Sonnenfeld, dir.)
Who says it: John Travolta as loan shark Chili Palmer
The context: Chili says this throughout the movie to establish control of any situation.
How to use it: To assert yourself.

Before you ask, no, I didn't see Be Cool this weekend, and I don't plan to, unless it's showing on cable at some point during one of my bouts of insomnia. The ever-insightful Tod Goldberg explores the question of why Elmore Leonard novels so frequently make lousy movies on his blog, so I'm not going to repeat his effort.

But this question of how you turn a book -- any book -- into a decent movie is very much on my mind these days, because I'm working with clients on a couple of screenplay adaptations right now.

Conventional wisdom says that mediocre books make the best movies, and a quick mental list -- Jaws, The Godfather, Coma (shut up, I love Coma) -- seems to prove the point. Conversely, the best books often make terrible movies: has anyone ever tried to watch the movie version of Ulysses? I did once, for about 20 minutes. Yikes. And -- um -- there was that terrible, terrible mistake called All the Pretty Horses, allegedly based on the novel of the same name.

But there are exceptions. Phillip Noyce's recent version of The Quiet American, which my cousin Kathleen produced, is an amazing film, helped by Michael Caine's greatest performance (and I loves me some Michael Caine). The Princess Bride is equally great in movie and book form. I have cautiously high hopes for the new adaptation of All the King's Men being filmed right now, although my brother Ed sees this as such profound hubris that everyone involved should be executed.

And I have very high hopes for the film version of my friend Scott Phillips' first novel, The Ice Harvest. The Ice Harvest is a short, dark book about the very worst Christmas Eve in the life of Charlie Arglist, a sleazy lawyer in 1970s Wichita who thinks he might be able to get clear if he can pull off one last deal. Richard Russo and Robert Benton wrote the screenplay, and the movie stars John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, and Oliver Platt. Everyone should see it, when it comes out in November.

But read the book first.


Anonymous said...

I want production of _All the King's Men_ to stop for the very reason that you stated: Good books rarely make good movies. Ipso facto (and probably some other Latin phrases I don't really know the meaning of), how can THE BEST book make even a passably watchable movie. Follow-on projects generally fail to the extent of the greatness of their antecedents; witness the spirallingly diminishing returns of the Star Wars episodes. But I do put _Quiet American_ in my top five books and top ten movies categories, so there's always the off chance that the ATKM movie won't stink. Just why risk it? I've found that things usually go wrong when you start trying to do stuff. The lesson, to quote Homer Simpson channeling Dylan Thomas's "Gang aft a glee," is "Never try." -- Ed

Anonymous said...

ERRATA: The "gang" thingy is from a poem by Robert Burns, not Dylan Thomas. Wrong guy, wrong century, wrong country. See what happens when you try stuff like making literary references? -- Ed

AnswerGirl said...

Bonus points for catching that before I felt obligated to say something, mon frere.