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10 Awful Movie Versions Of Good Novels

September 1, 2012

The fall movie season is nearly upon us, and as usual, there seems to be a number of interesting looking movies to look forward to. Among them are a high number of novel adaptations, ranging from classic literature (Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina) to more current literature (On the RoadLife of Pi) to genre novels (Killing Them Softly – from the novel Cogan’s TradeThe Paperboy) to somewhat unclassifiable (Cloud Atlas). No one knows, of course, how these films are going to turn out, but one thing’s for sure; we’re going to see a lot of arguments about whether or not each of these movies succeeded as an adaptation. We’ll also probably read (and hear) a variation on arguments that inevitably crop up when it comes to movie versions of novels, namely (1) movie versions of literary novels rarely work, and (2) the kinds of novels that make the best movie adaptations are genre novels. Personally, I think both arguments are grossly simplistic.

There are all kinds of reasons why movie versions of literature are considered bad or failures; they’re more interested in replicating the plot than capturing its voice, they cut or compress too much of the novel (particularly if it’s a long one), and there are certain novels that are unfilmable. It’s true there are a number of failed adaptations of literary novels for those reasons, but there are a number of bad movies of any kind, literature adaptations or not. Also, maybe I just haven’t see enough of these bad movies, but I’ve seen quite a few good movies of classic literature (except for Mansfield Park, I enjoyed all of the Jane Austen theatrical movies of over a decade ago, particularly Sense and Sensibility) and more current literature (Slaughterhouse FiveThe Sweet Hereafter, The Virgin SuicidesThe Descendants). But I’m more interested in the second argument, which presumes movie versions of genre or pulp novels are better than their literary counterparts because the filmmakers can impose their own voice on the material, and turn what might have been trash on the page into art on the screen. Any fan of the first two Godfather movies knows how true that statement can be, and yet it misses a larger point. Genre or pulp novels also have an author’s voice, or a point of view, that can be missed in a film adaptation, and the elements of the story or plot can be as messed up in a film version as in any literary adaptation. Likewise, there are also long genre novels that lose something in the translation if they have to be compressed for the film version. So it cuts both ways.

In picking bad movies of good novels, for this reason, I’ve limited myself to novels that aren’t considered literature (even though, as I’ve said, I agree there are bad movie versions of those; I’m not fond, for example, of the Robert Redford version of Gatsby or the 1997 version of Anna Karenina). These are all genre novels of some kind, and all of them are novels I like a lot and own. But for reasons I hope to make clear, the movie versions are all terrible; they may have a redeeming element or two here and there (several of them have one performance that stands out), but they completely miss the mark as a movie and as an adaptation. These are in no particular order, though the last one on this list was a particularly notorious adaptation, and unfortunately, its reputation is well-deserved.

Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta), Warrant Officer Sara Sunhill (Madeline Stowe) and Colonel William Kent (Timothy Hutton)

The General’s Daughter: The title character of both Nelson DeMille’s novel and the movie version directed by Simon West (the adaptation is credited to Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman) is Captain Elizabeth (Ann in the book) Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), daughter of the post commander, Lieutenant General Joseph Campbell (James Cromwell). Early in the story, she’s found raped and murdered on the warfare range of the military base (Fort McCallum) she and her father are stationed at. Paul Brenner (John Travolta), an Army CID officer who’s currently working undercover at base, gets assigned to the case, and he’s under a time constraint (solve it before the media finds out). To Brenner’s annoyance, his ex-girlfriend, Warrant Officer Sara (Cynthia in the book) Sunhill (Madeline Stowe), a rape specialist, is teamed up with him. But as they go on with their investigation – which also ends up involving Col. George Fowler (Clarence Williams III), the base adjutant, Colonel William Kent (Timothy Hutton), the head cop on the base, and Colonel Robert Moore (James Woods), Captain Campbell’s superior officer – Brenner finds out the case is even more complicated than it seems.

That’s the bare bones of what, in the right hands, could be a decent thriller or better, and DeMille’s book certainly is that. Also, given the sensitivity of the subject matter, it avoids cheap exploitation in every way, and makes you feel sorry for all the characters concerned. The movie, unfortunately, goes straight for the exploitation. West doesn’t film the rape scenes as if he wants to show off the horror of rape, but as if he wants to show off how he can use the camera. Also, possibly on the assumption a straight investigation story wouldn’t be very interesting, West and the screenwriters throw in action scenes that don’t do anything for the story (though one, involving Brenner on the boat he’s staying on while undercover, is well-staged), and one in particular involves Sunhill for no other reason than to have a woman-in-jeopardy scene. Also, one of the issues raised by both book and movie – should women serve in the armed forces in combat positions – is dealt with in a heavy-handed manner here, unlike the novel. Worst of all, however, is how West and the writers change the motivations of a few characters in the movie to the point they make absolutely no sense, particularly Fowler and General Campbell. What was in the novel was sad and believable, but in the movie it just comes off cheap.

Another big problem is the problem that seems to inevitably happen these days in movies set in the South; it becomes an excuse to make the tone of the movie overheated and portentous. The actors also seem to go for this in a big way (with a few exceptions that I’ll get to in a minute), which doesn’t help matters. Travolta had been giving a string of mostly very good, or at least interesting, performances in very good (Pulp FictionGet ShortyFace/OffThe Thin Red Line) or at least interesting (White Man’s BurdenMad CityA Civil Action) movies, but he’s awful here, being mostly smug and over-the-top. And Cromwell and Williams (both of whom usually know better) are the same way, as are most of the supporting players (including Daniel Von Bargen as a civilian police chief). Hutton and Stowe at least don’t follow the lead of the others, but unfortunately, that leaves them with nowhere to go, as they’re dependent on the awful script. Only Woods is able to avoid overacting and yet make something of his part. He has two great scenes with Travolta (the only time Travolta steps up his game) that help the movie, briefly, come alive; one when he’s being interrogated, and one when he’s in jail. Both of these scenes are well-known and in the movie’s trailer – the former is the one where Brenner asks, “Did you play with (Captain Campbell)?”, and Moore responds, “What a truly excellent question”, while the latter is where Brenner asks, “What’s worse than rape?” and a shaken Moore responds, “When you find that out, then you’ll know everything, won’t you?” – but they still give off a charge, and for once, West lets the actors do their work. But the rest of The General’s Daughter makes you dirty, used and cheap.

Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown) wondering why he’s not in a better movie

Cocktail: Like most movie fans, I guess, if I see a movie I really like, I’m eager to check out other works by the people associated with the movie, either what they’ve done, or what they’re about to do. No Way Out – the Kevin Costner Cold War thriller, not the 1950 racial drama starring Sidney Poitier – was my favorite film of 1987, so for my sins, I kept my eye out for any movies by Roger Donaldson, the director. So, when I saw Donaldson was making a movie of Heywood Gould’s novel about a wayward bartender, I swallowed my dislike of Tom Cruise (I had disliked Top Gun, and while I happen to think The Color of Money is one of Scorsese’s most underrated films, Cruise was the weakest part of it) and checked out the novel from the library. While Gould’s attitudes in this novel towards gay people are pretty retrograde, to say nothing of his attitudes towards women, it’s clear his attitude towards his main character is refreshingly free of self-pity and yet lacerating, and while this may remind you in reading it of Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City, it’s more mature and a little less bleak. It’s also very well-written and often funny. The movie is, unfortunately, something else again.

Though Gould is credited with the screenplay, it’s simplistic to blame the writer, since you don’t often know how many people actually worked on the finished product, and the credited writer may also have been under someone’s marching orders. And I would hazard a guess in this case, those orders were from Cruise. I’m somewhere in the middle on Cruise; I think, when he’s paired with a director who’s able to push him somewhat, he’s capable of being very good, but when he’s the power behind it all, it becomes a vanity project that can be unbearable to watch, and that’s the case here. In the novel, Cruise’s character, Brian Flanagan, says at one point (he narrates the novel), “There wasn’t a day I didn’t work as a bartender that I didn’t hope was my last.” That attitude is dropped completely from the movie; except for the scene (that comes straight from the novel) where a rookie Flanagan is over his head his first time behind the bar while under the watchful eye of Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown), his mentor, the movie makes bartending look akin to being a star of music videos rather than the tough job it is. Maybe it reflects the flashy tone many bars took in the 80’s, but Cruise and, it must be said, Donaldson, are incredibly smug in making it so. Large portions of the novel are dropped – including, admittedly, the Fire Island sequence that shows Gould’s less than enlightened attitudes towards gays – but what’s left, including Brian’s flings with a reporter (Gina Gershon), an older woman (Lisa Barnes), and an artist (Elisabeth Shue) who may be his one true love, is made melodramatic and ridiculous. This is particularly true of his affair with Shue, which avoids what was actually well done in the novel in favor of overheated scenes with Cruise and her father (Laurence Luckinbill) – it doesn’t help Shue is fairly shrill in these scenes. And that’s not even mentioning Cruise declaiming poetry at certain points in the film; the Flanagan in the book does that once, but it’s for mocking effect, while here, it makes you as an audience member want to mock.

The only one who survives this mess is Brown. As in the novel, Coughlin at first seems like a good mentor to Flanagan, but soon reveals both a dark side and, later on, a more pathetic one. He also disappears after the first third of the novel, but hangs over the rest of it as someone who haunts Flanagan, and the one good decision Donaldson makes is to keep Coughlin around for most of the movie, because Brown is that good at showing those hidden sides. Also, Brown happens to look the part of a bartender, and has an authenticity to him that is sadly lacking in the rest of the movie. I recently read again Roddy Doyle’s wonderful novel The Van, where the main character at one point is telling his son about the movie (he’s trying to convince him to do the famous routine Cruise and Brown do to Georgia Satellites’ cover version of “Hippy Hippy Shake” at their workplace), and he calls it “shite, but good shite.” I beg to differ.

The Teacher (Alec Baldwin) and Annie (Demi Moore)

The Juror: The 90’s in Hollywood saw the rise of competing projects, where you’d have two (sometimes three) movies that were either competing versions of the same established story (Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood movie forced the Patrick Bergin one to TV), or two movies with remarkably similar stories (Deep Impact and Armageddon both being “object from space falls to Earth and threatens to destroy it” movies), and often coming out the same year or close to that. The fall of 1994 saw the release of Trial by Jury (directed and c0-written by, alas, Heywood Gould), about a juror (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) on the jury of a trial of a mobster (Armand Assante) who is threatened by one of the mobster’s associates (William Hurt) that harm will come to her son unless she votes guilty. In February of 1996 (originally, it was meant to come out in the fall of 1995) came The Juror, which had a similar plot, with Demi Moore as the harassed juror, Tony Lo Bianco as the mobster, and Alec Baldwin as the associate who threatens her. There were a few differences between the two films. First of all, in the former, Whalley-Kilmer’s character is asked only to hang the jury, while in the latter, Moore’s character, Annie Laird, is asked by Baldwin’s character (known as The Teacher) to get the jury to acquit Lo Bianco’s mobster character (named Louie Boffano) of the charges against him. And in the former character, both Assante’s mobster character and the district attorney (played by Gabriel Byrne) are major characters, while in the latter film, the D.A. figures in only at the trial, and Boffano doesn’t get much more screen time. Finally, the former film is an original screenplay and therefore, being the bad film it is, merely stinks on its own merits, while the latter is based on a thrilling and well-written novel by George Dawes Green (adapted by Ted Tally), and therefor not only stinks as a film, but also an adaptation.

Green has had particularly bad luck when it comes to adaptations – Kasi Lemmons’ film version of his first novel, The Caveman’s Valentine, also falls short – but that film merely tripped up on its own ambitions. Director Brian Gibson (best known for the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It?), on the other hand, brings a mechanical tone to the entire enterprise. For the most part, the film sticks fairly close to the plot of the novel, including the ways Annie tries to gain the upper hand against the Teacher, his somewhat twisted feelings towards her, and the supporting characters, including her best friend (Anne Heche, giving the movie what little life it has) and Boffano’s associate helping the Teacher (James Gandolfini). But Green’s unique voice, especially in how he draws both Annie and the Teacher’s characters (the Teacher in particular, I think is the one character who might make Hannibal Lecter (see below) somewhat afraid), is replaced by an impersonal, plodding tone, and you get the feeling Gibson and Tally both have their noses turned upwards. Therefore, what could at least be decent entertainment, despite the outlandish elements (especially the end) and the violence becomes ugly and dispiriting. It doesn’t help, of course, I’m not a fan of Moore, though I don’t consider her one-note performance here entirely her fault (Striptease, which I review below, is another matter). After all, Baldwin, who is perfect casting for the part, also looks bored (though admittedly, he was getting tired of playing bad guys apparently), only coming alive in the scene where he’s driving recklessly while Annie is in the car. Any way you slice it, The Juror is guilty of being a bad movie and bad adaptation.

Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore)

Hannibal: I was, and still am, a huge fan of both the novel and the movie of The Silence of the Lambs, and after reading Thomas Harris’ previous novels, I eagerly awaited the next one. That follow-up, Hannibal, was, for the most part, not as well-received as Harris’ other films (though it did have its defenders, like Stephen King), but I happened to like it a lot. It managed what I thought was impossible; combining the serial killer genre with the fairy tale genre (Harris seemed to be taking his cue from Jonathan Demme’s movie version of Silence, which made the relationship between rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and sociopath psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) into a twisted love story). To that end, it did end up in, shall we say, some bizarre areas, but I though Harris made it work. Demme and Foster didn’t, however, so they ended up skipping the movie version, and while Hopkins reprised his role as Lecter, Ridley Scott took over as director, with Julianne Moore now playing Starling. The resulting movie, for me, is an unmitigated disaster.

The plot sticks fairly close to the novel; Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), one of the few patients of Lecter’s to survive after being attack (though he’s bed-ridden and horribly disfigured), plans to take revenge on Lecter. First, he offers a reward to anyone who captures Lecter, who is now living in Italy, and Inspector Renaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), a disgraced police detective, decides to take Verger up on his offer, with disastrous results. Next, with the help of corrupt FBI agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), he sets out to disgrace Starling, in the hopes Lecter will come after her. The problem is Scott, as well as credited writers David Mamet and Steve Zaillian, drop the fairy tale aspect, and make this more like the procedural people seemed to want the novel to be. The problem is, without that fairy tale tone, the elements that might have seemed ridiculous are that way on film, and since Scott accentuates the violence, they also become unpleasant to watch and cartoonish. Also, while there are times when Hopkins is subtle (mostly in his scenes with Giannini, who is the best and only realistic thing about the film), this is when he started to play Lecter in a cartoonish, winking manner, which was all the more exaggerated in Brett Ratner’s version of Red Dragon, the first Lecter novel. I’ve enjoyed Oldman’s over-the-top portrayals in other movies, but not this one, and the make-up on him looks preposterous. Finally, while Moore is one of my favorite actress, and does her best as Starling (including the accent), she unfortunately doesn’t bring the brittle intelligence Foster brought to the part, and to me, that’s the most important aspect of the character. I will say I read Mamet’s original draft of the script online, and while it departed from the book in some ways, it seemed like could have been a good movie. Certainly, it wouldn’t have turned out any worse than this was.

Erin Grant (Demi Moore)

Striptease: Carl Hiaasen has been called our modern-day Mark Twain, and with good reason; though Hiaasen is more genre-oriented than Twain (writing comic crime novels), and perhaps more political, Hiaasen shares Twain’s offbeat humor and his outrage. So it’s a crying shame there hasn’t been a single good film version of one of his novels to date. Hoot, the 2006 film version of his first young adult novel, was merely boring and bland. Striptease, on the other hand, is painful to sit through. Given I’m not a fan of Demi Moore (see above), that shouldn’t have been a surprise (the year before also saw her in an awful version of The Scarlet Letter). However, with Andrew Bergman at the helm, coming off The Freshman (one of the best comedies of the 90’s), Honeymoon in Vegas, and It Could Happen to You (not in the same class, but still good), I thought he could at least make a funny movie, and maybe get a good performance out of Moore. I thought wrong.

Like the novel, the movie is about the fallout that occurs when Dave Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds), a philandering Congressman from Florida (where the movie, and all of Hiaasen’s novels, is set), hits the groom of a bachelor party over the head with a champagne bottle because said groom was holding on to Erin Grant (Moore), a stripper, a little too tightly. Erin didn’t recognize Dilbeck – he was traveling incognito – but two other people did. One is Jerry Killian (William Hill), a customer at the strip joint Erin works at, and given he’s infatuated with Erin (though sweet about it), he tries blackmailing Dilbeck so he’ll help Erin get back custody of her daughter Erin (Rumer Willis, Moore’s real-life daughter) from her thieving ex-husband Darrell (Robert Patrick). The other is Alan Mordecai (Stuart Pankin), lawyer for the groom, who recognizes Dilbeck from photos, and wants to blackmail him for money. However, Dilbeck’s campaign manager, Malcolm Moldovsky (Paul Guilfoyle) has too much wrapped up in Dilbeck to be derailed by a scandal and blackmail, so he arranges for both Killian and Mordecai to be killed, which brings Sgt. Al Garcia (Armand Assante) on to the case. Then it turns out Dilbeck is infatuated with Erin.

All of this was hysterically funny in the novel, as well as pointed; Dilbeck (and Moldovsky) have been bought and paid for by the sugar industry, and without getting didactic, Hiaasen shows how detrimental that is to Florida. Bergman cuts most of that part of it out, but that would be somewhat forgivable if the movie were still funny. The problem is, it really isn’t. Bergman’s pacing is off, and what’s worse, Moore seems to think she’s making a Statement about stripping (the novel doesn’t glamorize stripping, but it’s nowhere near as heavy-handed), thereby killing the comedy. She gets a laugh occasionally (as when she tells Orly (Jerry Grayson), her boss, she doesn’t want to mud wrestle in creamed corn because she doesn’t want to get any of it up her “hoo-ha”), but otherwise, she’s as flat and one-note as she usually is. Reynolds you’d at least think would be able to find the funny, but he gives the same old “Look how superior I am to this material!” performance he’d been giving in the years previous to this (before snapping out of it in Boogie Nights). Aside from Willis, who is refreshingly un-cloying, the only one who escapes with their dignity intact is Ving Rhames as Shad, the bouncer at the strip joint, and Erin’s best friend. Shad was my favorite character in the novel (you have to like a bouncer who reads Kafka), and whether he’s lying to guards about the fact Meryl Streep used to strip for a living (under the name “Chesty LaFrance”), o confronting Mordecai about his own lawsuit (pretending he found a bug in his yogurt), Rhames brings the right deadpan tone to the film, and gets the only laughs. When he was promoting the movie on Letterman, Rhames addressed the audience by telling them it was nothing like Showgirls. He was right; that movie is at least unintentionally funny if you’re in the right mood. Striptease, except when Rhames is on screen, isn’t funny under any circumstances.

Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman)

Practical Magic: You may not buy into the magic realism of Alice Hoffman’s novel about two sisters who have been brought up by eccentric aunts who are considered witches by the rest of the town (even though they come to them with advice), but it’s very well-written, sort of a modern day fairy tale. Director Griffin Dunne and writers Adam Brooks, Akiva Goldsman and Robin Swicord, however, try to turn it into a black comedy of sorts (as with Dunne’s previous film Addicted to Love, which I also disliked), and all rhyme, reason, character and real magic are thrown out the window in favor of caricature and shock effects.

The sisters in question are Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman), and they’ve been raised by their aunts Fran (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest) ever since their parents died when they were little. Sally is the conscientious one, while Gillian is the wild one. The only thing they have in common is they both want to live a different life than their aunts, who give love advice, and maybe potions, to neighbors at night but are shunned by them and blamed for anything bad that happens during the day. Gillian does this by moving away, while Sally meets Michael (Mark Feuerstein), a truck driver, falls in love with him and marries him, and has two daughters with him, Antonia (Alexandra Artrip) and Kylie (Evan Rachel Wood, in one of her first roles). But then Michael is killed by a drunk driver, and Sally goes into a tailspin, after which she finally moves from the aunts. Things are getting better until Gillian shows up with Jimmy (Goran Visnjic), her abusive boyfriend, whom she tried to poison because he was beating her. All of this is from the book, except the fact Jimmy was in fact really dead, but here, Jimmy recovers, the two sisters have to kill him for real, Gary (Aidan Quinn), a cop, comes looking for Jimmy, Gillian gets possessed by Jimmy, and…it becomes ridiculous real quick. The movie plays as if Dunne had no respect for the original story, and just thought it’d be cool to show modern female witches (there’s even a scene where Sally calls a neighbor (Chloe Webb) to confess). The “magic” in the book comes from the everyday, and yes, there are superstitions and such, but it feels believable; here, it just feels silly. And while Bullock and Kidman do their best with the material (Bullock, surprisingly since I’m not a fan, comes off best), Wiest looks lost, Channing apparently decided to channel Bette Davis and doesn’t come off well, and Quinn looks bored (though, to be fair, who could blame him?). Apparently, there are people on who think the movie was better than the novel. I don’t understand that.

Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore)

Firestarter: I can’t say this for sure, but I would bet Stephen King is probably the most filmed of the so-called “popular” novelists of the last 35-40 years or so. As such, he’s also the best argument against the idea pulp novels often make the best movie adaptations, as his work has been made into some mediocre-to-awful movies, such as Silver BulletNeedful Things, and Dreamcatcher (as well as, to be sure, good ones like CarrieThe Dead Zone and the miniseries version of The Stand, as well as non-horror works like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption; I’m not a fan of Misery or The Green Mile, and I feel conflicted about Kubrick’s version of The Shining, but they all have their defenders). However, from my admittedly limited viewing of King adaptations (as well as reading his works), I’d say the worst adaptation of one of his novels is Mark Lester’s version of Firestarter.

As King said in an interview with “American Film”, the movie does stick fairly close to the novel’s plot. Nine-year old girl Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore), thanks to government experiments her parents Andy (David Keith) and Vicky (Heather Locklear in flashbacks) participated in when they were in college, has the ability to set fires simply by thinking about it. Charlie doesn’t like the fact she has this ability (she only uses it when she’s desperate, or when she gets mad), especially since the government (particularly an agency known only as “The Shop”) is after both her and her father (he has the ability to influence minds), and they killed her mother (who developed some telekinetic powers). But eventually, The Shop captures both Charlie and Andy, and while Andy is locked in a prison (to keep her from Charlie), Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen) and Dr. Wanless (Freddie Jones) try to experiment on Charlie, but she refuses to participate. Meanwhile, Rainbird (George C. Scott), a government assassin and one of Hollister’s associates, pretends to be a janitor to gain Charlie’s trust and get her to do what Hollister wants (though Rainbird has his own reasons). The problem, again, is one of tone. When I saw Hanna last year, I thought that was the movie Firestarter should have been (though having a very different plot, it does involve a genetically enhanced young girl on the run from the government), having both a fairy tale and pop-like tone that enhanced the material. Lester, on the other hand, gives his movie a plodding tone, and seems to accentuate all of the violent aspects to make them unpleasant. Barrymore does her best, but she doesn’t get much to do (and Lester overuses the effect of the wind blowing in her hair when she’s about to set a fire). In fact, except maybe for Scott, who at least manages some wry humor, none of the cast comes off very well (including Art Carney and Louise Fletcher as a couple who take Andy and Charlie in), and Sheen seems to think he’s playing Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone all over again (as King speculated in the interview). Apparently, there’s a remake of this in the works (there was also a sequel, with Marguerite Moreau, whom I like, as Charlie, though I’ve never seen it), and I can only hope it’s better than this version was.

Carly Norris (Sharon Stone) and Zeke Hawkins (William Baldwin)

Sliver: Along with King, Ira Levin is, to me, proof literary novelists aren’t the only ones who have to suffer many bad film adaptations. Levin’s novels may not be very deep, but they’re often crackerjack entertainment. I haven’t seen either version of A Kiss Before Dying (or read the novel, for that matter), but except for Roman Polanski’s comic horror version of Rosemary’s Baby, none of the film versions of his novels have really measured up, with both versions of The Stepford Wives, as well as the movie version of The Boys from Brazil being anything but crackerjack entertainment (Levin was a playwright as well; the movie version of No Time for Sergeants – unusual for Levin in not being a thriller or horror story – was pretty funny, thanks to Andy Griffith, while the movie version of Deathtrap was unreservedly awful). However, none of the film versions of his works was the out-and-out abomination that Philip Noyce’s Sliver was.

The title of the novel refers to the structure of the apartment building book editor Carly Norris (Sharon Stone) moves into; it’s tall but thin. That’s not the only notable thing about the building; there’s also been a rash of mysterious deaths in it, and though most of the residents don’t know this, each apartment has a camera (or more than one) in it so everything that happens in it is under observation. At the building, Carly meets Jack Landsford (Tom Berenger), a successful author, whom she likes, but she becomes smitten with Zeke (William Baldwin), her landlord, and the two begin an affair. Then Carly finds out about the cameras. In the novel, Carly was caught between how immoral and invasive the whole practice was and yet how she couldn’t stop watching either, and again, while this may not have been explored on a deep, philosophical level, it made for gripping reading. Noyce and writer Joe Eszterhas, on the other hand, make this boring, except when throwing in sex and violence at every occasion, when it merely becomes lurid (apparently, Eszterhas’ script was rewritten somewhat, so he isn’t entirely to blame). None of the characters look remotely comfortable in their roles; Stone at least had radiated sexuality in Basic Instinct, her previous film with Eszterhas, but here, she looks lost, Baldwin seems over-matched, and Berenger goes way over the top. Apparently, Stone and Baldwin didn’t get along during filmmaking (which they made clear in interviews), but while that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, the lack of chemistry certainly shows on-screen, and hurts the film. Finally, the ending of the novel gets changed, which makes it even more ridiculous. My advice to anyone considering this movie; rent Rosemary’s Baby instead.

Professor Lakos (Christopher Plummer)

The Amateur: Robert Littell has been called in some quarters the American John le Carre. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but he’s definitely written some of my favorite novels in the spy or espionage genre, such as The Sisters (about the “perfect crime” to end all perfect crimes; assuming you believe the conspiracy theories), The Company (a fictionalized history of 40 years of the CIA) and Legends (a more narrow fictional history involving a former spy turned private detective). Unfortunately, he’s had no luck involving filmed adaptations of his work. There was a TV miniseries of The Company which played as a greatest-hits version of the novel, and, except for the performances by Alfred Molina (as a spy known as “The Wizard”) and Michael Keaton (as real-life counter-espionage head James Angleton), was lacking in that department as well (most of the story involved Chris O’Donnell, who wasn’t up to the challenge). However, it’s miles better than Charles Jarrott’s adaptation of The Amateur, Littell’s sixth novel.

Charlie Heller (John Savage) is a cryptographer at the CIA whose biggest worry in life seems to be trying to find if there’s a code that proves whether or not Shakespeare really wrote his plays (this is from the book, and Littell is fond of this kind of thing; the novel of The Company uses “Alice in Wonderland” as a metaphor). Then his wife Sarah (Lynne Griffin) is murdered at the American embassy in West Berlin by a German terrorist group led by Schraeger (Nicholas Campbell). When Charlie’s superiors, led by Brewer (Arthur Hill), refuse to investigate the matter any further (for their own reasons), Charlie goes to Europe to take revenge. He ends up going through what was then known as Czechoslovakia, meets up with Elisabeth (Marthe Keller), a mysterious woman who seems to want to help him, and tries to stay ahead of both the CIA and Professor Lakos (Christopher Plummer), the head of the Czech secret police. Lakos, in some respects, is similar to Charlie (he shares Charlie’s obsession with  Shakespeare’s authenticity), and though Plummer can often go over the top, here, he gives a wry, relaxed performance that makes most of the second half of the movie at least tolerable. Unfortunately, Savage, who can be a good actor (as in the little-seen Cattle Annie and Little Britches, as well as Inside Moves and Salvador), is grating and one-note here, and Jarrott, while sticking close to the plot, gives it a mechanical tone, and doesn’t seem interested in the characters at all (except for maybe Lakos). In an interview, Littell also blamed the fact the dialogue is awful on the fact Jarrott and his wife at the time (Katharine Blake) re-wrote it, and while I don’t know if that’s true, it is a fact he’s right about the dialogue of the movie. I don’t know if the success of last year’s version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will re-awaken an interest in Cold War stories, or more cerebral spy stories, but if it does, I hope someone will make a good movie version of one of Littell’s novels.

Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis)

The Bonfire of the Vanities: As I said up front, all of these movie versions are pretty bad, in my opinion, but this one takes the cake. Unlike all of the other films listed above, the mistakes on this production were documented for publication; Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy was an inside look at Brian DePalma’s film version of Tom Wolfe’s satirical debut novel, and it showed in detail just how the movie went wrong and why. Among other things, the movie is living proof of how you can get talented people together – DePalma and stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, F. Murray Abraham, Morgan Freeman, and Kim Cattrall, among others – and still make an awful movie. As you may know, the plot involves the fallout that occurs when self-styled “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy (Hanks), a financial wizard, and his mistress Maria Ruskin (Griffith) take a wrong turn in New York one night (Maria is driving), and end up hitting a black youth (Patrick Malone) when they think they’re being robbed. Reverend Bacon (John Hancock) – inspired by Al Sharpton – is tired of black people being ignored by the police, but he also has his own agenda, while Jed Kramer (Saul Rubinek), the prosecutor, wants to use the case for his own political aspirations, as well as to show African-Americans he’s willing to go after rich white guys, i.e., McCoy, and Peter Fallow (Willis), a gossip columnist, is happy just to report the fallout and spike his readership so he can keep his job(though in the film, he begins to have misgivings).

DePalma got his start in making satirical sketch films (the best of which is Hi, Mom!), and would often incorporate satirical comedy into his horror and suspense films, especially Carrie and Blow Out. But his most recent out-and-out comedy to that point, Wise Guys, had hardly any laughs, and matters are even worse here. DePalma uses his usual moving camera, as in an opening tracking shot involving Fallow going through the back way in a hotel for a speaking engagement (we learn what it is at the end), but it seems labored. Everything in this movie, as a matter of fact, seems labored, and so the comedy falls completely flat. The characters get softened, too, especially the judge character; Judge Kovitsky, who was originally going to be played by Alan Arkin, is changed to Judge White, played by Morgan Freeman, and he gives what amounts to a thesis speech by the end that would derail the movie if it hadn’t already been derailed in the first place. Freeman at least gives the speech with his usual conviction, but none of the other actors come off well. Hanks looks over-matched, Griffith is one-note and shrill, and Willis comes off as if he’s sleepwalking through the part. Though it didn’t have a racial or legal angle, the made-for-HBO Barbarians at the Gate, about the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco (which I wrote about here) was otherwise the spot-on satire on the 80’s that the movie version of Bonfire failed to be.


From → Movies

  1. Well written post, I always think that it’s really hard to capture the spirit of a book on film.

    • Thanks, Vinnie! I do think there are more good film versions of novels than is generally thought; however, these movies are just awful.

  2. Nice post, but I feel I should point out you missed a big one: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is, hands down, one of the worst movies ever made.

    • Sean Gallagher permalink

      Thanks, Mike! I must concede I never read Even Cowgirls Get the Blues nor saw the movie, so I can’t comment on it; I was scared off by all the bad reviews. One of these days, I will catch up to both. I did like k.d. lang’s soundtrack.

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