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Books Into Movies

sites/default/files/BOND BOOK COVERS_0023.jpgOver the past fifty years, many techniques have been used to adapt blockbuster books for the screen. While some approaches to this formidable task have pitted the original author against the screenwriter, all of the following techniques have resulted in great movies.



This tack was best summed up by Adolph Zukor, figurehead chairman of the board of Paramount during the 1940s. When asked about Paramount's version of For Whom the Bell Tolls, an intense Hemingway novel with a provocative political backdrop, he replied, "It is a great picture, without political significance. We "are not for or against anybody"

Another example is John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a book meant by its author "to rip the reader's nerves to rags. I don't want him satisfied." Though the novel attacked capitalism, the film was a softened version of Steinbeck's original ideas. Interestingly director John Ford, who won an Academy Award for his efforts, did not read the book.

Bernard Malamud's The Natural, about baseball player Roy Hobbs, a man who destroys himself, became a story about Roy Hobbs, a man who overcomes the beast in himself. At the end of Malamud's novel, Hobbs strikes out causing his team to lose the World Series; but in the film, Hobbs hits a grand slam homerun, saving his team and the Series. As one of the adapters, Roger Towne, explained, "The duties of a screenwriter are not just as a technician to adapt a book. In large part, they are to reflect the attitude of his time. Malamud wrote the tale on Roy Hobbs [coming out of  the attitude formed by that terrible calamity of World War II, [so] you can understand why the fates would conspire to bring a good man down. From the vantage point of 1984, in nuclear shadow, I'm writing about the ability of man to overcome defeat. I would love to keep the vision of man's perfectibility alive."



Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's  Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? took ten years and a half-dozen adaptations to reach the screen. In the process, it went from cautionary tale to slapstick comedy to science-fiction film noir Dick, who frequently fought with director Ridley Scott once observed, "Scott's attitude was quite a divergence from my original point of view since the theme of my book is that [the hero] is dehumanized through tracking down the androids. When I told him this, Scott said that he considered it an intellectual idea, and added that he was not interested in making an esoteric film."

Yet often the director does know best in translating ideas from one medium to the other. Milos Forman's version of Ken Kesey;s One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest took a metaphorical novel of highly stylized characters and ideas and turned it into a drama about people. Although Kesey blasted the movie without seeing it, Forman defended his changes, "In film, the sky is real, the grass is real, the tree is real; the people had better be real, too."



Director Howard Hawks once bragged to Ernest Hemingway "I can make a picture out of your worst story ... that piece of junk called To Have and Have Not." Hawks made a good movie, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but he did it by ignoring the book and remaking Casablanca.

Woody Allen pulled the same trick (although more blatantly) with Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, which uses Dr David Reuben's question-and-answer sex manual as the starting point for a series of comic sketches. The question, "How Accurate Are the Findings of Sex Clinics?", for example, is answered with a silly fifteen-minute story about a mad sex doctor who studies sexual functioning in hippopotamuses.



This involves taking a true story and making it into a "fictionalized" movie. Screenwriter William Goldman once explained his problems in adapting Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men. The Watergate cover-up story into a film: "Great liberties could not be taken with the material. Not Just for legal reasons, which were potentially enormous. But if there was ever a movie that had to be authentic. it was this one..... We were dealing here with probably the greatest triumph of the print media in many years, and every media person who would see the film would have spent time at some point in their careers in a newspaper... We had to be dead on, or we were dead."

Screenwriter Goldman was dealing with a book with no dramatic structure, little dialogue, hundreds of names, places, and facts, and an outcome – President Nixon's downfall – that was known at the outset. He handled these handicaps by throwing away half the book and focusing on thirteen key events in the story.



This is best exemplified by Goldfinger, the third and the best of the James Bond movies. The Ian Fleming novel finds criminal Auric Goldfinger planning to rob Fort Knox. As coscreenwriter Richard Maibaum observed, "Fleming never bothered his head about how long it would take to transport $16 billion worth of stolen gold bullion or how many men and vehicles would be required. Obviously. it would take weeks, hundreds of trucks, and hundreds of men." Maibaum and partner Paul Dehn improved on this by having Goldfinger plan to contaminate the gold (and thereby increase the value of his hoard). They also improved on the book by eliminating coincidences, improbabilities, and the most hackneyed cliche of the story, Bond being menaced by a buzz saw (it was replaced by a laser beam).



A prime example of this is The World According to Garp. an incredibly convoluted, picaresque novel, loaded·with subplots and digressions. The screenwriters pruned it down to its essentials, retaining much of the flavor if not the detail of the book.



In this technique, an adapter takes a simple story and makes it into a "Meaningful Story." The best example is the film Greystoke. The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which transforms Edgar Rice Burroughs' jungle superman into a symbol of natural man destroyed by civilization. Earlier Tarzan movies, such as the 1918 Tarzan of the Apes and the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man, employed the same material without the metaphors.sites/default/files/TARZAN_0002.jpg

Whatever the approach used by producers and screenwriters, the final word comes from fans of these great films and the fans have spoken by making their favorites among the best-selling and the best-renting home video entertainment.


THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951), C, Director: John Huston. Book: CS Forester. Screenplay: James Agee and John Huston. With Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart CBS/Fox.

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976), C, Director: Alan J. Pakula. Book: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Screenplay: William Goldman. With Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Warner.

THE ANDERSON TAPES (1971), C, Director: Sidney Lumet Book: Lawrence Sanders. Screenplay: Frank R. Pierson. With Sean Connery and Dyan Cannon. RCAI Columbia.

BEN-HUR (1959), C, Director: William Wyler. Book: Lew Wallace. Screenplay: Karl Tunberg. With Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, and Stephen Boyd. MGM/UA.

BLADE RUNNER (1982), C, Director: Ridley Scott. Book: Philip K. Dick. Screenplay: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. With Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer. Ernbassy. -

EAST OF EDEN (1955), C, Director Elia Kazan. Book: John Steinbeck. Screenplay: Paul Osborn. With James Dean, Julie Harris, and Jo Van Fleet. Warner

EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (1972), C, Director: Woody Allen. Book: Dr. David Reuben. Screenplay: With Woody Allen, John Carradine, and Lou Jacobi. CBS/ Fox.

THE EXORCIST (1973), C, Director: William Friedkin. Book and Screenplay: Wil· liam Peter Blatty. With Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Linda Blair. Warner.

THE GODFATHER (J972), C, Director Francis Ford Coppola. Book: Mario Puzo. Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo. With Marlon Brando, AI Pacino, and James Caan. Paramount.

THE GODFATHER, PART" (1974), C, Director: Francis Ford Coppola. Book: Mario Puzo. Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo. With AI Pacino, Robert Duvall, and Robert De Niro. Paramount.

GOLDFINGER (1964), C, Director: Guy Hamilton. Book: Ian Fleming. Screenplay: Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn. With Sean Connery. Gert Frobe. and Honor Blackman. CBS/Fox.

GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), C, Director: Victor Fleming Book: Margaret Mitchell. Screenplay: Sidney Howard. With Vivief'l Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, and Leslie Howard. MGM/UA.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), B/W, Director: John Ford. Book: John Steinbeck. Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson. With Henry Fonda, Jane Darwe!/. and John Carradine. CBS/Fox.

GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984), C, Director: Hugh Hudson. Book; Edgar Rice Burroughs. Screenplay: P.H. Vazak (Robert Towne) and Michael Austin. With Christopher Lambert. Andie McDowell, and Ian Holm. Warner.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), C, Director: Norman Jewison. Book: John Dudley Ball. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant. With Sidney Poitier. Rod Steiger, and Warren Oates. CBS/Fox.


JAWS (1975), C. Director: Steven Spielberg. Book: Peter Benchley Screenplay: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. With Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. MCA.

THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN (1984), C, Director: Christopher Morahan and Jim O'Brien. Book: Paul Scott. Screenplay: Ken Taylor With Peggy Ashcroft. Eric Porter, and Tim Piggott-Smith. Simon and Schuster.

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN (1974), C, Director: Stuart Rosenberg, Book: Thomas Rickman. Screenplay: MaJ Sjowall and Per Wahloo. With Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, and Lou Gossett. Key.

LOVE STORY (1970). C, Director: Arthur Hiller. Book and Screenplay: Erich Segal. With Ali MacGraw. Ryan O'Nea', and Ray Milland. Paramount.

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), B/W, Director Frank Lloyd. Book: Charles Nordhoff and James Hall. Screenplay: Talbot Jennings and Jules Furthman. With Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone. MGM/UA

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962), C, Director: Lewis Milestone. Book: Charles Nordhoff and James Hall. Screenplay: Charles Lederer With Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, and Richard Harris. MGM/UA

THE NATURAL (1984), C, Director Barry Levinson. Book: Bernard Malamud. Screenplay: Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry With Robert Redford and Robert Duvall. RCA/Columbia

OF MICE AND MEN (1939), B/W, Director: Lewis Milestone. Book: John Steinbeck. Screenplay: Eugene Solow With Lon Chaney Jr and Burgess Meredith. Prism.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975), C, Director: Milos Forman. Book: Ken Kesey Screenplay: Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. With Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, and Brad Dourif. HBO/Cannon

A PASSAGE TO INDIA (1984), C, Director David Lean. Book: E.M. Forster Screenplay: David Lean. With Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee. and Peggy Ashcroft. RCAI Columbia.

PSYCHO (1960), B/W, Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Book: Robert Bloch. Screenplay: Joseph Stefano With Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. MCA,  

PRIZZI'S HONOR (1985), C, Director: John Huston. Book: Richard Condon. Screenplay: Richard Condon and Janet Roach. With Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, and Anjelica Huston. Vestron

THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), C, Director Philip Kaufman. Book: Tom Wolfe. Screenplay: Philip Kaufman With Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, and Ed Harris. Warner.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964), B/W, Director: John Frankenheimer. Book: Fletcher Knebel. Screenplay: Rod Serling. With Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Ava Gardner. Paramount.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983), C, Director: James L. Brooks. Book: Larry McMurtry Screenplay: James L. Brooks. With Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, and Jack Nicholson. Paramount.

THE THIN MAN (1934), B/W, Director: WS Van Dyke II. Book: Dashiell Hammett Screenplay: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. With William Powell, Myrna Loy and Maureen O'Sullivan. MGM/UA.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), B/W, Director: Howard Hawks. Book: Ernest Hemingway Screenplay: Jules Furthman and William Faulkner With Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, and Lauren Bacall. MGM/UA.

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), B/W and C, Director Victor Fleming. Book: L. Frank Baum. Screenplay: Noel Langley and Florence Ryerson. With Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, and Margaret Hamilton. MGM/UA.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (1982), C, Director: George Roy Hill. Book: John Irving. Screenplay: Steve Tesich. With Robin Williams, Mary Beth Hurt, and Glenn Close. Warner.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), B/W, Director: William Wyler Book: Emily Bronte. Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. With Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, and David Niven. Embassy.


Gone With the Wind. David O. Selznick’s marvelous three and one half  hour version of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winner was one of the most eagerly awaited motion pictures of 1939. Not only that, it set new standards for filmmaking techniques and fidelity to text. Until Gone With the Wind, adaptations of books were in most cases only marginally faithful to their sources. (In fact, Mitchell received hundreds of letters from fans asking her to prevent the filmmakers from “changing the story as they always do in Hollywood.”) Selznick was so scrupulous that 17 different writers worked on the picture at different times, condensing its mammoth plot – approximately 150 characters were reduced to around 50; heroine Scarlett O’Hara’s three children became one; the Ku Klux Klan disappeared. The movie is a successful rendering of the essence of the novel – a super-soap-opera about the trials of Scarlett, whose rise and fall and rise again corresponds with the fortunes of the Old South. And whether you read the book (over 1,000 pages) or see the movie, it’s a long, wonderful experience.


The Godfather. This movie and its sequel, The Godfather, Part II, are brilliant transformations of a simple crime novel. Mario Puzo wrote the book in 1970 and collaborated with director Francis Ford Coppola on the screenplay, using the story of Vito Corleone, the Mafia Godfather, as a metaphor for the American success story. The book is fast-paced, uninspired melodrama; the film aims for much more. The story is of one immigrant family's rise and fall, as familial love disappears in the face violence.        


The African Queen is essentially a three-character story about a man, a woman, and a boat. The man is Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a gin-soaked riverboat captain in World War I Africa. The woman is Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), a missionary And the boat is The African Queen, a steam-engine launch that Allnut and Sayer pilot in a mad quest to sink a German warship. Their odyssey pitting them against white-water rapids, leeches, and nasty Germans, is propelled by wonderful comic performances and a clever script that considerably improves on C.S. Forester's overly serious novel. "To be faithful to the author," noted director/adapter John Huston, "sometimes means changing the author." In the case of The African Queen, the changes are right on target.


The Thin Man was a surprise hit in its day. Filmed in two weeks in 1934, it paired witty William Powell with ravishing Myrna Loy in what became the Thin Man entries. Based on Dashiell Hammett's novel, it was also a first for American cinema: a screwball comedy/ mystery that introduced Hammett's boozing, wisecracking, husband-and-wife sleuths, who were supposedly based on the author himself and Lillian Hellman. The script and dialogue made chanqes in the book's characterizations (the wife, Nora, changed from a tough cookie to a world-wise innocent, while the husband, Nick, changed from a fast-talking gumshoe to a silghtly inebriated amateur detective), which were overall improvements. The Powell-Loy exchanges are witty and the movie is a pure delight.

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Ben-Hur. The epitome of the epic film, Ben-Hur woneleven Oscars and has been called the "thinking man's epic" It's not hard to see why. Based on a sprawling book by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hut is the story of friendship betrayed, of revenge sought and won. It is the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who feud and eventually fight to the death in a justly famed chariot race. Like the novel, the movie is packed with events, but the focus is always on the theme of becoming what you hate. Heston deservedly won an Academy Award for his complex portrait of a flawed, driven man.


Wuthering Heights, This beautifully photographed version of Emily Bronte's gothic classic pares down the three-generational plot of the original and concentrates instead on the tragic love affair of Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Cathy (Merle Oberon). It was Olivier's first major American film, and it made him a star. His brooding presence gives the movie much of its passion and pathos –  he says as much with a look as Bronte manages with pages and pages of speeches. The movie is helped tremendously by effectively sentimental dialogue: “Be with me always. Drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you. I cannot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul.” We dare you not to cry at this ultimate tearjerker.


The Jewel in the Crown

Based on Paul Scott's four-volume Raj Quartet, this 14-part British TV series restructured the original story but is otherwise a brilliantly faithful adaptation. It is the tale of England's passion for India and of one Indian man’s love for a white woman. It is also a tale of rape, religion, sadism, and independence, featuring a vivid collection of characters who will move you with their loves, their hates, and their deaths. The writing, the performances, and direction are all superb, and if India was the “jewel” of the British Empire, The Jewel in the Crown is the gem in Granada Television’s collection.


VIDEO TIMES/March 1987