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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Back to the Source : Four movies, four books--how the art of literary adaptation was served this summer

September 09, 1990|SHEILA BENSON

Adaptations have enriched Hollywood's bloodstream since the nickelodeons fed off the dime novel. In the '30s, Liberty magazine or Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post overflowed with stories by the first rank of American writers, virtually there for the taking. And the movies took them by the dozens.

For more tony properties--ones that could be counted on to bring Oscars for their casts and Thalbergs for their producers--Hollywood reached to its bookshelves and pulled down inspiration willy-nilly, from "Gone With the Wind" and "Wuthering Heights" to "The Godfather" and "Out of Africa."

We've gotten a little out of the habit of literary adaptations lately, ever since old movies became the literature of fascinated young filmmakers-- old movies, old television shows, old comic books. Recently it's new movies; blockbusters we hadn't even had a chance to forget were turned into sequels, each of them noisier, bloodier and less imaginative than the original. It's been some summer.

Finally, it seems that the action-adventure sequel has cycled out, at least for the moment. And while we catch our breath in relief, a quartet of movies has made the summer more interesting, all of them from notable books: "Quick Change," "Presumed Innocent," "Wild At Heart" and "After Dark, My Sweet."

Page to screen is a delicate matter. How much needs to be invented? How much infidelity to the original will readers stand for? How many memorable characters must be sacrificed to keep the narrative line going? These are a few of the questions four screenwriters faced as they brought these very different novels to the screen.

"Quick Change's" author, Jay Cronley, possesses a cracked and wild humor, he draws real characters whose outlook is about a quarter-inch away from surreal. His wit is all the more pungent because his heroes are frequently outlaws; they may not brandish guns, but they are unquestionably outlaws of the spirit.

Cronley concocted a grand scheme for his "Quick Change" sweethearts, Grimm and Phyllis, and their dim cohort Lackey--the film's Bill Murray, Geena Davis and Randy Quaid. The novel's trio gets away with its ingenious Manhattan bank robbery, just barely makes it through the city's everyday booby traps to the plane, gets fleeced en route to England and doggedly starts all over again. In Cronley's fatalistic view, it's a sort of tongue-in-cheek paean to American persistence.

In the novel the three are definitely no better than they should be. Raffish is too delicate a word; Grimm is a petty criminal--with class; the tone is a little like "Breaking In" or even "The Hot Rock," although Grimm is as resourceful as "The Hot Rock's" gang was terminally inept.

Howard Franklin, who adapted the movie, was obviously drawn to Cronley's dialogue, so seductively cadenced it speaks to you right from the page and so uncannily close to Murray's own deadpan voice that it might have been written for him. So the question for Franklin became how far from the straight and narrow could these anti-heroes be allowed to stray, and how much of Cronley's picaresque characters and narrative meandering could the audience absorb?

Franklin has jettisoned major points of the original story, including its final quarter; he's tidied up Grimm's background--he's now a disillusioned city planner--and made a pass at making Grimm's robbery a final act of protest toward a city Grimm considers morally bankrupt.

These are big changes, and co-directors Franklin and Murray have come up with wild new improvisations on inner city madness in the cityscape section, yet the feeling from the movie is that it's Cronley's people you're meeting up there, in all their nutty glory. The book and the movie remain separate yet equally funny; you leave the movie wanting to read more of the author, at the same time your appetite is whetted for more from these debuting directors, together or separately.

With "Presumed Innocent," screenwriter Frank Pierson and director Alan J. Pakula, who shares the writing credit, had their work cut out for them. Scott Turow's novel on the unalterable weight and workings of the law had been the must-read of 1987, so a certain portion of the audience would be in on the ending. The trick would be to hold them in spite of what they already knew; to de-emphasize the mystery part of the murder and concentrate on the ironic workings of justice, and to make the reading audience feel that "their" characters were in the best possible hands. (In this respect, obscure material is far easier to work from; there's at least room to maneuver without being thought a defiler of the temple.)

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