- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

Legend has it that the director Howard Hawks challenged Ernest Hemingway that he could make a great movie out of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s least worthy stuff.

“What’s my worst story?” Mr. Hemingway asked, while the two were on a fishing trip. “That bunch of junk called ‘To Have and To Have Not,’” said Mr. Hawks.

Hemingway: “You can’t make anything out of that.”

Hawks: “Yes I can. You’ve got the character of Harry Morgan; I think I can give you the wife. All you have to do is make a story about how they met.”

“That bunch of junk” — minus the extra “To” that Hawks mistakenly added to the title — became the 1944 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, one of the great romance movies of all time.

“Under Hawks’ supervision,” writes Purdue University historian Ed Krzemienski in the August 1999 Bright Lights Film Journal, “the movie changed the novel so much as to make it unrecognizable.”

Now, Ernest Hemingway at his worst was better than most scribblers at their best. And it didn’t hurt that the Hawks adaptation was written with help from another Nobel-winning novelist: William Faulkner.

But the lesson stands: Film adaptation, like alchemy, can transmute lead into gold.

Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972), for example, was infinitely better than Mario Puzo’s pulpy novel of the same name.

Though it sold more copies than any book besides the Bible, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” is no contender for the Great American Novel title; but Victor Fleming’s 1939 film is surely a Great American Movie.

The reverse alchemy theorem, of course, is equally true. Screenwriter Michael Cristofer’s adaptation and Brian De Palma’s cartoonish direction of Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) was an unmitigated disaster.

These are extreme cases, though; it’s the mass-market genre fiction that has provided the richest seam of raw materials for the letters-to-celluloid assembly line, as with “Runaway Jury,” yet another adaptation from legal novelist John Grisham, out in theaters today.

Along with Mr. Grisham, writers such as Tom Clancy, Stephen King and Anne Rice have seen their works translated into movie scripts or teleplays almost as a matter of course.

There’s also that come-from-nowhere writer, J.K. Rowling, whose “Harry Potter” books have transformed children’s literature.

The reasons are obvious: The mass market novels pre-sell the movies, assuring them a ready-made audience, so the movies usually do well. The authors themselves get a boost in fame and a fat paycheck in the bargain.

For prestige novelist John Irving, it was creator’s pride that turned an adaptee into an adaptor: He was so disgusted by the butchery of his novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” the “suggested” inspiration for the 1998 movie “Simon Birch,” that he directly involved himself in writing the screenplay for “The Cider House Rules,” a beautiful adaptation released the following year.

J.R.R. Tolkein didn’t have a say in the matter: He lived a long life, but not long enough to see his “Lord of the Rings” cycle brutalized in a forgotten 1978 picture directed by Ralph Bakshi.

The ongoing, nine-hour Peter Jackson adaptation, the third and final installment of which comes out this Christmas, is among the greatest of all novel-to-screen transfers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s proven easy to botch a great book, as the over-ambitious Bakshi showed.

Roland Joffe’s take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” (1995), with Demi Moore in the lead role, was a turkey, as have been each of the successive versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1926, ‘49, ‘74 and the made-for-cable iteration of ‘01).

Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, on the other hand, have usually, though not always, hit the mark with their highbrow literary adaptations.

Their reworkings of E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” (1991) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” (1993) were both masterpieces, and their disentangling of Henry James’ abstruse “The Golden Bowl” (2000) was better than it should’ve been.

David Lean’s adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) was another brilliant turn.

The case of Mr. King presents a couple of anomalies: Several very good-to-great movies — “Carrie” (1976), “Misery” (1990) — have been adapted from his works, but two were from throwaway novellas — 1986’s “Stand by Me” and 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption.”

And, as substantially revised by director Stanley Kubrick and novelist Diane Johnson, “The Shining” (1980) was one of greatest horror films ever made. But the 1997 TV miniseries starring Steven Weber — written by Mr. King, it followed the book in letter and spirit — was terrible.

And the consensus on “Christine” (1983), “Cujo” (1983) and “Pet Sematary” (1989) is that something was lost in the translation from page to screen, something like the scary stuff.

With the possible exception of “The Firm,” a solid, if unexceptional, Tom Cruise vehicle, none of the Grisham adaptations has been better or worse than his written entertainments. (Some may plead for Joel Schumacher’s “A Time to Kill” (1996), with its memorable Samuel L. Jackson performance.)

Another Cruise movie, 1994’s “Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles,” was a stylish take on Miss Rice’s novel, but last year’s sequel, “Queen of the Damned,” was unremarkable.

Starting with the very good “The Hunt for Red October,” the Clancy adaptations have gotten steadily worse; as have the novels. There could be a connection there.

There’s been a recent tilt in Hollywood away from escapist genre fiction and toward serious literary fiction, as evidenced by last year’s successful adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” (for which Nicole Kidman won an Oscar), a Merchant-Ivory remodeling of Miss Johnson’s “Le Divorce” and the forthcoming version of Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” also starring Miss Kidman. Yet another prestige novel adaptation starring Miss Kidman, Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain,” will hit the big screen on Oct. 31. Another Cunningham book, “A Home at the End of the World,” is in the paper-to-reel works. Currently in post-production, it stars Colin Farrell and Sissy Spacek.

While promoting “The Hours” movie last year, Mr. Cunningham said he’s now working on screenplays himself. The allure of making movies out of his own bunches of junk must have been strong.

If Ernest Hemingway were alive today, he, too, may have decided to skip the middleman.

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